Cape Town-140305-South african actor, director and playwright John Kani, pictured at the Baxter before the premier of his new play, Missing. Picture Jeffrey Abrahams. Reporter Janet Heard.


South Africa has come a lot way as we celebrate 20 years of freedom, but we could have done a lot better, according to veteran playwright, director and actor John Kani.

“After 20 years, I don’t just want to say that it is better than it was. I think it could have been a lot more, had we focused on the basics," he said in an interview at the Baxter Theatre, where his new play Missing premiered last week.

"We had the opportunity, with the greatest human being on earth, Nelson Mandela. We talked about the global economy, but we missed the village. We focused on the bigger picture, and missed the small picture - that the village needs water," said, Kani,

Describing corruption as a “worm”, though more aptly in Afrikaans as a “wurm”, he said: “it goes through every area of our attempt to progress as a nation. It eats at our resources, at the soul of good people whom we trusted in the struggle.”

This money that has been squandered, he said, is needed “for the people who sacrificed everything for democracy”.

Yet 2014 was still a time of celebration. “The world will stop and take notice of the history, of where we have come. SA is still standing. SA is still a land of possibilities.”

He is looking forward to voting in May. “I will always vote. I have done so, ever since 1994. I stand there with great pride and say: We defeated the unthinkable.”

He described apartheid as a “gogo”, a “monster that roamed our land, destroying the fabric of our soul, and the essence of ubuntu."

“I am 71 years old. I was 51 when I first voted. I spent 51 years under apartheid. I don’t imagine suffering. I know it. I was detained. I survived 11 stab wounds during an assassination attempt. My brother was shot dead at a funeral. My uncle spent five years on Robben Island. I know what I am talking about.”

Kani took a swipe at the “opposition”, whom he said were part of the system, who had no right to sit back and say “look what they are doing”. “They are part of the government, they are signatories. They participate in the process, and must take responsibility. “

Accountability was a problem not just for the government, but across the board. “It is not them, it is us all.”

Kani’s love for drama is rooted in his home town of Veeplaas (now called Zwide), in Port Elizabeth, where he took to the stage in his school years.

But if loyal theatregoers think that they can revisit the play for years on end, as was the case with Sizwe Bansi is Dead - which Kani co-authored in 1972 - Kani has other plans. The 71-year-old actor, director and playwright who also authored Nothing but the Truth in 2002 intends to set a two-year performance limit on Missing.

Kani, who is a household name in South Africa, said: “I did Sizwe Bansi is Dead for 34 years. I started thinking, oh no, not Sizwe Bansi again. I can’t do it forever, forever, forever. I stopped Nothing But the Truth in its 12th year. No more I said. Now there is another play in me already. Definitely in two years time I will put a stop to it {Missing}. I will not allow myself to be trapped again by the popularity of it. There are so many stories to be told.”

Missing is described as a ‘South African love story and political thriller”. It centres on the jubilation of liberation and the inner struggles and turmoil of an exile’s life and that of his family.

A consummate actor, Kani spoke lyrically during the interview, switching his voice effortlessly to mimic the people he is talking about, delivering a solo performance that could have been on stage.

The genesis of Missing, said Kani, was a conversation with an “old old friend,” Thabo Mbeki. “I asked him: Is it possible that someone was forgotten out there {in exile}? Mbeki said, ‘yes, it is possible John’.'

Kani did some basic research, then put it aside. In 2012, he decided that he needed to write a new play. “That great moment arrived that all writers fear. A blank page.”

And his character, political activist Robert Vuyo Khalipa, came to life. He lived in Stockholm for over 30 years, married to a wealthy local heiress. Yet when the moment he had been waiting for finally arrived - Nelson Mandela’s release in February 1990 - Khalipa never returned home. “And why didn’t he come back?” asks Kani. “Because nobody called.”

And so the complex narrative took shape, through the Madiba era and into the Mbeki era, with Khalipa finally returning to South Africa to face some home truths.

Seemingly preoccupied with weighty issues, Kani said he has an irreverent side. “I am quite funny actually, though it is difficult to get the industry to believe me.

“When I tried to do Waiting for Godot, it was such a controversy. I was tired of political theatre. All I wanted to do was Godot. You know what happened? We were told we had messed up and politicised a classic that has nothing to do with SA.”

Kani described himself as a “great, loving husband and father” to his wife, Mandi and seven children.

Based in Joburg, he loves going home to Veeplaas. “There I sit with my brothers and sisters - all of whom are over 60. I loved it that when I walked around the street, two elderly gentlemen from church called me over. One said to the other: ‘You know this young man?’ The other said, ‘yes, his face is familiar’. The other said: ‘Remember the old man with the Chevy truck, uthata Kani, elder Kani? Well that is his son’. I said thank you and walked way. They did not roll out my CV, the number of international awards, order of The Order of Ikhamanga to explain how important I was. They remembered my dad. That is what makes me happy.”