THEATRE: Mhlongo’s anti-xenophobia play cheats death to spread the message
When playwright and activist Vusi Mhlongo died in a car accident in Durban in 2017, he was in the middle of an anti-crime awareness campaign he had initiated and led in Yeoville.
Ever the activist, the Wits drama graduate’s campaign was a response to the deteriorating crime situation in this community, of which he and other artists have been part for years.
Yeoville was where he and his cast of The Voice from Kilimanjaro were based and where the musical and cast alike had made strides in tackling the issue of xenophobia and crime in the community and beyond.
Following its glory days as the epicentre of left-wing intellectualism, a haven for artists and liberal politics in the 1990s where life was vibrant with a good share of top eateries, high-class coffee shops and other night hangouts for the rich and famous, this neighbourhood has undoubtedly gone downhill.
It has been battered and raped by circumstances beyond its control. Its scars are glaring: crumbling and neglected buildings and garbage lying uncollected in the streets for days.
Some businesses, such as Nando’s and KFC, which were once hugely popular establishments on Rockey and Raleigh streets, were forced out of the suburb by crime. There is even a joke among residents that muggers and pickpockets work day and night shifts in the suburb, just to be fair.
The inevitable result is that since the advent of democracy Yeoville has steadily emptied itself of its richer residents, who have been replaced by a different demographic, predominantly refugees and economic migrants from elsewhere on the continent, sharing the place with mainly working-class South Africans from the rural areas.
But, as in many complex social situations, the arts is giving hope and voice to this new community through its street poets, musicians and playwrights who refuse to give in to the challenges and are helping residents dream big and see beyond their circumstances.
Mhlongo loomed large in this community as a playwright and activist, and his musical The Voice from Kilimanjaro made him the darling of the streets — he was on a first-name basis with many ordinary Yeovillites. The play was well received by the migrant community.
It is here and in the inner city of Johannesburg itself that The Voice from Kilimanjaro found traction with audiences with its anti-xenophobia message, thanks to Mhlongo himself and a dedicated cast.
Another untimely death, that of the musical’s production manager, Jabu Matenje, raised fears that this would be the end of The Voice from Kilimanjaro.
Yet the remaining cast, led by poet and former Generations actor Majesty Mnyandu as producer, Mfundo Msibi as the new director, Babusisiwe Mhlongo as production manager, Angela Mqadi as administrator, the actors and the band have vowed that the show must indeed go on, despite the loss of the two key members.
"Mhlongo might be dead, but in The Voice from Kilimanjaro he has left a resilient legacy behind, which the whole cast have embraced completely and are now taking to other communities to spread the message of anti-xenophobia," Mnyandu said in an interview.
People must also realise that xenophobia is not just xenophobia when there is violence. It is the attitude towards fellow Africans that people have, even in the absence of physical attacks. This musical deals with that.
"Xenophobia has been a disturbing feature of South African life in recent years since the 2008 outbreak that saw some immigrants killed and others injured when some South Africans turned on them.
"Unfortunately, the response by some institutions has not been effective because they only react when the attacks are in progress, and under those circumstances no one will listen to anyone as people cannot think rationally when they are in a fighting mood.
"With The Voice from Kilimanjaro our intervention, which we believe is appropriate, is to stage this play and spread the message when there is tranquility and people can think rationally. People must also realise that xenophobia is not just xenophobia when there is violence. It is the attitude towards fellow Africans that people have, even in the absence of physical attacks. This musical deals with that."
The Voice from Kilimanjaro was written, directed and produced by Mhlongo from 1996, with a cast made up of actors, dancers and musicians from SA and other African countries such as Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Nigeria. It deals with xenophobia in a way no other South African play has.
The Department of Arts and Culture has been funding the musical for the past two years as part of its social cohesion campaign, having staged it at the Joburg Theatre in 2016 and at The Playhouse in Durban in 2017. The production was also performed at the Wits Theatre in 2013 and Victory Theatre in Orange Grove in 2014.
Most recently it was staged at the Soweto Theatre from July 5 to July 8, this time funded by the National Lotteries Commission. It is the first time the production has been performed in SA’s biggest township, and Mnyandu says this is symbolic. "All along, the musical has been performing in mainstream urban areas where the middle class attend. Perhaps we have been performing to the converted, who abhor xenophobia anyway.
"Now ordinary people in Soweto will have an opportunity to watch this serious but highly entertaining play, which takes its proud place among classical South African musicals such as Sarafina! and Ipi Ntombi," says the new producer.
"Personally, I consider sitting on a director’s seat as an honour. I am confident I will do justice to the legacy Vusi has left behind, especially because I used to be his assistant and still have the notes Vusi wrote from the last show last year [2017[, to which I still refer," Msibi says.
The new director has a wealth of experience as an actor, having toured the world extensively with leading South African shows such as Umoja, Bayede Shaka and Drumstruck over the years. His TV credits include leading roles in Mzansi Magic productions.
The Voice From Kilimanjaro is a potpourri of music, scintillating African dance routines, a dash of poetry and excellent acting. It takes a poignant look at how South African communities relate to the citizens of the world, in particular Africans. It is a musical that promotes tolerance, social cohesion and peace.
It creatively raises questions and suggests solutions around the complex nature of xenophobia. It focuses on a family that is grappling with the intricacies of post-apartheid SA, xenophobia and unemployment after a former political activist from the Democratic Republic of Congo falls in love with a beautiful local woman, Jabulile Mthembu, against her family’s wishes.
"This performance is special because Vusi wrote it in 1998 based on a true story he heard while living with a family in Soweto, one of whose members fell in love with someone from the Democratic Republic of Congo; the family was vehemently opposed to the relationship. So it [performing it in Soweto] is like going home after 20 years," Mnyandu says.
The Voice from Kilimanjaro will be part of the annual Johannesburg arts extravaganza Arts Alive, which takes place in September at various venues around the city.