Valley Song

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Valley Song

by Athol Fugard


A one-act play set in the Karoo region of South Africa in the postapartheid era; first produced in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1995; published in English in 1995.


A coloured (mixed-race) farmer confronts his granddaughter’s desire to leave their isolated land for the brighter future of Johannesburg.

Events in History at the Time of the Play

The Play in Focus

For More Information

Born in 1932, Athol Fugard grew up to become the most renowned playwright of South Africa. His career spans four decades of the turbulent history of that racially divided country, during which his plays have made powerful pleas for racial equality and harmony in a land torn by intolerance, resentment, and discrimination. Fugard was the child of a “mixed marriage” of sorts; although his parents were both white, his father was of British descent while his mother was Afrikaner (refers to whites primarily of Dutch descent). Born in the Karoo, the isolated, semidesert farmland in which Valley Song is set, Fugard was raised in Port Elizabeth. Despite brief stints in larger cities, and despite worldwide fame, Port Elizabeth has remained his home. His adult years have seen the dismantling of the apartheid policy of racial segregation in South Africa. Fugard has since continued to comment on a political scene that, though more equal, is not much less volatile. Against the backdrop of political change. Valley Song examines a family’s intergenerational dynamics.

Events in History at the Time of the Play

Apartheid legacy

Valley Song is less overtly political than much of Fugard’s work: only one speech by the impassioned young heroine, Veronica, directly addresses the political situation in South Africa. Nevertheless, the play cannot be properly understood without some background in the decades-long system of racial oppression that ended only a few years prior to the period in which Valley Song is set.

Like almost every African country, South Africa is ethnically diverse; what sets South Africa apart are how different its major ethnic groups are. Among its oldest inhabitants are the Khoi and the San (sometimes called “Bushmen”), who are often grouped together as the Khoisan. Later arrivals to the area, also of African origin, include various Bantu-speaking peoples, such as the Zulu, who are taller and darker-skinned than the San or the Khoi. While the Bantu-speakers have numerous subdivisions, the real source of South Africa’s ethnic diversity—and difficulty—is the centuries-old influx of Europeans. In the sixteenth century, the expansion of European trade led to the formation of trading posts on South Africa’s coast. Europeans from many nations, but most particularly the Netherlands, Germany, and France, immigrated to provide labor, to fight, and to trade. Thousands stayed. Over time, the white immigrants lost a sense of connection to their European birthplaces. Adopting South Africa as their homeland, they developed their own language, Afrikaans (evolved from Dutch), and their own cultural identity. They began to view themselves as Africans—in their own language, as Afrikaners. They intermarried with indigenous peoples, helping to found the “coloured,” or mixed-race, population treated in Fugard’s play.


Apartheid was outlined in several pieces of legislation between 1950 and 1953, whose goal was to severely limit the right of free movement by blacks (that is, Africans, coloureds, and Indians), Most important among the laws were:

Population Registration Act (1950): This act required a person to register his or her race at birth. The essential division was between white and black. Black was broken down into coloured (mixed race); Indian (descendants of workers and slaves brought to the country by the British); and Bantu (Africans), who were further subdivided into specific African peoples. “To determine borderline cases, bureaucrats scrutinized fingernails, peered at nostrils, and tested the curliness of people’s hair …” (Mallaby, p. 5). Everything about people’s lives depended on what their registration papers sard in the box labeled “race,”

Group Areas Act (1950): This act “racialized” the terrain of the country, establishing places where members of each race were allowed to live. About 86 percent of the land was designated “white,” while Africans were confined to crowded, povertystricken “homelands,” which they could leave, but only with permission, to work in white homes and businesses.

Bantu Education Act (1953): This act limited education of Africans by Christian missions; most education would be provided by government-run schools. Needless to say, the schooling provided was limited in scope. While colonial education elsewhere in Africa aimed at creating a native elite to help run the colony, education for blacks in South Africa aimed only to create a servile, obedient class fit for domestic or factory work.

Less sweeping edicts governed smaller aspects of life. Laws were enacted making sexual relations between races illegal and segregating public places. Above all, though, apartheid rested on the three pillars of 1) registration, 2) land use, and 3) education that were embodied in these three laws.

