Struggle activist John Kani is back with Sizwe Banzi Is Dead
Written by Yazeed Kamaldien
Evergreen protester, actor and director John Kani, who has fought throughout his adult life against apartheid, is eloquently dismissive of present-day South Africa.
“We became a democracy, we did not become a free country,” he asserts.
This poetic reflection was delivered during an interview with Kani at the Baxter Theatre, where his play Sizwe Banzi Is Dead is presently running.
Kani’s voice is not bitter though when he speaks about the dream that never happened, at least for him, in post-apartheid Mandela-land.
It is much more than that. It is angry.
“We found out the situation would not change unless there is reparation and redress. We don’t have restrictive laws but we are not paid the debt we are owed from the past,” says Kani.
“Business booms with the maintenance of slave salaries. When miners want better salaries it does not mean the price of gold is affected. It just means the mines make less profit.
“You get ‘delivery protests’. It’s not delivery protests. It’s the disillusionment with democracy. It’s a too-long-wait protest.”
Kani adds one final nail in the coffin: “Art became business. The people who are producing this are no longer driven by the love of art, but money.”
What he says and the way he says it isn’t even remotely depressing. Rather, it stirs. It is a defiant-as-ever call for yet-to-come better days.
To understand Kani’s protest, one must know that he is the granddaddy of protest theatre. This protest business is sewn into his DNA.
And his vigour seems to be watered with each new government scandal that explodes. It is this same energetic protest that initially led him to theatre stages worldwide.
Rewind to 1972, when Kani was “fired from work at the Ford Motor Company because I refused to work overtime”. That was in Port Elizabeth.
“I was part of a theatre group… I went to Athol (Fugard, the playwright) and Winston (Ntshona, the actor) and said it’s time we take this (acting) professionally,” says Kani.
The result was the play Sizwe Banzi Is Dead that they worked on together. It was performed in 1975 and went on to tour to America and England.
Awards and praise was not in short supply for the creative team that dared to risk standing up against apartheid.
“It was meant to articulate the plight of black people under the pass laws (which compelled blacks to carry permits on them all the time),” says Kani.
“We never wrote it as a political statement. We were fascinated by the story of a man who walks into a downtown studio to take a photo and send it home. And the question was why.”
Its synopsis reads that the work is “about the universal struggle for human dignity, as a black man in apartheid-era South Africa tries to overcome oppressive work regulations to support his family”.
Kani and Ntshona won the Best Actor Tony Award for their performances in the play.
Back home, upon arrival, they were solitary confinement prisoners for 23 days.
Kani walked out of prison undeterred and continued to make work against injustices.
He is still at it and in recent years wrote, directed and performed in plays that provoked relevant questions about South African politics.
“My work will always be the conscience of my society. I will always guard jealously our democracy, constitution and justice. Through my work this will be dealt with,” says Kani.
“We are faced with so many challenges in this country. The role of the artist is to hold a mirror to society.
“When art does not concern itself with that which affects its community it has relegated its responsibility to become entertainment.
“I’m not saying we need to speak politics all the time. But when you come to the theatre we want you to engage with us. And be left with a little question.”
One wonders if Kani thinks protest theatre is still relevant though. Cape Town has a range of theatres stretching from Camps Bay to Kalk Bay, all offering theatre plays that struggle to consistently attract audiences.
For Kani, protest theatre basically “talks about issues and the way it impacts on our broader community”.
“It sill comes as stories and we will tell stories.”
He adds: “Protest theatre is the reaction of artists to any injustice or denial of human rights.
“The role of the artist is to hold a mirror to society. When an artist does a painting he expresses how his inner-self is affected by the surroundings.”