‘Sikhahlel’u OR’ celebrates the life of human rights activist Oliver Tambo

Oliver Tambo. Picture: Peter Auf Der Heyde/Afrapix

Oliver Tambo. Picture: Peter Auf Der Heyde/Afrapix

Published Mar 20, 2023


Against the backdrop of Human Rights Day, previously known as Sharpeville Day, a commemoration of the Sharpeville massacre, the South African State Theatre (SAST) is celebrating the life of Oliver Reginald Tambo in a thought-provoking new theatre production titled “Sikhahlel’u OR”.

On March 21, 1960, police officers opened fire on a group of people peacefully protesting against oppressive pass laws, leaving 69 dead and 180 injured.

The praise poem “Sikhahlel’u OR”, by renowned poet and writer Mongane Wally Serote, is being adapted into a stage play, which will debut at the State Theatre this week.

Directed by Ntshieng Mokgoro and featuring Ntsika Ngxanga as the music director, the production stars Harriet Manamela, Thokozani Mthiyane and Thabo Ramaine.

“Sikhahlel’u OR” chronicles the life and times of OR Tambo, a human rights activist who served as president of the ANC from 1967 to 1991.

The play follows Tambo from his childhood in Mbizana, Eastern Cape, to the Struggle and his role in the ANC, and captures his vision for South Africa.

It also pays tribute to many others who participated in the Struggle, some of whom sacrificed their lives.

“Sikhahlel’u OR” received acclaim in literary circles after its publication in 2019. Former president Thabo Mbeki called it “an immensely creative work of love”.

Oliver Tambo. Picture: Supplied

Mokgoro told IOL Entertainment that Serote had approached her to adapt his well-known praise poem into a stage play to honour Tambo’s legacy.

“This is not the first time that I’ve collaborated with the professor (Serote). In 2015, I directed his play ‘Fresh Foot Print’ and we met again in November.

“He had asked me to direct Don Mattera’s tribute show. He then invited me to stage ‘Sikhahlel’u OR' and as they say, the rest is history,” said Mokgoro.

“This is a very long poem, about 150 pages, and it's multi-layered. It talks about everything from Ntate Tambo’s childhood to when he left for exile, and it also celebrates the other politicians of his time.

“The focal point for me was to celebrate the life of Ntate Tambo and while we are celebrating the life of a man who sacrificed so much for this country, the play will open a conversation about the current state of our country.

“And if he was here, what would he say about the current state of South Africa?

“The question remains, are we still able to take forward the vision that Ntate Tambo had of building a democratic South Africa?"

According to Mokgoro, the play also touches on spirituality.

The cast of ‘Sikhahlel’u OR’ with musical director Ntsika Ngxanga during rehearsals. Picture: Supplied

“We are invoking his spirit and we are talking to his spirit. We are inviting him to guide us through these crises that our country is facing right now.”

Music formed a crucial part of Tambo’s life. According to several reports, he was first introduced to formal music at school in Embhobeni. He enjoyed classical and choral music and was an accomplished choirmaster.

“This is why when I started this project, I immediately knew that this celebration of Ntate Tambo must be done through song and dance and Ntsika was the obvious choice, in terms of musical background and spirituality.

“I approached Ntsika and told him about this production. I wanted to stay away from the usual Struggle songs and chanting on stage. I wanted a different approach, and with his contribution took the show to the next level.”

Speaking about his role in the production, Ngxanga said he felt honoured to have been “chosen” to compose music for this tribute piece.

“I recently posted a video on my social media and the words just poured out saying: ‘What an honour to be chosen to be one of the creatives to tribute this colossal spirit’.

“This speaks to where you are as a creative, at that instance when your path crosses with people that have been tasked to do this tribute. It means there is something that I'm also doing right for that vibration to find me.

“When we look at it, you then find that there's nothing that happens without the okaying of those that have passed on.

“If uBaba Oliver wanted his story to be told, it means that there was a covenant in the spirit world and he also said, ‘yes, let there be a story about me’.

“And then for him to assemble people that he wanted to tell his story to and I'm one of those people, that is just amazing.”

He added: “What also struck me so hard is that as soon as Ntshieng told me about the play, even before we met up, officially to talk about the script, I was already getting songs, dreaming of songs, receiving songs for the play.

“Fast-forward to me finally getting the script, within three days I had all the songs that I wanted to do for the play. So yeah, a willing spirit yields magical results.”

“Sikhahlel’u OR” will run from March 23–26 at the SAST. Tickets are available at Webtickets for R200.

John Kani and Michael Richard in ‘Kunene and the King’. Picture: Supplied


“Kunene and the King”

Where: Artscape Theatre Centre.

When: Until March 25.

After a successful run in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2019, “Kunene and the King” premiered to a sold-out house at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre before continuing to enjoy sold-out shows at theatres around the country.

Penned by actor and playwright Dr John Kani, “Kunene and the King” is set 28 years after the country’s first post-apartheid democratic elections and tackles head-on the personal implications of the new equality.

Sanele Philip, Ngwedi Ramphele, Azande Mkhumgo, Ndonie Ntshizai, and Sinegugu Mdluli KwaSha recording for the children’s theatre production. Picture: Supplied


“Skin We Are In”

Where: Joburg schools.

When: Until April 30.

“Skin We Are In”, is a play based on the book by Dr Sindiwe Magona and Nina Jablonksi. The play will travel to primary and high schools in March and April, performing for 12 to 15-year-olds in Johannesburg.

“Children are born with the innate ability to want to live, learn and adapt. If anyone can learn to look beyond small differences to appreciate variety and value people for who they are, it’s them,” said Magona.

KZN Youth Orchestra. Picture: Facebook


“KZN Schools Jazz Festival”

Where: Durban High School.

When: March 24–26.

This is the opening concert of the “KZN Schools Jazz Festival”, which will be happening at Durban High School and features the KZN Youth Orchestra.

The orchestra comprises 70 young musicians from around the province. The concert will include music from a variety of genres and is excellent family entertainment.

There will be pieces from the romantic period, movies and musicals and rock and pop numbers.

Conducted by Lyk Temmingh and presented by Cathy Peacock.