Thus, South Africa experienced colonialism in a unique way. Its initial European presence was not limited to a few hundred settlers and traders who hoped to profit from the continent’s riches while maintaining their allegiance to a European home. Afrikaners intended to stay; indeed, they felt they had nowhere else to go. To make matters worse, the Afrikaners themselves became a colonized people. In 1795 the ascendant British took control of the colony from the Dutch East India Company. Over the next century, English immigrants settled alongside the Afrikaners. Although both parties agreed on the racial oppression of the black population, they agreed on very little else. Tension between them led to the South African War of 1899 to 1902 to decide who would rule the country—the British or the Boers (the label then for Afrikaners, from the Dutch word for “farmer”). The British won the war, then in 1910 united their holdings to the former Afrikaner republics, establishing the Union of South Africa.

Although still technically a colony, the Union of South Africa had internal self-government. Its first order of business was to insure that the country would be governed by whites only. Since they were vastly outnumbered by blacks (meaning Africans, coloureds, and Indians), any sort of democracy would be inimical to white interests. To counteract this danger, the white rulers of the country developed a system called apartheid, the Afrikaans word for “separateness.” The system rested on the notion that South African society consisted of distinct nations, each of which must live in its own area, or homeland, and that Africans should be able to enter the white homeland only temporarily, as workers. Coloureds would be subject to the same laws as Africans, without ever receiving their own separate homeland.

Apartheid guaranteed the dominance of the white minority in South Africa, but it also guaranteed decades of isolation from the world community and persistent racial unrest at home. South Africa’s Africans could not help but note the rising tide of nationalism that was liberating countries across the African continent, and, although the task was much more difficult in their own corner of the continent, they too waged war against the forces of inequality. Aided by other African countries and by leaders around the world, black South Africans agitated for their freedom. Amazingly, apartheid was dismantled more or less peacefully, despite decades of racial violence that seemed to augur violent rebellion.

By the early 1990s President F. W. de Klerk and his National Party had embarked on a campaign of racial equalization that culminated in the 1994 elections in which, for the first time, the black majority was allowed to vote. Nelson Mandela, whom the South African government had sentenced to life imprisonment in the early 1960s (see “The Rivonia Trial Speech,” also covered in African Literature and Its Times), was elected President, and the country seemed well on the road to racial harmony.

As Fugard’s play reveals, however, South Africa’s profound political changes were not instantly matched by changes in the economic and social spheres. Although Africans were now “free,” they were still poor; and though whites were no longer solely in power, they still held the great majority of the country’s wealth. Black labor unions, political parties, and assistance groups fought against the economic hardships that beset the majority of blacks, but the institutional apparatus of capitalism and private property meant that wealth did not change hands quickly. While the abolition of pass laws and other such policies signified the end of sanctioned police brutality and a loosening of the oppressive state bureaucracy, centuries of unequal development could hardly be reversed in a few short years.

The coloureds: race without identity

By the terms of the Population Registration Act of 1950, a coloured person was defined as “not a White person and not a Bantu [African]” (Van der Ross, p. 5). Islamic Malays brought from Asia to work in South Africa, slaves from Angola, Bantu-speaking peoples, whites of European descent, and even coloureds themselves contributed to the racial mixture, blurring the boundaries that apartheid sought to establish. In a nation obsessed with racial identity, the question of what to do with people of mixed races gave the central government a great deal of trouble. In themselves, South African coloureds reminded the apartheid government of what it most wanted to avoid: free racial mixing. For their part, coloureds received slight benefits, but substantial hindrances, because of their status “between” whites and Africans. They were closer to European culture, and as a result were afforded better schooling and slightly wider opportunities than most Africans. But they were shackled by the same racial oppression as the darker-skinned Africans, and were often unable to find employment.

Coloureds comprise about 10 percent of South Africa’s population: about half the percentage of whites, and a small fraction compared to the African majority. Most coloured people live in Cape Province, which includes the Karoo. Historically, the coloured population has experienced a pendulum of freedom and repression. Under Dutch rule from 1652 to 1795, the Khoisan peoples had only limited rights in the Cape Colony. During this time, some whites took Khoisan wives and the coloured population began to form. A number of these people converted to Christianity and passed into white society. Other remained part of the permanent underclass with few rights or privileges.

