Gibson Kente

Founding father of township theatre

The creative legacy of the South African playwright and composer Gibson Kente is proof that culture needn't be the preserve of the middle classes and that theatre can make the world a better place, as long as it does not take itself too seriously.

Gibson Kente, playwright, composer, arranger and producer: born East London, South Africa 23 July 1932; (two sons); died Soweto, South Africa 7 November 2004.

The creative legacy of the South African playwright and composer Gibson Kente is proof that culture needn't be the preserve of the middle classes and that theatre can make the world a better place, as long as it does not take itself too seriously.

Kente fought apartheid by embedding laughter, dance and music into works - such as Sekunjalo and How Long? - which spoke of everyday township life. If Athol Fugard was the intellectual in South African drama during the dark days before multi-racial elections in 1994, "Bra Gib" (Brother Gib) was the popular entertainer. Each inspired opposite ends of the anti-apartheid struggle but Kente never achieved Fugard's international fame, principally because he was black and unable to travel abroad.

In a disappointingly po-faced tribute last Monday, the African National Congress described Kente as "a committed cadre of the liberation movement whose social and political involvement earned him widespread respect". But Kente was not a "cadre". He was an artist who took orders from no one. His cousin, Nomathemba Kela, said Kente was "a very strong person, a role model for many artists. He had a positive attitude towards others and fought a very brave fight for a long time."

The ANC veteran and minister- without-portfolio Pallo Jordan said: "Kente has left an indelible imprint on the South African cultural scene. Also visible in his works is the hidden militancy of the black majority which burst forth in a wave of mass struggles after 1973."

Known as the founding father of township theatre, Kente grew up in East London and studied social work before beginning to write drama in his early twenties. He joined a group known as Union Artists who performed in central Johannesburg.

As the apartheid system hardened, with laws limiting the movement of the population, it became clear to Kente that he had to take his theatre to the black communities in outlying townships, rather than expect them to come into town. He turned the established system on its head with the musical Sikalo - a blend of African gospel and township jazz - that started life in a township and, in 1966, moved to Wits Great Hall and its multi-racial audiences.

In the townships - where there were no theatres or even cinemas because the white minority government feared large gatherings of black people - churches, schools and community halls became Kente's theatres and the residents his performers.

After Sikalo, Kente left Union Artists and created his own township company. He increasingly opted for musicals which he set in the everyday reality of township life with its drunkenness, violence and politics. There was also pure entertainment - such as the 1977 musical Can You Take It?, a Broadway-style love story. Through the musicals he put on with his company, G.K. Productions, he discovered and trained hundreds of black artists, including Peter Sepuma and the pop diva Brenda Fassie.

Among the 23 shows he wrote, arranged and produced during his township theatre career, several were banned at venues across South Africa, including the political melodramas How Long?, Our Belief and Too Late, all written in the mid-1970s. He was jailed for a year in 1976 while attempting to make a film of How Long? But the authorities' action against him just increased his appeal and - in contrast to the heavily subsidised "white" theatre and opera - Kente in the mid-1970s kept three travelling troupes going without a penny from the state.

But, as with many prominent figures in the struggle against apartheid, Kente's hero status did not follow him into the post-apartheid era, after Nelson Mandela's release from prison in 1991. The early years of freedom for the black majority were a period of carefree consumerism for all South Africans in which the performing arts - with the possible exception of contemporary dance - failed to attract audiences. In the 1990s, even Johannesburg's cutting-edge Market Theatre was playing to empty houses as South Africans opted to stay in front of their television sets rather than venture out on to crime- ridden streets to go and see a live show.

The taboo surrounding Aids is South Africa's current "struggle", and Kente joined it in February last year when he stated publicly that he was HIV-positive. At a function at the Laager Theatre in central Johannesburg, he announced:

I want to say to you that you have come to save Bra Gib, not to bury him. My HIV status is going to let me live longer than I would have normally lived because I know I have got a challenge; because I know I have got a duty to the people out there to inspire them that "folks, the fight is on". Let's hold hands. Let's not hide.

But he had already suffered several bouts of illness and it became clear that he was in severe financial difficulties. Leading figures in South African theatre created the Gibson Kente Foundation through which they arranged for him to receive medication and saved him from being evicted from his home.

Even though he did not live very much longer, his public announcement was widely praised. Pallo Jordan said: "His announcement did much to demystify the illness and to address the stigma attached to it. His fight against HIV and Aids was exemplary, as was the response of his family, relatives and friends."

Now South Africa faces the urgent challenge of ensuring that Kente's work is available to future generations. Due to the low-budget conditions in which he worked in the townships, few recordings exist of his shows and only a handful have been published. Kente made one clear request before his death. "After I die," he said last year, "I want a big signboard placed in front of my house with the words 'Theatre was born here.' "

Alex Duval Smith