Arts and Culture 2007-2015


The New Soweto Theatre

First appeared
Thursday, 07 June 2012


The apartheid state did its best to turn black South Africans into automatons – semi-citizens with no sense of individual complexity, identity or pride who would perform manual labour (as “hewers of wood and drawers of water”) for white people in the industrial, commercial and domestic spheres. To facilitate this destruction of individuality, it attempted to entrench both material and intellectual privation in the lives of those forced to live in designated “native” or “bantu” areas.

Such a calculated programme of rural and urban infrastructural neglect included, of course, the arts: apartheid’s promulgators went out of their way to inhibit the development of galleries, theatres and other creative spaces in townships and so-called “homelands”. Of course, they funded white artistic pursuits, and they tried desperately to control these. But black South Africans were told that art was not for them.

The legacy of this thinking is still with us. Until recently, for example, there was no major theatre in Soweto. The urban planning powers-that-be in Gauteng have shown, however, that they know – as important as housing, roads, water and electricity are – a city is a soulless place if there are no stimulating, provocative works of art in the public domain (including architecture). The new Soweto Theatre has been long in the planning and in the construction, but it was worth the wait.

The complex, which includes three “black box” theatres, is a thing of beauty in itself: striking lines, bold colours, innovative features. The true significance of the structure, however, will be its use as a performance and exhibition space. The first production to be mounted at the Theatre is a revival of James Ngcobo’s adaptation of The Suitcase, a short story penned by Es’kia Mphahlele (then writing as Bruno Esekie) for Drum magazine in 1955.

Ngcobo has noted that the story “speaks to contemporary times – the themes remain meaningful and relevant”; indeed, Mphahlele’s narrative (which he claimed was based on true events) echoes the daily desperation and disappointment experienced by many South Africans in the twenty-first century. It is an all-too-familiar tale: “an unequal fight, an unfair fight”, as Bra Zeke wrote, in which “the well-armed and agile” prosper but the “defenceless” suffer.

Timi and his wife (Namhla in Ngcobo’s play – she is unnamed in the original story) are unable to make ends meet; they are expecting a third child, and Timi’s best efforts to find employment have been met by the indifference and condescension of white bosses. In a rash moment, Timi steals a suitcase in the hope that it will contain money or items he can sell – only to discover that its contents compound someone else’s misery with his own woes, resulting in his arrest and imprisonment.

But The Suitcase, representing a canon of vibrant, irreverent, challenging, humorous and discomfiting black South African literature – not only Mphahlele but other Drum writers like Can Themba, Bloke Modisane, Casey Motsitsi, Richard Rive and Nat Nakasa – now resonates in ways that could not have been predicted when Ngcobo and company decided to open the Soweto Theatre by re-staging this play.

The “Spear” saga has allowed the African National Congress to demand a uniform black identity – one that cannot countenance subversive works of art, one that lacks complexity, one that (in short) endorses the apartheid government’s view of black people. Mphahlele and his Drum colleagues would have been ashamed.



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