With the arrival of British colonial officials and missionaries at the turn of the nineteenth century, coloureds were treated a little more equally. Britain was committed to the fight against slavery across the continent, and this commitment affected their administration of the Cape Colony. The pass law system was revoked, and in 1828 Ordinance 50 revoked all limitations on the movement and political freedom of people of mixed race. Then came the abolition of slavery in 1834. Ordinance 50 and the end of slavery led to two separate migrations. The smaller saw great numbers of coloureds and freed slaves moving to cities. The more significant migration was the exodus of Afrikaners, or Boers. The Afrikaner Great Trek began in 1836. Upset at Ordinance 50, and with British rule in general, great numbers of Afrikaners traveled inland to form the Orange Free State and Transvaal. Needless to say, few coloured people joined this trek. Back in Britain’s Cape Colony, coloureds enjoyed unparalleled liberty: until 1910, “no distinction was made between Whites and Coloureds in the constitutional development of the Cape and the granting of political rights to citizens” (Cilliers, p. 61).

The joining of British to Afrikaner holdings in 1910 to form the Union of South Africa began a steady erosion of coloured political rights. Coloured people in the Cape retained their rights, but those in the former Afrikaner areas of Transvaal and the Orange Free State had none. Later, in 1948, when the National Party came to power, its leaders began implementing apartheid immediately. Politically, this meant that only in the Cape Province were coloured men allowed to vote—and only for white candidates, since all other races were barred from government. There was an appointed Council of Coloured Affairs, composed for the most part of coloured people, but this council merely advised on crucial issues regarding their constituents. Aside from political discrimination, the coloured population suffered other disadvantages. Residence zones restricted where they could live, for example; pass laws denied them freedom of movement.

In the main, coloured people are oriented toward Europe. The product of sexual unions between Europeans and peoples of Africa, almost all coloureds were born in the shadows of the white culture, which was dominant politically in the coastal areas of the Cape. Their proximity to Europeans tended to erase the coloured connection to other cultures; while Malays, Indians, and Khoisan could maintain their cultures in isolation from Europeans, coloureds generally assumed a Caucasian cultural focus. Thus, the majority speak Afrikaans or English; most are members of the (Afrikaner) Dutch Reformed Church; and most restrict themselves to monogamous marriages. Despite these likenesses, Afrikaners developed a disdain for coloureds and harbored stereotypic images of them as deficient in intelligence, energy, and the like.

After the onset of apartheid in 1948, coloureds became subject to the same discriminatory laws as Africans. In 1966 under the Group Areas Act, their main community, District Six in Cape Town, was declared an all-white zone, as were other areas. “The piecemeal eviction of coloureds from Cape Town’s suburbs caused much individual suffering as families were driven to desolate new townships on the sands of the Cape flats” (Ross, p. 137). A decade later, in 1976, blacks demonstrated in Soweto because half their school subjects were to be taught in the Afrikaans language. The police shot to death a 13-year-old African in the incident, after which violence ensued, killing at least 494 Africans, 75 coloureds, 1 Indian, and 5 whites by early 1977 (Thompson, p. 213).

After Soweto, coloureds became more involved in casting off apartheid, as did Africans and Indians. Defiance began to replace the deference customarily paid to whites. In 1984 the government tried to placate the coloureds and Indians with a new constitution mandating three racially separate houses of Parliament: a House of Assembly (178 whites); a House of Representatives (85 coloureds), and a House of Delegates (45 Indians). For the first time coloureds had a say in national politics, but few of them were won over by the ploy. In fact, many coloureds criticized those who participated in the new arrangement. In the end, the attempt to placate the coloured community with their own house of Parliament failed.

The walls of apartheid began to come tumbling down. In 1986 the government repealed pass laws, and in 1991 it repealed the Population Registration and Group Areas Acts. This led to the aforementioned 1994 election of Nelson Mandela as President. Overall the whites’ National Party received just 20 percent of the vote. However, in the Western Cape Province, in which the Karoo of the play is located, the results were atypical. Here the National Party emerged victorious, winning on the strength of not only the white vote but also 67 percent of the coloured vote (Ross, p. 196). Mandela’s party, the African National Congress, “lost heavily in the countryside,” where Fugard’s play is set; “fear of the ANC as godless and violent … worries about jobsv… and habits of deference all played their part” (Ross, p. 196).

