South African Protest Theatre

19 February 2021

by Helen Szymczak
originally published in ISTA’s Scene magazine in January 2016.

South African Protest Theatre can be considered as a form of provocative theatre.

Life is mirrored in art, especially the art of theatre, displaying often what we as a society do not want to see or feel. The American director Richard Schechner states: “Theatre is the art of actualising alternatives, if only temporarily.” Theatre does more than just reflect life it shows us how things should – or could be – possibly improving or provoking the audience into action or realisation.

Provocative theatre can be described as the kind of theatre which grabs the audience by the scruff of the neck and shakes it until it gets the message”.

The reflection of society of the 1950s and 1960s gave rise to a type of theatre identified in the above description, opening doors to many new writers. In Britain writers such as Harold Pinter (The Homecoming), John Osborne (Look Back in Anger) and Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot) created plays that were concerned with the unjustness they felt in the social, economic and political climate in the United Kingdom of that period. The anger that was shown in the writings had a long lasting effect on subsequent writers, audiences and the theatre community. While these writers were commenting on their own social situation in Europe, in South Africa the apartheid was moving into the stage of violent resistance.

South African Protest Theatre can be considered as a form of provocative theatre. It is theatre with a definite agenda: a tool for social change as a response to the negative injustices and conditions of apartheid. It provided a medium for producing creative work in opposition to the blissful ignorance of the actual realities of living under the ruthless system of apartheid that main stream theatre portrayed.

Although there have been many creators and artists of provocative theatre in South Africa, in this article I will focus on just a selection of them. It is obvious that the Nationalist Party policies of apartheid will feature in the anger of the material presented by the majority of artists prior to 1994.

The 1950s in South Africa saw a generation of black writers talking about the condition using the popular Drum magazine as their forum. Their satirical stories ridiculed the discriminatory and repressive policies of the state or else providing harrowing details of the effect of apartheid legislation on people’s lives. The offices were often raided by the South African Security forces and the material destroyed.

Beginning around 1951, Drums’ heyday fell between the Defiance Campaign and the tragedy of Sharpeville. This was the period of emerging black resistance, the formation of the Freedom Charter and the crackdown on activists by the Nationalist government as well as the infamous Treason Trial. Collectively known as The Drum Writers they included Lewis Nkosi, Can Themba, Todd Matshikaza, Nat Nakasa and Bloke Modisane, and both individually and collectively their works were often banned by the Nationalist government.

In South Africa, Protest Theatre was the term most widely used when talking about the practice of provocative theatre. The subject matter was of protests directed at the harsh realities of living under the dehumanising apartheid regime e.g. the restrictive laws such as the pass laws which controlled the movement of “non-whites” who had to carry a pass book at all times or else risk immediate imprisonment. These pass books recorded their name, place of birth and current residence that proved whether they were legitimately allowed to be in that place according to the Nationalist Party legislation. There are many recorded instances of marches protesting against the use of this documentation during this period and which culminated in a collective burning of the pass books. Poverty, censorship, the isolation of society and the negation of self-worth, and the loss of identity, were all highlighted in any way people could. This included art, music, theatre, radio and writings both inside and outside of the country.

It is thus a broad umbrella that this term includes with genres such as Theatre of Resistance and Workers Theatre, similar to what Boal calls “Peoples Theatre”. Protest plays became the mouthpieces for the masses, raising awareness, exposing injustice and suggesting change to the existing situation. The agenda was to educate, instruct and bring about reform with the audience, being made to sympathise with the victim and evoking an emotional response and hopefully triggering a reaction, re-evaluating former opinions and actions just as Brecht’s Epic Theatre evoked an intellectual response to spur on change.

In Protest Theatre the idea of the play is central, the plot and character being subordinate. This can result in stereotyping and superficial characterisation which was often a critique from theatre critics who had come from a far more formally educated theatre background e.g. one of a context of realism and naturalism in acting, multi layered plots and complex character development. In South African Protest Theatre performance visual images and symbolism were relied on using simple everyday props to show location and environment. Placards, signs and posters with protest slogans were also used supported by music, singing and dancing which generated a further emotional appeal to the audiences. Plays were often work shopped e.g. Woza Albert! created by Percy Mtwa and Mbongeni Ngema in partnership with the Johannesburgs’ Market Theatre’s artistic director Barney Simon in the 1970s. It was a production about the second coming of Christ arriving in Johannesburg in a helicopter with all white characters portrayed with red clown noses. Despite Protest Theatre’s great popularity, and the highly important role it played in the struggle against apartheid, there were many people who felt it did not achieve enough.

As the Nationalist government entrenched itself and its repressive system in South African society white playwrights such as Lewis Snowden (The Kimberley Train), Basil Warner (Try for White) and Athol Fugard (The Blood Knot) attempted to present the anger and injustices of apartheid although few of them were performed in the South African townships (designated black areas).

