Sekunjani? Gibson Kente, Stephen Black, and Artistic Legacies

South Africans are obsessed with soap operas.  I don’t know how else to describe it.  When I was in South Africa this past summer, the Zulu-speaking family I lived with followed an ironclad schedule in evening: do whatever you want as the sun goes down, but when 6:30 rolls around, the T.V. will be tuned to S.A.B.C. 1 (“Mzansi Fo Sho”) and Skeem Saam will be playing, a quasi-educational soap about young men from Limpopo navigating university life in the big city.  At 7:00, we would watch the news in either Xhosa or Zulu (it alternates by day) as we ate dinner; then, at 7:30, we would switch to e.tv for Scandal! (or, rarely, watch Rhythm City on S.A.B.C. 1).  At 8:00 we would be back on S.A.B.C. 1 for Generations: The Legacy and at 8:30, just before most of us turned in for the night, we were faced with the difficult choice between two Zulu language soaps set in KwaZulu-Natal: Uzalo on Mzansi Magic, about the son of a pastor who struggles to balance his religious calling with his playboy tendencies, and Isibaya on good old S.A.B.C. 1, a graphically violent show about taxi drivers.  Almost without fail this routine was followed almost every weeknight I was in Durban (and if you happened to miss a day, the week’s episodes would re-air as an omnibus over the weekend.  Evenings in the living room with my homestay family, finding myself more and more invested in each show’s various melodramatic storylines are some of my strongest and happiest memories of the summer, and by the end of August I could recognize many of the actors and actresses gracing the covers of popular magazines like DRUM! and Bona.

It’s an aspect of South African popular culture that I think few outside the country really appreciate.  Due to government suspicion of the medium, television came to the country in 1976, almost absurdly late, and while Ron Krabill has explored how South African television in the late 1970’s and 1980’s reflected the complex desires and contradictions of the apartheid era (the most popular shows of the era were Dallas, The Bold and the Beautiful, and, perhaps unexpectedly, The Cosby Show), little academic attention has been paid to the South African soap opera.[1]  Given how important locally-made soap operas are in the lives of South Africans today (of all races; one of the most popular programs, S.A.B.C. 2’s long-running 7de Laan, is geared at an Afrikaans-speaking audience), it seems like an important avenue for future research.

But what does all this have to do with the digital humanities, and my own prospective project on Stephen Black?  Over the Thanksgiving holiday I was fortunate enough to read Rolf Solberg’s 2011 biography of Gibson Kente, the “father of South Africa’s township theatre,” and a somewhat controversial figure.  Active from the early 1960’s until his death from A.I.D.S. in 2004, Kente was enormously popular and influential during most of the apartheid era, and pioneered a style of musical theatre that in some ways presaged the flowering of South African soap operas in the post-apartheid era.  Criticized by some of his contemporaries for his apparent ambivalence towards the anti-apartheid struggle, Kente was nevertheless deeply interested in the everyday realities of life for black South Africans.  As the sociologist Herbert W. Vilakazi put it, “Kente was concerned to show how the outer boundaries of white supremacy shaped and determined the inner boundaries in the desires and dreams and aspirations, passions and thoughts, of normal people in the ghettos of South Africa.”[2]  Like Stephen Black, Gibson Kente’s plays often dealt with the spectre of the South African future, and future that present politics might create.  His 1987 play Sekunjalo (The Hour Is Come) was criticised for negatively portraying an African socialist future, while Mfowethu (1993) and Ezakithi (2001) present a more optimistic view of South African reconciliation reminiscent of the end of Stephen Black’s Helena’s Hope, Limited.

Another unfortunate similarity to Stephen Black is his elusive documentary remains. In 1989 almost all of his papers were destroyed in a house fire. He left very little documentation behind him after his death as well, “due to Kente’s particular way of developing a play. More often than not…Kente would build the storyline around a song or melody, with any writing down of dialogue and script coming later in the process.”[3]. It is no accident that some of Kente’s most important protégés, like Sello Maake kaNcube, are some of the most important soap stars in contemporary South Africa.

So here we have two of South Africa’s most important historical entertainers, spanning two drastically different times and milieux, yet inescapably united in the fragility of their legacies. Thinking back to my reflections on the M.I.T. Global Shakespeares Project, the point is underscored again and again that theatre is so much more than just a script, and digital spaces afford us the opportunity to preserve and present theatre and its memories in tremendously exciting ways. Clearly there is a lot be said for digitizing and making accessible what we can of Black and Kente’s work, but this can only go so far. Any digital space dedicated to them must emphasize fluidity and malleability, must be aware of the limits of our understanding. Such spaces should aim at facilitating creativity on the part of the user, because the benefit of preserving the embers of that creativity is, ultimately, the reason why we should care about Black and Kente to begin with.

What is the use of laughter in the face of injustice? By the same token, what is the use of spending two and a half hours almost every night following the travails of fictional characters? My suspicion is that the ability to imagine the world in a different way is fundamental to our experience as human beings. In a country like South Africa, where the future has often seemed so uncertain, this seems doubly true. A Stephen Black digital archive would not speak for itself; it would need curation and presentation. But how to present him and his world critically yet delicately, facilitating innovative engagements with his work—this is what I’m going to be thinking about these last weeks of the course. I don’t know quite how it will look, but I’m excited for the journey.

  1. [1]Ron Krabill, Starring Mandela and Cosby: Media and the End(s) of Apartheid (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2010)
  2. [2]Quoted in Rolf Solberg, Bra Gib: Father of South Africa’s Township Theatre (Scottsville, South Africa: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2011): 113
  3. [3]Ibid., 116

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