The Great Karoo

Between the coastal regions of the Cape Colony and the Orange River lies a large, elevated plateau of desiccated shrubs and baked red soil. Iron-rich rocks in isolated hillocks called koppjies bake in the unforgiving sun. South Africans label this region the Karoo. The Khoisan pastoralists and hunters who were the first to wander this plain called it “Garob” or “Caro,” which brought together the senses of “dry,” “lifeless,” and “infertile.” These are still the primary adjectives used to describe the Karoo, although they are not perfectly accurate. The region is indeed an arid semidesert—in fact, some parts have gone as many as a dozen years without a drop of rain. But the Karoo is not incapable of supporting life. After one of the unpredictable desert rains, new life blossoms everywhere and the Karoo turns green. Such times are short-lived, but the plain’s inhabitants have adapted to difficult circumstances. One of the first things to draw Afrikaners to the plain was the hunting: herds of zebra, springbok, and other hoofed creatures were preyed upon by lions, leopards, and other carnivores. As late as 1896 there was a massive trekbohke, the spring migration of springbok. However, hunting and human encroachment have now driven the great herds from the Karoo.

Domestic herds have taken their place. Economically, the Karoo is known primarily for its herds of sheep, which provide nearly all of the country’s wool and mutton. The leggy, fat-tailed sheep herded by the original Khoisan peoples are still present, joined by large flocks of merino and angora, descendents of livestock imported by European settlers. The wool industry employs well over a million people in South Africa, and certainly gives the lie to the idea that the Karoo is lifeless. Farming also exists, if on a minor scale compared to the importance of sheep herding. The Verwoerd Dam on the Orange River (at the northern border of the Karoo) has helped irrigate the land, which grows pumpkins, potatoes, and beets. In the valleys of the little mountain ranges that dot the Karoo, conditions are more favorable; although, as Fugard’s play makes clear, life is still not easy, especially for a poor coloured farmer.

Culturally, the Karoo resembles other semiarid regions the world over in that it is dismissed by the majority but cherished by those who are charmed by its bleak beauty. On the map, it appears as a scattering of small towns, split by the railroad that runs from the coast to the central Karoo town of Victoria West. Few of these towns have populations in excess of 30,000 (or even 3,000) people. The population is primarily Afrikaner and coloured. There is one sure route to wealth in the Karoo—sheep—but the majority, even of Afrikaners, remain relatively poor and close to the land. Even after the decline of apartheid, social relations have been slow to change. Whites still own most farmland, and towns are divided into two sections: the central area for whites, and a separate “location” for coloured people. Options for coloureds in the region remain limited: farm as a sharecropper on white land, or work in a white home or business. With the elimination of pass laws in 1986, the movement of coloured people was much facilitated. Migration to other areas of South Africa promised more opportunity and less poverty. Thus conditions have fostered an increase in the number of young coloured people who, like Veronica in the play, are eager to escape the limitations of the Karoo. One would expect that others like her have also been similarly opposed by older family members who do not wish to see their way of life die out.

The Play in Focus

Plot summary

Valley Song is a slight play. Its scant 50 pages feature only three characters (two played by the same actor) and a handful of scenes that blend into one another and span an uncertain, but relatively short, period of time. The play’s focus is on character and psychology; it achieves a delicate drama in the universal tension between young and old, and the painful choices made necessary by the contradictory pulls of dreams and tradition.

The play begins as “Author,” a man closely identified with Fugard himself, holds out a handful of pumpkin seeds to the audience. He introduces the setting—a valley of the Sneeuburg Mountains in the Karoo—and the main character, Abraam Jonkers. Jonkers, called “ou Buks” by the residents of the village where he lives, and “Oupa” by his teenaged granddaughter Veronica, served in the British Army in World War II and has spent his subsequent days as a tenant farmer, tilling his few akkers (acres) for a fairly meager living. As the play opens, his landlords (symbolically called the Landmans) have died out or abandoned the property, and Buks farms in peace.

The Author begins singing a song that an Italian prisoner-of-war once taught Buks. The song is “La donne e mobile,” which Buks renders “Lae donder mobili.” In the course of singing, the Author takes on the role of Buks. Veronica tells him it is time for lunch. They eat and discuss various issues: his wartime experiences, her songs and his. They are very close: all they have is each other, for her mother is dead, as is his wife. Finally Buks admits that he is worried: a white man came by to consider purchasing the property. If he does, he will certainly upset the routine of the Jonkers household. He may even force the old man off his land. Veronica tells him not to worry; many whites have inspected the property, and none have bought it. But Buks feels this man is different; he has already come to see the place three times.

