The Role of Protest Theatres in the History of South Africa

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The Role of Protest Theatres in the History of South Africa essay
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In 1948, the apartheid regime began. Apartheid was a system instituted in order to create racial segregation. As a result of this segregation came acts of resistance and protest, some peaceful others not so much. One form of peaceful protest was protest theatre. Which was the act of theatrically protesting against the migrant labour system and how the mine owners wrongfully treated black male workers. It is an expressive powerful protest that uses theatre to decode political and economic relations by focusing on short, sharp scenes of the black working class. Protest theatre is one of the most unspoken about protests yet one of the most effective types of protest there is as it is an entertaining way of bringing attention to the hurt apartheid caused and also bringing international attention to apartheid and opening the eyes of people who did not know what was happening. To a large extent protest theatre was effective in many ways but how big of an impact did it truly make.

Protest theatre originates in 423 B. C. Aristophanes, a comic playwright of ancient Athens, used satirical plays about philosophers, lovers of wisdom/politicians, whose views conflicted that’s of the state. Protest theatre is usually defined by theatre that is used to protest political and economic inequalities and social tribulations, political protest with theatrical elements, and something is done to substantiate the change. Types of protest theatre include blatant backlashes, subtle plays and militant plays all aimed to gain a reaction or incite revolt. (Brandon Ramsey, 2019). South African 1950, the beginning of protest theatre in the townships in aim of tackling apartheid. Townships in South Africa were devoid of all amenities. Soweto, population + 1 million, had one nightclub, one hotel, one cinema, and two outdoor arenas. Playwrights such as Athol Fugard started theatre groups that performed plays that later went on the win international acclaim. In the Transval Gibson Kente create a black theatre that did not focus on political themes but more so love, adultery, alcoholism, and crime.

The 1970s saw an intensification of trade union struggle and the student uprising of 1976, these grew revolution and resulted in the birth of democracy in 1994. As repression grew voices were silenced which therefore meant that theatre became a means of voicing protests that were banned. Theatre emanated from unions, the black consciousness movement (BCM), collaborative efforts of Fugard, Kani and Ntshona, Kente and universities and fringe groups, people within a political party who hold minority or extreme views. Known texts and themes were adapted to reflect local conditions in many ways. While local theatre was becoming popular, venues for it were not. The state subside performing arts council was not interested in anything that challenged apartheid. At the time the only local work to be seen was by colored poet Adam Small. Although new and innovative venues began to emerge were protest theatre/ controversial work found their homes such as the University of the Witwatersrand(WITS) Johannesburg, space theatre in Cape Town and Stable theatre in Durban.

After 1976, the market theatre (Johannesburg) and after 1977, Baxter Theatre (University of Cape Town campus) became popular venues. (South African theatre, 2019). The fact that there was growth with the theatres allowing or accepting local plays about the regime to be performed is a great indication of just how successful protest theatre, it means that there were masses of people who connected with it and resonated with its ‘teachings’. It educated and told stories, set the reality and helped people visualize their reality and want to take action against their reality and therefore the oppressor.

Although there was an increase in theatre that was now accepting these resistance plays there was still mass protest occurring on the streets. Protest theatre could be seen as a more nonviolent form of theatre compared to what was happening all-around at the time. Therefore the more radical people wouldn’t be overly excited about watching other people reenact their reality. Instead, they prefer to take violent approaches that are believed to be most effective. From 1984 to 1990 the fight to depower the National Party (NP) the resistance of the regime continued with the Umkhonto we Sizwe’s attacks heightening, for example, the car bombing incident on the 20 May 1993 killing around 19 people and leaving over 200 injured. The ANC, despite their leaders being behind bars, continued to give instructions of resistance from inside to aid the country in moving towards democracy. ANC ordered residents of the townships to make them ungovernable.

A huge surge of rebellion erupted in the townships as the armed force and mass struggle joined forces. in the 1980s many groups of resistance started to form playing a role in civic, community, student, youth, cultural, and woman's organizations all fall under the umbrella organization of the united democratic fund (UDF). It mobilized nationwide resistance, lead boycotts, and was involved in labor issues. While it was not aligned with, most of its members were apart of the ANC and the freedom charters law was endorsed as part of the UDF. (sahistory, 2011) As seen above the amount of resistance that had occurred around and outside the theatres was massive and it cause major problems but it also led the way for change as this was what made a way for democratic South Africa today there one could argue that in actual fact protest theatre was effective but in its own sphere although there is the backlash that argument in the sense that protest theatre gained mass international response but the response that the violent protests had was only by the government.

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Charlyn Dyers, former protest theatre actress and now lecturer explain that during apartheid the average man could be seen in the theatre whereas today theatre is seen to be a sophisticated place, where the everyday man is not expected. This emphasizes the fact that protest theatre was meant for the masses, it was meant to spread views, information, stories, give insight, and expose the government. It was meant to a place of easy access something the everyday man could relate to and not need to lead a high life unlike today where theatre does not relate but needs a higher understanding, this, therefore, makes protest theatre successful in the sense that it got through to the masses. The oppressed fled to the theatre to realize and visualize their own life stories, real-life stories, and to grasp at their reality.

Dyers explained the protest theatre made fun of the laws and the leadership of the government, in other words, to provoke and evoke emotion and reaction. She made sure to emphasize that although it was entertainment, its true aim was to mobilize the oppressed and fight against the oppression. (Charlyn Dyers, admin, 2010). During the 1970s, automobile theft was seen as “low-level villainy”, the real crime, says Jack Klaff, was taking place on the stage of the Space theatre and later on moved to other theatre stages. The little theatre groups that were established received an international response which therefore put pressure on the regime back home. (jack Klaff, 2014) The international response that protest theatre gained, which then put pressure on the regime, proves the impact it made and therefore its success.

