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Restaging South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission: John Kani’s Nothing But the Truth


By Sam Durrant

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 67 (2005), pp. 73-82]

This paper is part of a larger project on the invention of mourning in post-apartheid South Africa. The central focus is literary texts, placed within the larger post-apartheid culture of memorialisation, from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission itself and the various support groups set up in its wake, to museum projects, tours and the creation of public memorials. This conference has given me the opportunity to extend my project into the realm of drama by focusing on John Kani’s Nothing But the Truth, a play that Kani conceived and wrote himself. He both directed and took the lead role in the original production of the play, which premiered in the Grahamstown festival in 2002, and has subsequently had runs in the Market Theatre, Johnanesberg, in The Baxter Theatre, Cape Town and in the Lincoln Centre, New York.

The central argument of my larger project concerns the relation between artistic invention, the invention of mourning and the invention of community. Two traditions of invention need to be distinguished here, because they lead ultimately to two different modes of community.

The first tradition will be familiar to historians and social scientists as articulated in Hobsbawm and Ranger’s seminal collection, The Invention of Tradition, which concerns itself with the artificial invention of traditions in order to produce a collective sense of identity. Invention in this sense is the manipulation of cultural traditions and the ideological interpolation of subjects. It produces community based on an appeal to sameness, to a shared cultural tradition, and precisely because of this appeal to sameness, it produces an exclusionary form of community, defined by its difference from those with other cultural practices and traditions.

The second form of invention has its origins in the idea of artistic inspiration. Here invention is not linked to the operation of ideology and the production of identity but to the experience of being taken over by the muse or a spirit, by someone or something outside oneself. Artistic invention is thus linked to ethics and alterity, to the capacity to think outside oneself, to the idea of empathy or what Keats termed negative capability. If art does indeed function according to this appeal to otherness, its invitation to move beyond the bounds of identity, then it is potentially capable of producing community without appealing to an exclusionary idea of sameness. Although Marxist approaches to art underline the way in which art often does function by means of ideological interpolation, by appealing to specific class, racial, sexual, national or religious constituencies, there remains the possibility that artistic invention might produce a different form of community, one that is defined not by ideological closure but by its capacity to remain open to difference.

These two traditions of invention are crucial to an understanding of not only how art works, but also to the work of mourning. While mourning rites are often thought of as among a culture’s most entrenched and unchanging traditions, I have come to suspect that they often constitute some of the most unstable and adaptable traditions, especially where communities are responding to new forms of death and dying. What anthropologists term mortuary rites usually relate to so called ‘natural’ deaths, where the death can be anticipated, preparations made and relatives gathered round. It is under the pressure of dealing with ‘wrong deaths’, those which happen outside the home, in unexpected or unknown circumstances, that mourning rites undergo their most radical reinventions. In the context of South Africa, ‘traditional’ African mourning rituals have been constantly reinvented under the pressure of a number of factors. Firstly, colonisation and the spread of Christianity has led to many different hybrid mourning rites combining both African and Christian traditions. Secondly, the reinvention of mourning traditions has been necessitated by the destruction and dispersal of communities during the apartheid era, by the creation on the one hand of artificial rural bantustans designed to promote homogoneous ethnic identities and cultural practices and on the other of unofficial multi-ethnic urban settlements. And thirdly, the political exigencies of the anti-apartheid movement led to the transformation of funerals into political rallies. Here, the invention of mourning practices is inextricably linked to other cultural practices such as praise poetry and dance and this link is necessarily ideological, functioning to cement broad identification with the goals of the anti-apartheid movement as well as identification with specific organisations and ideologies within the movement.

