Sandile Memela
Sandile Memela

Africa has no theatre critics

Now that we are almost 20 years into the new free and democratic society, perhaps it’s time we asked: who and where are the authoritative African voices in the arts, especially theatre?

When the smouldering issues of content, style, meaning, relevance, presentation, design and other matters that pertain to the stage are discussed, there are no meaningful African voices that lead the discussion or frame the agenda.

For instance, who is the hottest African theatre critic in South Africa today?

Instead, the voices that have the final word are white.

Of course, this in itself is NOT wrong. But 13 years into freedom and democracy, there is plenty of room for an authentic and genuine political and cultural critique of what is going on to be influenced by critical thinking African voices.

We have to break the silence on this development and trend.

In today’s New South Africa, nobody has the authority to be a self-appointed spokesperson for Africans in the arts, especially theatre. In fact, I know that I would be stirring a hornet’s nest as my take could be seen as ignoring the existence of legitimate and democratic structures like the Southern African Theatre Initiative or National Community Theatre for Education and Development Network.

Also, there are focused and hard-working editors and journalists like the Sunday Times’ Zingy Mega, City Pulse’s Lesley Mooching and the Sowetan’s Edward Tsumele.

Yet, one has every right as a South African citizen to think and ask very tough questions. Presumably, there is an abdication of responsibility on the part of theatre people to take their destiny into their own hands, not only to demand government deliver but to show leadership in setting of the national discourse.

Apart from the charismatic and resilient Mpho Molepo, there is dead silence as far as the proliferation of critical African voices is concerned.

Is it true that young people who are under 40 are suffering from “struggle fatigue” and are only preoccupied with career advancement, owning BMWs, drinking until late at Cappello, six-figure salaries and owning posh townhouses in Sandton?

Everybody should be disappointed at the passive attitude in theatre circles.

Why is there no creative noise over the fact that 16 years into democracy, there is not a single authoritative magazine or website on African theatre?

It would seem that African critics who are passionate about capturing and reflecting the African theatrical experience have become rare, indeed.

Granted, it is a debatable point whether the arts or theatre, specifically, are more important than housing, education or health. But we know that the African elite are suffering from spiritual poverty simply because they don’t go to the theatre enough or know a nourishing intellectual to feed their souls.

We can say that their conscience and level of conversation are dead simply because their minds are empty of soul nourishing inspiration and ideas. Of course, this sounds a bit harsh. But the point I am making is that after Mbongeni Ngema, John Kani and others of their generation are off the stage, there seems to be a crisis of leadership in terms of self-assertion and determination among theatre types.

Most often than not, there is an increasing number of Africans who now sit as judges on the Naledi Awards, for instance. In fact, despite what happens at the lily-white Fleur du Cap theatre awards in Cape Town, there are more and more blacks who go up to receive artistic prizes.

Men like James Ngcobo and Sibongiseni Twala, for instance, deserve every award they are given because they are today’s leading lights in the theatre world.

Nobody should put them down for it.

But when the late Es’kia Mphahlele, Khabi Mngoma, Gibson Kente or Matsemela Manaka, for instance, look down at what’s going on at the grassroots, can they ask all the other dearly departed souls to break into applause because of transformation, progress and authority of African theatrical voices?

Traditionally, it is mostly Pieter Toerien, Richard Loring, Barney Simon and Athol Fugard’s legacy that is dominant. Let there be no mistake, these sterling creative intellectuals deserve to enjoy the international acknowledgement. But, “where are the African critics, especially the young ones?” One Zingi Mkefa does not make a summer.

We need to bring balance to this winter of African creative engagement.

In fact, it is a serious indictment on Africans to entrust white intellectual creatives with the burden of domination on the interpretation, history and meaning of African theatre in the 21st century.

For how long should they shoulder the burden after people like Adrienne Sichel or Malcolm Purkey to “educate and train” Africans?

The time has come for Africans to take responsibility for what happens and what does not happen in their lives. Just like students, the Africans must graduate.

Progressives are growing sick and tired of belligerent African voices that complain about racism and white hegemony when it comes to the arts, especially theatre criticism.

This attitude of affirmative action and African empowerment where some African playwrights, directors and actors continue to waste energy complaining about lack of authentic African perspectives in the criticism of their work must come to an end.

You are NOT a leader if you expect other people to give up their positions to you simply because of what colonialism and apartheid have done.

We are now all responsible for what is happening in our lifetime.

The first step is for African creative intellectuals to raise their voices and rise to the challenges of leadership. They must not be afraid to voice their opinion.

Over the last 16 years African leadership in theatre seems to have dissipated into perfume-choked air. Well, history does not like a vacuum. Those who have something to say about theatre must, now, come forward.

We are hungry to hear what they have to say about the state of the nation.

With Thabo Mbeki having stepped down as chief exponent of the African renaissance, theatre should take the lead. In fact, watching the adaptation of Fred Khumalo at the Market Theatre confirms that the potential and capability exists.

But we must shatter the encroaching complacency which sees Africans dismissing the voice of white critics simply because it is alleged that they did not experience oppression, land dispossession, racism and exploitation.

Given the abdication of responsibility by Africans, perhaps it should not be surprising that the big names that are the epitome of African creative self-expression continue to be white: Bertha Egnos, Joe Theron, Brett Bailey, Yael Farber, Sylvia Glasser, Richard Loring, Johnny Clegg, Jim Bailey, Cecil Skotnes, Donald Woods, Athol Fugard, Malcom Purkey and, most recently, Gavin Hood. Lim’kil’ ixesha magwala ndini — time has long passed!

Come out to raise your voices. The people want to hear what keeps YOU awake at night! Is money or big dreams to promote and leave a lasting African legacy?

Time and time again, I find that many Africans and some pseudo-progressives want to suppress this discussion by coming hard on anyone who dares to speak up.

But we know that you neither need a PhD nor be a Very Important Person to hold an opinion on African arts, including theatre. If we do not question why there are no credible and authoritative African voices in the arts, especially theatre, then we pose a serious threat to African cultural self-determination — which should be driving the future of the 21st century.

Will the real critical leaders in African theatre, please, speak up!