Royal Court Theatre where Sizwe Bansi is Dead and The Island were performed. Photo: Tom Bayly / Wikimedia Commons / Grayscale / CC BY-SA 2.0, license linked at bottom of article Royal Court Theatre where Sizwe Bansi is Dead and The Island were performed. Photo: Tom Bayly / Wikimedia Commons / Grayscale / CC BY-SA 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

Jacqueline Mulhallen on theatre and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and Britain

Some people doubt that theatre and indeed all kinds of art can play an effective part in political struggle against oppression, saying that the artist is necessarily behind the class. This may, of course, be true sometimes, if the artist is not themselves part of the movement and needs to catch up with what is going on.

With Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona and their plays Sizwe Bansi is Dead and The Island, this was not at all the case, in fact quite the opposite. Sizwe Bansi was prevented from being performed in South Africa initially, but the following night a venue turned itself into a ‘club’ so as to show the play privately, and as a result Sizwe Bansi (Big Nation in Xhosa, giving the title a double meaning) was invited to the Royal Court Theatre in London.

While preparing for this, Kani, Ntshona and Fugard worked on The Island which, in a version in Afrikaans and Xhosa, was shown to a private audience. Later both plays together were performed publicly in English at the Royal Court and went on to America and Australia. I saw them in Australia in 1976 – several times. I was training to be an actor at the time and our teacher highly recommended us to go and study the performances. For me, the intensity, intimacy and passion of their performances, which I saw more than once, has stayed with me and, I hope, influenced my own practice.

This has a certain irony, since the Serpent Players to which Kani and Ntshona belonged, were necessarily an amateur group. South Africa did not include the profession as one open to black actors. Since then of course, both actors have been internationally recognised as the great performers they were/are (Ntshona died in 2018) and they appeared in Hollywood films – for example Ntshona was in The Wild Geese and Gandhi whereas Kani was in Captain America, Black Panther and The Lion King.

Fugard is a white South African playwright who began working with black actors in the 1950s shortly after the apartheid system was introduced in South Africa, and the introduction of the passbook which every black man and woman were obliged to carry and which decided where they worked, lived, travelled or sought work. If they did not comply with this, they went to jail. Like many writers and actors, Fugard had many other jobs and one of these was as a clerk in court which dealt with the passbook cases. During this time, Fugard saw ‘more suffering than I could cope with. I began to understand how my country functioned’.[1]

Fugard made many black friends and wrote plays for black casts which described their lives. In Port Elizabeth during the early 1960s he worked with the Serpent Players. The actors were not able to see white theatre in Port Elizabeth and were refused permission to perform publicly for whites, but Fugard considered them ‘the only group of actors [in South Africa] with a unique and important identity, a truly creative potential’.[2]

Black acting has been described as ‘a brilliant combination of monologue, mime, improvisation and remembered gesture’.[3] They performed European classics and plays formed out of their own experience, rehearsing in Fugard’s garage and performing in spaces which had no proper lighting, seating or other amenities. Rehearsals were often broken up by the police. Some members of the group were imprisoned on political charges and they were all harassed by the police. Fugard himself had his passport withdrawn in 1967, and it was he who first advocated the playwrights’ boycott of South Africa in 1969, hoping that it would prevent segregated audiences.

However, as it did not, Fugard changed his mind as he felt that theatre had an important role in getting people to think and question the government policies since there was so much censorship, and therefore plays from abroad should be seen.

Like the other Serpent Players, both Kani and Ntshona were Xhosa and had been in school plays. Kani, the son of a policeman, had five brothers and four sisters who lived in a two-room house. Like Kani, Ntshona was brought up in accommodation inadequate for the size of his family. Ntshona became a factory janitor after leaving school. Kani worked at Ford’s and some of his experience there fed into Sizwe Bansi is Dead. As it is such recognisable experience of workers the world over, it helped the play instantly communicate to audiences in other countries who would not have had the experiences with the pass book which were specific to black South African workers.

When Kani and Ntshona joined the Serpent Players they replaced actors who had been arrested for belonging to the banned African National Congress (ANC). After performing in a version of Camus’ play, The Just, Kani and Ntshona decided to give up their jobs and act full-time. As no black actors existed officially, they were classified in their pass books as Fugard’s domestic servants. They worked full-time on Sizwe Bansi is Dead, following this with work on The Island.