What I am describing as the reinvention of mourning practices in post-apartheid South Africa is in part a response to, or even a consequence of, the politicisation of funerals during the apartheid era.[1] As Fiona Ross has noted, this process was itself part of a long-standing South African tradition of collectivizing the experience of the individual:

''In terms of a resistance to apartheid, collectivizing pain provided a charter for collective action against the state and its representatives . . . [T]he mass funerals of people killed in ‘political violence’ . . . were transformed into political spaces otherwise prohibited. Fiery speeches characterised the funerals. Coffins were draped in flags of banned political organizations. Young people accompanied coffins to graveyards singing freedom songs and doing the ‘toyi-toyi’, a fiery motion of process'' (153).

Although such a process was a vital as a mode of consciousness-raising, Ross notes that ‘some people felt that the collectivizing of grief in this way had the effect of limiting the expression of their own grieving’. Such is indeed the case in Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying, in which the funeral of a six year old boy who has been necklaced by ‘Young Tigers’ from his own community is stage managed by the political leaders and ends up marginalising the needs of the grieving mother, Noria.

The politicisation of funerals can thus lead to a radical displacement or deferral of mourning that opens up a fissure between the psychological needs of bereaved individuals and the political needs of the larger community. Moreover, the violent nature of many of these funerals, often triggered by their disruption by agents of the apartheid government, means that losses are accumulated rather than assuaged, that grief is turned into grievance that finds its expression in more acts of violence. As Toloki puts it in Ways of Dying, ‘Death lives with us everyday. Indeed our ways of living are our ways of living. Or should I say our ways of living are our ways of dying’ (98). In other words, our modes of surviving death through ritualised forms of grieving have themselves become ways of dying, part of a never-ending ritual of violence: the ‘labour’ of mourning only ‘gives birth to other funerals’ (160).

Ways of Dying, the novel that has inspired my larger project, not only documents this cycle of violence but also constitutes a response to it, as a narrative that performs its own work of mourning. Its central character, Toloki, reinvents himself as a professional mourner, doning a cape and top hat begged from a hire shop, inventing his own ascetic dietary practice (green onions and swiss roll), spraying himself with a particular pungent perfume and wailing, invited or uninvited, at the many funerals of the day. The novel’s presentation of Toloki is clearly partly comic. His motives are initially opportunistic and monetary, but he later discovers that mourning has become his ‘spiritual vocation’ (134). He eventually gives up his vagrant lifestyle and moves in with Noria, and mourning takes on a personal, private significance as they wash each other and he helps her come to terms with the death of her son. The novel has been taken to task by Grant Farred for its retreat from the political, but in fact, in line with Albie Sachs’ 1989 call for a ban on the dogmatic (Marxist) understanding of culture as a weapon of the struggle, the novel can be read as an allegorical shift away from overly politicised cultural practices that leave no room for individual grief and towards a new community based art, suggested by the union of Noria, who has been played an active role in the practical life of the informal settlement and Toloki, who begins to draw sketches of the settlement children and in so doing inherits the creative spirit of his father, an ironmonger who was also inspired into creative work by Noria’s presence as muse.

It is no coincidence that Mda, himself also a dramatist, provides the introduction to the published version of Kani’s play, Nothing But the Truth. As well as drawing attention to his own role in persuading Kani to write the play, Mda discusses the play’s relation to the political:

''Nothing But the Truth belongs to a body of work that has been
referred to as ‘Theatre for Reconciliation’. However, it exposes the shortcomings of reconciliation as espoused by our political leaders, who focused on reconciliation between white and blacks, and forgot that there is a dire need for reconciliation among the blacks themselves.'' (viii)

It is no coincidence that this ‘dire need’ is also clearly central to the possibility of community in Ways of Dying. In both works, what looks like a retreat from the political is in fact a critique of the inadequacies of the political arena as currently constituted in South Africa.

