A response to the critique that “all the black characters die” in When Swallows Cry and the pessimistic messages that this conveys


As the creative team of WHEN SWALLOWS CRY which premiered at the Market Theatre in January this year, we were overwhelmed by the generous and moving responses to the play.  However, there were some who – even though they were thoroughly absorbed by this piece of theatre – had problems with elements of the writing, particularly the perceived pessimistic ending.  This is to acknowledge those concerns, and to engage with them.

Generally, as a writer, once the work is in the public domain, one leaves it to audiences to interpret it as they wish.  However, given this perception of the ending, I would like to offer some insights into what the play is attempting to do. (We were able to address some of these concerns in Q&A’s after a few of the performances, and this is to provide a broader opportunity for such engagement).

There are many who will read this who may not have seen the play, but I do not think that talking about it, or “giving away the ending” will detract from how future audiences will engage with, and be engaged by the piece.

Finally, although this article has been brewing for a while, I am writing this on the same day as a march took place in Pretoria against migrants and refugees from other African countries.  The play deals with this exact theme – African refugees and how they are treated in other countries – although South Africa features only in passing in the play.

Stories of Swallows

When Swallows Cry interweaves three stories set in Africa, or about African migrants and refugees.

The main story features a “migrant” Canadian teacher – initially assumed to be an American – who is captured by a group of bandits in a West African country.  He is held for ransom to generate the funds required to develop the region in which he is held.  As more information about who he is emerges, the leader of the bandit group – Commandant – decides to kill him, while the ordinary soldier does not see the sense in it.  Eventually, the soldier turns on Commandant and releases the hostage.  At the end, when he is presented with an opportunity to do so, the Commandant decides not to shoot the Soldier.

A second story features two Zimbabwean teachers who flee the economic hardships and the political oppression of their country in a boat heading to Fiji where they will not require visas for at least three months. However, the boat ventures into Australian waters and they are held at a detention centre for illegal immigrants, and are marked for immediate deportation to Zimbabwe.  They manage to capture their racist detention officer but realise that they are unable to escape.  The detention officer regains control, and the two refugees are shot dead.

The third story tells of a Somalian who leaves his war-torn country for South Africa, only to experience brutal xenophobic violence that obliges him to seek refuge in America.  He obtains a legitimate US visa but is hounded at the port of entry (the play was written before Trump’s ban on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Somalia, but the story resonates with this executive order).  One of his tormentors is an African-American official, a descendant of African slaves, but whose job it is to prevent “undesirables” entering America, and threatening their security.  The officials refuse him entry and, rather than return to the countries from which he has fled, the Somalian kills himself.

These stories, featuring three actors playing contrasting characters in the three different playlets, are multi-layered and raise numerous themes about contemporary mobility e.g. the freedom with which the Canadian is able to travel, unlike the Africans.  The stories comment on each other, not necessarily in sequence, but as a whole.

Responses to the play

The primary critical response to the play was that it is pessimistic in that the black characters all die in the end, and that, in addition to them dying, in one story, the black characters allow a white man to come between them.

A few of the critics stated that – presumably because of my Afrikaans surname – black people should tell their own stories (implying that black characters will have happier endings).

Alternative readings and insights

It is to the above criticism that I wish to respond, to provide alternate interpretations and to contribute to the debates that I hope the play will continue to generate.

First, it is not true that all the black characters die.  In the core story, although the Commandant has “the right” (the Soldier betrayed him), the means and the opportunity to do so, he does not kill the Soldier.  Through the Soldier’s reasoning with him, the Commandant comes to accept – though reluctantly – that there is the possibility of some good coming out of the release of the hostage.

This contrasts to the story of the Zimbabwean refugees, where, although the refugees seek to appeal to the humanity of their captor, he refuses to see them as anything but sub-human.  His deep racism simply does not allow him to change, and he acts accordingly.

In the Somalian story, the black American interrogator is less compromising than his white counterpart and treats the Somalian – who hails from Africa, the African-American’s ancestral home – with harshness and disdain.  The Somalian attempts to appeal to his blackness, in the hope of sympathy, but the African-American will have none of it.  He does not act out of racial or continental solidarity, but in terms of his job description, and his job is to keep America safe. He is American, and not African, even though he may owe his ancestry to Africa, and even though he shares the Somalian’s skin colour.  Still haunted by 9/11, for the African-America, the Somalian represents a threat to his country.

In the play, there are six black characters.  Three of them die.  Two are shot by a white supremacist.  One kills himself.  Of the latter, rather than the superficial reading of “a black man dies”, it is more important that audience interrogates the reasons for his death.  The Somalian prefers to die by his own hand rather than return to South Africa where people like him are killed by black South Africans, or to return to Somalia where his countrymen – all black – kill each other in the ongoing violent conflicts there.  Why does a black man prefer to kill himself when refused entry into overwhelmingly white America, rather than return to South Africa or Somalia?  An average of 100 Somalians are murdered in South African annually.  Just two weeks ago, eleven Somalians were killed in Khayelitsha.  That is the more challenging, uncomfortable question that needs to be grappled with; it is not simply a question of black characters dying in the play, it is also about why this particular black character chooses to die.

