Biko’s vision reclaimed in Mandla Mbothwe’s dance work

‘Hero doesn’t begin to describe him,” said Jazzart choreographer Jacqueline Manyaapelo of Steven Bantu Biko, celebrated in Biko’s Quest, a dance work on at the Soweto Theatre this week.

Manyaapelo was talking to Cue TV at last year’s National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.

Biko’s Quest is under the direction of theatre stalwart Mandla Mbothwe, mooted by critic Brent Meersman in the Mail & Guardian in 2009 as arguably one of South Africa’s most under-appreciated directors.

The idea to present it in Soweto – and now – came from Warona Seane, the artistic director of the Soweto Theatre, which enjoys the support of the Artscape Theatre, where Mbothwe is the creative manager.

“Seane and I decided to showcase Biko’s Quest during the week of Soweto Day. It considers what Biko’s quest was and enables audiences to reflect on what South Africa really lost on September 12 1977.”

Manyaapelo, the former artistic director of the Jazzart Dance Company, is one of the choreographers responsible for the “baby” that she and Mbothwe created together.

It was conceived while the architecture of the Steve Biko Centre in Ginsberg (as the King William’s Town township is known) in the Eastern Cape was in development. Mbothwe, who was a drama lecturer at the University of Cape Town, was head-hunted in 2010 to be the centre’s artistic director.

“My mandate at the centre was to work with the community at large in the theatre,” he told the M&G.

“It came at the right time in my life,” he says of his move to Ginsberg, where Biko was raised and buried.

It is near Emzimkhulu, where Mbothwe’s forefathers originated, so moving to the area enabled him to dig deeper into the untold stories that are based in, or originate from, the Eastern Cape.

‘What happens when the past meets the present?
The work’s seed was sown by the exhibition Biko: The Quest for a True Humanity. Ostensibly a temporary exhibition, it opened at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg in 2007, commemorating Biko’s death 30 years before. But it travelled the country extensively and its influence continues to ricochet in South African sensibilities.

“I was so inspired by the notion of returning stolen memories [recalled by the exhibition] and bringing them to life,” Mbothwe says. The exhibition made him think: “What happens when the past meets the present? It is what history is teaching us today.

“As a creative process, I imagined putting a group of dancers in the exhibition, locking them in and letting them out after some time and then asking them to perform the exhibition through dance, music and spoken text, enabling them to dance their ideas about Biko.”

In effect, Biko’s Quest is the product of this kind of immersion for the team who made it happen.

“The process was born through the collaborative energy of dancers associated with Jazzart … The work was choreographed by Manyaapelo with Ina Wichterich-Mogane and Mzokuthula Gasa in an ensemble of 16 dancers – eight male and eight female,” says Mbothwe.

“The work features everything from South African jazz standards to sequences where a typewriter provides the sound. Dancing the jitterbug, making contemporary moves and embracing the space, the work promises to make you weep with sadness and joy.

“My idea was to grow the work, not as an account of his story but as an exploration of what Biko died for. He was so young, so intellectual. He lit the torch of pride.

“Before he could offer his influence to society, everything black was tainted negative. He was so aware of the limitations of the minds of the oppressed, which makes it such an irony that Biko died of brain injuries. He was working towards the mental liberation of his people. The apartheid system understood how dangerous a thinker he was.”

Biko’s widow
Mbothwe developed Biko’s Quest a year after the production of Uku-tshona ko Mendi … did we dance, theatre work featuring dance that recalled the sinking of the SS Mendi in February 1917 in which 607 black South African soldiers drowned.

It was scripted by Lara Foot, but was further researched and developed by the cast, under Mbothwe’s direction, to become a full-scale production.

“My work has always been inspired by what I call the reclamation of the stolen memory and the excavating of the buried stones to feed the living,” he says. “Biko’s Quest followed the same philosophy of reclaiming stolen memory, in not just the content of the story but in its aesthetic that embraces and instils pride in the African storytelling elements of performance, but in also allowing multiple voices to participate in these ­stories as they form part of our common narrative.

“In any case, 70% of the successful and meaningful South African theatre work that ends up being a script is created by the cast and company, who are often not acknowledged.”

While researching Biko’s Quest, Mbothwe spoke to Biko’s widow, MamuNtsiki, his son, Nkosinathi, and people who knew Biko. They “commented valuably on the work’s aesthetic. This baby was born with the blessing of the Biko family – the people who knew his heart,” he said.

Biko’s Quest debuted at the Artscape Theatre in Cape Town in 2012 and has since been performed at various centres, including in Mozambique, and at the Grahamstown arts festival and the Afrovibes festival in the United Kingdom. The Soweto Theatre season is its Johannesburg debut.

Mbothwe adds that the season is commemorating those who died in detention and the issues arising from the xenophobic attacks and the #RhodesMustFall movement.

Biko famously said: “It is better to die for an idea that will live than to live for an idea that will die.”

“We need to honour this. We believe in it and in the fact that it has no expiry date,” Mbothwe says.

Biko’s Quest is at the Soweto Theatre until June 19. Phone 011?930?7461 or visit

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Robyn Sassen
Robyn Sassen
A freelance arts writer since 1998, I fell in love with the theatre as a toddler, proved rubbish as a ballerina: my starring role was as Mrs Pussy in Noddy as a seven-year-old, and earned my stripes as an academic in Fine Arts and Art History, in subsequent years. I write for a range of online and print publications, including the Sunday Times, the Mail & Guardian and and was formerly the arts editor of the SA Jewish Report, a weekly newspaper with which I was associated for 16 years. This blog promises you new stories every week, be they reviews, profiles, news stories or features.

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