Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

After the shooting of the miners - a playwright's reflections by Mike van Graan


I could not help but think of Mike van Graan's play 'Green man flashing' when I saw images on television, images of the police shooting into a crowd of striking miners. It opens a new wound in South Africa.

Some want to scream, but others are already silent, buried in make shift graves.

It is more than just tragic what happened but it reflects an even deeper dilemma within Western Society claiming to left behind colonial and the Apartheid times. There is this contradiction between the owners in London leading a luxurious life while the real work is being done by people in South Africa. The latter earn so little that they are without a chance in a life time to escape that squalor of the shatty town.

After having read Mike van Graan's play describing the kind of transistion which took place in South Africa after Apartheid fell, it cannot be said that the incidence came unexpected. That holds merely at the surface where there are always some naive beliefs based on a kind of innocence which leaves the weak ones exposed permanently to the harshness of the system. As one wounded miner said he had no pre-notion that the police would shoot at miners who were merley demanding an increase in their wages.

The injustices inflicted upon socities like South Africa is more than just a system of brutal force based on many wrong presumptions. For sure, the film 'blood diamonds' made explicit, that so many and different interest groups from amnesty international to weapons consortiums descend on one local place and all gather in the evening around the one bar, but that makes explicit the many contradictions in the world and which bear down on a place the longer the system can work by grinding down any form of resistance. Especially the undermining of the trade unions and workers' Rights is a serious set-back all over the world. It is a trend which the crisis in the Western system has intensified.

Hence time is either running ahead or behind, but when we try to catch up with all the changes, then we are out of breath and thus unable to focus on what lies ahead.

Hatto Fischer Athens 28.8.2012


"It was indeed shocking for me to see these images while away in Sweden; the enormity of the impact of this massacre will be with us for a while. I had to give a key note speech at a playwrights and directors forum last Friday and had real emotional difficulty when mentioning the massacre...not something I've experienced too often before."

- Mike van Graan, 29.8.2012



I did not know Phumzile Sokanyile. I don’t know what he ate for breakfast, what he did for fun, or whether he was religious. Which soccer team did he support? I don’t know. I do know that he didn’t have to die. I do know that he had five children and a wife, and that they have lost their breadwinner. I know too that Phumzile’s mother died a few hours after hearing that her son had been shot.

Who will tell Phumzile’s story? Who has the right to tell Phumzile’s story? Will the name of Phumzile Sokanyile be immortalised? I doubt it.

For our streets are named after heroes who gave their lives in the struggle against apartheid, not those who have since lost theirs in bitter struggles for the better life they were promised. Chris Hani, Helen Joseph and Steve Biko are memorialised on hospital walls, while many struggle for attention, for dignity, for life within those walls. Government buildings bear the names of veterans of the 1976 education struggles, not of those who now struggle to learn without textbooks.

I took part in my first school play in my matric year - The Caucasian Chalk Circle – the first I heard of Bertolt Brecht. It was also the year in which I was elected Chairperson of our Student Representative Council; after the watershed student uprisings of the previous year. I wanted to be a teacher, like my teachers who had played a not insignificant role in raising my political consciousness. The apartheid system decreed that given the label it forced on me, I should attend UWC.

I chose though to study at the University of Cape Town, where the quality of education would be infinitely better. But, as a person of colour, I was obliged to apply for a permit to attend UCT, which permit was granted if I did a subject not offered at UWC. This is how I came to study drama at UCT.

Where one could live, what job one could get, whom one could have a relationship with, whether one could enter a restaurant – all these and more were prescribed by racial classification; there was no question then that the personal was political, that the macro directly impacted the micro. Under Steve Biko’s influence, we refused apartheid’s labels, and chose – if we had to identify ourselves as anything – to be black.

My elder son matriculates this year. Born 6 weeks prematurely, he arrived 10 days before the 1994 election. Notwithstanding his whole life as a “born-free”, to my great irritation, he had to insert his “race” in the UCT application. Ironically, being “coloured” will provide him a better chance of entry. The personal is still political.

After graduating, I worked in student organisations, using theatre to protest the migrant labour system (for which we were arrested for constituting an illegal gathering on the streets of Claremont), educating people about the iniquities of the tri-cameral constitution and highlighting the connections between a conscientious objector and a detainee held without trial. We toured the latter play – Prisoners of Conscience – to university campuses and at Rhodes University, I was hosted by a student, who, two years later when I was taken to John Vorster Square by security police, turned out to be a police informer. Today, that police informer is a teacher; he teaches history…to my younger son. The political is personal; the personal is political.

