It was an honour to welcome Dr John Kani as guest speaker at the 2nd St John's College 'Virtual' Hugh Lewin Memorial Human Rights Lecture on Monday 21 September 2020.
Bonisile John Kani was born on 30 August 1943 in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth. He matriculated from Newell High School where he performed in numerous school plays with Winston Ntshona.
After high school, he began working with various drama groups in the New Brighton area. It was as a member of the Serpent Players drama groupthat he met Athol Fugard. Much of the work they did at the time was experimental and improvisational, but it did result in many published and unpublished works. One of the plays that emerged in 1972 was Sizwe Bansi is Dead, a collaboration between Kani, Fugard and Winston Ntshona. This was followed by The Island in 1973. Sizwe Banzi is Dead addresses the apartheid regime's restrictive pass laws while The Island is inspired by a true story and set in an unnamed prison. The plays were widely performed in South Africa and internationally.
In 1974 Kani and Winston went on tour with Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island, also conducting workshops in New York, Washington DC and Los Angeles. It was New York, Kani achieved international recognition when he and Ntshona were awarded a Tony for best actor for both plays. In 1976 Kani toured in Australia and worked with Aboriginal community groups in Perth, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide. During this time Kani was also nominated for his role in My Children My Africa!
On his return to South Africa, Kani began to tour rural areas of the country with Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island and conducted drama groups wherever the plays were performed. During this time Kani and Ntshona were arrested with Kani was detained for 23 days. The two were released after mass demonstrations with this experience marking the beginning of a painful relationship with the South African police.
In 1977 Kani began collaborating with Barney Simon and became involved with the new Market Theatre in Johannesburg. Kani's performance in Miss Julie in Cape Town in 1982 was the most controversial of his career. During the play, Kani kissed a White woman on stage, which resulted in half the audience walking out. As a result of this act, Kani received in numerous death threats and an assassination attempt during which he was stabbed 11 times. In 1985 Kani's brother was killed by police while he was reciting a poem at the funeral of a young girl killed during riots.
Kani received a merit award from the Southern Transvaal Chamber of Commerce in 1987 for his contribution for liberation through culture. In 1989/1990, Kani and Barney Simon established the Market Theatre Laboratory which provides training to disadvantaged youth. Today the Lab runs outreach and community training programmes and stages community festivals.
In 2002, Nothing but the Truth, Kani's debut as a sole playwright was performed at the Market Theatre, Johannesburg. The play is set in post-apartheid South Africa and deals with the rift between Black South Africans who stayed in the country and those who went into exile. The play is a tribute to his brother. In 2003 the play received a Fleur du Cap Award for best actor, best indigenous script and best new South African play. The play also won five Naledi Theatre Awards. In the same year, Kani received a special Obie award for his contribution to theatre in the USA. Nothing but the Truth enjoyed successful runs in South Africa and Los Angeles, Boston, Sydney and New York. In 2008 the play was turned into a feature film.
Kani was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Durban-Westerville, the 'Hiroshima Award for Peace' (in 2000) and the Tribute Magazine's 'Titan of the Century' award. In 2005 he received the Olive Schreiner Prize and on 27 September 2005 Kani was awarded The Order of Ikhamanga in Silver by the South African Government for "Excellent contributions to theatre and, through this, the struggle for a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa". In 2006 Kani was bestowed with an honorary doctorate by the University of Cape Town.
Kani was honoured with a South African Film and Television Lifetime Achievement Award on 20 February 2010. He is executive trustee of the John Kani Theatre Foundation, founder and director of the John Kani Theatre Laboratory and chairman of the National Arts Council of SA.
More recently, he starred as T'Chaka in the Marvel Studios blockbusters Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Black Panther (2018). In 2019, Kani he voiced Rafiki in The Lion King (the live-action remake of the Disney animated film). Kani's play, Kunene and the King, a co-production for the Royal Shakespeare Company and Fugard Theatre, played in the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2019 before transferring back to Cape Town. – SA History Online
Hugh Frances Lewin attended St John's College from 1948 until 1957 where he was a distinguished student and developed an awareness of the wrongs of apartheid. This was partly due to an innate sense of justice and morality acquired at home (his father was an Anglican priest), and partly because he often accompanied St John's College teachers to Sophiatown.
It was in Sophiatown that Hugh Lewin was introduced to the sermons of priests such as Fr Trevor Huddleston, later the Archbishop, which opened his eyes to the realities of apartheid society. Hugh Lewin became involved in anti-apartheid student politics and was arrested in 1964 by the apartheid government's security police. He was eventually sentenced to seven years' imprisonment and served his sentence at the Pretoria local and central prisons.
After his release, Hugh Lewin described his experiences in his book, Bandiet: Seven Years in a South African Prison. A supplemented version, Bandiet Out of Jail, was published in 2002 and won the Olive Schreiner Prize and the Sunday Times Alan Paton Award. In 2011, he published Stones Against the Mirror, in which he reflects upon his betrayal by a close friend, which led to his imprisonment.
The St John's College Hugh Lewin Memorial Human Rights Lecture is an annual event, recognising the significant contribution that Hugh Lewin has made to society.