The reception of Kani’s play has been mixed. Gordon Cox describes it as an ‘essentially a family drama’ marred by ‘overblown rhetoric’ while Louise Bethlehem is disappointed by its adherence to the conventions of ‘bourgeois drama’, its nostalgia for family, and ‘its retreat from the ethics and aesthetics of oppositional drama’. Although Kani’s play is thoroughly naturalistic, set in a typical New Brighton township house, fully furnished according the conventions of the domestic drama that it undeniably is, this domestic space is in fact reclaimed from other more public and political spaces as the only space in which certain griefs and grievances can find expression. The spatial and temporal domesticity of the play are explicitly presented against two alternative times and spaces: firstly the public space of the TRC hearings, in which one of the characters is acting as a translator, and secondly that of the funeral which is the occasion for the family conflicts enacted on stage but which is significantly postponed until after the play has run its course.

The central character, Sipho, played by Kani himself, is a chief assistant librarian and claims for himself representative status as the ‘ordinary’ citizen who participated in the rallies and made the sacrifices which enabled the ANC to come to power but who have not been ‘empowered’ themselves: ‘When Archbishop Tutu led thousands through the streets of Port Elizabeth, that was me. I WAS THOSE THOUSANDS’ (52).[2] Sipho’s griefs and grievances initially coelesce around the figure of his dead brother, whose political activism, subsequent exile to London and ultimate failure to return to South Africa after the end of apartheid are experienced by Sipho as a betrayal, as part of a pattern of irresponsibility and taking. The play begins with Sipho berating his brother for his untimely death:

''Typical. Just like him. Always not there to take responsibility. Even when we were kids. It was never his fault. Even when he lost my blazer, it was never his fault. So said my Mother. Damn you Themba. All I wanted was a little time. Just the two of us. There are things I wanted to talk to you about. There are questions I needed to ask. But no. Themba does not arrive. He is not available. As usual. I am the eldest. I must understand.'' (2-3)

Sipho upbraids his brother for dying too soon, for not having returned to South Africa earlier, for having denied Sipho ‘a little time’. On one level, Sipho is clearly in the first stages of bereavement and expresses an irrational anger at the dead for having died. On another, his anger is at his brother’s failure to return to South Africa has more complex origins. The language of ‘family drama’, with the deliberate reference to the childhood grievance over the school blazer, is deliberate. For Sipho’s complaint turns out to be not simply an internal family grudge but a complaint against the way in which the political has always taken precedence over the familial, deferring the resolution of family conflicts to such an extent that Sipho has actually displaced his anger at the conditions of apartheid onto the figure of his brother. So much so, in fact, that Sipho holds Themba responsible for the death of his own son, Luvuyo, who, following in his activist uncle’s footsteps, had begun to ‘recite poems at political rallies and funerals’ and who had been shot by a white policeman on his way to a ‘little girl’s funeral’ (47).

The anger here is also autobiographical: Kani’s own son was shot in New Brighton in 1985. Clearly, Kani has used the play to work through his own deferred grief at his son’s death, and one wonders whether the play will lose much of its energy without Kani’s own involvement as actor and director; whether the play is closer to the testimonial drama of performances such as The Story I am About to Tell, made by a support group for survivors, in which three TRC witnesses actually play themselves.

However, this condensation of the autobiographical, the domestic and the political is part of the point: as in Ways of Dying, the play contains a critique of the way of the way in which political organisations turned funerals into political rallies and ignored the needs of the bereaved: Themba’s status as a political activist meant that that the UDF took over the funerals of both Sipho’s father and his son.

''It was Comrade Themba’s wishes. They turned my father’s funeral into a political rally. There were twelve speakers. One after the other, talking about Themba’s father. I sat there like a stranger. I paid for the coffin. I paid for all the funeral arrangements. I even paid for the food they were eating. But I was just Comrade Themba’s brother. They whisked his coffin away, carried it shoulder high and ran with it all the way to the cemetry. My aunts and uncles could not keep up with them. The police were all over. It was chaos. Kids were toyi-toying, taunting the police to shoot them. It was like the day they buried my son. I ran behind the coffin. At the graveyard I was not even the first to throw the soil on the coffin. No, it was the delegates first. The songs went on forever.'' (46)