In the mid-80s, I was on an exchange programme to the USA, Brazil and Nicaragua. I learned more about the world in that year than in all four years at university. The Sandinistas had overthrown the brutal, US-aligned Somoza dictatorship dynasty in Nicaragua. America’s President Roosevelt is famously reputed to have said of the first Samoza: “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch”.

The Sandinista government set about dramatically reducing illiteracy, eliminating polio, and generally improving the lives of their people. And yet, because of its socialist orientation, the USA deemed this tiny country to be a threat to its national interests, and started a counter-revolutionary war. It was 1985. Ronald Reagan was in power. At the same time that it was seeking violently to overthrow a government that for the first time in decades served its people, the US was pursuing a policy of “constructive engagement” with the apartheid regime, outcast by many other states for its crimes against humanity.

What I had known theoretically, took on deep visceral meaning: democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms for the majority of people in the world, were subject to the economic and security interests of a few rich and powerful nations. As the Occupy Movement has highlighted, this truth is manifested not only in the increasing divide between rich and poor nations, but also within nations where elites rule, where democracy - such as it is - is sold to the highest bidders, where human rights and freedoms for the majority are held hostage to the lifestyle needs of a few, and their related security concerns.

This truth is no less valid on our continent where I have had the opportunity to work increasingly over the last six years. 7 of the fastest growing economies in the first 10 years of this century have been African, and yet, 50% of our continent’s inhabitants still live below the poverty line of $1,25 per day, as has been the case since 1981 when poverty measures were first studied by the World Bank. Elites in Angola - where the richest woman is the President’s daughter - Nigeria, Kenya, Gabon, South Africa, etc, get richer, with ever widening gaps with the poor.

After my return from the exchange programme, I was appointed as the coordinator of Arts Festival ’86: Towards a People’s Culture, a festival that – in the midst of a state of emergency - was to be a progressive counterweight to the repressive strategies of the apartheid government and to its television and radio propaganda about the “total onslaught”. Three days before it was due to open, the Festival was banned, deemed by the apartheid government to constitute a security threat.

Then, there were real consequences for those who spoke out through theatre. It was a time of stark polarisation between those deemed to support apartheid, and those who opposed it. This polarisation extended to the theatre sector. CAPAB and the Nico Malan, subsidised by the state, were boycotted. The Joseph Stone theatre built across the road from where I grew up, was boycotted as an expression of apartheid’s divide-and-rule cultural designs. The National Arts Festival with its origins in celebrating the English language, was boycotted as an elitist cultural event, reinforcing European aesthetic values. The theatre establishment dismissed much anti-apartheid theatre as “protest theatre”; strong on message but weak in form.

After the demise of the Festival, I returned to UCT to do Honours in directing. I researched international models of political theatre and their potential relevance to the growth of theatre in South Africa. I discovered that what we were taught to be values of great theatre – universalism, timelessness, etc – may be relevant to the bourgeois theatre experience in Paris, London, New York and Cape Town, but had little relevance to the favelas of Rio, the slums of Delhi or the townships of Zimbabwe where theatre had very different characteristics.

This period of learning affirmed for me that not only is the theatre industry itself a reflection of the structural inequities, of the class and racial divides of its social contexts, but that plays – like other creative products: movies, television, literature, etc – have embedded within them values, worldviews and ideological assumptions, and, as such, are means by which to shift, challenge or reinforce hegemonic ideas.

After completing my honours, I worked at the Community Arts Project on its two-year Popular Theatre Facilitator course, after which we formed the CAP Theatre Company. The first play we did was The Dogs must be Crazy comprising a series of satirical sketches on expectations of the new South Africa from the perspective of dogs. Importantly, the message was to be conveyed completely non-verbally, the challenge being to forego words in order to improve the theatricality of the show. After the unbanning of various political organisations in 1989, that was my first play on the Grahamstown Fringe in 1991, my first play to win an award – “Hot off the Fringe” – which meant that it had a short run with other winners at the Market Theatre.

This has been a highlights package of “my introduction to theatre”, but against this background, I would like to make a few points about my theatre practice today.

