IT took until the 25th anniversary of Club 100 for its elegant members to give a guest speaker a standing ovation, but few are left unmoved by the commanding presence of Dr John Kani, internationally celebrated actor, playwright and son of the Eastern Cape.
“Not bad for a boy from New Brighton,” he quipped after Club 100 head Olga Hafner’s glowing welcome.
And “not bad” might be underselling his success just a little, as Kani is chairman of the National Arts Council of South Africa and has four honorary doctorates under his name – as well as a glittering pedigree of awards both on stage and on screen.
NMMU conferred on him an honorary doctorate this year for his contribution to a democratic South Africa through theatre. However, a prophet is often without honour in his own country and he particularly appreciates our Friendly City’s embrace.
When he addressed the NMMU vice-chancellor’s cultural evening at the Athenaeum earlier this month, he held the audience in the palm of his hand, and it was the same on Wednesday at Kipling’s Restaurant at the Boardwalk Hotel, with a standing ovation the reward.
Today, “the storyteller” focuses more on writing and empowerment and expects to have his new play, Missing, ready for its premiere at the Baxter Theatre by February.
He says it deals with the effect of Mandela’s release on couples living in exile but is still finishing the script.
He is thrilled that a previous play, Nothing but the Truth, is a Grade 12 setwork and that an abridged version is being worked on for Grade 9 pupils.
Kani shared memories stretching back decades, to the classroom at Port Elizabeth’s Cowan High School and before.
“On Saturday we did not drink water after 10 because that was when we came to town,” he said, taking his audience back to the early 1950s when there were no toilets for “non-whites” in then Main Street.
A small child at the time, he was approaching desperation stage and vividly recalled his father advising him to “make a rainbow” against the window of OK Bazaars. It was a small gesture of defiance by a little boy who grew into a spirited teenager, blowing a whistle to alert comrades of police visits to the township.
The Springbok radio show Consider Your Verdict even led him to think of a career in law to fight the injustices visited on black South Africans but a lack of funds saw him move into the motor industry – at which time he met fledgling playwright Athol Fugard.
It was a turning point: “The white people I got to know messed up my revolution and I couldn’t deal with the hatred that was fuelling me all those years. I realised it was not a hatred for white people, oh my God, it is really nothing to do with colour, it is about human justice. It was a hatred for injustice, oppression and apartheid.”
Through the Serpent Players and the performing arts he befriended Port Elizabeth figures like Molly Blackburn, Eric Attwell, Bobby Melunsky and, of course, Fugard, alongside other visionary whites like Barney Simon, Manie Manim and Alan Paton. A visit to the Cradle of Mankind last week echoed what he sees now so clearly: “We are all African – or we have all been African – and we have wasted centuries trying to make ourselves different”.
Now 70, he still travels widely to share his passion for the theatre and hinted he would be working closely with NMMU to uplift culture in both “town and gown”.