Sizwe Bansi is Dead and The Island are plays which are directly about the situation of black Africans in South Africa during the time of apartheid. Sizwe Bansi is Dead is about the pass laws; The Island about Robben Island. Both plays are wonderfully constructed. Despite being very short, they each contain a significant ‘play-within-a-play’ and they were performed by Kani and Ntshona, who devised and co-wrote them with Fugard, with all the brilliance described in the quotation above, allowing the style of the plays to perfectly fit the performances. Itself inspired by the great German dramatist, Bertold Brecht and the brilliant Polish director, Jerzy Grotowski, this style had a great impact and was very influential. At the time, ‘agitprop’ theatre was popular and, although this can often be effective, it was seen that political theatre could take other and deeper forms while remaining modern and ‘experimental’ and having a strong political impact.

In Sizwe Bansi is Dead, a man comes into a photographer’s studio to have his photo taken to send home to his family. His name is Robert Zwelinzima and his pass book is in order. However, from the play within the play and the letter he writes to his wife, we discover that this is actually Sizwe Bansi, whose passbook is stamped for him to return home. But he found Robert’s dead body on the street with his papers. So he swapped identities. In The Island, prisoners put on a scene from Sophocles’ Antigone. This was based on an actual event on Robben Island when Nelson Mandela played Creon. Kani and Ntshona were to say when the play was revived in Cape Town in the 80s, that every performance was an ‘endorsement of the local and international call for the immediate release [of Nelson Mandela] and all political prisoners and detainees’.[4]

In each case, there is so much more we learn about the lives of black Africans apart from the central message of the play. These plays are enormously rich and, despite the different conditions in South Africa now, Sizwe Bansi has been recently performed and found still relevant.

The performance at the Royal Court was actually followed by a demonstration at the South African Embassy.  But such a response does not have to always happen for a play to be an effective instrument in the war against oppression. People come to understand and empathise and learn about others’ experiences in many different ways: through reading seeing a newsreel on television or film, hearing someone describe it, attending a meeting or, most effectively, speaking directly to someone who has suffered from it. But there was not much likelihood of meeting black South Africans for most white people in the 1960s and 70s without travelling to South Africa, which many people did not want on principle to do, and which in any case would have been very expensive.  Theatre brings the experience of the oppressed to an audience as a real person, alive and speaking directly to them, tells them what it is like. A good actor will transmit how it feels to be in the situation of an oppressed person and to let them hear what they have to suffer.

However, this experience is even greater if the actors themselves are part of the oppressed people. Kani and Ntshona conveyed humour, passion, energy, a desire to fight back, and made us feel their kinship with ourselves. The absurdity and cruelty of the pass laws became far more real than it was if it were merely read about. The absolute living hell of Robben Island, and the courage of the prisoners there, was vividly and deeply communicated. We knew that the experiences were true because we were told by people who knew about them. Their struggle becomes our struggle. And of course it is.

At the time the anti-apartheid movement was growing in England and Australia, and seeing the plays must have encouraged many to join the anti-apartheid movement. Certainly it aroused discussion among my fellow-students. The courage and dedication of Kani, Ntshona and Fugard and their brilliant talent was very much of a part of the struggle against apartheid. These conditions may have been ameliorated in South Africa but they have not completely gone away and in other parts of the world they still exist. Theatre, allowing such an immediate response between actor and audience, is an ideal way of communicating these conditions.


[1] Athol Fugard, Introduction to Three Port Elizabeth Plays (Oxford University Press, 1974), p. viii

[2] Fugard, p. xii

[3] Dennis Walder, Introduction to The Township Plays by Athol Fugard, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. xxvii

[4]  Walder, Introduction, p. xxix

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Jacqueline Mulhallen

Jacqueline Mulhallen, actor and playwright, has co-ordinated King’s Lynn Stop the War since 2003 and initiated and organised 14 Women for Change talks for King’s Lynn & District Trades Council (2012/2013). Her books include The Theatre of Shelley (Openbooks, 2010), and a Shelley biography (Pluto Press, 2015). Her plays include 'Sylvia' and 'Rebels and Friends’.