Masks, puppets and performative objects as tools of critique, resistance and agency in South Africa. Developing a situational, embodied and postdramatic approach for dealing with the cultural trauma of apartheid

Start - End 
2014 - 2017 (ongoing)



In South Africa, the apartheid government masked blunt racial oppression as “separate development” and maintained a policy of terror, leading to a significant number of traumatic situations. The South Africa TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) catalogued approximately 37,000 human rights violations between the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 and the 1994 democratic elections (Wiebelhaus- Brahm 36). At the moment, South Africa is considered a post-transitional society. It wrote an entirely new constitution as part of its democratic transition, replacing the apartheid-era constitution. It also created a reparation program for victims, with the TRC as its main element of rehabilitation.

In seeking reconciliation between South African perpetrators and victims, the TRC aimed at working through the cultural trauma of apartheid. Victims and survivors came to the Commission to recount their stories of what happened to them or members of their families, while perpetrators of these abuses could obtain amnesty for the crimes committed if they gave full confessions. The TRC activities have received global attention, in media coverage worldwide as well as from a scientific point of view. To date, many studies have investigated its legacy in post-apartheid South Africa on moral and ethical grounds, researching its role in the development towards a post-transitional democracy.

This research project does not speak against the value of the TRC as a concrete tool with a positive impact on democracy and human rights. However, a singular focus on democracy and human rights might divert attention from another, still pressing issue, that is the need for further reparation activities for coping with the situational trauma of racism in an embodied, non-narrative way, acknowledging culturally particular modes of suffering, coping and survival.

In addressing the past, the TRC played an important role in “acting out” and “working through” the cultural trauma of apartheid. However, South Africans themselves are very ambivalent about the imposed nature of the reconciliation discourse (Verdoolaege 20) and about the historical discourse in the truth-telling process that locates the traumatic experience in the past (Bevernage). Up to now, little attention has been paid to the narrative, disembodied and meaning-based nature of the truth-telling process and the Western approach commissioners took in “working through” the cultural trauma of South African apartheid. The limited scope of the dominant ‘Western’ trauma regime is exemplified in the following testimony of a female witness at the TRC, saying: “I will not speak too long because there are still things unsaid, too terrible for you to hear, and too terrible for me to say, and my heart is heavy with them. Nkosi. [Begins song.]” (in Segall 149).

Art plays an important role in creating non-verbal and embodied transformative encounters in violated and traumatized communities. On the one hand, art is transformative as it functions as a “protective force”, enabling people to cope with suffering. On the other hand, it can also be “an inspirational force” for creating “a better world” (Thompson 2). Recent theatre and performance studies developed an exponential interest in trauma and conflict studies and provide a valuable embodied perspective on what has been criticized as a narrative and disembodied dominant ‘Western’ trauma regime. It is remarkable however, that it is mainly the corporeality of the actor that is being regarded as a site of resistance (Bala, Rokem). This perspective, mainly based on performance theories of corporeality, excludes performances in which not the living body, but ambivalent embodied entities such as masks, puppets or other ‘dead’ performative objects might be the site of critique, resistance or agency in communities dealing with violent conflicts and cultural traumas. It has been generally acknowledged that masks, puppets and performative objects are culturally particular modes of suffering, coping and survival in South Africa. In Performing Democracy, Peter Larlham refers to puppetry art in South Africa as a particular theatre tool “that assists in re-education after the long period of enforced censorship and disinformation” (in Haedicke 254). Marie Kruger similarly writes that the use of puppets to bring about social change in South Africa “is a comprehensive effort to utilize the natural abilities of the puppet to the benefit of contemporary society, thus giving puppetry a meaningful social function in addressing human needs” (32).

This interdisciplinary research project aims at bringing together the latest developments in the areas of performance studies and memory studies in order to investigate the potential of masks, puppets and performative objects in contemporary performances to raise awareness, propose alternatives, provide healing and implement community change regarding the cultural trauma of apartheid in post-transitional South Africa.



Phd Student(s)



Petrus Du Preez

Stellenbosch University

Marie S. Kruger

Stellenbosch University

Jane Taylor

University of Leeds