To change the subject, Buks asks Veronica what mischief she has been up to that morning. Instead of diverting him, this reminds Buks of another major worry: Veronica’s approaching maturity. The girl complains that she hasn’t been up to any mischief, because there is no mischief to be had in the village of Nieu-Bethesda. Bored and longing for adventure and romance, Veronica complains that nothing ever happens. Rather futilely, Buks describes the flowering of pumpkins from seeds as a miracle: “Every year, in these akkers … thousands of miracles. And you say nothing happens here?” (Fugard, Valley Song, p. 12). But it’s hopeless. What Veronica wants is to be a famous singer. Buks points out that she already sings, to the congregation at church and to God. Veronica replies with a song about the Railway Bus, which she hopes will take her to big cities and faraway places.

This song upsets Buks terribly. Prodded by Veronica, he finally tells her the story of her mother, his only child. When she was not much older than Veronica is now, Caroline fell in love with a young man from the village, Harry Ruiters. Ruiters was a troublemaker, a thief, and a fighter. Caroline ran away with him, and did not contact her parents for a year. Then a hospital in Johannesburg called: Caroline was very sick. Buks’s wife went to her daughter, and returned with her granddaughter, the infant Veronica. Caroline had died in childbirth.

This story mends the rift in the family, at least for the moment. But when Veronica “leaves” (actually she just retreats upstage), Buks gives a long speech, addressed to his dead wife, in which he vents his frustrations and fears that his life will close with another separation, another tragedy.

After this speech, Veronica takes center stage. Addressing the audience, she describes her “best friend,” an alcoholic white woman named Mrs. Jooste. Mrs. Jooste doesn’t even know Veronica, but the girl loves her, because Mrs. Jooste watches television all night, with the curtains open. Veronica likes to stand on an apple box and watch along, mimicking the poses and gestures of the singers on the screen. As she pantomimes this procedure, she gets a round of applause from the Author. This startles her, and they begin talking. Veronica tells him her dream of becoming a famous singer, and he counters with the realistic, adult fact that dreams do not always come true. But Veronica will not hear of it. In her mind, to desire something intensely is to guarantee that it will eventually be yours. She has nothing but pity for people with modest dreams, like her friend Alfred Witbooi, who hopes to get a job so he can buy a used bicycle. As this conversation ends, the Author recites Psalm 24: “The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Valley Song, p. 25). After this, he changes back into Buks, who sings a hymn in Afrikaans with Veronica.

Time passes. The white man who visited the Landman estate has decided to purchase it, news that reaches Buks and Veronica from the town gossip. Buks is devastated; Veronica, furious. The fear of losing their livelihood prompts the only overtly political discussion in the play. Veronica asks why the country had an election if not to give power back to the people. She wants to write a letter to the government asking for land reform: she has heard that this is happening in other parts of the country. But Buks wants none of it: “Every time they stick their nose in your business you got to pay something” (Valley Song, p. 27). He has a more modest plan, to approach the white man and ask to be allowed to continue farming. Besides, if the white man moves in, Buks believes, Veronica can find work tending his house. When he tells his granddaughter this, it reignites their earlier argument; there is nothing in the world Veronica wants less than to do housework for a living. She says as much, and Buks takes this as an insult to her grandmother, who tended the Landman house her whole life. He scolds his granddaughter into silence.

At this moment Buks returns to the role of Author and delivers a lengthy speech. The Author assumes the persona of the white buyer, then reveals that he decided to purchase the land not before but because Buks came to him begging to continue farming. The Author also reveals a private vision of a life spent in contented seclusion, a vision that made him decide to purchase the land on the spot. But, he asks, does he really


When Veronica plans to write the government asking for land reform, she is not simply indulging in a young woman’s fantasy. In 1994 the African National Congress took over the reins of government, intending to rectify the horrible inequality by which whites controlled 86 percent of the nation’s land. Establishing the Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP), the ANC gave the RDP the task of managing land reform. It adopted three goals: to secure the position of poor tenant farmers on the land they rented from whites; to restore land stolen from Africans by whites under apartheid; and, most ambitiously, to redistribute 30 percent of the land to nonwhites and to the poor before the year 2000. So far these goals have not been met. The government has been torn between two objectives—eradicating the injustices of apartheid, and avoiding violence or other disruptions to the peaceful transition of power. In light of these objectives, the RDP has been unwilling to force white landowners to give up their land or the property rights they had under apartheid, Also the group employs a number of the same bureaucrats who ran the land system under apartheid (in order to avoid “brain drain” of experienced politicians); not surprisingly, some of these bureaucrats have been slow to enforce the rights of tenant farmers, or to rule in favor of Africans with claims to land owned by whites. The goal of 30 percent redistribution has been the greatest failure so far. The government policy—to match willing sellers with willing buyers—has resulted only in a miniscule transfer, not even one-tenth of the hoped-for 30 percent. Thus Veronica’s criticism of the slow process of change is well-founded. When the white Author arrives to buy the Landman house, Buks must bow to his will just as apartheid would have required, begging for the right to scratch out a subsistence on soil he has spent a lifetime working.

