PORT Elizabeth-raised actor, playwright and director John Kani – widely recognised as the grandfather of South African theatre – is the focus of a 21 Icons South Africa short film on SABC3 on Sunday night.
Kani’s plays The Island and Sizwe Banzi is Dead, written in collaboration with fellow actors Winston Ntshona and Athol Fugard, became international hits in the apartheid era.
Deeply politicised from a young age, Kani says it was his meeting with Fugard and the Serpent Players theatre group in Port Elizabeth in the ’60s that made him realise he could use his acting skills to fight apartheid – and that white people had a place in that struggle too.
“When I got to the rehearsal space, the white man I had walked past and didn’t care about, came in. He had a long beard, lit a pipe and said: ‘OK, guys, let’s go’. They were discussing Antigone. And the question was: If the state passes an unjust law, have the people the right to break that law? And I said I’m home. This is where I belong.
“I could use the stage, I could use art, I could use theatre to continue my struggle for liberation. Instead of wanting to pick up the AK47, I could pick up a cultural AK47. Instead of wiping out the white race, I could educate them and teach them about human dignity, respect and equality.”
Growing up in New Brighton, Kani was instilled with a strong sense of pride in his Xhosa heritage by three grandmothers, the wives of his polygamous grandfather.
“I had absolutely no inferiority complex of any kind. Actually, I had a superiority complex. I was taught I’m the best thing since sliced bread.”
And it was this sense of self-worth that he wanted to instill in his fellow blacks through his work with the Serpent Players.
“We decided to tell the other story: the story that even though we were born in the township, if you take the dahlias and the lilies and the carnations from the white man’s garden, they will grow – that we are the flowers of the townships.”
Kani was harassed during performances by the security police many times and admits that he deliberately sought to provoke them through his work.
He recalls: “If the police stop the play, we knew it was making a difference. If they didn’t, we went back to the drawing board to add more things”.
He once spent 23 days in prison, mostly in solitary confinement, after he had been arrested with Ntshona after a performance of Sizwe Banzi Is Dead.
The short film will be screened on SABC3 at 6.57pm on Sunday.