From the original 1950s ‘King Kong’.

With the fall of minority rule, Kong showed no signs of returning throughout the “Rainbow Nation” years of the late 1990s under the moral, political, and spiritual leadership of figures like Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. No, Kong has returned at an historical moment of unprecedented social strife in the post-liberation era.

Despite over two decades of democracy, over the past two years South Africa has witnessed protests against colonial and apartheid monuments. Demands for decolonisation across the country’s education system and student protests have been seen unlike anything in recent memory. In the digital age of hashtag student movements and demands for radical transformation, King Kong’s themes of harsh living conditions, socioeconomic immobility, corruption and gangsterism are unsettingly familiar and contemporary for many South Africans.

The country’s relatively peaceful transition from institutionalised racism and disenfranchisement to fully democratic state is often held in high esteem, and rightly so. It was indeed a remarkable achievement, given that many other post-colonial African nations suffered immense turmoil during the colonial withdrawals of the 1960s and 70s.

But South Africans must be careful. In the haste to celebrate the atmosphere of reconciliation, truth and amnesty that largely characterised the transition, the troubling lack of social and economic mobility that the country has experienced since then is often overlooked. Unemployment remains startlingly high, with young black South Africans bearing the largest burden.

Despite a drop in relative poverty in recent years, the country continues to display some of the highest levels of economic and social inequality in the world. What these issues illustrate are the enduring legacies of white minority rule and the lack of socioeconomic transformation in the post liberation era. “King Kong” has come home after an almost 60 year absence to find that the country does not look so different.

A tale of two South Africas

“King Kong” embodies the germinating seeds of two potential and mutually exclusive South Africas. Writing about the opening night in Johannesburg, one columnist for the city’s The Star newspaper mused:

All I know is that by the end of the evening every one of us in the audience could have leapt up and danced and sung with the cast, such was the magic of the evening.

This column was not written about the 2017 opening night. It was written in 1959. It shows the extraordinary capacity of the arts to transcend the toxic racial politics of the time.

During its long absence, the production became emblematic of what could be achieved through collaboration across racial lines. In the post-liberation and post-Truth and Reconciliation Commission age, “King Kong” has the potential to help resuscitate debate around the now fatigued rainbow optimism of the late 1990s.

The moral tale of “King Kong” still resonates in contemporary South Africa. As such, the production can just as easily be considered as a poignant reminder that South Africa is still socially and politically fragmented.

Gavin Robert Walker, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Ethnomusicology, Stellenbosch University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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