St Stephen's Church

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There are two churches with theatrical connections in Cape Town and one in Port Elizabeth with this name. They are St Stephen's Church, Riebeeck Square, in central Cape Town, St Stephen's Bible Church in Claremont and St Stephen's Church (with adjacent hall) in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth. There is another church with this name in Richmond Hill, Port Elizabeth, which was founded in December 1873, but it has no theatrical significance.

The first mentioned and the third are both of great importance in the history of South African theatre.

St Stephen's Church on Riebeeck Square

This is a church housed in one of the oldest custom-built theatre buildings in the Southern hemisphere. The African Theatre, was designed by Sir George Yonge and built in 1800 as a custom built theatre venue for the citizens of Cape Town. It served as a theatre for about 35 years, but by 1838 had fallen into disuse under the pressure of the Anti-theatrical movement led by Methodist and Presbyterian churches, and the related Temperance Movement.

(For more on the history of the original theatre, see The African Theatre)

The theatre building was thus sold in 1839, and the Presbyterian church rented the space to begin St Stephen's congregation there, with the support of the Dutch Reformed Church. It was intended as a church for freed slaves. In 1857 the Dutch Reformed Church bought the original structure and took over the congregation. This has made it the only Dutch Reformed Church named after a saint; and its congregation is the only Coloured congregation that formed part of the NG Kerk (the mother church), with full admission to its synod, under the old British and Apartheid regimes - since all other Coloured parishes of the N.G. Kerk belonged to the daughter or mission church.

The building, repeatedly menaced with demolition, was proclaimed a historical monument in 1965. Intermittent attempts have been made to raise funds for a necessary and extensive restoration of the historical building, particularly in the period between 2001 and 2010.


The only building is St Stephen's Church, but it was, in fact, the first theatre or, as some of the Dutch speaking population called it, the first "komediehuis" in South Africa. During the first British occupation of the Cape the public, and especially the garrison, lacked adequate entertainments. The British Governor, Sir George Yonge, authorized the building of a theatre. In 1799 construction of a theatre was started, on, what was then known as Boeren Plijn.

The theatre was opened on 17th November 1800. At street level, there was provision for a number of shops, workshops and even storerooms. Above these was the theatre itself. The walls were of Table Mountain sandstone, rough-dressed and bonded in clay, but the upper courses of the walls were of stone mixed, with half-burnt bricks and plastered over. The exterior was distinguished by a low pitched roof, buttresses surmounted by urns, a row of oval windows and a covered colonnade of four columns reached by two gracious stairways. The stairways were demolished in 1824, but the building stands just as it was. Nothing remained of its “elegant” interior.The building soon proved to be ineffective as a theatre and fell into disuse. In 1838, when the four-year period of indenture of the slaves elapsed, Dr Adamson of the Presbyterian Church used it as a school for freed slaves. The Rev. G. W. Stegmann of the Dutch Reformed Church supported him and it was soon used as a school during the week, and as a Sunday School and a place of worship on Sundays. It is said the church, the only Dutch Reformed Church that bears the name of a Saint, was called after the first martyr because the dissatisfied slaves stoned it on a certain Sunday while a service was in progress.

In 1936, after the years of depression, the building was in a fairly poor condition and there was talk of selling it. The danger was averted for the time being through the intervention of various cultural organisations with the support of the Historical Monuments Commission.

In1949 a firm who proposed to build a parking garage on the site made an offer ten times the amount offered in 1936. Fortunately, however, it was saved because the area proved too small for the project and the City Council refused to sacrifice an extra nine metres of Riebeeck Square.

The threat that the church might be demolished remained. It was only through persistence, tact and persuasion on the part of those who fought for its preservation that the building was eventually declared a National Monument.


St Stephen's Bible Church in Claremont

St. Stephen’s Church, Cape Town, Cape Province is the only Dutch Reformed church named after a saint; and its congregation is the only Coloured congregation that forms part of the NG Kerk (the mother church), with full admission to its synod, while all other Coloured parishes of the N.G. Kerk belong to the daughter or mission church.

The rectangular edifice was erected during the First British Occupation as the African Theatre and is the oldest theatre building in South Africa, having been erected for that purpose by the Governor, Sir George Yonge, on what is now Riebeek Square, where it was opened on 17th November 1800. Thus it is the only church building that was formerly a theatre. Under the Batavian regime the theatre was called the Afrikaansche Schouwburg , but to the populace, it was simply known as the Komediehuis. The basement was and still is used for workshops, storage and similar purposes. The building, repeatedly menaced with demolition, was proclaimed a historical monument in 1965.


Utilized as a performance space on occasion again between 2002 and 2010, to raise funds for the extensive restoration of the historic building in this period.


St Stephen's Church Hall, New Brighton, Port Elizabeth.

St Stephen's Church Hall was built alongside St Stephen's Church in New Brighton township in 1963 and was used for the staging of many of the Serpent Players apartheid-era protest productions, including Friday's Bread on Monday, The Coach, and The Last Bus. The hall was packed to capacity for many of the productions. In 2013 the hall was renamed the Douglas Ngange Mbopa Memorial Hall.


For more on the history of the St Stephen's Church, Riebeeck Square, building as a church, see the entry on the SAHO website[1]

For more on the history of the original theatre, see The African Theatre

See also Church and Theatre in South Africa on the Anti-theatrical movement

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