John Kani traces voices Missing in exile

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

Apartheid’s political exiles returned home to become part of Nelson Mandela’s democratic government, although not all of them found the rewards they had sought for fighting the ANC’s cause abroad.

This is the context that playwright and actor John Kani unpacks in his latest play, Missing. Kani also acts as his fictitious character, Robert Khalipa, a man who has served the ANC for almost three decades in Sweden.

Khalipa was part of the party’s top structure but when Mandela and later Thabo Mbeki became president of South Africa he was never called home to serve in the country’s government. He expected that he, like his comrades, would get a job in Parliament.

Actor John Kani (seated). Photo by Yazeed Kamaldien

Actor John Kani (seated). Photo by Yazeed Kamaldien

“When Nelson Mandela was released in 1990, it was arranged that a group of these exiles would come home and be part of this negotiating team. And be part of the whole set up structure of the government this side,” explains Kani.

“Somehow his name was missing on this list. He could not work out why his name was not on this list. He spends all these years in exile, trying to ask himself, what did I do, what did I not do? What did I say that could be the reason why I was left out?”

Kani adds: “He remains a soldier missing in action. He is also someone missing from his home, friends… that’s the thing that drives him crazy. He decided not to go back to South Africa until they (ANC) phone him to come home and serve.

“Since 1990… this is now 1999 (when the play unfolds). That is how long he has waited for that phone to ring.”

Khalipa’s Swedish wife and daughter meanwhile fail to see his logic. In the play, they eventually return to South Africa and that is when the family needs to face some tough decisions.

Kani delves into territory that he knows so well. It is a complex space, the life of apartheid’s exiles and their relationship with home.

And Kani is very likely the country’s best-placed contemporary theatre-maker able to write with such vivid lived experiences about the exile’s struggle. As an actor, he was able to move between two worlds: the oppression of home and freedom of elsewhere. In the latter, he met various exiles longing to return home.

“Exiles always lived for one day: we will go home. We are missing from our own families and we are missing them,” he remembers.

“In the 1970s when I first got to England… the excitement… people were saying in another five years apartheid will be over and we’re going home. The international pressure against the South African regime felt like that was about to happen,” adds Kani.

“As the years went by it began to grind people to silence. It hurt just to say ‘home’. I remember the questions about home exiles were asking me when I went overseas. Exiles were clinging to an image of what home is. And I didn’t want to destroy the pictures in their mind of home.”

As Kani met friends living in exile, he also met “other people who left other countries”.

“It showed me that we had no monopoly on suffering as South Africans. I thought discrimination meant me only,” he says.

He relates how he became a target too for speaking out against apartheid on his travels.

“I had been detained. I survived an assassination attempt and survived eleven stab wounds. I traveled with a document that did not state my nationality because the government called me a ‘bad ambassador’ of the country,” he says.

Kani leans on these experiences to build a narrative about the life and expectation of a political exile. He locates it specifically in the ANC, which he has a great depth of knowledge about.

“The ANC was a huge liberation movement. It had a plan and structure on what would happen the day it won the struggle for liberation. Some (ANC members) were trained as military (personnel). Some were taken abroad to study… engineering, economics, mining, international relations… all the things needed if one day the ANC took over the country,” says Kani.

When apartheid fell, Kani was among millions of South Africans who voted in the country’s inaugural democratic elections in 1994. He remembers being 51 back then when he stood in line with the mother of his seven children to vote.

“I voted. I walked out. And I was fucking angry after I voted. How can it be so easy to change this country? To get rid of apartheid? A pencil and a piece of paper? I thought voting must be a brain intelligent thing,” says Kani.

“But then as I walked away with my wife, I said to her, I feel a strange responsibility to nurture this new-found freedom and to continue to be the watchdog of this freedom.
“Protest theatre has a place again. It’s not against whites or apartheid. It is against injustice and anything that fails our people.”

Kani’s work as an actor continued and he still met exiles abroad even though South Africa was a democratic state. He weaves this experience into Missing, showing how Khalipa grapples with the question of returning home.

“He doesn’t know if any of his own people are still alive. He has completely lost contact with his family. He wants to go home and find his family,” says Kani.
“But he is a refugee. He left the country and how does he just buy a ticket and return as if he were on holiday?”

In the real world, says Kani, he has met exiles who have returned to South Africa but who left again for their adoptive countries because they were “disillusioned” with home.

“I kept going abroad (as an actor). You could see the feeling of people thinking ‘I’m still here’. I was traveling and I met South Africans who still had not gone home,” says Kani.

“I still know many of them who are still in New York, Paris, somewhere. They had given up on the question are they South African or where they are now.

“Some of them have come home and have been disillusioned but left again. There are also those who married the natives of the countries that hosted them.”

Missing is Kani’s second solo play after his successful Nothing But the Truth in 2001. Before that, he had co-written plays with writer Athol Fugard since 1965. This includes Sizwe Banzi is Dead.

Missing runs at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town until March 29.


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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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