Using the theatre to heal and fight crime

By Sthembiso Sithole Time of article published Mar 22, 2018

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When Themba Mkhoma went to watch a play at his community centre 32 years ago, he had no idea what he saw would ignite something in him.

Mkhoma had gone to the centre in Soweto with his brother to watch a play in which one of their neighbours was part of the cast. They loved what they were seeing and thought she was hilarious.

Driven by passion for theatre, Mkhoma and his brother began performing the play and making it their own. Back then, Mkhoma said, they knew little about copyright issues.

When he got older, Mkhoma - Soweto born and raised - used his love of drama to help tackle the issue of crime in his neighbourhood.

Growing up, crime and gangsterism had been the order of the day. At some point in his life, he also found himself in the clutches of crime and was arrested for hijacking.

On his release from prison, Mkhoma took it upon himself to rehabilitate youngsters hooked on crime by creating a platform where they could turn their bad acts into good.

“For years when I was young I got involved in crime, so I wanted to inspire kids. I didn’t want other people to end up like me. And when I arrived in Dlamini (an area in Soweto), I was told boys from this area are naughty and the community has to do something with them. Back then, there was a culture of gangsters, they started at a young age and influenced each other.

“All the community was thinking was to get the boys arrested. I thought maybe we should use this opportunity to rehabilitate them.

“So we came up with the concept of ‘Positive Gangsterism’, whose aim was to say ‘let’s encourage them, let’s teach these gangs and show them that they can do something positive’,” said Mkhoma.

“Positive Gangsterism” became the talk of town as many youngsters were eager to join the theatre. The group was seen as a home for those who once angered and offended the community through criminality.

“It (drama) is more important than life itself because when young people engage in drama, it gives them an opportunity to interrogate life. If a young person hasn’t had an opportunity to engage with their parents about sexual health issues, in a drama they are able to deal with these issues, they are able to act them out. They play the role of being a parent and are in the shoes of the parents,” he said.

After years of working with youngsters, Mkhoma decided to further his studies at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). Recently, he obtained his Masters degree in drama therapy.

Mkhoma said the reasons he decided to go back to school were because he wanted to empower himself and improve his writing, directing and training skills as a theatre practitioner.

“I wanted to improve my skills in relation to how I work with young people. So as a drama therapist, we use drama as a form of therapy to deal with the emotional, physiological and social factors that affect people in the townships.

“It feels good that I am now empowered. I have been doing this for years. It feels great that now I have a skill that is needed in our community,” he said.

As Mkhoma is now a lecturer at Wits’ Drama for Life, Reflective Practice and teaches at The Market Theatre Laboratory, he has decided to pass the baton to Kamvalethu Tshabalala to take over the Soweto centre.

Tshabalala, who is studying towards a Bachelors degree in education full time at the University of Johannesburg while doing a short course in arts and drama there, started working with Mkhoma from the age of 13.

“We worked well with Buti Themba over the years. I have learned a lot from him and I am one of the children he groomed when it comes to art and drama,” said Tshabalala.

According to Mkhoma, Tshabalala has all the qualities to unite and educate youngsters in the township.

“The interesting thing about Kamva taking over is that she was young when she started. She was one of the driven young people.

“It was easy for us to hand over the baton so that the programme can continue. I feel Kamva has the qualities we didn’t have back then. Being young herself, she understands young people, and having worked with her for some time I know she has the skills and experience,” he said.

The enthusiastic Tshabalala said that as part of her duties, she had to gather youngsters, facilitate workshops and pass on knowledge and skills to the new generation on “Positive Gangsterism”, which is now called “The Living Newspaper”.

“We gather and do theatre exercises and try to help each other grow in acting. We are a team full of people who want to act, write and direct.

“We select someone to direct a play and write the script. We go around watching plays and come back to critique them,” she said.

Tshabalala said the reason she changed the name of the group was “because the plays that we write tell stories of people coming from different backgrounds with different experiences”.

Tshabalala is currently working on her own play, Imela, which focuses on women’s issues and the challenges they face daily.

Through the play, she aims to show society that woman can stand up for themselves and succeed without men.

Back in the ’90s there was no social media, and Tshabalala wants to integrate what they do at the centre with social media. She said through social media, more people would know about them and attend their shows.

“Social media is a powerful tool. We want to create different social media pages for the centre and be able to reach more people. We will also use social media to promote some of the plays we will be showcasing in different theatre laboratories,” she said.


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