The temporality of personal grief is outrun by the temporality of political anger, so that Sipho is always doomed to arrive too late at the coffin, too late to claim the rights and rites of the next of kin. His daughter urges him to testify before the commission as a way of recovering this lost time for mourning: ‘it’s not too late. The hearings are still on. No case is closed’ (52), but Sipho, like the family of Steve Biko and many others, seeks justice rather than reconciliation and longs to see the policeman tried in a legal court and found guilty of the crime that he has committed. At times the play threatens to descend into a discursive staging of arguments about the pros and cons of the TRC process and the merits of forgiveness and retributive justice, but it remains powered by Sipho’s desire to reclaim the ‘little time’ that he says Themba has deprived him of in the opening speech, the time of personal mourning that was overrun by the time of the political. In this sense, then, it does in fact restage the TRC process but within a private space, offering Sipho the chance to work though his grief and anger on his own terms.

One of the many problems of the TRC process was that, as a public process, personal testimonies were almost inevitably assimilated into a national narrative. Brandon Hamber and Richard Wilson, psychologists directly involved with the counselling of some of the most deeply affected by apartheid, argue:

''nations are not like individuals in that they do not have collective psyches. . . nation-building discourses on reconciliation often subordinate individual needs, and . . . truth commissions and individual processes of healing work on different time lines.'' (35)

Similarly, Heidi Grunebaum-Ralph and Oren Stier argue that:

''by conflating the process by which a collective heals with the process by which the individual comes to terms with loss, death, torture and atrocity, not only is the individual memory co-opted into the mythological founding moment of the collective, not only are those memories silenced which contest the possibility of wholeness and healing silenced, but the memorial process itself becomes endowed with a coherence, continuity and linearity which belie the unexpectedness, fragmentation and complexities of memory and its memorialisations.'' (The Question of Remains: Remembering Shoah, Forgetting Reconciliation.p.146)

Kani’s play does not really conform to the fragmentary aesthetic that Grunnebaum Ralph and Stier argue is the only way to do justice to the traumatic deep memories of the survivors of apartheid. The full disclosure of the ‘truth’ referred to in the title enables a form of resolution and although one might argue that Sipho’s ‘deep memories’ fragment the present tense of the dramatic narrative, his speeches of remembrance ultimately function according to the familiar contours of catharsis, in accordance with the banners hung during the TRC hearings that optimistically proclaimed ‘revealing is healing’.[3]

Nevertheless, although the play moves towards reconciliation between Sipho and Themba and between Sipho and his daughters/nieces, it stops short of endorsing the narrative of national reconciliation. Sipho comes to recognise that he ‘forgave Themba long ago’, that remaining angry with him was a survival mechanism, ‘the only way he could deal with Luvoyo’s death’ (56). There is a curious temporal switchback here: the climax of the play reveals that he has reclaimed the ‘little time’ of which he feels Themba’s untimely death has deprived him, only to discover that he has already forgiven him. What he still needs time for, or rather, what he may not have time for, in both senses of the phrase, is the forgiving of the policeman who killed his son. He seems able to forgive white people in the abstract: ‘If I can forgive all the white people for what they did to us in this country, how can I not forgive my own brother?’ (56), but this forgiveness is couched in the form of a question and when his daughter asks him whether he can forgive the policeman, the script reads: ‘Long pause —SIPHO does not answer’. (58).