own the land? Even if the government gives him the title, is it not Buks’s land by the mere fact that he has worked it his whole life and his father worked alongside the first Landman to build the house? This speech is followed, and countered, by Veronica’s impassioned soliloquy in which she admits that she hates the land. If the Author suggested that people make the land theirs by working it, Veronica believes the land makes people its slaves. To be a farmer is to become a mere extension of the earth, its perpetually solicitous servant. And she cannot stomach that prospect for herself.

A conversation follows between Veronica and the Author. As Veronica takes her position outside Mrs. Jooste’s window, the Author tells her to stop; the old woman has died. They return to the topic of dreams. The Author is explicit about the fact that dreaming big means taking a big risk—if you let yourself dream, and then fail, you are likely to be permanently embittered. Again Veronica refuses to listen. The scene shifts, and she sings to imaginary white people, soliciting donations. Now the stage is set for the final confrontation between the ambitious girl and her weary grandfather.

She walks into the scene as Buks washes himself. She tells him what has just happened at the Post Office. An old white man, Brigadier Pelser, attempted to use the Post Office after it had closed, only to be turned away by the female clerk. He insisted that she serve him, but she refused, saying, “This is not the old South Africa, Brigadier” (Valley Song, p. 38). Veronica learned something else at the Post Office: that her grandfather had collected a letter addressed to her. She asks for it, and he hands it over, already opened. He knows it is from her friend in Johannesburg, and he wants to know what it says, but he is unable to find anyone capable of reading it. He tells Veronica to read it to him. At first she lies, pretending it is a simple hello. But soon she breaks down and admits that this friend has agreed to give her a place to stay in the city.

Buks is furious. He tells her that her mother was a thief, stealing his money so she could run away to the city. Veronica says she has her own money; she’s been singing for change in the streets of the village. She shows him this money, and he throws it into the darkness. He simply will not let her leave.

The next Sunday in church, Veronica refuses to sing, nor does she pray. Buks attempts to console her with a vision of God: if she can sing to God, no one else should matter. But Veronica is disconsolate—if she cannot leave the valley, she will never sing again.

The Author returns and delivers a long explanation of Buks’s feelings. He is terrified about letting Veronica go, scared of change, and puzzled by the failure of life to give him the simple things he asks for. He feels he has provided abundantly for Veronica, and he cannot understand where he went wrong or why she would want to leave. At the end of this speech, Veronica returns, and the Author becomes Buks again. He mistakes her for her mother, and when this moment of confusion has passed, Veronica tells the simple truth: if he tries to force her to stay, she will run away. She compares her own life to the miracle of pumpkin seeds he discussed earlier. When they blossom, they must follow their destiny. So it is with her—she is blossoming, and has no choice. Reluctantly, and almost with a broken heart, he accepts what he cannot change. On her way out of town, she encounters the Author. He admits that, even when he opposed her on the issue of dreams, he understood her position. Now he gives her his blessing, even as he concedes that a selfish part of him wanted her to stay, and the village to remain just as it was when he first found it.

Veronica leaves, and the Author discloses that the next spring, Buks began the planting as he always had. The land has its consolations; it will always remain, even when people fall apart.

Afrikaner religion

There are two types of tunes in Valley Song: the impromptu effusions of Veronica, which express her desire for faraway places, and the hymns (sung in Afrikaans) that Veronica and her grandfather sing together. The former belong to the future; the latter, to the past. Specifically, this past is that of the Dutch Reformed Church, the roots of which go back to the Protestant Reformation in Europe, led by Martin Luther and, later, John Calvin. The Netherlands was largely converted to Reformation Protestantism by the mid-1500s, and the settlers that came from there to South Africa were mostly members of the Dutch Reformed Church.

