Keeping the sparkle alive

Grassroots culture in Sharpeville is under threat, but out at Dlomo Dam the show goes on, writes Janet Smith

Someone wants to turn Dlomo Dam into a tourist destination: a place, perhaps, where intrepid foreign types who are not quite brave enough to spend the night in an actual township, can get close enough to breathe the pink pollution.

It’s a natural resource, the dam, and this only shore of relative beauty in the West Rand township, has always sparkled in the lives of Sharpeville residents. Children have cast fantasies around it, lovers have strolled its perimeter, old people have gazed on its silver surface.

If developers have their way, Dlomo Dam could yet become a fenced-off private resort where visitors would have to pay to run their fingers through the water. It would also mean the destruction of the big white building on its lush, slushy banks where South African theatre giant Gibson Kente will be honoured by the opening of a theatre tomorrow, Saturday November 29, named after him.

The Sharpeville Resource Centre, that big white building, celebrates a considerable acheivement in the opening which is also a milestone in the life of Gamakhulu Diniso, another theatre giant who might not have relished the kind of applause generated for Kente, but who has enhanced young talent in the township and produced expressive out- of-town theatre for city patrons.

The Bra Gibson Kente Theatre seats around 30 people, has a small stage and a large banner promoting Diniso’s Cape-Pie-Town, a satire for a solo performer which recently lost its star and, hence, its slot as an opening night attraction.
Instead, Diniso’s Orange Sun and The Shoe Man will be the launch bait. These stark and pointed short plays, which are really philosophical journeys into our society, are probably about as far removed from Kente’s well- populated musicals as any two pieces could be.

Diniso is happy to remark that Kente is tickled by the honour of having the first theatre in Sharpeville - a place in which he performed decades ago - named after him. Writer and academic Eskia Mphahlele will enjoy a similar honour early next year when the Eski Art Centre is opened in the same building. It’s hoped that intellectual destination will provide a space where residents and visitors can exhibit - and experience the energy of a true grassroots gallery.

At the moment the gallery space is draped in cloth banners promoting concerts and rallies - community advertising which takes on a different responsibility in this context. The banners are the work of township signwriters who might be surprised to see their work shown as art, but this is precisely the kind of pop irony Diniso is seeking after in the gallery.

There’s still the problem of the dam and the Japanese and German tourists vying for camera space at the windows of their tour minibuses. Diniso is firmly opposed to the water gaining an elitist ebb and flow. It’s not that he doesn’t necessarily want the dam to be developed, but insists it must be to the benefit of the people living in Sharpeville and they should be given a say in how it is developed and to what purpose. The Sharpeville Historical and Heritage Rights Protection Association, bolstered by Diniso, is lobbying to serve the community’s interests - and the big white building on the bank.

If Dlomo Dam is developed with no regard to the views of Sharpeville, the Bra Gibson Kente Theatre could be a thing of the very recent past. It’s likely the Sharpeville Resource Centre would be demolished, crunching Diniso’s dream of fulfillment. After years of neighbourliness housed next to a motel across the road, the centre cherishes its own space in a building which used to be a beer hall and a nightclub and is still used by the girls of the Euro Health Aerobics Club who train on the top floor.

Presumably there should be interest from the local council in the controversy, but that’s assuming the local councillors give a fig which party wins unless one can win them greater favour. Right now, the council is not prepared to lease the building to Diniso. He’s residing his energies there as artistic director without having to pay rent on the property at the moment, which is a small crisis for a man who believes fervently in people doing it for themselves without donors and a tour of the charity cocktail-party circuit.

That’s why Diniso and his executive managing director Nicho Ntema are not as concerned as they would be on a leased property to invest money and skills in refurbishing space for performance and exhibition. They do all the work themselves, but nails aren’t hammered too deeply into the wall and a lick of paint is not yet an option. But if Diniso can succeed in his mission to establish a refuge for the arts which could reinvigorate an appreciation for drama, fine art and music among Sharpeville residents, this would be his place of choice.

“Meanwhile we’re still going to businesses to get them to buy seats for people to come and see our shows,” he says.

Theatre is not widely-attended in Sharpeville, although some productions have, over the years, lured full houses. A grant from the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology this year assisted Diniso to develop projects around theatre for the community, one of which is honing the talent of solo artists rather than drama groups.

From Friday November 28 there will be a poetry evening every Friday which will provide a free stage and microphone for writers from the township and beyond.

Diniso sees this as the beginning of an exchange of skills at the centre. Saturday’s opening will be followed every Saturday by performances, and the Sunday programme will feature soirees with snacks, “just like Des and Dawn”.

“We want to revive the spirit of cultural activism that marked Sharpeville in the 1950s,” says Diniso. “The new culture in the township is about funerals and drinking parties, not about the arts.”

And not about Dlomo Dam, either. The Sharpeville Resource Centre celebrates its second birthday early next year, and Ntema is confident they’ll be shooting straight from the hip by then with the psychological support of institutions like the Vaal Triangle Technikon and Birmingham University which have lobbied on their behalf.

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