John Kani: “My work pursues the truth ruthlessly”

The actor, director and playwright talks apartheid South Africa, Black Panther and his new play Kunene and the King

PASSIONATE: John Kani on stage in Kunene and the King (Photo: Ellie Kurttz RSC)

AS THE 25th anniversary of South Africa’s first democratic elections approaches, thoughts are inevitably turning to how the country has progressed since the end of apartheid. For actor, director and playwright John Kani, who lived through the horrors of the regime, he’s using the milestone to articulate his thoughts on the condition of his country and encourage discussion through art. “I always say my play is like a review of the 25 years of South African democracy.


“It looks at our successes and our not-so-successes – I don’t want to use the word failure. It also looks at how we dealt with [what] Nelson Mandela left us with,” Kani told Life & Style.

Kani’s approach is to look at the human experience and apartheid’s impact on ordinary South Africans.

His new play, Kunene and the King, which is being performed at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, “explores the person-to-person relationship, especially between white people in South Africa and black people, whether we’ve come closer from 1994 or there have been issues that are dividing us more every day”.

The play follows the story of Lunga Kunene (Kani), an at-home carer and Jack Morris (Antony Sher), a white South African classical actor. It draws its name from Kani’s character’s surname and makes reference to his co-star’s impending role as King Lear. Morris is offered the role just before he’s diagnosed with liver cancer and Lunga becomes his carer when he discharges himself from hospital.

“The play really centres around these two men finding each other, looking at each other, seeing each other and both acknowledge their role in the successes in our democracy and also their role in the failures that are still the hiccups of our democracy,” Kani says.

“Wakanda proved that the Africans would have made it and could actually be more technically advanced”

It’s not the first time Kani has explored apartheid and its legacy through his playwriting.

Reflecting on the three plays he has written, he says: “The first one dealt with forgiveness. “I was unable to forgive white people. I’d carried the scars on my body, in my family, in the people I know and love best.

“The second one reflected on how people who come back from exile integrate within the South African society when they were [away for so many years].

“Are they really South Africans or Africans or are they more citizens of the countries that hosted them?

“Now, Kunene and the King is the third in the series. It examines how far we’ve gone within South Africa, us now, the people who didn’t leave, the people who might have been working and surviving in South Africa.” Aside from the impending anniversary, what’s inspiring Kani to revisit the issues now?

“These things are very important to me, because at 75, I’m already looking at what do I leave to my children and grandchildren? What kind of South Africa do I want them to inherit?

Antony Sher, left, is starring alongside John Kani, right, in Kunene and the King at Stratford-upon-Avon’s Swan Theatre (Photo: RSC)

“Because if I do not address certain issues, the problems that are facing a new emerging society will be their problems and I would have failed in addressing them when I had the time. That is my driver in my life as a writer, to constantly search for truth for humanity, for ubuntu,” he says.

Kani’s whole career can be viewed from the outside as an act of protest, whether the subject matter is specifically addressing the horrors and consequences of apartheid or not. He’s critiqued the apartheid regime through his plays Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island, and lost an eye in an attack when he returned to his home country after touring during apartheid. But the actor says he is fundamentally concerned with shining a light on truths.


“My work is not political,” Kani says, laughing.

“My work pursues the truth ruthlessly, uncompromisingly, and if you look in the mirror and you see politics, it’s your problem. I am telling the journeys of individuals. What really, really excites me is the life of an individual.”

He adds: “My focus is, how does this one soul, this one life, impact on others that surround them and how can that life be fulfilled and be given an opportunity to celebrate humanity?”

Kani played T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka, in the blockbuster hit Black Panther. His son, Atandwa, one of the actor’s seven children, also starred in the film as the younger T’Chaka.

Aside from the obvious attractions to being a part of a Marvel film – the money, the budget – Kani was struck by a particular part of the narrative.


“It talked about a country that was never colonised. Therefore, would black or African people have developed on the level of global standards today if they were not colonised by the British, the Portuguese, the Italians, the French or by the Americans?

“Wakanda proved that the Africans would have made it and could actually be more technically advanced, meaning that colonialism delayed the progress of the African continent – that was what interested me,” he says.

The opportunity to showcase certain aspects of African culture also appealed to Kani. He played a key role in the studio’s decision to use isiXhosa as the language of Wakanda.

“I used my mother tongue isiXhosa as the communicating language. That way I found that I was honoured by Africa as a whole, by my country as a whole, just to have been able to make that impact on Hollywood where we celebrate being African, even to the point of introducing African dialect within the Black Panther movies,” he says.

His son’s involvement in the industry was a decision that Kani questioned at first. He wanted to be sure that Atandwa was truly passionate about the arts and not just “confused” by his father’s success.

“It came with pain,” he says of his own career achievements.“ I carry the wounds and scars, not just in my soul, but on my body physically for this that I believe in. But he has a wonderful opportunity because he’s living in the South Africa and in the world of today, so he doesn’t have to walk through those footsteps of thorns, through apartheid.”

Kunene and the King is on at Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon until April 23.

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