In 1965, a young black factory worker met a white man in a brown jersey. That meeting would transform South African theatre. The collective that formed around John Kani and Athol Fugard would go on to create some of the most iconic theatrical pieces of the twentieth century, turning a spotlight on apartheid South Africa. The two had a shared interest in theatre, how it should be made, and what it should say. They exposed apartheid’s injustices to the rest of the world, touring across Europe and the United States and giving a face and a heart to the stories of South Africa.
Theatre is often thought of as the domain of the privileged, a luxury that the oppressed cannot afford. John Kani is living proof that such a generalisation is patently untrue. He built his career performing to township audiences, in school halls and churches packed to five times their capacity. An early performance of The Island, in a venue that forbade mixed-race audiences, exemplified this. Fugard was hiding the colour of his skin with a balaclava, and the police joined the audience. Kani was certain that they were there to arrest the group, but found himself proven wrong. “They didn’t,” he recalls. “They were falling off their chairs. The cops – laughing and applauding!”
Born in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, in 1943, Kani was raised to have a firm belief in his own abilities along with a deep understanding of South Africa’s politics. “It was incredible to grow up in that time, with the songs of the struggle; with the school boycotts…we were made to believe that we were descendants of great Kingdoms. That I was a Prince,” he says when looking back on his childhood.
Eleven children sleeping under one roof is fine – at a boarding school; Kani grew up in a three-room house with eleven siblings. The house was known to locals as the United Nations. New Brighton at the time housed many of the men and women who shaped South African politics – Govan Mbeki and Raymond Mhlaba were both based in the area. Kani’s first exposure to political activity came as a lookout for police vans, while his elders held meetings, discussing the way forward for the struggle.
Kani’s is a name that is woven through the history of South African theatre. From his origins in New Brighton he rose to become one of the country’s most respected and prominent individuals, a man whose voice commands respect and whose presence connotes both quality and a conscience. The people associated with his work speak to his power as an artist. Athol Fugard, Winston Ntshona and Yvonne Bryceland all created work – individually and collectively – that has left an indelible impression on the minds of South African thinkers and artists.
In the early 1970s, Kani, Fugard and Ntshona created The Island and the same play that had the apartheid police falling off their chairs would go on to be one of the most influential pieces of theatre produced in the twentieth century. The run of performances extended all the way to Broadway in New York, as the pair of actors moved the world with their precision and dedication. Covered in sweat, the two men told the story of prisoners on Robben Island, conveying the alternating despair and hope that punctuated the life of the imprisoned.
Kani – who had numerous brushes with the law over the course of his life – would experience those emotions first hand in 1985 when he was arrested along with Ntshona, after the two put on a performance of Sizwe Banzi is Dead. As the curtain fell, police arrived, and the handcuffs went on. “Taking the curtain call, the cop grabbed me. In costume, into the car,” Kani says when looking back on the incident.
Kani and Ntshona spent 23 days in solitary confinement, causing international consternation. Kani knew that he would be freed when, on the 15th day of his imprisonment, a newspaper was slipped under his door. On the paper was a photograph featuring, among others, Janet Suzman and Ben Kingsley in Trafalgar Square holding placards that called for the release of Kani and Ntshona. They were freed shortly thereafter; for Kani, worse was still to come.
The 1980s were arguably the darkest decade South Africa has ever endured, and Kani was not spared its tragedies. During the period, he survived an assassination attempt after a performance of Miss Julie – in which he kissed a white woman. He was stabbed 11 times. In 1985 he lost his brother after he was killed by the police. His brother’s crime? Reciting a poem at the funeral of a girl, herself a victim of violent riots.
John Kani doesn’t shy away from difficult truths. Under apartheid, white people were the enemy; reconciling that with the sudden transition into democracy was a difficult experience for the actor, particularly when it came to casting his first vote. “As I walked out, I was very angry. Very angry. How can years and years of suffering the oppression of apartheid be solved by a pencil mark on a piece of paper?” he asks.
Eventually, he came around. “I re-dedicated myself as an actor and a writer to the eradicating of all forms of ignorance and threats to this new found democracy – this beautiful thing,” he says. He has done exactly that ever since, continuing to write and perform works with a conscience while lending his voice to those who need it.
His natural charisma, coupled with his life on the stage, has turned him into a mesmerising speaker and conversationalist; he knows exactly how to set the pace of a story, where to inflect his words with power, and how to punctuate a sentence for the most impact. When he talks about that first experience of voting, it brings home the complexity and weight of the act – such a small gesture, that thousands of people gave their lives fighting to earn. Kani was angry because casting a vote does nothing to right years of oppression and brutality. But the freedom that voting represents brings with it so much more: with that small mark on a piece of paper, the power to choose the country’s destiny landed once and for all in the hands of its people. Kani’s new struggle has been to protect that power, and to make sure that it is used well. As long as South Africa has custodians such as him, it is in safe hands.