John Kani and Robert Whitehead star in Congo: The Trial of King Leopald 2, directed by Lesedi Job. Picture: THANDILE ZWELIBANZI
John Kani and Robert Whitehead star in Congo: The Trial of King Leopald 2, directed by Lesedi Job. Picture: THANDILE ZWELIBANZI

The script began to unfold 16 years ago after a chance meeting between former president Thabo Mbeki and celebrated actor and director John Kani. Now theatre audiences are poised to watch the play with the longest development in the history of South African theatre.

After several exchanges of notes between Mbeki and Kani, and drawing in the talent of legendary actor Robert Whitehead (of Isidingo fame) and gifted theatre director Lesedi Job, a brutal European king will be put on trial.

Congo: The Trial of King Leopold II opens at the Market Theatre on October 12 and is bound to attract a wide range of audiences, among them politicians, academics, historians, experts on African politics and lovers of theatre.

The play deals with the complexity, controversy and tragedy in  the 19th and 20th centuries after a charming, cunning and greedy European king bizarrely laid claim to a country as his personal property. King Leopold 11 of Belgium reduced almost by half the population of what was then called Congo Free State while the world looked the other way.

Kani plays the role of the people’s advocate Xoli Mlambo, and Whitehead is King Leopold 11. The veteran actors are charged with delivering a story about brutality and justice.

The story has several complex layers.  Tackling one of the worst tragedies to have befallen Africa in a posthumous trial, the play is expected to get the country and the continent talking.

“One of the most tragic realities of today is the unfortunate assumption that African leaders are just corrupt, without looking deep into the history of colonialism and how its effects have a direct role in African leadership style today,” Kani says. “The truth is that our leaders inherited corrupt practices from the colonialists, complete with the whole system of governance.”

Whitehead says that after King Leopold died and Congo Free State became a “proper” colony of Belgium, there was no time to deal with its history as World War l broke out “and that terrible history was soon forgotten and wiped out”.

Kani says Mbeki had, on several occasions, reminded him about the tragedy in the Congo.  “I started working seriously on the play with Robert a long time ago, and somehow had no idea when it was going to be on stage,” he explains.

“But then sometime this year Mbeki – who never gave up on the idea of the play – bumped into me again and asked me about the play. And eventually we had to regroup and polish up the script that I and Robert had been working on.”

Kani says he roped in Job, who he regards as  one of the most talented female directors in contemporary theatre. The script changed again to include her suggestions.

The play deals with the complexity and tragedy in the 19th and 20th centuries after a cunning and greedy king bizarrely laid claim to a country as his personal property.
The play deals with the complexity and tragedy in  the 19th and 20th centuries after a cunning and greedy king bizarrely laid claim to a country as his personal property.

“Although I have always known what I wanted to do and achieve when I decided I would direct plays instead of acting, when this opportunity came along, I was stunned and wasn’t sure if I would be able to walk into the rehearsal space and direct these veterans,” Job says. “However, it has become a team effort and [it] has been an enriching experience for me as a 34-year-old female director.”

Mbeki gave Kani the inspiration for the play, Mark Twain’s 1905 pamphlet, King Leopald’s Soliloquy. It is a political satire in which the king, interrogated by Twain, rants and raves about his real intentions for the Congo: to end slavery and bring Christianity to millions of people.

But under his rule, the Congo Free State suffered a decline in population from 20-million to 10-million people over a few decades as his colonial agents implemented a brutal regime of forced labour. 

Belgian agents entered villages and held the women and children hostage while the men headed into the forests. They were expected to return with huge amounts of sap. Many were worked to death or killed if they did not meet their quotas.

The king’s officials often chopped off Congolese people’s hands and genitals as punishment or flogged them to death because they had been warned not to waste bullets and spare them for game hunting. Millions of people also starved to death.

Kani says they also used Adam Rothschild’s book, King Leopold’s Ghost, in the development of the script, whose costs were covered by the Thabo Mbeki Foundation.

In essence, the play is an imagined encounter between advocate Mlambo and King Leopold. Kani and Whitehead promise to bring to life a story about an African holocaust with wit and skill to expose these crimes against humanity.

Congo: The Trial of King Leopold II is at the Barney Simon Theatre at the Market Theatre until November 11.

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