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Ronnie Govender: ‘Unbowed, unbroken. I am of Africa’

Ronnie Govender was gargantuan. In appetite and spirit, in his ramrod-straight physical and moral presence and his creative output. In how he held court as a raconteur and in those sledgehammer-sized hands with which he grabbed life.

The manner in which he filled a room was matched only by the empathy with which he observed the world around him, and drew those who peopled it into an inexhaustible heart: family, friends, kindred spirits … the oppressed, the marginalised and the denigrated, also — especially.

This in turn fed into the work of this man of letters — an award-winning short-story writer, playwright, poet, journalist, novelist and activist — who died in Cape Town on 29 April 2021 at the age of 86.

His greatest works, including the 1970s play Lahnee’s Pleasure; the collection of short stories At the Edge and Other Cato Manor Stories (1996), which won the Africa section of the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book; the novel Song of the Atman (2006) and the one-handed plays At the Edge and 1949 drew substance from Cato Manor, where he was born in 1936 and grew up.

At the time it was an area of Durban populated by the Indian working class, which had emerged after obtaining their freedom from indentured labour contracts, and an urbanising African peasantry, which was drawn to a city promising employment, but which resisted their presence there.

His grandparents, indentured labourers from South India, had settled in Cato Manor, or Umkhumbane, after completing their periods of bondage. The area would evolve into a multicultural and multi-ethnic suburb.

It was the first to experience forced removals after the passing of the 1950 Group Areas Act. It also experienced race riots fanned by the white establishment in 1949.

Cato Manor was, as Govender noted in his poem Who Am I?, filled with the sorts of people who made him and who he was made of: the “cane-cutter, housewife, mendicant, slave, market gardener, shit-bucket carrier, factory worker, midwife, freedom fighter, trade unionist, builder of schools, of orphanages, poet, writer, nurse” — “the spirit of Cato Manor”.

This was to inform Govender’s own proletarian spirit throughout his life. In a 2002 interview with the Sunday Tribune, he told Nashen Moodley: “The history of Cato Manor has been marginalised. It was the first, largest district where more than 180 000 people, most of whom owned their properties, were kicked out. 

“Everybody knows about District Six and Sophiatown but nobody knows about Cato Manor. The continued neglect of a wonderful history is morally wrong,” said Govender. 

The literary scholar Dr Betty Govinden, whose works include A Time of Memory: Reflections on Recent South African Writings, noted that the project of “remembering” courses through Govender’s work: “In this inescapable and compelling project [to remember and piece together broken histories] we reconstruct past images of places and spaces birthed by the logic of apartheid, but also signifying resistance to it.”

Pat Pillai, who acted in the first version of At the Edge, which travelled to the Edinburgh Festival in 1991, remembered accompanying Govender on “immersive research” trips to Cato Manor to explore the detail of place, people and patois.

In a moving piece published in the Daily Maverick, Pillai remembered drinking (milk in his case) with Govender’s brazos (male friends) from the district who used “Tamil phrases and slang that I’d never heard before” and meeting others whose lingering smiles and comfortable silences spoke of long-time friendships, which Govender’s curiosity and empathy were keen to update: “Much of Cato Manor was in ruins or overgrown, but there was enough left for him to point out the hotspots, the streets and the overgrown plot that once held someone’s wood and iron home; someone he knew. Zinc shacks were now beginning to pop up. ‘Cato Manor was spontaneous. The beginnings of an integrated community,’ Ronnie said. ‘The apartheid government hated that the most,’” Pillai observed.

Preparing Essop Khan’s make-up in a makeshift dressing room. (Courtesy of Karlind Govender)

“Later, we stopped under the shade of a tree. Leaned up against the car and spread our tea and sandwiches on the warm bonnet. In that moment Ronnie Govender wasn’t my director. He was a son of Cato Manor. A disenfranchised South African who was marginalised. I asked about his childhood, his parents, his early days as a young man … his activism for nonracial sport, his days as a journalist, his protest theatre, his family. I listened. That day I saw a strong six-foot-two man moved as he spoke of community, life, loss and his dreams for a better South Africa. ‘If only those in power saw the potential in all our people 50 years ago,’ he said. ‘Just imagine! But it’s not too late. We’ll soon have a government by the people. It’s close now.’”

