The battle is won, but the struggle goes on

Two plays prove there's life after apartheid for South African drama

<strong>Sizwe Banzi is Dead</

The ruinous effects of apartheid are not likely to be forgotten, and the extraordinary output of South African theatre can surely take some of the credit for this. It continued to display political defiance throughout the years of white rule, and is still engaging with the aftermath.

Sizwe Banzi is Dead, currently at the Lyttelton Theatre, is one of the most famous of the so-called "township plays". Devised in 1972 by South Africa's greatest playwright, Athol Fugard, and two of its greatest performers, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, it is essentially a series of overlapping monologues, here performed with the original cast in a production directed by Aubrey Sekhabi.

The play starts with Styles (Kani), who runs a small photographic studio in the Port Elizabeth township of New Brighton. The first half-hour is a grand monologue as Styles takes us through the antics at his former workplace, the Ford Motor Company factory in Port Elizabeth, which one day receives a formal visit from a member of the Ford family. With a great and glorious laugh, Styles mocks the general foreman, Mr "Baas" Bradley, who insists that his black "boys" get into clean overalls and sing as they work, at a slowed-down, humane pace intended to impress the big American boss. Kani, who himself worked at the Ford plant in Port Elizabeth, brilliantly evokes the bustle of the production line and the grim humour of the system. Then he explains how his character managed to leave.

Styles brings members of the audience up out of the auditorium to comment on how delightful his graduation, wedding or family photographs are. He recognises how important the alchemy of photography is to a dispossessed, mobile, oppressed people. Indeed, he calls his studio "a strongroom of dreams". Kani, who has played this role across the world, revels in the big-hearted nature of Styles, but just as you are willing him to tell another story, in walks a man (Winston Ntshona) looking for a photograph to send to his wife.

Gradually the play darkens, showing the whole diabolical construction of apartheid. Yet, for all its Brechtian techniques (keeping the auditorium lights up; speaking directly to the audience), this is neither agitprop nor historical testimony. A moving and enthralling piece of drama, Sizwe Banzi is Dead is breathtaking in its measured revelation of the political via the personal.

John Kani's 2002 play Nothing But the Truth, which opens at the Birmingham Rep in May following its February run at the Hampstead Theatre, suggests that life is no less difficult in post-apartheid South Africa. Here, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, job quotas and the uneasy truce between black and white are everyday issues. Sipho (Kani) has been a library assistant for years. He is not a born leader: he was certainly at the protests and the marches, but stood at the back. But then his quiet life with his home-loving daughter, Thando (Motshabi Tyelele), is shaken by news that his brother, a firebrand political activist, has died in London. Sipho's fashionable niece Mandisa (Rosie Motene) is bringing her father's remains home.

The play deals with some rather obvious targets in the differences between the two daughters, but more importantly it takes time to look at the experience of the overlooked. What was the struggle like for those who were not Nelson Mandelas?

By means of his astonishing stage presence, Kani convincingly portrays a man whose intelligence has been underestimated by everyone around him, including himself. His eventual reconciliation with his past is as dramatically satisfying as the shocking (but not surprising) revelation that lies at the heart of the play. Recommended, particularly for those who predicted that the momentum of South African drama would slow somewhat once black people were granted the vote and Mandela was made a free man.

Info: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk and http://www.birmingham-rep.co.uk

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Rosie Millard was previously Arts Editor for the NS and a Theatre Critic. She was the Arts Correspondent for BBC News for 10 years and is now a broadsheet columnist. She lives in London with heaps of small children, which may partially explain her love of going to the theatre.

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Africa: How we killed our dreams of freedom