John Kani 2013


John Kani was born on 30 August 1943 in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth. He matriculated from Newell High School where he performed in numerous school plays with fellow well-known actor, Winston Ntshona.

Very soon after finishing high school, he began working with various drama groups in the New Brighton area performing in schools and community halls. In 1965, while working at the Ford Motor Company in Port Elizabeth, Kani became a member of the Serpent Players drama group. It was here that he met Athol Fugard. Much of the work they did at the time was experimental and improvisational but it did result in a number of published and unpublished works. One of the plays that emerged in 1972 was Sizwe Banzi is Dead, a collaboration between Kani, Fugard and Winston Ntshona, which addresses the apartheid regime’s restrictive pass laws while The Island, which followed this play in 1973,  is inspired by a true story and is set in an unnamed prison.

In 1974 Kani and Winston went on tour with Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island. Kani achieved international recognition when he and Ntshona were awarded a Tony for best actor for both plays. In 1976, Kani toured in Australia, working with Aboriginal community groups. During this time, Kani was also nominated for his role in My Children My Africa!

On his return to South Africa, Kani began to tour rural areas with Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island and conducted drama groups where ever the plays were performed. During this time, Kani and Ntshona were arrested and detained. They were released after mass demonstrations with this experience marking the beginning of a painful relationship with the South African police.

During the latter part of the 1980s, Kani was gradually drawn into theatre, cultural administration and politics, and became Artistic Director of the Market Theatre, Johannesburg, after the death of Barney Simon. In 2002 Kani’s first debut as a solo playwright was performed at the Market Theatre. The play, a tribute to his brother, is set in post-apartheid South Africa and deals with the rift between Black South Africans who stayed in the country and those who went into exile. In 2003, the play received the Fleur du Cap Award for best actor, best indigenous script and best new South African play. The play also won five Naledi Theatre Awards. In the same year, Kani received a special Obie Award for his contribution to theatre in the USA. Nothing but the Truth had successful runs in South Africa and in Los Angeles, Boston, Sydney and New York. In 2008, the play was turned into a feature film.

Johan Kani has done a great deal of film and television work, among his most notable performances are leading roles in The Wild Geese, The Grass is Singing, Marigolds in August, Victims of Apartheid, An American Dream, A Dry White Season, Sarafina and Saturday Night at the Palace.

Kani was awarded the ‘Hiroshima Award for Peace’ in 2000 and Tribute Magazine’s ‘Titan of the Century’ award. In 2005, he received the Olive Schreiner Prize and in the same year, the SA government’s Order of Ikhamanga in Silver. Kani was honoured with a South African Film and Television Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010. He is currently an executive trustee of the Market Theatre Foundation, director of the Market Theatre Laboratory and chairperson of the National Arts Council of South Africa.

In recognition of his excellent contribution to theatre and, through this, the struggle for a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa, it is an honour for NMMU to confer the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (honoris causa) on John Bonisile Kani.