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Black Theatre alive and kicking in South Africa

Black Theatre, activist theatre by and for black South Africans, flourished under apartheid. However, according to Francis Rangoajane, the democratisation of South Africa has in no way diminished the importance of this art form. PhD defence 16 November.


Rangoajane, himself from South Africa, gives a clear definition of Black Theatre, ‘It is theatre made by black people who expose the problems of the black majority, played by black actors and for a black public. The aim is to make the black majority politically and socially aware.’


Personal experience

Black theatre: high drama.
Black theatre: high drama.

Under apartheid, the plays were often about laws that were implemented to restrict the freedom of the black population. What dominated the daily life of black South Africans were matters such as racism, life in the townships, poverty and discrimination. The plays were often about the personal experiences of the theatre-makers themselves.


Rangoajane says, ‘In a country where the rich white elite controlled television, radio and newspapers, theatre was cheap and accessible to the masses. More importantly, however, it was extremely effective because it was much more difficult to censor than literature, for example. In other words, it was relatively easy to produce but very difficult to control.'

False neutrality

Rangoajane himself was involved in Black Theatre as an actor, both before and after apartheid. He does not see this involvement as an obstacle but rather as a plus point for someone wanting to write about the subject. ‘Drama must be evaluated in the context of its own conventions,’ he says. ‘You have to be black to understand black theatre. Black Theatre is not about form but is about the personal experience of the black population. Researchers are always influenced by experiences, values and norms. It is more important that you recognise these influences and share them with the reader than that you assume a false neutrality.’


Many researchers agree that Black Theatre had an important role in the struggle of Black South Africans for freedom. It was expected that, in the long run, once apartheid had been abolished Black Theatre would disappear. But Rangoajane concludes, after a detailed analysis of plays from 1990 onwards, that it is still alive and kicking, ‘The problems of black South Africans did not go away with the democratisation of South Africa. There is still great inequality in terms of education and skills. The plays have changed along with the new reality.’


Apartheid is no longer the most important theme for older theatre-makers, but they still refer to it a lot, Rangoajane found. The younger generation is mainly concerned with contemporary themes such as corruption, crime, poverty and unemployment. A third group focuses on equal rights of women, the poor relation in the collective fight for equality. The new South Africa therefore still provides theatre-makers with enough in the way of subject matter. Does Rangoajane hope that Black Theatre will make itself redundant in the long run? ‘I don’t think that’s possible. Black Theatre portrays the life and experiences of the black masses. As long as there are black people there will be Black Theatre.’

PhD defence

Wednesday 16 November 2011, 11.15 hrs
F.L. Rangoajane
Political Shifts and Black Theatre in South Africa
Supervisor: Prof. E.J. van Alphen

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