Matsemela Manaka

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Matsemela Manaka (1955-1998). Writer, director, actor, poet and cultural theorist.


He grew up in the Alexandra township of Johannesburg. Attended Soweto's Madibane High School during the mid-'70s and later taught there. Manaka's career was characterised by his involvement in many different artistic and literary activities. An unusual talent for poetry, sculpting, painting and drama had been identified at a tender age. With the support of his family, a rigorous programme of self-education saw him emerge as a pioneer in the middle of the education crisis which resulted from the Soweto riots in 1976. Between I970-81 he was the editor of Staffrider, a black art and literary magazine.

He was married to Nomsa Manaka.

He died tragically in a car accident in 1998.

Contribution to SA theatre, film, media and/or performance

Founded the Soyikwa African Theatre company at the Funda Drama Centre in Diepkloof, Soweto, in 1978, where he taught acting and directing.

Manaka used theatre as a political platform. In the improvisational work that is part of the preparation process, Manaka drew from those written works of Stanislavski and Grotowski that he could find in local libraries. He had never had the chance to do practical work in their methods, but he used Stanislavski's ideas about making actors aware of their physical, psychological, and daily environments and saw a similarity between his own working conditions and Grotowski's "poor theatre." In February 1986 Manaka told Wakashe that Grotowski's influence goes far beyond the implicit economics of poor theatre. Like Grotowski's performers, members of Manaka's company show their most personal selves as well as express their own moral values in their art. Manaka's theatre - like all true protest theatre - cannot be associated with or funded by the state. His works have been banned because they express a revolutionary tone full of sharp criticism of the government's policies.

In the early and mid-1980s, there seemed to be a growing struggle between the likes of Mbongeni Ngema among others and Manaka over who was the genuine mirror of the black experience. By this time Manaka had been pushed to the margins due to lack of sponsorship because of a misconception that he was an uncompromising militant radical.

Many who were close to him realised that not being featured in national showcases like the Civic Theatre, the Market Theatre, the Grahamstown National Arts Festival and not being rewarded by the Vita Awards, for instance, may have taken their toll on his private life.

His first major stage work was Egoli: City of Gold. Almost overnight, at the tender age of 21 (1976), he had become the principal black playwright in the hottest township in Africa and catapulted himself into national and international recognition.

The play struck a chord with the rising crescendo of black resistance and mobilised theatre audiences to hunger for political conscious works. Combining his politically-conscious credentials with longstanding connections with activists close to Steve Biko, Manaka had with one production dislodged Gibson Kente as the pillar of township theatre. Kente, to Manaka and his Black Consciousness exponents, represented a variety of cultural worker in the 1970s who glorified the indignity and humiliation of the black man in his country through song and dance.

But it was the early success of Egoli, his searing indictment of the exploitation of industrial workers - banned here but awarded a Fringe First at the Edinburgh Festival- which set him on his way as a playwright.

His play Egoli provided a basis for optimism among members of the working class, especially the Natonal Union of Mineworkers who were in the forefront of the Congress of SA Workers Unions.

Other plays that he wrote are Toro: The African Dream, Children of Asazi, Pula, Domba: The Last Dance, Ekhaya (performed in translation in France, 1998), Imbumba, Siza, Koma, Blues Afrika Café, Goree.

New Nation Writers’ Conference 1991: Matsemela Manaka: Poet, artist, playwright and founder member and director of Soyikwa African Theatre Group, based in Soweto. Matsemela’s innovative theatre productions combine art, dance, drama, music and African food.

A poetic playwright, whose work deals with the emotional and psychological effects of political oppression. His plays include Egoli (performed 1979, published 1980), Vuka (Edinburgh Festival in 1982, Market Theate, 1986, Downstairs at the Wits Theatre 1985 (Tucker 443), Pula (1986, won the **** Award), Imbumba (1983), Children of Asazi (1984), Goree and Ekhaya: Museum over Soweto (1992). The latter play and his eloquent and articulate articles were all part of his efforts to have the African contribution to the arts understood and recognized, and his involvement with setting up a museum for the history of Soweto***.

Black Consciousness shaped his critical eye-in the I970s students repeatedly sang one refrain, "Black man, you are on your own." This was the message Soyikwa wanted to get across in Pula. The great wave of Black Consciousness carried Manaka into his venture without having had any theatrical training.

In 1977 he created The Horn with the Soyikwa theatre company, in 1978 came eGoli, in 1980 he performed his one-man show Blues Afiika in Germany. Pula was performed from I981-84. Domba, the Last Dance was performed in Johannesburg in 1986.

In the 1990s some new talent, including his partner Herman Mabizela and the late Nyaniso Manzana who admired his brilliance, joined Manaka and started the production company Ekhaya Productions to create television programmes on the arts that reflected an authentic African perspective.


De Beer, 1995, Wakashe, 1986a, Gosher, 1988; Steadman, 19**, Hauptfleisch and Streadman, 1994, Kruger, 1999, Tucker, 1997, et al.

Various entries in the NELM catalogue.

New Nation, 29 December – 5 December 1991.

Tribute written by Sandile Memela, published in City Press, 2 August 1998.

Tribute written by Geoffrey V. Davis, published in Mail and Guardian, 31 July – 6 August 1998.

Davis, Geoffrey V., 2003. pp. 163-202.

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