Minister Pallo Jordan’s speech on the first theatre building in Jabulani, Soweto

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10 Feb 2009

Your Worship, Mayor Amos Masondo, Executive Mayor of Johannesburg,
Ms. Barbara Creecy, MEC of Sports, Arts and Culture in the Gauteng Province
City Councillors and Aldermen here present,
Distinguished citizens of Soweto,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Comrades and Friends,

This theatre building in Soweto is long, long overdue. It is indeed unfortunate that many people in the performing arts are unaware of the existence of a rich theatre history and tradition in SOWETO. The absence a physical building, housing a theatre does not mean that there was no theatre among SOWETANS.

Given the not too recent history of our country, colonialism, White domination, apartheid, conflict and national oppression, typically the resilience of African creative artists have been ignored, as has been the determination of African creative intellectuals who gave their all to establish a theatrical tradition in SOWETO.

Throughout the latter part of the 19th century and all of the 20th, artists in the Black communities have sought to employ especially the theatre as a creative platform to reflect on Africa and Asia’s encounter with modernity and with Europe as expressed in the fusion of cultures that is so expressive of the South African experience.

We have gathered here today in the shadow of that history and denial of such developments to turn the sod as a first step towards building a state of the art theatre complex in SOWETO. This might be a very small step in the government’s efforts to create facilities in previously disadvantaged neighbourhoods, but this could become a giant leap forward in promoting and nurturing an indigenous theatre tradition that has struggled for decades for recognition.

The construction of this facility is an extremely important statement in the political, social and economic life of SOWETO. The erection of a theatre complex is a vindication of generations of theatre practitioners who, against all odds, persevered and brought theatre to townships like SOWETO.

The systematic marginalisation of the African, Coloured and other Black communities within South Africa’s urban landscape accelerated during the 20th century. In terms of the Urban Areas Act of the 1920’s Africans were defined as intrinsically external to the urban areas, into which they were to be permitted to live and work on sufferance – to administer to the needs of the White community – and once he/she ceased to minister, so did their right of access to the urban area lapse.

The defunct National Party of Malan, Strijdom, Verwoerd and Vorster carried these exclusions to the fanatic extreme of “Bantu Homelands” whose object was to excise the African people from the population of South Africa! The urban African, having been designated a temporary sojourner in the urban areas, was to be declared a foreigner outside clearly defined impoverished tribal enclaves.

Apart from the glaring inhumanity of these measures was their socio-economic illiteracy! Any attempt to unscramble the 20th century South African omellete was self evidently unsustainable in a growing economy that was increasingly dependent on the international community for its growth. Yet the racist fanatics persisted! Consequently the country we inherited in 1994 was in a shambles.

There is an Obama joke of recent vintage: Two hillbillies sitting out on the porch whittling bits of wood, the one says to the other: “Time was in these United States when the only job a Black man could get was cleanin up the mess White folks made!”
To which the second Hillbilly responds: “Well, I figure things aint changed much, have they?”

We could say the same. In the old racist South Africa the only job a Coloured man could get was cleaning up the mess White folks had made. And a Coloured man has most diligently cleaned up the mess we found on assuming office! Its thanks to his skillful handling of the economic fundamentals that we might yet ride out the storm that is engulfing international markets.

In the urban areas, every form of economic activity by Africans was subject to strict government monitoring. Permits to trade, like those to be in the urban area, had to be renewed annually. Thus, in addition to the uncertainties of the market, African business also had to contend with state caprice, up to and including that of a petty clerk in the Bantu Administration Department! In a market economy like ours the cultural industries are subject to market force like any other sector. The low level of investment by the Black business community, specifically the Africans, in this sector is a function of this history. The unavailability of performance venues in the urban townships is the result of deliberate policy.

Despite the constraints imposed by passed policies, theatre in the urban African communities thrived. For more than four decades, Gibson Kente, dubbed by many “the father of township theatre”, staged plays and musicals with no assistance from government or other state institutions. He did this in dusty town halls and community centres. There was no formal theatre, yet the quality of the productions defied the paucity of theatre props, stages and lighting systems.

With a repertoire of township-based melodramas and musicals, Gibson Kente’s dramatic productions were one of the few consistently staged theatrical pieces from the urban African community. Companies like the Serpent Players of Port Elizabeth consciously exploited the scarcity of props to develop a minimalist style of theatre that relied more on the story-telling skills of the players to transform empty space into palpable forms and even persons.

The living South African theatre that took the world stages by storm during the latter part of the 20th century ranged from works of Atholl Fugard and Barney Simon to the soul stirring works of the late 1980’s, “Sarafina” and “You’ve Struck a Rock”!

In our day, South African theatre has once again taken the world theatre by storm as sheer entertainment with breathtaking revues like “Umoja”, “The Lion King” and “Kat and the Kings” The reception these productions have received in the capitals of the world testifies to the high quality of indigenous South African theatre.

It is our hope that what we are doing today is the commencement of a comprehensive programme of renewal and initiatives that will see us create and open up more and more spaces for cultural activity and creativity in the townships. By so doing we are giving a home to the actual potential theatre activists in and around SOWETO. This project, we hope, will be an incubator not only of a thriving theatre in this community but will also serve to seed similar initiatives in other communities throughout the country.

This sod-turning is dedicated to the hundreds of courageous souls who pioneered and kept alive the craft of theatre in the urban townships. We dedicate it to Khabi Mngoma; to Eskia Mphahlele; to Zakes Mokae and Cocky Tlhotlholemajoe; to Ken Gampu and Margaret Mcingana, and to producers and playwrights who kept them at work, Gibson Kente, Barney Simon, Atholl Fugards, Phyllis Klotz, Mbongeni Ngema, John Kani and others.

But, even with all these great names at its Christening, this theatre’s success will depend on the community within which it is located. And that will in large measure rely on the relevance this theatre has to the lives of the people of SOWETO. As we turn the sod we celebrate – we celebrate the potential and the promise that this theatre offers the people of SOWETO, indeed the city of Johannesburg.

Halala Soweto Theatre Complex, halala!