Postcolonial Response to Othello and Apartheid

John Otim
John Otim, novelist, poet. critic, composer, taught creative writing at Ahmadu Bello University, Editor of Nile Journal



Makerere University Main Hall was packed with postcolonial students in their colorful trademark red gowns. Present were many of the Faculty and a good number of the country’s political and administrative elite. The occasion was the debut of the play Not now sweet Desdemona, written, directed and produced by Murray Carlin. Murray Carlin was a White South African teaching literature at Makerere University and lived in exile away from the land of his birth.

Not now sweet Desdemona was as you would imagine written in response to Shakespeare’s great play by the name Othello. On the surface Murray Carlin’s play and Shakespeare’s play are both about race. In each the centerpiece of drama is the relationship between a black man and a white woman. Yes, interracial sex.

To appreciate Murray Carlin’s play some familiarity with the politics of South Africa’s past Apartheid order is essential. Similarly a background to Shakespeare’s Othello is essential. Officially Apartheid was merely the separation of the races in public and personal spheres by means of state laws and regulations. In reality Apartheid was the economic and political disenfranchisement of the entire black and non white population of South Africa achieved by force of arms and much humiliations. Apartheid in turn inspired armed resistance within South Africa and drew worldwide protests and condemnations. Although Apartheid officially ceased to exist in 1994, the cruel legacy of the long years of Apartheid persists in South Africa today.

Othello the play is set in the medieval city state of Venice. Desdemona, a young White woman of grace and beauty from a well to do Venetian family, marries Othello, who is black, a General and a war hero. It was the age of imperial expansion. But Othello though black was a prominent and respected figure in the small city state. The popular view of Othello is that it is a play about race. C L R James the towering Caribbean intellectual has argued that while there is a race element to the play; Othello is not about race at all. If you removed Othello’s black color the play will not be altered in any significant manner, James wrote. So what is Othello about? Othello is about the raw human passions of envy, jealousy, revenge; none of which are in Murray Carlin’s play. So what is Carlin’s play about?

The women in both plays go by the name Desdemona. Shakespeare’s Desdemona inspired Murray Carlin’s Desdemona. Shakespeare’s Desdemona is young and is married to the most famous man in the land. Carlin’s Desdemona is an older woman and is married to the most powerful man in the land, the President of the Apartheid State.

In their private and personal lives, both women as a matter of fact run into strong currents of racism present in their two societies. Where is racism not present? For the younger woman just making a start in life, matters sadly turn tragic. Othello in a blind moment of jealous rage brought on by the taunts and insinuations of an envious and jealous friend (Iago) in search of revenge, because Othello had passed him over in Army promotion, kills his young wife whom he loved, and in remorse takes his own life. For the older woman, matters end in absurdity. There is no element of tragedy in Carlin’s play. In the delicate and private moment in which her husband became a black man, Carlin’s Desdemona calmly abandons him.

In Murray Carlin’s play the white President of the Apartheid State suddenly turns black, while making love to his white wife at State House. According to the gospel of Apartheid, of which he is as President is the ultimate Defender, his and his wife’s relationship becomes at that moment, immoral and illegal. No sex across color line. A law abiding citizen and a true daughter of Apartheid, the First Lady's first response is to reach for the phone and report to police, the facts of the matter.

Within moments police burst into the Presidential Mansion. Police could recognize the President even though he was now black. He is naked in bed with a white woman who is naked. His presence at that moment in whites' only area is illegal. Police arrest the President and the First Lady. The pair is charged with breach of the Immorality Act which forbade interracial sex. 

At the trial, the onus is upon the prosecution to prove that the transformation of the President from a white to a black man occurred during the sexual act. If the color change occurred after the act, the pair had no case to answer.

In Not now Sweet Desdemona, Murray Carlin wished to demonstrate the absurdity of Apartheid as a legal system and as social order. In this he succeeded. But there is a problem. At the trial the President pleaded not guilty. The prosecution listened patiently and turned to the First Lady. The interrogation continued as follows.
Madam at what point during the evening did your husband turn black?
Ah it was, it was, it was …it was …
Madam speak up! Speak clearly!
Tell this Court exactly, the moment, the President turned black?
Was it before, was it during, or was it after?
Ah it was, it was, it was du-du-during!

Makerere University students and Faculty and the assembled Ruling Elite, burst into laughter; on stage before them, stood a black man and a white woman, accused of making love together across color line. The audience worms to the sight. It sees only the two people and the sexual act of which they are accused. The idea intoxicated them. It was … it was du-du-during.

Murray Carlin nervously paced the grounds outside the great Hall, awaiting the final call. When he heard the burst of laughter and prolonged applause at the final end, he was elated. He knew the evening had been a great success. An acute observer might have seen things differently. Apartheid was at the time still alive and well. Apartheid was no comedy. Not now Sweet Desdemona, unlike Stanford University Students, by default made it one. Othello's problems were very different from those of the people of South Africa. His were no more than those of a lover who lived in a world of fools, seeking to break their love.