Forgotten Voices review – steely defiance in apartheid-era South Africa

In December 1919, dock workers in Cape Town took industrial action. For two weeks, 2,000 members of the newly formed Industrial and Commercial Union (ICU) went on strike. In shutting down the docks, they raised the profile of Clements Kadalie, South Africa’s first black leader of a national trade union.

As we build towards a winter of discontent of our own, we can take inspiration from Kadalie’s stand against exploitation. Also taking inspiration was a young woman in one of the crowds that heard him speak. Eva Moorhead was ripe for politicisation. She was the daughter of an absent white father and a black mother who died too young, and had had enough of the racial discrimination that ostracised her as “half-caste” (“I am not half of anything”).

Not only did she marry Kadalie, but she became a driving force in the ICU’s campaigns against low pay, property developers and apartheid-era wage disparity. When he was ejected from his own union, she galvanised him to regroup as the Independent ICU. He was the one who took the spotlight and did the time in prison, but she was his equal as a “bad native”.

Eva’s grandson David Moorhead tells this neglected story for Black History Month in a play that combines admiration with a quiet exasperation that such achievements have gone unsung. This was a woman who helped lay the groundwork for Nelson Mandela and the ANC, yet only five mourners showed up to her funeral in 1974.

There is a lot of story to tell – as well as the politics there are the children, the separation and the reconciliation. Moorhead chooses not to get tied up in the detail of the various industrial disputes, even if it means underplaying the drama. Rather, in a play addressed to the walls of “sister” Durban from the deck of her boat to Southampton, he contrasts Eva’s extraordinary life with the down-to-earth grandmother he knew.

Played by Shareesa Valentine in Margaret Connell’s crisp production, she is a complex mixture of demure and steely, a woman as modest as she is principled. The actor’s focus and straight-talking charm testify to the power of her defiance.

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