Phoenix rises to great heights

By Shain Germaner Time of article published Jun 24, 2017

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It began as a few drama classes at Noordgesig High School, where Tshabalira Lebakeng would direct only the most die-hard theatre-kids in the school’s passion projects.

Five years later, Lebakeng’s group of dedicated performers has blossomed into a theatre group that not only helps protect at-risk youth in the area, but has also produced a show that will be heading to the Grahamstown National Arts Festival next month.

The Ngizwe ("hear me") Youth Theatre team sees its young stars develop their own stories into working productions, but the one that will be performed in Grahamstown this year has been a deeply personal affair for Lebakeng.

While the troupe has added its own flavour and stories to The Little One, the piece was inspired mainly by Lebakeng’s childhood struggle to survive on the streets of Durban for two years, after he was abandoned by his mother and her new boyfriend.

“My mother chose him over me. I remember he told me that I would ‘have to hustle’. I didn’t know what that meant, but I couldn’t go back home.

“In the first month on the streets, you’re trying to learn the concept of the streets. You can’t go to any rubbish bin, there are rules.”

Despite the occasional turf war over rubbish bins, Lebakeng remembers how the groups of homeless children were tightly knit. They would help each other stay clean, washing together and pooling their resources so they would look “presentable”.

“Because we still had hope. Maybe one day I can find someone who will come and say: ‘let me adopt you’. They don’t want dirty mosquitoes. I wanted to be a neat and tidy boy, a clean boy, so a good Samaritan would adopt me.”

The children survived on discarded food, taking turns to beg outside restaurants and raid any binned meals.

“Your body becomes like a lizard. It protects you from the heat and cold and when it’s raining. But you also have to survive people judging you. They ask why these children have run away from home, why they wouldn’t listen to their families.”

It was only after two years, on the brink of starvation, that he returned to his mother, who then pawned him off on a family friend. “She had negotiated with another domestic worker from a rural area to take me.”

Desperately unhappy with his “new, horrible family”, he begged his mother for help and she agreed to send him to his maternal family in the Eastern Cape, where his outlook finally improved.

It was only years later, as a young adult, that Lebakeng met his biological father and found what he calls his “true home”. Having lived in a small village in the Eastern Cape all the way into his mid-20s, he had made friends and acquaintances from other villages as well.

While talking with a friend one day, he mentioned his father’s name. “Wait, I know that name. You have a big head like your father. He smokes too,” the friend told him.

Lebakeng decided to write a letter to the father he had never known, sending it with the friend to his father’s village. After a response from his paternal grandmother asking him to visit, he decided to make his way to their village on foot.

“We didn’t have enough money to take a bus. We walked from 8 in the morning until 6 in the evening,” he recalls.

“The picture I still have in my mind is when I saw my old man sitting under an apple tree, smoking a huge marijuana pipe. And I didn’t ask him if he was my father. I saw myself in him,” Lebakeng remembers, his eyes welling with tears.

“And I saw my grandmother, and she said: ‘This is the sheep I’ve been looking for’ My father came to me and said: ‘Listen, now you are home'."

Thirteen years later, Lebakeng has not only brought Ngizwe through its first major production, he has also been credited as a writer on Vaya, a 2016 feature film currently on the global festival circuit. It is set to be released locally in October.

Despite his success, Lebakeng’s complicated relationship with his mother came to an abrupt end when he invited her to visit the shooting of Vaya in 2015, and was alerted on the morning she was set to arrive that she had died. “I wanted to show my mother her son, but it was not to be.”

He still strives for financial independence and a home he can call his own. “If other people work 100%, I have to work 110% to feel successful. My last dream is to sit in a couch in my house and say now I can relax.

“But for now, the road is still open for me. My biggest achievement is working with these kids, especially in theatre I want to see these kids one day knocking on my door and having grown up and become successful.”

Emma Delius, Ngizwe’s creative director, and her mother, Harriet Perlman, have been instrumental in pushing him.

Perlman, a writer and producer, has been Lebakeng’s mentor for years and served as co-writer and producer of Vaya.

Meanwhile, Delius spent months raising funds for the festival performance of The Little One, managing to secure Grounded Media’s help in paying for transport and accommodation for the extensive ensemble cast in Grahamstown.

“We’re not there to make money, we’re there for the kids to be seen and for their stories to be heard,” says Delius.

As The Little One is aimed at a young audience, Ngizwe is giving away tickets to child focused NGOs, organisations and schools that would like their pupils to attend the performances on July 2 and 3 at the Rehearsal Room in Grahamstown.

* For any interested groups, please contact [email protected] or visit and

Saturday Star

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