Anti-apartheid cultural activists come in all ages and sizes. The members of the Soweto Youth Drama Society are just one example…
Peter Ngwenya was busy rehearsing for his one-man show in his bedroom. He was concentrating so hard that he did not notice the many faces watching him through the window.
Suddenly, he heard the sound of laughter and clapping. When he looked up he saw a group of little children, their eyes as big and round as tennis balls.
Shyly, the children asked Peter some questions. “What are you doing?” “Is it difficult?” “Can only big people do it?” Finally, one little youngster said: “Can we try?” Peter scratched his head for a moment. Then he invited them to join him.
That very day, 12 years ago, Peter made a decision. He would give up one-man shows and start a drama group for young people. The Soweto Youth Drama Society (SYDS) was born.
Learn and Teach visited the drama group at Dlambulo Higher Primary School in Soweto, where the young performers practise their art. Peter and the actors were very busy, but they made time to speak to us about their work.
HOPE AND UNDERSTANDING
“Although children are innocent, they suffer,” says Peter. “In South Africa, they suffer because of apartheid. But also because of their parents’ wrong-doings towards them. Many children feel that there is no way that they can express their problems.
“The Soweto Youth Drama Society wants to give these young people a voice. Through drama, songs and poetry, they can speak about the hardships in their lives.”
Many of the group’s plays are aimed at parents. They ·ask parents not to neglect their children and to try and understand their problems.
The group hopes that when parents see the plays, they will remember the time when they were children and understand their own children better.
“But that is not our only aim,” says Peter. “We also want the children to learn about other people and other ideas. Most of all, we encourage the children to solve their problems together with their parents and with help from each other.”
LESSONS ABOUT LIFE
Nokwanda Sikotoyi is a thirteen year old member of the Soweto Youth Drama Society. We asked her what she liked about the group. “We learn great lessons about life here,” she said with a big smile. “Our children’s theatre teaches us to accept other young people – and in this way, we have become disciplined. It also teaches us to work with other people.”
Another young member, Sibongile Khumalo, agreed with Nokwanda. But for her, one of the best things is learning English. “I can speak the language much better since I joined,” she says in perfect English. “I am sure that it is because we do all our work in English.”
But for Collen Zwane, the group is important for other reasons. “Our young people’s theatre is preparing us for a non-racial democratic future in South Africa. Through it, we are part of the struggling masses of this country. Our work speaks the people’s language – the language of seizing power from the government.”
‘SAVE THE CHILDREN!’
The first play the group produced was in 1979 – the same year as the International Year of the Child. It was called ‘Save the Children’ and it spoke about the millions of children in this country who are dying of hunger.
Later, the group wrote and performed other plays like ‘The Telephone’, ‘Qinisela’, ‘Happy Christmas’ and ‘Hold onto your Dreams’. All these plays told of the lives of ordinary young people who are growing up in South Africa.
In 1986, when the State of Emergency was declared and many children were detained, democratic organisations like the Detainees Parents Support Committee (DPSC) launched the “Free the Children” campaign. The DPSC organised tea parties for the parents and they called for the release of children in detention.
The Soweto Youth Drama Society was part of this campaign.
They reworked the ‘Save the Children!’ script so that it would carry the message of the campaign. And they performed the play at the tea parties so that many people would learn about the children being held in apartheid’s jails.
The young performers have also given many performances of their plays at rallies organised by COSATU, UDF and community organisations.
They have shared the stage with other cultural activists, such as Mzwakhe Mbuli, the African Jazz Pioneers and the COSAW poets.
A high point for the group came in December 1987 when they were chosen to perform at the anti-apartheid cultural conference in Amsterdam, the capital city of the Netherlands. The festival was called ‘Culture in Another South Africa’ (CASA). Hundreds of South African cultural workers from inside the country and in exile came together at the conference.
“The idea behind the conference was to strengthen culture as a weapon that we can use to take our struggle forward,” says Peter. “For the Soweto Youth Drama Society, this means taking our plays onto the streets. We call this ‘guerrilla theatre’, in other words, theatre that creates political awareness among the people.”
With a glow of excitement still in his eyes, twenty-three year old Khosi Jae spoke about the conference. “We were so happy to share the stage with great cultural activists such as the Amandla Cultural Ensemble of the ANC.”
The performers were kept very busy in Amsterdam. They toured the schools and held discussions with Dutch children. Portia Sishuba remembers: “We told them everything about the hardship children suffer in South Africa because of apartheid. And they spoke to us about their lives.”
A FESTIVAL FOR CHILDREN
This year in September, the group were invited to take part in a Children’s Festival in Canada. Canadians hold this festival every year as a way of reminding adults about children’s rights.
“The Canadians were so impressed to see these young people doing such great things,” says Peter. “Some parents even cried. They were shocked by the way the apartheid government treats children here. They asked what they could do to help the South African people bring an end to apartheid
“In all the time we were in Canada, there was only one person – a mother -who did not like our message. She walked out of the show in the middle of a scene where school children are challenging the police who are spraying teargas on them. She said that she could not allow her children to watch the play.”
A JOYFUL ENDING
It was getting late and the young performers had to go home. The next day was Saturday and they were taking their theatre onto the streets of Soweto. Khosi was excited. “I love doing ‘guerrilla theatre’,” he said. “Everybody watching joins in with us and we know that our message is reaching the people.”
The young people put their things away carefully and said goodbye to each other and to Peter. But there was still one thing to be done – to sing the national anthem. All the young people stood up and raised their fists- even the six-year olds – and soon the beautiful words of Nkosi Sikelel i’Afrika filled the room.
When the singing ended, the littlest child put her hand in the air and shouted joyfully: “Long live the Soweto Drama Youth Society!” “Long live!” the others answered with one voice.
Are you interested in finding out more about the Soweto Youth Drama Society? If you are, write to Peter Ngwenya at:
P.O. Box 158 Moroka Soweto 1860 Or telephone (011) 986 2996
rehearse – practise concentrate – if you are concentrating on something, you give all your attention to it script – the words actors say in a play impressed – if you are impressed with someone, you admire and respect them