Historical Context

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1256

The most significant historical event surrounding the creation of Fugard's Valley Song was the dismantling of apartheid and South Africa's rebirth as a free society just as the play was being produced. ‘‘Apartheid,’’ which means ‘‘separateness’’ in the Afrikaans language, was the set of laws used by the white, ruling National Party between 1948 and 1992 to segregate the races in South Africa and provide different rights and privileges to each. Under the apartheid system, there were four official races: white, black, ‘‘Coloured’’ (mixed-race), and Asian. Only whites had complete freedom to travel and work anywhere they chose, a quality education, and the right to vote. The other races were restricted by ‘‘Pass Laws’’ that required them to live in specially designated ‘‘homelands’’ in townships at the edges of white cities, and provided them with minimum education and few opportunities for employment and improvement of their standard of living.

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Apartheid came to an end when F. W. de Klerk succeeded P. W. Botha as South African President in 1989. De Klerk lifted the ban on the African National Congress (ANC), a black rights organization, in 1990, released many longtime political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, a black ANC leader who had been imprisoned for 27 years, and repealed all of the laws supporting apartheid. In 1993, de Klerk and Mandela were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for successfully negotiating South Africa's transition to a nondiscriminatory democracy, and in 1994 Mandela himself won an open election to his country's presidency.

Despite the victory of South Africa's majority black population over the unjust system of apartheid, living conditions for most non-white citizens of the country at the time that Fugard wrote Valley Song were still far from equal to those enjoyed by the former ruling white class. Relatively few non-whites owned property. Because they had been given a poor education, the blacks and coloureds of South Africa were unable to compete for new jobs, even once they were eligible to apply for them. To complicate matters further, different political factions arose among the non-white groups in the country, with each fearing what the other might do if it were to win an election and rewrite the country's constitution.

In the 1994 election, 20 million votes were cast, with 63 percent in favor of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress Party. Even though it was associated with fifty years of tyranny, the National Party still managed to secure 20 percent of the votes and retain some authority in the new government. When Mandela took over as president, he faced the daunting task of trying to unite South Africa's quarreling racial parties, restructure the entire economy, provide housing and health benefits to millions of people, unite and improve the country's educational system, and provide new employment opportunities and economic benefits to people who had known only poverty and despair.

One of the new government's most difficult tasks, however, was trying to uncover and report all of the human rights violations that had occurred during the terrible apartheid years. In April 1996, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was formed to investigate allegations of crimes ranging from theft and assault to rape, torture, and murder. The Commission's intent was to consider amnesty for those, both black and white, who confessed their crimes, and to provide recommendations for reparations to the victims. At the same time that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was meeting, just after Valley Song was first produced, South Africa adopted a new constitution that does not allow any form of discrimination based on race, gender, age, or sexual orientation, and attempts to ensure the rights of all of its citizens to a representative voice in government.

The country has a long way to go to recover from years of mishandling. Unemployment remains extremely high—approximately 40 percent of the workforce. The crime rate is terrible—about 57 in every 100,000 citizens are murdered each year, compared to 7 of every 100,000 in the United States. Millions of blacks still do not have adequate housing, and despite merging fourteen separate education departments into one unified, nondiscriminatory system, South Africa still faces a terrible shortage of teachers, textbooks, and classroom space, and a severe lack of funding to pay for improvements. Thabo Mbeki, the new head of the ANC who succeeded Nelson Mandela as president in the 1999 elections, hopes to pick up where his predecessor left off and continue reforming the troubled country.

Literary Heritage
South Africa is inhabited by a broad range of cultures including Dutch, German, and English white settlers, black Africans from many different tribes across the continent, ‘‘coloureds’’ (people of mixed descent), and Asian people (mainly people from India and Pakistan). White colonists were first attracted to the South African coast in the eighteenth century for its abundant resources. Since their arrival, the white minority population has sought to control the black majority population of the region.

When Fugard wrote his play Boesman and Lena in 1969, all major black African political organizations had been banned, and blacks in the country were segregated and assigned to Bantustans (‘‘homelands’’), restricted from travelling outside these areas (except to work for whites in very limited circumstances). The minority white population by this time controlled over eighty percent of the land, all the government, and the vast majority of natural resources, though black African uprisings against white control were frequent throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

The state of the arts, in particular the theater, were hazardous during this time. Although stage dramas were often less censored than were novels, television, and movies (which were often banned before their public release), the laws regarding apartheid made theater production increasingly difficult. Rising international protest against South Africa's apartheid policies caused many countries and playwrights to shun South Africa. At the same time (1965), new apartheid laws were passed prohibiting mixed-race casts and segregating audiences by race. By 1966, British Equity would not allow its performers to act in these conditions. As a consequence, South Africa faced a dearth of plays, performers, and touring companies. While the South African government did provide limited funding for the arts, access to these funds required adherence to the strict apartheid policies governing public performances; because of these restrictions, many artists worked outside subsidized theater.