However, in the 1960s the popular writer Gibson Kente managed to continue to create and perform many of his plays and musicals in the townships as they were works that did not explore political themes but concentrated on love, adultery, alcoholism and crime (The Jazz Prophet, Laduma etc). Although in the 1970s he did produce works that referenced apartheid policies and was subsequently jailed. Many of the plays in the 1960s and 1970s explored the unjustness of the law in South Africa through the portrayal of life in prison; and of particular importance in the 1960s were the Port Elizabeth based Serpent Players. Included in the actors here were the now internationally acclaimed John Kani and Winston Ntshona who with Athol Fugard went on to create Sizwe Bansi is Dead (1972) and The Island (1973). In those prolific years Fugard also wrote Hello and Goodbye (1965), Boesman and Lena (1969), Statements after the Arrest under the Immorality Act (1972) and The Blood Knot (1987).

Theatre and all the creative arts became an important means of expressing frustration, anger and anguish at the repressive society. For example, at Cape Town’s Space Theatre in 1978 and later at the Market Theatre women from the sprawling Crossroads informal settlement dramatised their predicament in Imfunduso (1978).

Many practitioners in South Africa have drawn on aspects of the Black Consciousness Movement exploring industrial exploitation, migrant labour and oppression. The Black Consciousness Movement attempted to instill in black people a sense of their own worth and a belief in fighting for their rights.

In the 1970s and 1980s the trade unions began to use theatre to publicise their problems e.g. the Junction Avenue Theatre company workshopped and produced various plays including Security (1979), Lizophumela Abasebenzi (The Sun Will Rise for the Workers, 1984) and Sophiatown (1986) to promote their grievances. Between 1975 and 1991 the artist William Kentridge was acting and directing in Johannesburgs’ Junction Avenue Theatre Company. The political context and unique technique of Kentridge’s work has propelled him into the realm of South Africa’s top artists. A theme running through all of his work is his peculiar way of representing his birthplace. While he does not portray it as the militant or oppressive place that it was for black people, he does not emphasise the picturesque state of living that white people enjoyed during the apartheid era yet he presents a city where the duality of man is exposed. For example, in a series of nine short films he introduces two characters: Soho Eckstein and Felix Teitlebaum. These characters depict an emotional and political struggle that ultimately reflects the lives of many South Africans.

Many other productions followed that dealt with the anger felt both in and outside of the country, and in the 1980s plays were performed in countries such as England, Europe and Russia including Sarafina! (1987) which was conceived and directed by Mbongeni Ngema and that immortalised the 1976 Soweto Student uprising. This play ran on Broadway for many years before being made into a film.

With the unbanning of the African National Congress and other political organisations, the release of Nelson Mandela in 1994 and the creation of a new constitution the effect on theatre was immediate and transformative yet the Afrikaans playwright Deon Opperman has suggested

a theatre born of oppression and which at moments of profound crisis was a voice of a nation, has the tenacity to survive the transformation, into a theatre of freedom.

In the years post the first democratic election the shadow of apartheid still looms but race, class and gender are explored from a new angle. Mike van Graan’s trilogy of two handers Dinner Talk explores the pain and fears associated with the transition period. The first, Happily Ever After tells of the perceived betrayal of the common ideals of a newly appointed government, the second Sisters is an affair between a couple at the hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) while the protagonist of Thabo for Thabo, a human rights lawyer, shoots the murderers of his wife and unborn child. The common thread being issues that are faced by South Africans and arousing the power for forgiveness. Themes such as these and the mass returning of exiles to South Africa, affirmative action and reconciliation have been explored by writers such as Grieg Coetzee (Happy Natives), Peter Dirk Uys (Auditioning Angels, Vleiroos, Just Like Home) and John Kani (Nothing but the Truth). Community theatre and workers theatre have dealt with reconciliation and conflict resolution. The production of Khulumani’s The Story I am About to Tell three victims who testified at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission tell their stories assisted by two professional actors. The production toured nationally to communities to promote healing.

Reflecting on the opening quotation, we can see that one agenda of South African theatre might be to look forward to a different society. Never forgetting the atrocities of apartheid, the great loss of life and personal stories Theatre for Reconciliation challenges the realities of a polarised society by presenting people from across cultural and racial groups, sharing, understanding and communicating. It aims to depict possible solutions by portraying a “potential South Africa” (e.g. Athol Fugard’s Playland and My Life), healing a nation damaged by the past but looking forward to a united and culturally diverse country.

A Dirge to the Gods (for the fallen heroes of Africa)
by J.R Ratshitanga

Hear me O Sobukwe and rejoice.
For your falling gave the grains to grow.
Hearken for you cannot mistake the Voice.
Thats on the cheek and sweat of the brow.

Hear me O meek and loving Luthuli,
And you Biko who recently departed.
Rejoice for your labours shant be forgotten,
By all black flesh animated.

Hear me O martyrs of Sharpville and Soweto,
And you all of the smouldering Vaal triangle.
And weep no more but thunder praises,
For what follows not long shall resemble a miracle.

Hear me O African son and daughter,
Buried at home and on foreign shores.
Rejoice now everywhere with song and laughter,
Be free to refree Africa.

1. accessed 20.08.2015
2. 1994 was the first democratic election in South Africa where everyone over the age of 18 years could vote.
Cover image: Photo by Jessica Felicio on Unsplash

Helen Szymczak was born in Johannesburg and attended the National School of the Arts. She won a full scholarship to the African School of Motion Picture Medium and Live Performance, completing an honours degree and obtaining a Master’s in Cultural and Critical Studies from the University of London. She is the Head of Performing Arts at the Marymount International School in London (ISTA member school).