A misreading of Notes For An Oratorio: On Small Things That Fall (Like A Screw In The Night)
Life is not long, and its days are not short. I don’t know what to tell you. Siyawa. The void we suffer through has no name. Or shape. Or temperature. Let us begin. Maybe there are three ways of reading and misreading Notes for an Oratorio: on Small Things that Fall (like a Screw in the Night) by Ari Sitas, published by Tulika Books. The first is to consider it as the text to the Oratorioavailable at the link in the book’s front matter. An oratorio is an inarticulate concept for me. The musical form came to being during the 17th century in Europe and was a kind of holy and secular vehicle through which to tell the truth, a vehicle that could perhaps highlight the divinity or sacrilege in ordinary life. In Notes for an Oratorio, Ari Sitas with Kristy Stone, Greg Dor, and Reza Khota measure the width and breadth of the continental cinderblock of globalisation, presenting cases that demonstrate the dehumanisation, degradation and exploitation involved in carrying the load of producing the artefacts, tools and products of modernity.
Many oratorios are accompanied by an abiding text that narrates the story. Notes for an Oratorio has six acts dividing twenty-two scenes that give the oratorio’s “Maps of Suffering” a specificity and an urgency that the abstracted themes and delivery of the oratorio alone would not achieve as they describe hazmat suit production plants in Shangdong, China; a rope-making facility in Bihar, India; a refugee camp in Jordan; an Ebola treatment centre in Goderich/Lakka, Sierra Leone; and an abandoned mine shaft in Roodepoort, South Africa to name a few. Each scene is divided up into a sociopolitical reading of the history and conditions of the site and the material or substance being processed, followed by the epic story of our hero, Nomxakazo, wandering through these sites, a voyage through the poor museum of dukkha.
In many of the sites we land on, Nomxakazo meets people who are grieving for the life of a loved one taken by the facilities that extract their labour, grieving for the wretchedness of their own lives and the ways they are made to live, or are grieving for the world being what it is concerning hazmat suits as well as Ebola treatment facilities and smartphone production plants. I read this misreading of Notes for an Oratorio backwards, forwards, leftways, and right, dropping in and out of the dystopian world (our world) and wandering through the maps of suffering with Nomxakazo. Then I watched the Oratorio, listening to the haunting musical composition that scores the abstract stop motion animation of artworks interpreting the scenes and acts of Notes for an Oratorio.
The second is to read it as the story of Nomxakazo chasing the ghost of Xu Lizhi through abandoned mine shafts and waste processing plants. This is my favourite misreading of Notes for an Oratorio. Xu was a young poet working in the Foxconn factory complex in Shenzhen that produced smartphone components. He died by suicide in 2014, arguably from the conditions of life his migrant worker wages built around him. His poems and essays sparked renewed attention on labour conditions in Shenzhen when he died, leaving a compelling body of work that inspired Notes for an Oratorio.
At the end of Apartheid, the South African Police changed its name to the South African Police Service as a way of signalling the paradigm shift in the institution, which would now exist as a service to the people. After receiving training from Zimbabwe, the United Kingdom and Canada, Sydney Mufamadi insisted that Human Rights and racial tolerance would be central to police training at a future date as the new name heralded these reforms.
In the end, that isn’t what happened. The South African Police Service is now one of the most poorly regulated and monitored institutions in the country. According to a statement by Abahlali BaseMjondolo, police brutality rates are three times as high as they are in the United States. It is common to witness the police brutalise, abuse, humiliate and torture the people they are meant to serve, especially in the townships where Black people live. During the COVID-19 pandemic, they worked with the South African Defence Force army, killing and torturing many people, especially Black people, claiming to enforce the lockdown regulations.
The Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department, mandated to enforce the law on the road, is not a service and just as bad as the police. On Jan Smuts, just next to Wits University, a bribe squad waits for Nomxakazo. Waits to shine a flashlight in her eyes and ask her to step out of the car to explain the situation that she is in. They claim that Nomxakazo is drunk and is under arrest for drinking and driving.
The system they use is to stop you on some charge – speeding, not indicating, or otherwise – and to claim you have committed such a crime whose penalty or fine is this amount. They take their time to carefully explain the misery your life is about to become once being absorbed by their system. They then leave you to grow desperate before they return to ask that you “talk like a man”. Having explained that, for instance, bail for the night has been set at three-thousand Rand, they ask for one-thousand, as a favour to you and to them. These days, you can EFT the bribe through your preferred banking app.
SCENE 23 Witswatersrand University, Johannesburg
Image Roll: Sticks and knobkerries wearing Johannesburg metro police uniforms flail in circles around each other as though performing a Methodist choral hymn. They do not sing, but bark to each other, jostling for space in the circle. They jump and turn and move erratically, taking turns falling to the floor to violently bang their heads against a tree, making cash and coins fall, which they feverishly mop up and return to the others.
Around the bend on Jan Smuts between Empire and Mandela
Blue lights stir the air
Picking up the dust like the wings of a vulture
They can’t leave this place, Nomxakazo
They remain chained in their caves
Seeing utopia fish past like reveries seen through stained glass windows
Their uniforms dissolve into rusted brown and bleach white like stained panties
We are very poor
We’re not like these white guys
Arrest Arrest Arrest!
‘Ma ulwa kuzoba worse
Oh, screw that falls
Oh, bird that dies
Oh, rope that hangs
In whose name have you come to pillage?
COVID COVID COVID
All they know is that they are men
And men can do these things here
In the name of my father, Sifiso
In the name of your father, Dumakude
In the name of our father, Mandela
Listen to the teacups and mugs
They heard Buhle saying to herself, below her breath
“Joburg is kak hot
So the chicken has turned into sludge
And the mince
It’s not about being poor here
The third misreading is as a directory of maps of suffering so expansive and devastating that it has the power to shift the political narrative you have of yourself, that one that makes your suffering special. Black, queer and living in a British post-colony, long live your crystal throne of persecution long live! You must read this Notes for an Oratorio. In its magisterial and tragically exquisite articulation of the manifold harrow in which peoples suffer, Ari Sitas not only traces the bloated intestinal tracts of globalised, exploitative capitalist modes of production but also demonstrates the sameness of this suffering, how it is dreadfully mundane and everywhere. This Notes for an Oratorio is addressed towards the subjects of the book itself, those living and working under marginalised, racialized, gendered and classed oppression. It is a dissertation on the dukkha economy, where suffering, unhappiness, and grief are exchanged on silk roads and hazmat highways.
There is a lot we can do with the everywhereness of suffering. If one cultivates the faculty for suffering that is already so pervasive then one can begin to think from suffering, from the cracks, from the margins, from here. One can learn to slip into and out from mine dumps like the ghosts of people that worked the mines and organise presence and absence as tools to work this vast and violent place. Ari’s site is not a place or territory but a disposition. This misreading aligns the horizons of the text to that of Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
Notes for an Oratorio says your suffering is not unique.
Your suffering has been sailing along on its own, detached from the world of suffering, with nobody but you to grieve it.
Bring your suffering closer.
Let your suffering play with theirs and theirs with you.
You will grieve their many sufferings.
And many will grieve your singular suffering.
Because life is long and a day is never enough time.