  1. First, I am a playwright, period. While being fully aware of that which shapes me, I do not subscribe to any imposed racial, gender, class, cultural, national or other ghetto that seeks to limit what I may or may not write about.

  2. Second, I believe that a society in transition like ours is not only a gift to a writer, but places a responsibility on its artists to explore and lay bare its personal/ political, its macro/micro, its human/institutional dynamics. By retreating from this space – through intimidation, disinterest or guilt – is to allow others to shape democracy and our society in their self-serving image.

  3. Third, in a society where the top 20% earns 70% of the national income, with unemployment at 30%, our theatre industry is part of, and entertains an elite with disposable income. But I do not accept that it is the lives, interests and stories of this elite market that should drive our theatre. Phumzile Sokanyile’s story is not only his story. It is our story. Why, after Nelson Mandela’s inaugural refrain of “never and never again”, do we so repeatedly abuse the rights of others? How could a society that has a public holiday to commemorate Sharpeville, have the massacre of Marikana?

  4. Fourth, I still believe in a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic ideal that serves the interests of the majority; not only does this inform my writing but also my desire to work across and to help unite our industry and society still polarised along language, class and cultural lines.

  5. Fifth, I reject the neo-liberal imperatives of a market-driven arts sector, subscribing rather to Article 27 of the Declaration of Human Rights: everyone shall have the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community and to enjoy the arts, with the state having an obligation to provide for that right to be exercised. Accordingly, I participate in organisations that seek to change macro institutional frameworks to improve micro theatre conditions.

  6. Sixth, I recognise that I still struggle with content over form, with authorial intent versus character voice. But I do not accept that socially engaged theatre is necessarily poor cousin theatre. At the same time, I do not believe that sound theatre form or great theatre brand should excuse clichéd or dated content. The power relations in Fugard’s The Train Driver with its largely disempowered black character belongs to the 1950s. The much-celebrated Mies Julie with its dated heroic kaffir and villainous boer binaries, plays and appeals to a British public and media, who conveniently forget that black people were robbed of their land by the 1913 Land Act passed by a parliament that was part of the British Empire. Our contemporary reality is characterised more by globalised capital and their surrogate black elite partners, exemplified in the massacre of Phumzile Sokanyile and 33 other miners at a British-owned mine, with the former Secretary General of the Mineworkers Union, Cyril Ramaphosa, as one of the company directors; where the company CEO earns more than 1000 times the wage of the striking workers. In our globalised world of structural economic, political and power inequities, “good theatre” is not ideologically neutral.

  7. Seven, in the 20 plays I’ve done to date, I have only worked with Lara Bye, Jaco Bouwer and Jay Pather more than once as directors. I do this for various reasons: to work across divides, to provide opportunities insofar as I can, to learn from a variety of directors as I develop my craft in which I am not formally tutored, and, although it works against me, I do it to avoid cabals and gatekeepers, seeking other avenues from which more can benefit.

  8. Eight, I’ve had my fair share of good reviews, awards and nominations, yet there are few reviewers with the theatre knowledge, the political sophistication and the analytical ability to do their jobs, to critique theatre and to mediate it to audiences. To prevent it from simply providing nuggets for marketing, theatre criticism needs radical improvement.

  9. Nine, when all is said and done, we do theatre for audiences. And that, for me, is what it is about. The 63-year-old farmer who, after the performance of Die Generaal at the ABSA KKNK, can only chokingly manage a “dankie”; the Muslim mother challenged by the ending of Brothers in Blood to say “we’ve never had a Jew in our house”, the learners at various schools with their insightful questions and comments after seeing a production of a text they’re studying, Green Man Flashing. We need to change our hands-off relationship with our audiences, to find more interactive ways to engage with them, for seeing a play is but the beginning of shifting consciousness.

  10. Finally, I am infinitely aware that, as with many one-time revolutionaries who become new tyrannies, I may be or become that which I rail against, which is why I invite you my colleagues, my friends and fellow industry workers to challenge me, to engage in rigorous debate, to take issue, with me, and with each other – thank you GIPCA for giving us the space to do this - for it is in doing so that I hope we will make better theatre, continue to transform our industry for the better, and contribute to a better society, a better continent, a better world.


Thank you.

Mike van Graan



Mike van Graan


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