“...If anybody were to cut me open, if you could do a sort of x-ray job on my psyche, you’d find something that looks like the Karoo.” - Athol Fugard
In the beginning of The Road to Mecca, Elsa Barlow makes a 12-hour trip to visit her good friend Helen Martins. Elsa’s drive takes her from the urbanized, English-speaking world of Cape Town to the small Afrikaner town of Nieu Bethesda.
Elsa lives in Cape Town and has access to universities, international news, and the opportunity to witness and participate in the fight against apartheid. Miss Helen and the Dominee (Reverend) Marius Byleveld are longtime residents of Nieu Bethesda, a village in a rural farming community. Helen and Marius are physically and culturally cut off from the outside world.
The Karoo region, where Nieu Bethesda lies, was originally home to the Khoikhoi and San, indigenous African groups that raised livestock and lived as hunter-gatherers, respectively. White descendants of 17th century Dutch colonists, known as Afrikaners, first arrived in the Karoo in the late 18th century. Miss Helen, Marius, and all other white residents of Nieu Bethesda are Afrikaners.
Many early Afrikaners viewed native Africans, with their unfamiliar traditions, as heathens. Africans became low-class servants or indentured laborers. At the same time, slaves from Madagascar and Indonesia were brought to the colony. A complex racial caste system of “whites,” “coloureds” (of mixed and/or Asian ancestry), and “blacks” resulted.
By 1974, when The Road to Mecca takes place, a formal system of discriminatory laws known as apartheid (“separation” in Afrikaans) was in effect. Though white South Africans made up only 10% of the population, they owned almost all the land and were the only racial group with full voting rights. A small town like Nieu Bethesda would have an all-white neighborhood in the town center surrounded by poor black townships.
Religion plays an enormous role in the life of Nieu Bethesda. Afrikaners are members of the Dutch Reformed Church, a Protestant form of Christianity. Society revolved around the strict rules of the church. Indeed, Nieu Bethesda was founded in 1875 by a group of local farmers who wanted a church closer than Graaff-Reinet. For many years, the Dutch Reformed Church owned the land on which Nieu Bethesda was built.
What is apartheid?
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Apartheid is: racial segregation; specifically, a former policy of segregation and political and economic discrimination against non-European groups in the Republic of South Africa.
A Brief History of Apartheid
From the very first day the Europeans arrived in South Africa in the 17th century, they began to dominate and control the native Khoi and San peoples. Even after the outlaw of slavery, during the 20th century the South African government created legalized mistreatment through a class system based on race, with the native black people on the very bottom. Services for the blacks were not only separate but also radically inferior to those of the whites, and, to a lesser extent, to those of the other races (labeled as Coloured, Indian, and Asian). The government created this divide to encourage the blacks to move back to their homelands and out of white South Africa.
Over the first half of the 20th century, Prime Ministers enacted laws further removing the rights of the black citizens. In retaliation, the black people formed the African National Congress. After World War II, an extreme right-wing government introduced the Homeland Policy, dividing the black ethnic groups into several reserves. Each Homeland was designed to be an independent state where black groups could have citizenship, thus eliminating their claims to South African citizenship. In the 1980s, the outside world became more and more aware of the injustice. The 1990s finally saw an official end to apartheid. In 1994, South Africa had its first free elections and its first black president, Nelson Mandela. It is only over the last 17 years that South Africa has become a country with a free, racially integrated democracy.
A Timeline Overview:
1652: Dutch arrival in South Africa
1833: End of Slavery in South Africa
1899-1902: Anglo-Boer War, ending in Peace Treaty at Vereniging
1910s: Prime Minister Louis Botha passes racist legislations
1912: Formation of South African Native National Congress
1923 : SANNC renamed African National Congress; they declare that they believe it was intention of government to enslave all black South Africans
1944: ANC Youth League formed with Nelson Mandela as the secretary
1948: Election of Extreme National Party to control government; D.F. Malan, who formed the party, becomes Prime Minister
1952-55: Defiance Campaigns of the ANC
1955: ANC’s Freedom Charter signed at the Congress of the People in Soweto
1960: Sharpeville Massacre; 69 black demonstrators killed by police
1963: Leaders of ANC’s military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (Speak of the Nation) arrested
1964: Rivonia Trial, eight ANC leaders (including Nelson Mandela) arrested
1970s: A wave of strikes and revolts
1974: The year that The Road to Mecca is set
1983: Church Street bombing by Umkhonto we Sizwe in the capital city of Pretoria
1989: Cape Town peace march; release of all political prisoners
1991: Convention for a Democratic South Africa
1993: New constitution and formation of Government of National Unity
1994: First free elections of South Africa; Nelson Mandela voted to presidency and the first multiracial parliament
The Road to Mecca is playing at the American Airlines Theatre December 16, 2011 through March 4, 2012. For more information, click here.
2011-2012 Season, Education @ Roundabout, The Road to Mecca, Upstage