What makes someone so desperate that they think they would be better dead?  Just this week there was the report of a Ghanaian migrant, Frederick Ofosu aged 33, who hung himself in Malta.  He left a message explaining his despair, that he was made to feel like a criminal when he had done nothing wrong.  Those are the sentiments too of the Somalian character in the play.

The uncomfortable truth in post-apartheid South Africa is that black people kill other black people.  African nationals are killed by black South Africans.  Miners at Marikana were killed by black policemen serving a black government.  More than 100 black, mentally ill patients died because black politicians and supposed care-givers, simply did not care.  More than 40 black people are murdered each day in South Africa, overwhelmingly by other black people.

Living in denial about this, or attempting to explain it away – or even justifying it with ideological and intellectual somersaults does not address the carnage. Facing up to it would be a better first step to stopping it.

It is easy and comfortable self-righteously to shout at Americans that “black lives matter” and engage in Facebook activism when an African-American is shot by a white policeman, or to scream racism when black South Africans are violently assaulted or verbally abused by white people; it is far more challenging and uncomfortable when we have to call out violence committed against black people by other black people.  But, it has to be done.

One of my aims in setting these stories in non-South African contexts is to invite South African audiences to look at these stories with greater dispassion, and so reflect on the meaning and relevance of these stories and themes for us locally.

Second, it is also precisely because of the tendency – particularly among middle-class people and Facebook “activists” – to view almost everything through the lens of race that I chose to write three stories with the three actors playing completely different characters in each story.  With one story featuring two black characters and one white character, the likelihood of the white character being seen to be representative of all white people and the black characters representative of all black people, is great in the South African context, so that by having three stories, with each actor being completely different in character in each story, the invitation to the audience is to understand the character and his motivations beyond the colour of his skin, to see the characters as human beings with agency, rather than as automatons acting according to pre-determined racial mappings, and to identity and sympathise with the characters in their various situations as individual human beings, rather than as representatives of particular groups.

Our failure or inability to look beyond the superficial element of skin colour and to have human empathy is a reflection of the extent to which our own humanity has been damaged, how we have allowed a system of racism and its legacies to demean and rob us of empathy, and how, accordingly, we could end up exactly like the racist Australian detention officer who refuses to see others as human beings – like some South Africans refuse to see African nationals as human beings just like ourselves – so that we can beat, stab, necklace, shoot and kill them.

When we see the Somalian simply as a “black who dies” rather than as a human being, an individual character with a life story who chooses to take his own life rather than be repatriated to a country where he may be killed by others who have exactly the same skin colour as him, or who has his dignity trampled upon by the American port authorities, we reflect our damaged humanity, our inability to look beyond the superficial, and to hear, to listen, to feel as the character does.

Thirdly, the play has the same basis for all three stories i.e. the power relations are wholly unequal between “the captured” and “the captors”.  What the play interrogates and seeks to show is that – while the situations are all essentially the same – the endings to the different stories depend directly on human agency, on the decisions taken by the human characters in each story.  Indeed, some characters are white and some are black, but except for the story featuring the Zimbabwean characters, the endings are wrought less because of the colour/race of the characters than by decisions made as human beings, with agency.  The invitation to South African audiences is again to view the play beyond the limiting lens of “race”, and to evaluate the human and structural impulses that drive the resolutions.   As in real life, the characters are not simply pawns of fate, nor are they mindless tools of macro structures that oblige them to act in particular ways; they can choose how to act.  We often hear the defence “I was just doing/I had to do my job” (security policemen, Nazi soldiers, etc); when confronted with real human beings, those in power have a choice: will they act as fellow human beings, or will they hide behind the “doing my job” screen when wrecking the lives of others?  Admittedly, these are not always easy choices, but they are, nevertheless, choices.  The African soldier chooses to release their hostage, despite the possible consequences for himself.

Which brings me to my fourth, and the most important point regarding this theme as the writer: the play explores the notion of “being civilised” and acting in a “civilised way”.  Western countries project themselves as “civilised”, evolved, with the values and behavioural standards to which the rest of the world needs to aspire.  Those who act contrary to their (western) values and standards are deemed to be barbarians, uncivilised, backward.

