Exclusive snippet of John Kani's essay from the Kunene and the King programme
WRITER, ACTOR AND ACTIVIST DR JOHN KANI RECALLS HIS CLOSE PERSONAL CONNECTIONS BETWEEN SHAKESPEARE AND APARTHEID – AND HOW HIS NEW PLAY WEAVES THE TWO BACK TOGETHER
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My first real introduction to Shakespeare was in 1959, when my teacher, Mr Budaza, walked into our classroom, looking very proud, and said: ‘Today we are going to study one of Shakespeare’s most important plays, Julius Caesar, translated into the Xhosa language by W.B. Mdledle.’ It was as if the revolution of knowledge had come into our lives. The purpose of allowing this play to be taught in our native language was to show that if we dared to rise against the establishment (the government) we would all suffer the pain and failure of Brutus, and of all the conspirators who were ultimately defeated by the army of the state ̶ lead by Mark Antony and Octavius. But our teacher taught us differently. He told us that Caesar was ambitious and did not care about the rule of the majority; he was a dictator and would fall, just like the apartheid government of the Afrikaners would. However, he warned us that, during the examinations, we must follow the syllabus as prescribed by the Department of Bantu Education.
RETURNING TO SHAKESPEARE
I was 51 years when I voted for the first in my life in 1994. Memory is my worst enemy these days. I walk about with 51 years of the nightmare of apartheid. In my dreams, I am always running or falling endlessly into a void. What soothes my pain is the memory of the William Shakespeare sonnets I learnt in the 1950s. Now I understand what those sonnets mean. I think back to my own performances as an actor, and count Othello, Claudius in Hamlet, and Caliban in The Tempest as some of the greatest.
Now, getting ready to write my new play, Kunene and the King, I find myself again with my dear old friend, William Shakespeare. Kunene and the King is about an uneasy friendship between a dying white South African actor cast as King Lear, and an African nurse who looks after him and sometimes helps him to learn his lines. Their relationship examines the very foundation on which our democracy is built. Shakespeare lives.