Some artists, such as Gibson Kent, created all-black touring groups and performed only for black audiences. Other companies (i.e., the Space Theatre and the Market Theatre) devised ways of circumventing the apartheid laws and created works with mixed-race casts and occasionally mixed audiences. The segregation laws regarding casts and audiences were not repealed until 1977, during which time several notable playwrights, performers, and writers (including Fugard) had emerged against the turbulent political background. These performers are often credited with helping to raise national and international awareness of South Africa's apartheid policies.

Athol Fugard, who began (and continued) his writing career while South Africa's apartheid policies were in place, was considered by the South African government to be a ‘‘political risk.’’ He was often censored and occasionally prevented from traveling to and from his home country. Today, Fugard is recognized in both his own country and internationally as one of the greatest living playwrights in the English language, and he is credited with helping to dismantle the unjust system of apartheid through his drama. Fugard's works are characterized by his personal portrayals of tragic events in the lives of two or three characters, often utilizing casts of mixed-race characters set against difficult political, social, and economic backgrounds of South Africa. His dramas depict the devastating effects of apartheid and represent a microcosm of South Africa as a whole.

Literary Style

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Point of View
Every story told has a ‘‘point of view,’’ a perspective through which the events of the plot take on additional meaning, depending on who is telling the tale. Valley Song presents its audience with three different points of view at different times in the play. Abraam Jonkers, a ‘‘Coloured’’ South African in his seventies; Veronica Jonkers, his seventeen-year-old black granddaughter; and The Author, Fugard himself at sixty, each address the audience directly on occasion, or speak to unseen figures on the stage, and share their individual views of the play's events. Because of the characters' ‘‘soliloquies’’ throughout the play, they reveal more about themselves than they might have in dialogues with other characters. Taken together, they also represent three different voices on a single theme: What is the future of the ‘‘new’’ South Africa?

When Abraam is by himself, he talks to his dead wife, Betty, and tries to work through conflicts he is experiencing. By listening to him describe the anguish he is feeling at seeing his granddaughter grow apart from him, and worrying about what the white man who is going to buy his land might do with him, the audience gains a deeper sympathy for this sometimes stubborn old man. Having lived through the entire apartheid era and seen its devastating effects on his country, Abraam is not as optimistic about the future as Veronica, and far less trusting than she of white society. Abraam's point of view is that of a coloured man from the old South Africa: poor, under-educated, and used to being subservient to whites, but kind-hearted, well-intentioned, and supportive of his family.

Veronica actually addresses the audience directly, and everything about her manner when she does so suggests that she is much stronger and more independent than the quiet, devoted granddaughter image she presents to her ‘‘Oupa.’’ She says things she would never say to her grandfather for fear of hurting him. ‘‘He's like a slave now to that little piece of land,’’ she raves. ‘‘That's all he lives for, and it's not even his. He talks about nothing else, worries about nothing else, prays for nothing else.’’ Hers is the point of view of youth in South Africa. Too young to remember the terrible past, and tired of seeing the weight of it bear down on their parents and grandparents, young black South Africans, Fugard seems to suggest, are ready to offer new hope for the future and demand a role in creating it.

The point of view of The Author, while not necessarily the most important, is certainly the most prominent in the play. Unlike Abraam and Veronica, who are voices from South Africa's historically oppressed and marginalized coloured and black population, The Author speaks from the point of view of privilege. As a white male, he has enjoyed the benefits of a good education, quality housing, access to good employment, and a share in running the government and the economy. In his direct address to the audience, he reveals the guilt he feels at being able to buy old Buks' land out from under him, and he regrets that all of the dreams he had for a changed South Africa will not come true in his lifetime. The Author's point of view is similar to that of many whites at the time of South Africa's radical transformation from a racially segregated society into a free and open democracy: part fear, part exhilaration, and a little bit of guilt and regret along with a sense of pride and accomplishment. As an old, white South African moving out of the way so the next generation of young, black South Africans can build the future, The Author suffers from a sense of nostalgia for the way the world was, but he is equally eager to see it evolve into the way he always hoped it would be.

Setting
The setting of a play has a tremendous influence on the effectiveness of its plot, themes, and characters. The location of the action, the time period in which it occurs, and the cultural characteristics of the society in which its characters live all contribute to the full impact a drama has on its audience.

