By Ismail Mahomed
Every year, as we approach Freedom Day my thoughts race back to theatre-maker Bongani Linda whom I will always remember as a real theatre warrior. In 1995, I directed the artistic programme for the Social History Conference / Festival at Wits University. Bongani Linda’s Victory Songqoba Theatre was one of the companies that I presented on the programme.
His work was always a fiery narrative of township struggles.
Bongani Linda fought many social and political battles through his theatre. Bongani Linda died in 2013 a few days before Freedom Day. At the time of his passing I wrote this note:
FOR ALL OF US WHO LOVED, FOUGHT AND WERE INSPIRED BY BONGANI LINDA.
Most South African artists deplore the term “community theatre”. It is often perceived as poorly resourced theatre. In the schedules of most arts managers, it is the kind of activity that is supported to satisfy funding imperatives rather than being positioned as the primary arts activity through which most audiences and artists have their first experiences of the arts.
Bongani Linda, a skilled community theatre playwright and director, wore his label as a community theatre writer and director with an immense conviction. He did not allow managements, funders or the media to put his work in their narrow pigeon holes. He demanded attention. He insisted on getting the same kind of resources that managements would channel towards what is considered mainstream work.
Since the early eighties he made his annual journey to the National Arts Festival. His annual cultural pilgrimage was not without its fair share of debate, disagreements and engagements. He passionately and fiercely believed in open dialogue. Unlike artists who often grumbled in greenrooms and in whispered voices in theatre backstage areas, Bongani had the courage to engage, be challenged or to find mutually beneficial compromises.
As an artist who spent his teen years living in the squalor of Alexandra Township in Johannesburg, he was witness to much township violence. He had his fair share of skirmishes with hostel dwellers. When he was a teenager in the highly politicised times of the eighties, violence and death were a common part of his youth Under the State of Emergency, he formed his first cultural group and authored his first play, Born to Suffer.
The staging of the anti-apartheid play resulted in his arrest and detention.
That detention did not break his spirit. It intensified his resolve to use the power of theatre to challenge inequalities in our society. After his release, he went back to school, wrote his matric exam and went on to acquire a degree in the dramatic arts. Like all graduates who came out of Wits University’s drama school and practiced theatre full-time, Bongani was very much a professional. It was the apartheid label which relegated his work to being township community theatre.
He did not shy away from that label. He embraced it. He focused his work on the community
in which he worked and then networked with artists across the country who were doing the same kind of valuable work in their communities. Community theatre was also a label that some of the managements deliberately used to keep the passionate and fearless fighter out of their spaces and thereby even safely out of having to be confronted in an argument with him.
What most people who feared him failed to realise was that Bongani was passionate about using the arts to build trust within communities that were historically divided.
Through music, dance, and theatre, he gave the young members in his theatre company the opportunity to discover their commonality and come to accept one another.
It was just after Freedom Day in 2013 that Bongani Linda took his final bow. His death came as sudden and sad news to a broad spectrum of South Africa’s arts community. Tributes for him have poured in from a wide range of community-based artists who will feel his passing so much more. In the week of his passing, many of those artists found the same courage to talk about community theatre with a sense of pride.
Community theatre may still suffer from the negative perceptions that it has inherited from
South Africa’s cultural past. It’s not a label that’s going to fall away very easily but at least twenty seven years after Bongani Linda started his fight with managements, there are a lot more managements, funders and audiences in South Africa that have become a lot more wiser and realise that community theatre does not mean lowered standards despite that it may sometimes suffer from poorer resources.
Bongani Linda was more than just a victor even though sometimes it seemed as if victory was a far-fetched dream. It is up to artists who fought in the trenches with Bongani Linda to ensure that his name and legacy is not whitewashed out of the pages of books about South African theatre history. This is the only reason why every year since his untimely death I have repeatedly told the story about this fallen giant.