I ENTER the walled Brixton neighbourhood with its graffiti, colourful residents and the distinctive Sentech broadcasting tower.
Elzabé directs me into her yard.
Opperziets and the Ziets family
From the bathroom, I hear Ziets berating someone. That cabaret voice carries far.
I tiptoe closer, then laugh in relief. The culprit is a chocolate labrador, comfortably nestled on the coral-coloured Art Deco sofa. “It was in vain, but I tried … meet Fransiena Zietsman. She will try to sit on your lap if you sit here now."
Two smaller dogs approach with wagging tails. Babsie Zietsman and Meisie Opperziets. “Meisie was Deon Opperman and Janine Neethling's, until they moved to Portugal. Then she became Opperziets."
Zietsman's friend and A-to-Z food partner, Agnes Mabaso Ndweni, brings tea and decadent home-baked lavender butter biscuits. (I immediately order some; rusks and rosewater butter biscuits as well.) The tea set's floral pattern exudes old-world charm.
“This neighbourhood — when people start cleaning, the shit comes to me! This tea set … dear neighbour Flora McCullum, they're clearing up ... she has to go to the retirement home. That's why we are drinking elegant tea." Agnes laughs when I start chuckling.
A heart as big as a house
In September 2021, Zietsman's nearby guest house and eatery, Zietsies Guesthouse, had to be sold due to pandemic lockdown pressure on the hospitality industry.
“It was a blow, I still struggle to feel that this is home; my heart still partly lies there." Her colourful, cosy abode feels lived-in, but I hear her nostalgia.
In 2013, four needy children crossed Ziets's path within six months. “I was 50 years old when I got four teenagers." The guest house set-up was much needed to keep taking care of them.
“Coenie de Villiers was my pillar. He supported me all the way … and got all four of them into the National School of the Arts.
“Teenagers aren't people, you know. I almost lost it more than once. One night in the guest house kitchen, my hands were on their way to my eldest's neck, I was so furious. Then I went to the doctor for a hormone patch."
Behind her stands a gallery of smaller artworks on either side of a still life painting. “That's my ‘don't kill a child wall'. After every teenage drama we lived through intact, I rewarded myself with something desirable to put up here."
Zietsman's theatre tracks can be traced back 41 years, but her impact on the lives of vulnerable individuals is immeasurable.
The selfsame eldest scoundrel, Thomas Dweba (26), has just been appointed as a sound engineer on a passenger ship in Seattle, US. “On the stacks of forms that he had to fill out, I saw my name as his next of kin. He wrote ‘Elzabé Dweba'!" The sparkle in Ziets's eyes is so profound that it resembles tears.
Brix or nix
I ask her why she is living in Jozi. “Newwermaaind Johannesburg, I live in Brixton! If you voted ‘yes' for change in South Africa in those years, you cannot stay in a bubble where it looks like it did before 1994.
“I choose to stay here because it reflects our demographic reality. Here we LIVE community. They will detest me, but the Cape … integration is not a reality yet.
“Look, it's not easy, but we stand together to keep this neighbourhood tidy. We paint street names, clean sidewalks. Businesses contribute. Kingston Frost Park was a den but it has been made clean and safe.
“On 2 September it's our annual community-driven Brixton Light Festival again; walls are already being painted and a communal mosaic design is being made."
Talking is the only way
Across from me, the stage veteran cuddles Fransiena Zietsman and speaks softly in dog language. Like those iconic long legs of hers, her presence fills the room. Now she projects again.
“I've seen my ass so many times in my life that I'm afraid of fokol. But that's not true, I'm afraid of gender-based violence. The fear in which we as South African women live on a daily basis.
“Then I decided to do something about it. I asked Bruce Little to write me a show. I am doing the show in the Market Theatre here in Johannesburg.
“At one stage I literally worked 24/7 in the guest house, with the children. Femme is Fatale is my first cabaret in 11 years.
“The opening night was … full house, ah, fantastic, like in the old days. The night after: one booking. The night after that, four. Now I wonder, why don't people want to hear what I have to say?" She is silent, her thoughts far away.
“I think the public is overwhelmed by the daily onslaught of what is going on around us. If you go out, being confronted with yet another reality is not the first choice for the man in the street.
“But what about my job? I can't just do the pretty stuff. My job as a cabaret artist is to present reality to you in a way that you can metabolise it. We are completely blunted … the O-N-L-Y way is to talk," she says while thumping her right fist rhythmically against her left palm. “This message must go to schools, children must learn that it is not okay.
“I try hard to believe in goodness and honesty … and I just want to hold concerts! Being on stage is my religion."
Drama Drama presents:
- Aardklop: Femme is Fatale: 6 and 7 October
- Woordfees: Femme is Fatale: 11 and 12 October; Routrip (one-woman debut): 11, 13 and 14 October
- Market Theatre: Femme is Fatale: (English/Afrikaans, as well as isiZulu and isiXhosa): 1-16 December
♦ VWB ♦
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