Valley Song is set in the present day in and around Nieu-Bethesda, a small village tucked into a valley of the Sneeuberg Mountains in South Africa's great semi-desert Karoo region. Fugard explains in a prefatory note to his play that, like most rural South African villages, ‘‘Nieu-Bethesda is still essentially divided into two areas: the white town and the outlying ‘location’ populated by coloureds and blacks.’’ In this particular rural village, there are 950 ‘‘coloured’’ (mixed-race) people, and only 65 whites. Despite the great changes that have been overtaking South Africa since the last apartheid laws were officially revoked in 1992, the rich, fertile farmland in the valley is still all owned by whites.

Fugard takes great care in the preface to his play to ensure readers understand that, although the Karoo region is almost entirely desert and the sun beats down on the hot earth day after day without rain, it is nevertheless breathtaking in its beauty. He quotes Carolyn Slaughter, who said, ‘‘This is the Karoo. And for those who have lost their hearts to it, no other place on earth can compare.’’ Seemingly, it is this contrast between nature at its cruelest and tantalizing beauty that both attracts and repels the characters in the play. The Author refers to ‘‘a glorious Karoo spring day’’ just after a rain, when the earth smells rich and alive with the fragrance of roses and pine trees. Although he has lived most of his life at a distance from nature, it is this promise of rebirth and renewal that has brought him back to the ‘‘real’’ world, to a natural setting.

Even in the countryside, however, the characters cannot escape the time that they live in, which is as important as the location is to the plot of the play. In the few short years that have passed since South Africa ended apartheid and declared itself a free society, many things seem to have changed. There is the promise of opportunity for blacks in the cities, and recourse to the government and the law for wrongs committed in the name of racial prejudice. Still, the playing field has not been leveled. The Author is able to drive into Nieu-Bethesda and casually write a check for the land Abraam Jonkers has tended his entire life, but will never be able to own.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Barbera, Jack. Review of Valley Song, in Nation, January 29, 1996, p. 35.

Bemrose, John. Review of Valley Song, in Maclean's, April 29, 1996, p. 71.

Fugard, Athol. Transcript of speech, in Twentieth Century Literature, Winter, 1993, p. 381.

---. Valley Song. Theatre Communications Group, 1996.

King, Robert L. Review of Valley Song, in North American Review, March-April, 1996, p. 45.

Richards, Lloyd. Interview with Athol Fugard in Paris Review, Summer, 1989, pp. 129-151.

Turvin, Mark. Article, in Arizona Arts Review Online, December, 1997, http://www.mychele.com/aaro/song.html

Further Reading
Brockett, Oscar G. History of the Theatre, 8th ed. Allyn and Bacon, 1998. Brockett's History of the Theatre is a comprehensive volume, covering more than 2,000 years of worldwide theatrical tradition. Of special interest, however, is ‘‘The Theatre of Africa,’’ a new chapter the author added with the seventh edition of this highly respected theater sourcebook. In this chapter, Brockett covers the history and performance traditions of Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Zaire, and countries all across the African continent, including the Republic of South Africa.

Fugard, Athol. Notebooks 1960-1977. A. D. Donker, 1983. Fugard began keeping notebooks of his thoughts and experiences in 1959 when he and his wife traveled to Europe. His first entries became the basis for his 1960 play, The Blood Knot, and ever since the brief sketches and ideas he has recorded in his notebooks have provided him with the characters, plots, and themes of his plays. This collection of Fugard's notebooks covers the first half of his career, from the creation of The Blood Knot through a production of Sizwe Banzi Is Dead at London's Royal Court Theatre in 1977.

Gray, Stephen, ed. Athol Fugard. McGraw-Hill, 1982. This collection of scholarship about Athol Fugard is part of the ‘‘South African Literature Series’’ and contains a chronology of events in the playwright's life, reviews of his plays, critical essays, interviews with the author, and an extensive bibliography suggesting additional resources for study.

Thompson, Leonard. A History of South Africa. Yale University Press, 1996. Thompson writes about the entire history of South Africa, from its earliest known inhabitants through the present day, with an emphasis on the black majority population.

Waldmeir, Patti. Anatomy of a Miracle: The End of Apartheid and the Birth of the New South Africa. W. W. Norton, 1997. Waldmeir is a journalist who became acquainted with Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk, the two men primarily responsible for the dismantling of apartheid, and witnessed the events leading up to the integration of South African society and restoration of political power to that country's black majority. In Anatomy of a Miracle, she uses interviews and eyewitness accounts to tell the story of the end of apartheid, from the unrest of the early 1980s through Mandela's release from prison and inauguration as president in 1994.

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