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John Kani’s fight with apartheid cost an eye, but he struggled on

Legendary actor John Kani. Picture: Supplied

Legendary actor John Kani. Picture: Supplied

Published Sep 29, 2023


Pretoria - Legendary thespian and actor John Kani survived 11 stab wounds and a number of death threats during the time of apartheid South Africa, but that never deterred him from pursuing a bright career.

According to him, the National Party rule during the time was the worst time the country has ever had to experience and no country should ever have to go through that again – ever.

Kani has played an abundance of theatre plays that challenged the terror of apartheid, most famously in the Athol Fugard play, The Train Driver. He has recently made a comeback featuring in his classic Nothing But The Truth alongside another legend, Sello Maake KaNcube.

In an interview, years ago, Kani opened up about the fears of apartheid and how he sustained a stab wound.

“We were in Cape Town performing Miss Julie and there is a scene that requires me to kiss a white woman, which I did to the dismay of the white audience and half of them walked out.

“After that performance the security police would always be on my case. It was during that same year that I was stabbed 11 times and left for dead,” he explained.

The legend, who boasts two honorary doctorates from The University of Durban Westville and The University of Cape Town respectively, says after that he survived many assassination attempts and also lost his left eye following a beating from apartheid police. This led to him to wear a prosthetic eye.

Kani further tells that after appearing in Athol Fugard’s Sizwe Banzi Is dead abroad, which addressed the apartheid regime’s pass laws, he received a phone call that lured him from his home. He was told that his father was calling for him, but he was surrounded by police and beaten to a pulp.

“Winston Ntsona and I were detained for 90 days because of performing Sizwe Banzi Is Dead. I remember once when I was performing abroad and met Thabo Mbeki, who was in exile.

“He said to me that we should not deny to the police when we got home the fact that we had met them. It was to make sure that they knew that the ANC was still alive and fighting,” he said.

“Apartheid was terrible! Growing up, my world was my father’s four-room house in New Brighton and we would go into town on weekends. We had a ritual to stop drinking water on Friday nights, because there were no toilets for black people in our city.”

His love for drama had been cemented when he joined the Serpent Players drama group, where he met Fugard in 1965. The pair worked together on numerous plays and their work was crucial in showcasing the horrors of the apartheid system to the world.

Kani’s passion for acting came about when he was in high school, where he met Winston Ntshona, who later won the Tony Award, together with Kani, for best actors in both Sizwe Banzi Is Dead and The Island. The Tony Award is handed out in the US for outstanding work in theatre productions on Broadway.

Like many actors, his father did not at first support his passion for acting.

He claims that he took him to a sangoma (witchdoctor) when he realised that he wanted to do acting instead of continuing at his first job at Ford motor company, where he earned R32 a week.

“It was so funny how my father dreaded my passion for acting. He took me to a sangoma and when we got there the sangoma told him that there were people who were jealous around my father and so they wanted to get to him through me and they had bewitched me to do stupid things, referring to acting,” Kani added.

Kani has since gone on to star in various stage and stage productions across the world, as well as local and international films, most recently featuring in a leading role in the box office hit, Black Panther. He is also set to star in the upcoming adaptation of one of Disney’s most iconic films, The Lion King.

Pretoria News