Decolonising Shakespeare - From the Origins of uMabatha the Zulu MacbethGeneral

Participants at the Decolonising Shakespeare Colloquium.Participants at the Decolonising Shakespeare Colloquium.

UKZN’s Drama and Performance Studies Discipline within the College of Humanities recently hosted a colloquium titled: “Decolonising Shakespeare? Contestations and re-imaginings for a post-liberation South Africa”.

Featured were keynote addresses by theatre and performance art stalwarts, Welcome Msomi and Chris Thurman.

The colloquium coincided with the global commemorations of the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death.

Msomi’s address was made possible through support from the Department of Arts and Culture and the Living Legends Legacy Project.

Officially opening the colloquium, acting Dean and Head of the School of Arts, Professor Donal McCracken, said ‘decolonisation is revolutionary’ and that ‘the creative arts are the heart and soul of the University’. He further pledged his support to the Arts.

Msomi spoke about the origins of his ground-breaking production uMabatha, first staged in 1970 at the Open Air Theatre at UKZN, the first presentation in South Africa of an isiZulu version of a full-scale Shakespearean production.

‘Out of all of Shakespeare’s plays that I was able to read and perform, Macbeth seemed to find a home in the culture of the Zulu people. uMabatha is set in the early 19th century. The historical model is the legendary warrior-king Shaka Zulu and how his brothers plot to kill him, inspired by their aunt uMkabayi kaJama,’ explained Msomi.

He highlighted some of the similarities that stood out between Macbeth and uMabatha such as greed, ambition and assassination. Msomi further discussed the production during the apartheid era and how various audiences reacted to it and discussed contestations and re-imaginings for a post-liberation South Africa. Delegates were also treated to a five minute clip of uMabatha.

Msomi encouraged young people to write and perform stories related to their personal experiences, the political climate in Africa and in their vernacular. ‘The country needs an overhaul of its education system. We will see a massive revolution and theatre can play an important role for a dialogue on decolonisation,’ he said.

A highlight of the colloquium was the showcasing of the Robben Island Bible, which is a copy of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, which was sent to apartheid activist Sonny Venkatrathnam by his wife Theresa during his time in prison.

Six months before he left the island in 1978, Venkatrathnam asked his 32 fellow- prisoners in the single-cell section, which included the most senior leadership figures of the liberation movements, to choose their favourite passage from Shakespeare and sign their name alongside their chosen quote.

The names in the book include the political icons of South African Liberation movement, such as Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Saths Cooper, Strini Moodley, Neville Alexander, and Ahmed Kathrada.

Venkatrathnam addressed delegates at the Colloquium reflecting on some memories about his time on Robben Island, the story of how the Complete Works of Shakespeare was his chosen reading material, and the journey of the ‘Bible’ on the Island among his fellow prisoners.

Melissa Mungroo