South Africa entered my consciousness in 1994 when I was twelve years old. While a chorister in the Washington National Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys, I met anti-apartheid activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu when he visited the District of Columbia shortly after the elections that catapulted Mandela into the presidency. Full of the euphoria of that moment, Archbishop Tutu invited the entire congregation to stand up, stretch out their arms, and declare, “We are free! All of us together! We are free!” South Africa’s freedom had set all of us free. That is how it felt in Washington, D.C. in 1994. Years later, as I began to research and think about South African theatre, I learned that Tutu’s optimism–his hope for the future–had a history, the artifacts of which could be found in one of the only forms of apartheid-era mass communication: the anti-apartheid theatre. In 1987, protest artist Mbongeni Ngema’s Sarafina! rehearsed Nelson Mandela’s release from prison–three years before it occurred. Ngema claimed in our September 2013 interview, “when Mandela walked out of prison, his first speech that he did in Cape Town, it was as though he had read Sarafina!’s script. He uttered exactly the same words.”[1] This hope for the future explains how events can be imagined on stage and then occur in reality. My imagined performance is the story of what happens when these hopes do not come to fruition, triggering a paradoxical nostalgia for an idea of the future that existed in the past.

One of the ways that post-1994 South African theatre artists deploy their longing for their country’s non-sexist, non-racial future is through revivals of protest plays, which use anti-apartheid rhetoric to speak to post-apartheid issues. In 2006, the State Theatre in Pretoria hosted an original cast revival of perhaps the most famous South African protest play, Sizwe Banzi is Dead. The play resulted from a 1972 collaboration among black South African actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona and white playwright Athol Fugard. At the time, collaboration across the color line was extremely difficult and dangerous due to the country’s pass laws. Nonwhites were forced to carry passbooks with them that restricted their movements and controlled nearly every aspect of their lives, including where they could look for work. Black laborers had to travel to the city for work, but had to return to their segregated townships at night. Sizwe addresses these draconian pass laws. The play concerns Sizwe, a man who has come from the country looking for work but who does not have the proper work seeker’s permit. He and his friend Buntu decide to drown their sorrows at a local shebeen, or speakeasy. While returning home, they find a murdered man with the proper work seeker’s permit in his passbook. Buntu exchanges the photos in the passbooks so that Sizwe effectively dies and is reborn as another man’s ghost, one with a valid work seeker’s permit.

Both Kani and Ntshona were members of the Serpent Players, an amateur dramatic group directed by Athol Fugard. As the Serpent Players began to break apart due to a number of its members being arrested and imprisoned on Robben Island for membership in the banned African National Congress party, Kani and Ntshona quit their jobs and decided to devise a piece of theatre with Fugard so that they could pursue performing full-time. After several attempts at devising different scenarios stagnated, either Ntshona or Fugard—their stories differ—mentioned having seen an intriguing photograph of a black man in a nice suit smiling with a pipe in one hand and a cigarette in the other. This became their “mandate.”[2] Why was the man in the photograph smiling? The only reason a black man had to smile in South Africa would be because he had his passbook in order. Beginning in 1974, Fugard began to tell the story of the development of Sizwe to international journalists. In Fugard’s version, he is the one who saw the picture in a photographer’s window. Kani and Ntshona have consistently maintained that Ntshona saw the photograph in a friend’s album.[3]

Fugard’s claim to Sizwe’s authorship rests on the 1974 Oxford University Press published script, which prominently featured Fugard’s name and somewhat less prominently displayed Kani and Ntshona’s names. Prior to this edition, the play existed only in the minds of its actors so as to evade South Africa’s censors. In creating the Oxford script, Fugard transcribed a number of different audio recordings of live performances, cutting them together, and adding his own embellishments. For Kani and Ntshona’s original cast revival in 2006, they did not use the Oxford script. Instead, they highlighted their own embodied authorship by relying on a single recording of a performance from the late 1970s. The recent 2015 production of Sizwe — directed by Kani with his son, Atandwa Kani playing the part that his father originated opposite Mncedisi Shabangu as Sizwe — used a 2008 recording of the original revival in performance as its script. This reliance on recordings of live performances rather than on Fugard’s written script creates an oral tradition of embodied authorship that evades easy categorization or archivization.

Kani and Ntshona, under Fugard’s direction, created Sizwe from the material of their own lives and the lives of their friends and families. In one poignant moment, Buntu discusses how his father had a blue Stetson hat that he wore to church on Sundays and no one was allowed to touch it, but as soon as a white man approached him on the street, he would take off the hat and crush it in his hands. This is a true story about Kani’s own father. When I spoke with Kani, he told me about his father attending the performance and telling his son, “You don’t understand. You may think that we were subservient. It hurt us to take that hat off. But there were two options: I take my hat off or I get in the police van and what would you do?”[4] In Atandwa’s hands, this speech takes on added weight, because he is playing his father, speaking about his grandfather.[5] Atandwa has played his father in Hayani, another two-person theatre piece, which he devised with actor Nat Ramabulana. When I asked John Kani about Hayani, he replied, “I did this to my father [by putting his life on stage].”[6] While the published script of Sizwe is assigned set work for matric (high school) students, Sizwe as a living historical document, an oral tradition passed from father to son, an embodied memory of life under apartheid continues to perform the gap between South Africa’s imagined reconciled future and its present reality.

[1] Mbongeni Ngema, interview with the author, 19 September 2013.

[2] Athol Fugard, Statements: Three Plays, (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1974): vi.

[3] I have written about this authorship debate in “Resurrecting Sizwe Banzi is Dead (1972-2008): John Kani, Winston Ntshona, Athol Fugard and Postapartheid South Africa,” Theatre Survey, Vol. 50 (2009): 91-118.

[4] John Kani, interview with the author, 24 January 2015.

[5] Atandwa Kani, interview with the author, 8 February 2015.

[6] Ibid.

About the Author

Gibson Alessandro Cima is an Assistant Professor of Theatre History in Northern Illinois University’s School of Theatre and Dance. His research interests include South African theatre and performance, theatre from the Global South, post-colonial theory, and theatre-for-social-change. He has presented and published his research on the influence of South Africa’s anti-apartheid protest theatre on post-apartheid and global stages widely. As a theatre practitioner, he has devised work addressing Georgetown University’s historical role in the institution of slavery, directed the US premiere of South African playwright Juliet Jenkin’s The Boy Who Fell From the Roof, and brought his own adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III to the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, South Africa.