“The power of changing the country is in the hands of the citizens. We are the government. We voted them in and can vote them out." This was one of the inspiring messages in the acceptance speech of the internationally acclaimed actor and playwright John Kani after having received an honorary doctorate from Stellenbosch University (SU).
Under great applause from graduates, their parents and other guests, the degree Doctor of Philosophy (DPhil), honoris causa, was conferred on the 76-year-old Kani by the Presiding Officer, SU's Rector and Vice-Chancellor Prof Wim de Villiers, at this morning's (13 December 2019) ninth and last December 2019 graduation ceremony. SU awarded the honorary degree to Kani to honour and recognise his lifetime dedication to using the performing arts as a tool for upliftment.
In Kani's gripping and inspiring message of hope to everyone in South Africa, he jokingly said that when he had been informed that the honorary doctorate was to be conferred on him, he thought that he had become “famous in Stellenbosch". “To be honoured in this incredible way, made me feel so good and that my 76 years of existence and all our efforts were not in vain."
One of the stories that he told at the ceremony was about the time in 1984 when he and Atholl Fugard had to perform in Stellenbosch. They thought that they could not come to Stellenbosch as it was seen as the “headquarters of the Afrikanerdom". “I thought what will the comrades think of us and they will think it is a sell-out." But they still came and performed for a week. “I was impressed by the good conversation with professors and lecturers but was most impressed by the young people speaking Afrikaans. I realised that the Afrikaner and I had one problem: We have nowhere else to go. My job will be to tell stories and my stories witness the journeys each individual takes."
In 1982, Kani was part of a hit list, which he ignored. He was attacked by security police and was taken by his wife to a hospital in Port Elizabeth with 11 stab wounds. “In the hospital, there was a white doctor who hid me in the isolation ward for infectious diseases. The security police found out that I had not died and went back to the hospital to complete the job of killing me. They did not want to enter the ward and I have this young white doctor to thank for my life," he said.
The last story Kani told the graduates and guests, was about his father always telling him that he needed to pay him back in rands and cents for the money spend on his education when he started working. “I told the same story to my eight children, but my currency was different. I told them that they had to make something of themselves and make a valuable contribution to humanity and society. Then they would have paid me back."
The motivation for Kani's honorary doctorate
The SU Council and Senate decided to honour him with this degree in recognition and admiration for his unwavering and passionate commitment to the performing arts as actor, director and playwright; for his dedication to ensure access to the performing arts for young people from marginalised communities; for using the arts to educate, to create community and as a tool of expression for the oppressed; and in recognition of his commitment to excellence in his 50-year international career in the performing arts.
Kani was born in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, on 30 August 1943. His connection to drama, which started in school, continued after he matriculated.
As a young black man growing up in apartheid South Africa, his first desire had always been to be part of the struggle. His need to tell the stories of the oppressed and to see the effect they had on people developed his deeply held belief that theatre was a powerful tool for change and would become the catalyst for all of his work, acting, directing and writing.
In 1965 he joined the Serpent Players where his association and friendship with Winston Ntshona and Atholl Fugard started. In 1972 Kani, Fugard and Ntshona developed the seminal Sizwe Banzi is Dead and in 1973, they created and produced The Island. They took both plays to local and international stages and in 1974 Kani and Ntshona both won the coveted Tony Award for Best Actor in these two plays.
In 1977, Kani and Barney Simon established The Market Theatre, which focused equally on theatrical work and social upliftment. In 1990 they also founded The Market Theatre Laboratory, giving young people from marginalised circumstances the opportunity to study the performing arts.
In 1982, Kani and Sandra Prinsloo shook the very foundations of white South African society when they kissed on stage in Strindberg's Miss Julie at the Baxter Theatre. In 1987, he became the first black South African to play Shakespeare's Othello in our country.
Kani has written and starred in three plays: Nothing but the Truth (2002), Missing (2014) and Kunene and the King (2018). All three deal with deeply difficult South African themes of forgiveness, exile, isolation, identity and loss.
His most recent international successes include films such as Black Panther (2018), The Lion King (2019) and Murder Mystery (2019).
Kani holds four honorary degrees and his long list of awards include the Hiroshima Prize for Peace from the Swedish Academy, the Olive Schreiner Prize and the South African Film and Television Lifetime Achievement Award. He also received the kykNET Fiesta award for his lifetime contribution to the performing arts, as well as the Naledi World Impact Theatre Award.