A nascent drama club in South Africa's largest township draws together youth who use performance both as escapism and inspiration. Nestled between the mine dumps of Noordgesig, a region near the northern boundary of Soweto, one of South Africa's largest townships, a community centre is drawing students inside its walls. Ngizwe (hear me) is a theatre group where youth are finding respite from the poverty and violence within their community. Noordgesig has a 23 percent unemployment rate, and an average monthly income of R2,400 (about $177). These numbers suggest why a career in theatre might not be encouraged by parents in this community. Nonetheless, a committed group of fifteen youths make their way to the community hall to practice their acting, dancing and singing on a weekly basis.
Ngizwe was formed in January 2016 by community actor and writer, Tshabalira Lebakeng (37), whose passion for drama took him from homelessness to directing, writing and acting. "When I was pushed to the streets I used to survive with the [other homeless] boys. We never used glue, but when we drank Smirnoff vodka, we would sing and act and do imitations of different famous people," he remembers with a smile. Lebakeng's passion for drama has now moved onto the Noordgesig community hall stage where the students of Ngizwe are rehearsing for their first show to be launched the following Saturday.
It is titled 'The Little One' and is based on the childhood experience of Lebakeng. "This story is about my life on the street and our friend, the little one, who we found poisoned. I grew up thinking about him. No one came looking for him so we had to bury him by the train station in [Kwa-Zulu] Natal." This event has haunted Lebakeng throughout his life and Ngizwe's opening performance would be the first time he confronted this traumatic event. This, and Lebakeng's childhood spent on the streets, was a catalyst in starting Ngizwe. "I never want to see a child being robbed of being a child," he says.
The Little One
Inside the community centre, the students have made use of black bags, egg cartons and polystyrene cups as props. They range in ages from ten to twenty, with a cocktail of acting experience between them.
The oldest and most experienced is Lihle Hadebe (20). She has known Lebakeng since 2013 when he approached her school as a drama teacher and held auditions for the students. This audition would lead Hadebe onto various community performances, adverts and short films. "Tshaba [Lebakeng] gave me a pencil and told me I need to become a writer. I even used that pencil in my final year exams because I didn't have one of my own," she says. She did end up writing and even directing a play through the acting agency she joined after school.
Despite her obvious talent on the stage, Hadebe says her family is encouraging her to pursue a career in medicine, teaching or engineering. But their pleas are wasted. "When I am on the stage," she pauses, searching for the right words," it is like I have a break from my life. I can be anyone. That is why Ngizwe is my home." The youngest of the group, Nobuhle Mbanjwa (10) echoes this sentiment. "When I act I feel I am a person I have never been in my life," she says shyly. "Acting is my dream and my talent and because of this my mother supports me, even though no one was there to support her." Her quiet persona in the interview melts away on the stage during rehearsal as she projects her words loudly and moves with ease and confidence in her character as 'the little one'.
During rehearsal, Emma Delius, the Creative Director of Ngizwe, adds her final suggestions to Ngizwe's enthusiastic performers. Having recently completed her Masters degree at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and Birkbeck University in London, Delius wanted to apply her thesis, which looked at theatre for education and development, at a grassroots level in her own country. "I am involved in Ngizwe because of these incredible children. Every day I arrive and they have something new to teach me about the world and there is nothing more inspiring than that," she says.
Delius heard about Lebakeng through The Homeless Story Project run by directors Harriet Perlman and Robbie Thorpe who workshopped with a group of homeless individuals to script a film about their lives, resulting in the recently screened film 'Vaya' at the Toronto International Film Festival. "I was inspired by Tshaba [Lebakeng's] own personal story," says Delius, "but also by the kind of work he was doing with the kids." Delius's Facebook and Thundafund (a South African Kickstarter equivalent) campaign raised R16,010 (around $1170) for food, transport and outings for the children.
On the day of Ngizwe's opening show the heavens open up, painting the Johannesburg skyline with bolts of silver lightning, heavy drops of rain and small hail stones. The community hall fills up slowly, awaiting the parents who have been trapped indoors, unable to walk through the storm to see their children perform. The students wait anxiously backstage. For most of them this is their first performance and some of them express surprised excitement that the hall they performed in front of for the last few months is no longer empty.
Lebakeng is dressed in a collared white shirt and bow-tie. He saunters onto stage already stirring giggles from the crowd with his expressions and comedic gait. He begins to narrate the story of growing up on the streets of South Africa and the survival mechanisms of his group of friends, including the fighting and the laughter. When the story reaches the climax and the death of 'the little one' is described, Lebakeng pauses, his tears evident from a distance. "I carried my friend's grave in my hands ever since," he admits, stopping to wipe his eyes and catch his breath. Others in the audience do the same.
"That is why I started Ngizwe, so that no child will ever feel this pain. No child will be robbed of being child again." The need for children to remain children is both urgent and important in Noordgesig, where thirteen percent of children between 15 and 17 years are already in the labour force. Yet, Ngizwe is also an opportunity for Lebakeng to finally let go of his guilt in not being able to save 'the little one'. "My aunty said to me recently: You can't protect the world, but the little you are doing will at least help you to forgive yourself."
Ngizwe is hoping to develop 'The Little One' into a full-length play and obtain further funding so that they can tour it to the National Arts Festival, South Africa's largest and most prestigious artistic festival. "This is one of the kids greatest dreams which they never stop talking about," says Delius. "We hope to develop the show and make it come true."
*An edited version of this first appeared in Ground Up