Theologically the Dutch Reformed Church is Calvinist—that is, it professes that God decided at the moment of creation who was saved and who was damned. Calvinism is widely held to go hand-in-hand with rigid piety and a distrust of secular knowledge and pleasures, but this reputation is not wholly accurate. Many Calvinist groups have been as pleasure-loving and contented as any other people. It is nevertheless true that Calvinism seems like a natural fit for the bleak landscapes of the Karoo; indeed, the Karoo town Calvinia is named for the Swiss theologian. Another influence on the Dutch Reformed Church was pietism, the “heart religion” brought to South Africa by some clergymen. Pietism stresses simplicity, clarity of feeling, and a continual sense of duty to God. Like Calvinism, it tends to distrust matters of the flesh, and to flourish among people removed from cities or other centers of power.

Fugard dramatizes some of the consolations of this type of religion in the piety of Old Buks, for whom God is a continual presence in the natural world of the Karoo. God’s power makes the flowering of a simple pumpkin seed a mighty miracle. To Buks, all the austerity and harshness of the Karoo climate are beautiful because they are informed by God’s love. Similarly the simple life that Buks wants to live with Veronica is as exalted as the life of a king (or a famous singer), because what really matters is not one’s social position, but one’s love of God. More than once he attempts to console Veronica by saying that it was God who gave her the power to sing, and only God is an important audience. In his own case, the simple, straightforward rules of Christianity help Buks through all of life’s crises. As his father told him,

You will live your life in three places Abraam—these akkers, our house, and the Church. The rest is unimportant. Here, on the land you must work, and work hard my boy, in your house you must love, love everybody who lives under that roof with you and also your neighbor, and in the Church you must have faith and worship the Almighty.

(Valley Song, p. 47)

Buks has always believed that by following these simple guidelines he will be assured of a sweet and happy life.

However, the play shows that happiness is not quite that simple, and especially not in a land as conflicted and turbulent as South Africa. First his daughter and then his granddaughter are pulled from him by the lure of the outside world and repelled by the severity of racially divided life in a semiarid village. For them the Church has no direct consoling power; they look for happiness in things of the world.

When considering the history of the Dutch Reformed Church in its relations with South Africa’s coloured people, it is not hard to see why Veronica searched for contentment elsewhere. Originally the Nederslandse Gereformeerde Kerk (Dutch Reformed Church) made no separation between its white and its black adherents; slaves who had accepted the creed, and coloured people who had been born into it, worshipped together, on an equal footing with whites from Europe. Although this policy was never fully accepted, it was remarkably forward-looking in its attitude towards race. However, when the British ended slavery, triggering the Afrikaner Great Trek, the issue of race affected religion. While, besides racial policies, the Trekkers had many reasons—political, economic, and social—to flee British rule, they were often appalled by what they saw as a British tendency to elevate blacks to the status of white people.

The Dutch Reformed Church denounced the Trek partly because the Church’s leadership was in sympathy with the British. Many Trekkers formed their own churches, with racial purity as a cornerstone. The most important of these was the Nederduitsch Hervormde Kerk, founded by Andries Pretorius, the leader of the Trek. These churches officially banned African or coloured membership. Meanwhile, the Dutch Reformed Church could sense the desires of its congregations. Fearing further defections to the more explicitly segregationist churches, the Synod of 1857 finally accepted what it had rejected for years—separate worship for blacks and whites:

The Synod considers it desirable and according to Holy Scriptures that our heathen members be accepted and initiated into our congregations wherever it is possible, but where this measure, as a result of the weakness of some, would stand in the way of promoting the work of Christ among the heathen people, then congregations set up among the heathen, or still to be set up, should enjoy their Christian privileges in a separate building or institution.

(De Gruchy, p. 32)

The Synod’s ruling is remarkably contradictory. On the one hand, it suggests that segregation is necessary, not because Africans are inferior, but because some whites are weak and prejudiced. But, on the other hand, in its adoption of segregationist policies, it conflated coloured people (many of whom had been born into the Church) with so-called heathens. After 1857 coloured people were in the awkward position of attending mission churches (with all the connotations of conversion and difference that the word mission has). In other words, the Dutch Reformed Church established missions for coloured people, as it did for the Africans, even though most coloured people already belonged to the church and did not need to be converted. As the child of a Dutch Reformed minister in the Karoo would note over a hundred years later, “The Mission Church was an also-ran compared with its White counterpart. It was much, much smaller, with no steeple, no clock or bells, no church hall, only a vestry” (Barnard, p. 10). In short, the Dutch Reformed Church preached that faith was the only determiner of equality, while practicing a rigid and racialized hierarchy. It is no wonder, then, that some coloured churchgoers became disenchanted with this hypocrisy.