Hamber and Wilson argue that revenge is often a more successful means of closure than testimony and many commentators have argued that reconciliation is not possible without economic restitution. The length that Kani as actor gives to this long pause is perhaps crucial to how one responds to the final moments of the play, in which Sipho is able to express his love for his brother and channel his anger at being overlooked for the post of Chief Librarian into a letter to Mbeki proposing an African Public Library for New Brighton township. Much depends on how the final scene is played and how the audience react: does Sipho really believe that President Mbeki will listen to his letter; that the letter will even arrive at its destination? Bearing in mind Mda’s understanding of the play as ‘exposing the shortcomings of reconciliation as espoused by our political leaders’, the whole play, as an enumeration of the griefs and grievances of those who brought the ANC to power, might be said to constitute a timely letter to the president. The problem is that the cathartic structure of the play enumerates these griefs and grievances only to dissolve them, even while it leaves the question of bringing to justice the murderer of Sipho - and Kani’s - son hanging in the air.

Ultimately, then, the play gestures beyond its own confines: it invents its own mourning time - space to deal with a death that happened elsewhere and a body that ultimately never arrives. The play is in fact initiated by the non-arrival of Themba’s corpse, which has been has been cremated in London and only arrives as ashes, which throws Sipho’s original funeral plans into disarray:

''The funeral! Oh my God! The funeral! What are we going to do? Reverend Haya is coming soon to conduct a small service for the arrival of Themba’s body. What body? . . . What am I going to bury on Saturday? My uncles are going to want to see him'' (13-14).

However, this confusion turns out to be productive in so far as it spurs Sipho into action, forcing him to reclaim the ‘little time’ necessary to grieve his brother in private before the public funeral takes place. The play is thus itself an improvised rite of mourning that ‘goes before’ the official public ceremony, reaffirming the precedence of private grief over its public expression.


[1]See also Tetleman (1999)
[2] There is a certain tension between this claim to represent the ordinary South African and what Bethlehem would see as his petty bourgois aspirations to become Chief Librarian.
[3] While many witnessess did indeed experience a sense of ‘catharsis’ immediately following their testimony, many later discovered that the process of working through had only just begun and was sometimes made even more difficult by the process of public revelation. See Grunebaum and Henri, p.111.

Works Cited

Bethlehem, Louise (2003) ‘A Nostalgia for Truth.’, Mail and Guardian Online. October 3rd

Cox, Gordon (2003) ‘Nothing but the Truth: Kani’s Look at Life After Apartheid Creates a Moving Portrait.’, December 9th.

Farred, Grant (2000) ‘Mourning the postapartheid state already? The poetics of loss in Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying’, Modern Fiction Studies, 46 (1), pp183-206.

Kani, John (2002) Nothing But the Truth, Introduced by Zakes Mda. Johannesberg: Witwatersrand University Press.

Grunebaum, Heidi and Yazir Henri.( 2003) ‘Remembering Bodies, Producing Histories: Holocaust Survivor Narratives and Truth and Reconciliation Commission Testimony’, in Jill Bennett and Roseanne Kennedy (eds), World Memory: Personal Trajectories in Global Time, Basingstoke and New York, p. 101-18.

Grunebaum, Heidi and Ralph Oren-Stier. (1999) ‘The Question (of) Remains: Remembering Shoah, Forgetting Reconciliation’ in Facing the Truth: South African Faith Communities and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission ed James Cochrane et al. Cape Town: David Philip.

Hamber, Brendon and Richard Wilson (2002) ‘Symbolic Closure Through Memory, Reparation and Revenge in Post-Conflict Societies’, Journal of Human Rights 1 (1),

Hobsbawm, Eric and Terrence Ranger (1983) (eds.) The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Mda, Zakes (1995). Ways of Dying, Cape Town: Oxford University Press South Africa.

Ross, Fiona (2003) ‘Ripples of Pain’ in Jill Bennett and Roseanne Kennedy (eds), World Memory: Personal Trajectories in Global Time, Basingstoke and New York, p.102.

Albie Sachs (2 February 1990 )‘Preparing ourselves for freedom’, Weekly Mail.

Tetleman, Michael (1999) ‘The Burial of Canon J. A. Calata and the Revival of Mass-Based Opposition in Craddock, South Africa, 1983’, African Studies, 58 (1), , pp.5-29.

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