The South Africa-Australia Storytelling Exchange

The South Africa-Australia Storytelling Exchange

In the ado which is a South African energy crisis and an inflammatory political discourse that abounds (both locally and abroad), the negativity so often belies the positive spirit of South Africa and its people. Though the issues of economy and governance remain crucial and worthy of exposure, it is also necessary to take a step back and focus our attention on that which is wholesome, curative and unifying. 

Through the dark blackouts of an emerging South African Autumn shines a light of camaraderie which seeks to restore public perceptions of cross-border cooperation and unify the scatterlings of South Africa. An invisible bridge lies here somewhere, spanning the tumultuous waters of the Indian Ocean – the most palpable barrier between South Africa and Australia. And this bridge is, by many accounts, the thoroughfare for the greatest exodus South Africa has ever seen.

The South Africa-Australia connection

According to research conducted by Pew in 2017, Australia is the second most popular destination for South African emigrants. But when one considers the number one spot is held by the UK, the numbers are readily apportioned to its constituent countries: England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. This places Australia at the top of the immigration podium.   

And yet the research had only registered South African emigrants – new arrivals to Australian shores. It deserves noting that there is an even greater portion of first, second and third generation South African expats living within Australian borders.

Where Pew Research had registered a total of 190 00 South African emigrants in Australia in 2017. A decade before, the Australian census had registered 79 513 citizens of South African ancestry in the country. While official numbers aren’t available, it’s conceivable that those census numbers will have skyrocketed in the past dozen years.

There are conjectures and hypotheses for this Australian pull on the South African people. Some believe it’s due to a climate, others believe it’s our mutual love of rugby, cricket, netball and ‘braai’. Others put it down to shared values paired with a sense of belonging and security which had forsaken them in their native country. Then there are those who reckon it’s due to the economic stability of their new home. No matter your stance on the matter, the numbers are telling.

And yet, there is a ubiquitous sense of dejection and animus which permeates the dialogue between those on opposing sides of the ocean. Even more so, beyond the limpid indignation lies a crevasse of untold losses, sorrows, regrets and rage which has no conduit to the surface – no means of decompression and effusion. 

At least this was the case, until now…

The Applauz Arts Initiative: restoring connections

Earlier this year the Applauz Arts Initiative announced the launch of their SA/AUS storytelling exchange programme, an initiative which aims to explore the deep cultural ties between communities and give life to the people, memories, events, experiences, motivations and anecdotes shared by individuals and communities alike.

The vision of the storytelling exchange is to restore connections between communities divided by borders as well as individuals and their heritage. 

Its founder, Kurt Egelhof, is well known for his performances on screen. The South African actor has captivated audiences for decades with his commanding presence in films like Sweet ‘n Short, the Ghost and the Darkness and most lately The Last Victims which released in US cinemas on 8 February 2019. But Egelhof is far from one-dimensional and, like so many others in the art world, his ambit stretches far beyond the margins of the film industry.

In fact, Kurt Egelhof is undoubtedly one of the foremost representatives of South African arts, with an unparalleled interest and endorsement of the various constituent segments of the sector across the board. As writer, producer, director, performer and manager his role traverses industries and, as is clear now, also traverses the borders of convention and jurisdiction.

In Egelhof’s own words: “Not a lot of SA artists have that ability in their amour; the ability to transcend borders and language and speak to the heart of individuals now placed in a foreign environment, battling every day to adapt to their new home of choice.”

Where so many other initiatives or enterprises place South Africans across borders at odds, Egelhof’s seeks to retrace and restore the tenuous thread that binds them. The storytelling exchange is the root reaching for the branches budding abroad.

The goal: a shared narrative of healing which is free of vitriol, retribution and bigotry. 

Applauz Arts Initiative: a journey of reconciliation

Though the storytelling exchange between South Africa and Australia is a new initiative, it has Capetonian origins.

Launched in 2001 the Applauz Arts Initiative kickstarted a journey of reunification between the Cape Flats and the greater Cape Town community – two segregated but equally dysfunctional communities which had long struggled to reaffirm their bond.

On a parallel exploit, a series of personal losses had catalysed the initiation of For Generations; a performance wherein Egelhof explores his own stories and history.

A personal discovery of the mortality of humanity as well as a struggle to break through the professional glass ceiling (despite a degree and 30 years’ experience) had been the primary triggers for the founding – and eventual success – of For Generations.

The production had allowed Egelhof to excavate the ores of his own trauma and transform the material into something profoundly cathartic, “the best thing that could have happened to me, and dare I say some of the audiences who have seen the work.”

While reflecting on the insights gained from For Generations, Egelhof identified an equal gap in the cultural matrix of the cross-border populace and a great longing which pervades the South African diaspora; those who had, at great personal sacrifice, uprooted their lives to settle abroad. Not only were these people disconnected from their home, but their children (first generation migrants born in Australia) had no point of reference for their parents’ emotional responses, nostalgia and loss.

Egelhof realised that he already possessed the skills and knowledge to bridge this gap through various mediums – whether film, television, performing arts or literature. 

Performance art has a role to play in healing the divide between the ‘stayers’ and the ‘leavers’. The objective is not to placate negative views but simply to expose both extremes to the common humanity that plagues both groups across the divide. It’s much the same as the racial division which continues to haunt South Africans – the way in which people view each other as ‘the other’ – we are merely people not listening to people.

Ignorance breeds fear and loathing and this dynamic can and must be addressed through performing arts. Egelhof cites the words of Bob Marley, that: “every man thinks his burden is the heaviest” and claims to have witnessed otherwise. For once people are given a platform to describe their stories to each other, uninterrupted, in a manner which evokes healing – the performing arts – the burden is not only halved but illuminated.

The initiative is not aimed at showcasing talent for pure entertainment value. Instead the performances serve as therapeutic vessels which underscore their motto of ‘social advancement through arts and culture’, and the entertainment is an exciting by-product of the initiative.

Egelhof is clear that those who wish to participate should have a passion for the purpose and bring their originality to the table while maintaining professional standards. There is no space for megalomaniacs in search of the spotlight, only those who understand the end goal and want to contribute wholeheartedly.

Vetting: have your stories told

There are no rights and wrongs when it comes to your stories – they don’t even require perfect grammar, as each tale and anecdote will be professionally polished for stage (or whichever would be the final medium).

What piques the interest of the Applauz Arts Initiative is honesty, sincerity, unfettered vulnerability and originality. They are seeking that which is unique, the point of view which cannot be shared in other ways – those personal and emotional responses to events which cannot be told in any voice but yours. It’s raw access to a raw truth; an excavation of experience where the adaptation is an extension of the experience itself and the audience dons the shoes of the storytellers. They are seeking narratives bereft of light, searching for that light.

“Bring that. We got the rest.”

Egelhof’s enthusiasm and presence transcend the borders of our digital interview and one can easily imagine how he commands the same attentiveness, presence of mind and emotional investment of his audience – dissolving both the tangible and intangible borders of culture, tradition, language, race and religion which segregate a diaspora. 

As for his audience, those who have witnessed the Applauz Arts Initiative and For Generations in action all rave about the quality, candour and conviction of Egelhof’s work – they are deeply moved and eager to participate both as confessors and witnesses within the storytelling exchange.

If you want more information about the Applauz Arts Initiative or want to submit your story for the storytelling exchange between South Africa and Australia, then be sure to send Kurt and his team an email at: Applauz.arts.initiative@gmail.com or soloforgenerations@gmail.com.

Go on! Tell your story! The stage is yours!

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