40 years, later protest theatre is still being celebrated. The market theatre was one of the few places that protest theatre was performed and where all races could be entertained, it challenged the government by the performance of anti-apartheid plays and was deemed “the theatre of struggle”. Today it still stands strong. (DW, 2016) all things successful are celebrated there proving the impact and success of protest theatre and what it did for South Africa. Bringing all races together is just another one of the many things protest theatre did for South Africa and bringing it out of its oppressive state. “eye for an eye” by Debbie tucker green. Debbie tucker green-“of the lower case initials and capital aims”- is a playwright that deals with justice. Her play ‘eye for an eye’ is driven by anger at racial injustice. It explores present-day practices that have historical roots. Her strength is where she explores what it means to be under systematic oppression. (Billington, M, 2018) Although not south African provides a view of just how powerful protest theatre is in portraying a story or providing information/revealing the truth that it is even practiced at an international level, this is yet another representation of its success.

A discussion, between Ariel Dorfman, Nadine Gordimer, and John Kani, held at Wits Theatre, another place where protest theatre was performed, that explored the importance of protest theatre and its influence in history. “the role and place of art in contemporary South Africa is, more than ever, critical” says the Head of Dramatic Art at Wits, Warren Nebe. Dorfman explains that he wished to have lived in a time where he could write comedies but seeing the time he was born felt it was necessary to write about the circumstances he is in, he reiterates that it is important to write about the circumstances you are in. theatre is seen to be more ‘accessible’ and a ‘natural’ way of talking to one another. The arts are seen to be one of the best ways to teach children about South Africa’s past.

Kani emphasized that art ‘must always be the watchdog’ and always be ‘conscious’. (nelsonmandela. org, 2010) the arts constantly have to feel the need to justify themselves and their place in the world. Only recently have the arts been considered important and in need of a placing in the political sphere/practice. The arts have a unique way of demonstrating democratic engagement. (Moore, e, 2019) Theatre and the arts as a whole play a major role in society and it shows, theatre is a unique way of portraying the current issues and social injustices that occur in society. They are a way of teaching new generations in interesting ways. The role of theatre and the arts need to be stressed and their importance should be acknowledged especially moving forward.

June 16th, 1976, the Soweto uprising when students marched in the streets of Soweto in protest against the apartheid government. This leads to change in the political and cultural sphere of the country. The uprising of black children was in the context of cultural resistance, a change in the way black and white school children were taught in schools. A way to provide a better future for black children in South Africa and not a future in labor but as more. A fair and equal opportunity for all. This uprising built of theatrical practices of autonomy, accommodation, and opposition. (Ian Steadman, 1988) After the up-rise, the black theater came to be an important weapon in the continuous struggle. After the state of emergency protest theater, effectively became the only voice for the struggle as all media and all forms of resistance had become silenced.

The reason it was allowed was that theater and Black Theater was used by the government to strengthen their own argument to the world view of the regime. Although while the market was had permission to show production about radical protests as well as tour, any plays that threatened the government or gained mass support from townships were banned. By 1990 protest theatre had made its mark. Although moving from 1990 onwards, Protest Theater was removed of its original purpose as from 1990 the regime had been clear cut, the idea of black and white had been turned grey as there was change moving on. None the less protest theatre had done its job and it served a great deal in being one of the few places where freedom of speech was allowed, the last place that hadn’t been silenced. The last place where the voices of the people were heard. (Deon Opperman, 1993)

In conclusion, protest in South African between 1948 and 1994 was very successful as a form of protest as seen above. It got an international response, it was performed outside of South Africa, its brought people from all walks of life, i. e. races, together, it told stories and spread information, it opened the eyes of the oppressed to take action against their reality and opened the eyes of those who did not know what was going on, internationally and nationally, it grew from small theatres to being performed in more than 3 provinces at different theatres, it gave people a voice when they were silenced, it was a form of protest that couldn’t be silenced, it took was banned on the streets and turned it into entertainment with a message, it put international pressure on the regime leading to its downfall in 1994, it brought the debate of the importance of protest theatre and its role in the past and future and the fact that it deserves a place in the political sphere, its way of teaching is necessary for teaching young people about the past its country has endured. Therefore making protest theatre highly successful.

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This essay delves deeply into the powerful impact of protest theatre during the apartheid era in South Africa. It effectively traces the evolution of protest theatre from its origins to its significance in resistance against the apartheid regime. The essay integrates historical context, personal reflections, and external sources to present a comprehensive perspective. The writer effectively illustrates how protest theatre transcended mere entertainment, becoming a tool for resistance, education, and international awareness. The interconnectedness of protest theatre with societal changes and political shifts is well-explored. The essay's well-structured analysis, accompanied by supporting examples, renders a compelling narrative.
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What can be improved
Introduction Clarity: Provide a more succinct and focused introduction that concisely outlines the main thesis and its significance. Paragraph Transition: Improve the flow between paragraphs for smoother transitions between different aspects of protest theatre's impact. Citation Format: Ensure consistent citation style for external sources, adhering to a recognized citation format such as APA or MLA. Conclusion Expansion: Further expand the conclusion to reflect on the broader implications of protest theatre's legacy and its relevance in contemporary contexts. Proofreading: Review the essay for grammatical and typographical errors to enhance overall readability.
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