The actor on democracy, South Africans in the audience and children who won’t do what they’re told
A TREASURE of South African theatre, John Kani is far more than just an actor. Over the past 30 years his voice has been a conduit of hope, from New Brighton in the Eastern Cape to Europe and the US. He told the stories of injustice, hurt and indignity of a people. Today his voice is still being heard and his words give meaning to many.
After 1994 I felt there was something missing in my life — a good cause. I’d spent so many years fighting injustice. When I was young I was very angry, which gave me something to fight for. The challenge today, though, is not to pass the hatred we had on to our children. When we reminisce about the struggle, the pain, they take it in and feel their parents’ suffering. They take it into the classroom — this is wrong.
What happens when you’re young can affect your whole life. I used to listen to Springbok Radio and loved Consider your Verdict . I decided I wanted to be a barrister, like the character in the series. My passion was also Saturday-morning movies, where for a tickey you could sit on the floor and watch Roy Rogers and The Lone Ranger. As I spoke English I became the official translator for my friends. Afterwards we’d all meet outside, where the kids who couldn’t afford the movie would listen to me narrate the whole movie, actions and all — I loved it and the acting bug had bitten . . .
After matric I was accepted at Fort Hare to do law, but my father just didn’t have the money. I was devastated and starting looking for a job. I ended up working at Ford cleaning tanks. I heard of a group who put on plays and went along to this house where I saw this “poor white” sitting outside. I walked past him and went in.
The poor white followed me, stuck out his hand and said “Athol”. I offered my hand. “John ,” I said, amazed. This was the first time a white man had shaken my hand and told me his name — Athol Fugard.
South Africans are always there. Over the years, wherever we perform, in Edinburgh or New York, I always know when South Africans are in the audience. I drop in a few words in Afrikaans, Zulu or Xhosa and you hear the laugh. I look across and there they are smiling back at me. It was odd at first, because we were segregated at home, but in London or Liverpool we were family.
You can’t work out your children’s lives for them. Given a choice I didn’t want any of my seven children to follow me into acting, but I hadn’t counted on my son Atandwa. He said he wanted to study political science and international relations.
Already I had a vision of my son, the diplomat, in London. I was in New York rehearsing at the Lincoln Centre when my wife called to say Atandwa had got into Wits University. “So,” I said to my son, “political science — g reat.” “Aah, Dad, actually I’m doing drama!” He didn’t tell me before because he knew I’d try to dissuade him. I told him just one thing — at home you are my son, we don’t discuss your studies and you don’t ask questions. I wanted him to struggle and realise he should have done international relations. I could have saved my breath because he’s a successful actor — and I’m proud of him.
I’ll never forget voting for the first time in 1994. My family stood in the queue for hours. The media were taking pictures and I was invited to go to the front of the line, as they wanted a shot of me putting my ballot paper in. I said: “Yo u’ll have to wait, then, for me to get to the front of the queue .” Meanwhile my wife thought the kids were hungry and went home to get sandwiches. There were white, coloured and black families around us and a white woman with two children shared her food and juice with my children. And I thought, my word, what’s going on here? My wife returned and did the same with everyone in the queue. For me this was the miracle.
Putting that cross on a piece of paper left me half-angry and half-relieved. It was the end of a struggle and centuries of pain and degradation. All the hurt, burying my brother who was murdered by the police — how can this be over because of this piece of paper?
With our new democracy I felt a sense of urgency for the work that needed to be done to consolidate this new-found freedom. I wanted to make another vow — to nurture and never to lose this democracy. I spent my life fighting for freedom and I value it.
I laugh when I look back. I used to jokingly say to Helen Suzman: “When we are free, you’re moving to Soweto and I’m moving to your house in Houghton.” She was a great ally and helped me out of countless sticky situations. When she had to help me get a passport, she would moan, saying: “Now I’ll have to take the minister of home affairs to tea and I hate him!”
I love new challenges. I’ve written my own play, Nothing But the Truth, with another on the way and am working on a soapie.
I get so cross when people don’t see what we have gained. I know that these strides are dots in the bigger picture, but our new democracy hasn’t failed. There are certain individuals who give others a bad name, but there’s far more good in this country than bad, and we can build on that.