In these terms – and this play was commissioned by a Norwegian theatre company so that it will have an international audience – those in Africa would generally be considered to be barbarians and uncivilised while Australia and the USA would be assumed to be centres of civilisation (along with Europe).  However, how civilised a country is or their people are – for me, at any rate – is how they treat the vulnerable, human beings in need of shelter, safety, refuge, etc.  The expectation of “civilised audiences” would be that the western hostage is killed in Africa and that Australia and the USA would be hospitable to those fleeing places of conflict or with low life expectancy and a poor quality of life.

However, this does not happen in the play.  The “civilised world” acts in ways that are barbaric (as is the case in real life – note Trump’s ban on refugees from Syria, Australia’s despicable treatment of “illegal immigrants”, European countries that close their borders to refugees fleeing a war and even Germany – praised for taking in more than a million refugees – repatriating migrants/refugees to countries Germany considers “safe”, even if the migrants/refugees have left those countries precisely because they are NOT safe).  It is in Africa where the characters act with humanity, with reason and with empathy, and that is one of the main points of the play – to juxtapose the brutal endings of refugees in the so-called civilised world, with the happier ending of a hostage in the so-considered barbaric, backward world of Africa.  Unlike the American port officials, the African soldier does not just “do his job” or “obey orders”; he reasons, he empathises and acts accordingly, even at great risk to himself.  Neither is it a simplistic matter of “a white man coming between black people” as some superficially interpreted the piece; the character, Soldier, was not convinced that killing the hostage (the original intention was to sell/ransom him in order to generate funding for the development of their village) would be in the best interests of the village as it would attract the army and perhaps international military intervention.  Despite his deep desire for revenge for what the hostage symbolised, and then for Soldier’s betrayal, Commandant accepts Soldier’s reasoning, drawing a distinction between Soldier being a good man, but a bad soldier.

Finally, in the original text as I had written it, it is the story of the Commandant and Soldier that ends the play, on a more “hopeful” and ambivalent note.  However, during rehearsals, the director – Lesedi Job – determined that the play should end differently with the Somalian story as the climax, arguing against a less “Hollywood” ending to bring home the less-than-happy realities of many African migrants in the world today.  When I saw the production for the first time the day before its first preview, I agreed that this ending was valid and worked theatrically.  Would those who felt that the ending was too pessimistic because “black characters died” have felt differently had the original ending prevailed?  I do not know; theatre is a collaborative affair, with theatrical and dramatic choices made by others in the creative team, as it should be.  I am happy with the ending also because it inspires debate.

This brings me to the trope of “We (blacks) must write our own stories.”

First: absolutely, everyone must tell, write, stage their own stories.

Second, by black, do these populists mean Biko-black (inclusive of Africans, coloureds and Indians) or Jimmy Manyi-black (Africans)?

But, thirdly, which of the “Swallows” stories are “our” stories – as in black South African – stories?  Not a single one. And yet, they are all about human beings in, and from Africa.  It is completely false that there is one “black narrative” on a continent of nearly one billion people and a country of 54 million.  The narratives of human beings from other African countries are not the narratives of the South Africans, for example, who marched against them in Pretoria, or who burn and loot their shops, and shoot them dead.  The stories are certainly related but to assume that simply because people share the same skin colour they have the same story or the same perspectives, is, quite simply, false.  Marc Gbaffour, Chairperson of the African Diaspora Forum said after watching the play “When Swallows Cry is amazing…I could hear the voices of real migrants talking about the challenges they are facing.”

To be a writer does not require race essentialism and/or racial solidarity; it requires human empathy.  This allows woman writers to construct believable, sympathetic males characters; disabled writers to present well-rounded able-bodied characters, and straight writers to write gay characters into life. Details and further texture are provided by other tools of the writer: research and imagination.


All over the world, we are witnessing the rise of populism and the lack of nuance, the inability or lack of will to deal with complexity; polarisation based on half-truths, the conjuring of emotional responses and fear unrooted in rationality and facts.  As much as we can see this and decry it when it is performed by the Donald Trumps, Geert Wilders and Marie le Pens of the world, we are unable to recognise it in ourselves.  However, in my view, it is the flip side of the same distorted coin – a belief in falsities and half-truths that make us feel good about ourselves, that may earn us applause when we shout these half-truths aloud and punish the “other” for their real and perceived sins.  In South Africa, given our history, these falsities and half-truths generally have to do with “race”.

If I do anything as a writer, it is to challenge such intellectual and political superficiality, and to invite audiences to think more, to analyse deeper and to reflect longer on what they have experienced.  And then, to act as empathetic humans in a world and in a society where such action is increasingly necessary, but increasingly difficult to find.


About mikevangraan

Mike van Graan is currently a Richard von Weizsaecker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. He is a playwright, and most recently served as the Executive Director of the African Arts Institute. He was the founding Secretary General of Arterial Network, a civil society network of artists, activists and creative enterprises engaged in the African creative sector and its contribution to human rights, democracy and development on the continent. Currently, he also serves as a Technical Expert to UNESCO on the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.
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