After 1857 the situation only worsened. What had begun as a practical concession to “the weakness of some” was, after the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, increasingly understood by Dutch Reformed theologians as an immutable fact based in Holy Scriptures. In 1881 the coloured church was formally separated from the white church; in 1910 another church was created for Africans, and in 1951 a fourth for Indian converts. Theologians argued that racial separation and inequality were based on the Bible.

This complicated, and fundamentally hypocritical, conflation of politics and religion is treated in an understated way in Valley Song. The key is the psalm quoted by the Author, and his reflections on it. If the earth belongs to the Lord, the Author asks, does it not also belong to the simple worshipper who has tilled it his whole life? If it is the Lord alone who bestows blessings, would He not be most likely to grant the land, not to the outsider with money, but to the man who most loves the land, and the God he feels is expressed in it? The unstated answer to these questions is obvious. Yet the apartheid government and the Church agreed that land had to be distributed in a racialized way: the white man must keep possession of the major portion (86 percent), so that Africans and coloureds would not capsize white supremacy. Coloured children received few options, little education, and no chance to earn money except by working in a white home or business. No wonder, then, that Veronica takes advantage of her postapartheid freedom; no wonder that this time Buks’s religion ends up leaving him confused and alone rather than at ease with the world.

Sources and literary context

Fugard’s early work at the University of Cape Town exposed him to the then-voguish ideas of existentialism, especially the existential notion that codes of conduct must be formed by experience, not by preconceived strategies. This is reflected in Buks’s struggle to make sense of his experience, which contradicts what traditional Christianity tells him to expect.

Fugard has also been influenced by his work with others in theaters. His collaborations with the Serpents Tail group of actors in Port Elizabeth informed him in the arts of improvisation, dialogue, and political reference. Since the Serpents Tail was a multiracial group, it can be assumed that this work may have helped sharpen his sense of coloured speech patterns. (He has also expressed a debt to his Afrikaans-speaking mother for an awareness of how Afrikaners sound when they speak English.) The intricate and subtle fugue of desires and demands that makes up the core of this eminently psychological play can be attributed to a lifetime of work in close conjunction with actors, trying to get at the heart of what makes characters (especially improvised ones) do what they do.

Finally, Valley Song reflects a number of Fugard’s abiding concerns. He is said to be at his best when treating “common” people; his most famous plays present the troubles, not of heroes or villains, but of realistic, humble people caught in historical or emotional storms. He is interested, as well, in the turbulent social life of South Africa, an interest that has not waned with the official demise of apartheid. Valley Song is Fugard’s first answer to the pressing question that faces the country: what next?


Valley Song was well received at its debut in late 1995; even critics who had disliked Fugard’s more recent plays saw it as a return to the high quality of his earlier drama. Howard Kissel called it “[o]ne of his most affecting works” (Kissel, p. 607). Jeremy Gerard praised Fugard’s simple but effective characterizations, especially of Veronica, concluding that this is “one of Fugard’s smaller plays, but it’s got enormous heart” (Gerard, p. 609). In Clive Barnes’s estimation, “[t]he play certainly doesn’t have the passion of Fugard’s earlier plays—pain and anger are easier and more interesting to write about than hope or even reconciliation. Yet it has its own quiet qualities” (Barnes, p. 610).

—Jacob Littleton

For More Information

Barnard, Marius. Karoo. Cape Town: Landsowne, 1975.

Barnes, Clive. Review of Valley Song, by Athol Fugard. In New York Drama Critics’ Reviews. 1995: 609-10.

Chidester, David. Religions of South Africa. London: Routledge, 1992.

Cilliers, S. P. The Coloureds of South Africa. Cape Town: Banier, 1963.

De Gruchy, John. “Settler Christianity.” In Living Faiths in South Africa. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

Fugard, Athol. Valley Song. New York: Samuel French, 1995.

Gerard, Jeremy. Review of Valley Song, by Athol Fugard. In New York Drama Critics’ Reviews. 1995: 609.

Gray, Stephen. Athol Fugard. Johannesburg: Mc Graw Hill, 1982.

Kissel, Howard. Review of Valley Song, by Athol Fugard. In New York Drama Critics’ Reviews. 1995: 607-608.

Mallaby, Sebastian. After Apartheid: The Future of South Africa. New York: Times Books, 1992.

Ross, Robert. A Concise History of South Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Thompson, Leonard. A History of South Africa. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990.

Van der Ross, R. E. Myths and Attitudes. Cape Town: Tafelberg, 1979.

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Valley Song

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