Govinden remembered watching all Govender’s plays with her late husband, Herby, and laughing “at the tragedies, the illogicalities, the foibles, the indignities of the apartheid past … Ronnie had an inimitable way of showing up the lunacy and absurdity of apartheid, alongside its unspeakable violence.”

“But he also showed how people, constrained to live ‘at the edge’, in the margins, created life-affirming ways of centering themselves.”

“Indeed, he portrayed another kind of living ‘at the edge’. He showed how the oppressed reach deep into ancient rivers of faith coursing through their veins, evoking the song of the atman, the song of the spirit, that remains inviolate.”

Govender often credited his grandmother, Amurthum, for his love of story-telling and an appreciation of his roots: of the Tamil language, of Dravidian science and art that spanned the Indus Valley Civilisation and ancient Africa, as he enthusiastically argued was evidenced by the archaeological finds in the Karoo and Mpumalanga which predate Nguni migration, and of Koothu, the epic story-telling folk art that indentured labourers brought to South Africa from 1860 onwards.

This informed Govender’s ability and compulsion “to return to the evocations of ‘primitive’ fireside story­telling” as he described it, and to his cultural and spiritual roots, as evidenced, respectively, in plays such as Lahnee’s Pleasure or short stories such as Incomplete Human Beings.

In interviews, his memoir In the Manure (2008) and the biography At the Edge: The Writings of Ronnie Govender by Professor Rajendra Chetty, Govender would credit his compassion for the downtrodden to his mother, Chellama.

From his father Jack Dorasamy Govender, a bakery delivery van driver, he would get an early sense of politics, attending rallies addressed by leaders including Monty Naicker, president of the South African Indian Congress, the fiery doctor and activist Kesaveloo Goonam and the ANC’s Chief Albert Luthuli.

Cato Manor, meanwhile, was home to the Natal Indian Congress president George Sewpersadh while the trade unionist RD Naidu was forming the Baking Workers Trade Union nearby at 44 Trimborne Road.

After his primary education at Cato Manor School, Govender matriculated from Sastri College in 1957 — the only Indian high school for boys in Durban at the time, where the principal, Mr Barnabas, extended his love for writing. This was also nurtured by his elder brother Robert “Gonny” Govender, a journalist who worked for Drum magazine, the Golden City Post and the BBC. One of South Africa’s first black investigative journalists, Gonny also wrote the book The Martyrdom of Patrice Lumumba.

In the 2002 Sunday Tribune interview with Moodley, Govender talked of submitting a short story to that same paper as a 20-year-old. It was, Moodley recounted, “about a skinny, bucktoothed, dark boy who, ostracised by his peers, makes friends with a fish in a little pond. The boy feeds the fish every day at the same time until one day he is late and is devastated to find his friend dangling on the end of a rod.”

The editor compared Govender’s work to Ernest Hemingway. Govender continued: “I felt on top of the world but the next thing he told me was that he couldn’t use it because the paper was ‘unfortunately aimed at a white readership’.”

“I went home and I tore that story up. I tore it up. It’s a strange thing — like committing suicide — you punish yourself. I could not explain why I did it, but I did it.”

The experience would not dissuade Govender from pursuing the word through writing plays and working as a sports columnist writing about football and boxing for The Graphic magazine and The Leader and New Age newspapers.

Money from New Age financed Govender’s first year at the University of Cape Town. The paper’s banning for its alleged communist sympathies stymied his studies and Govender returned to Durban and trained to become a teacher.

While teaching in places like Mandeni and Newlands, Govender kept writing. A writing workshop in the early 1960s with Krishna Shah, whom Union Artists of Dorkay House had brought to South Africa to direct a local version of his off-Broadway staging of Rabindranath Tagore’s King of the Dark Chamber led to Govender’s first staged play, Beyond Calvary.

At the Durban Literary Festival in 2019, Govender invoked the blessings of the goddess of learning. (Photo: Jeeva Rajgopaul)

While not formally trained, Govender pointed to the influences of Bertolt Brecht, the Brazilians Paulo Freire and Augusto Boal, Rabindranath Tagore and Dambudzo Marechera, among others, in his work and methodology. 

In the 1980s the white supremacist government looked to entrench its divide-and-rule methods through the tricameral parliamentary system, which gave “Indians” and “Coloureds” limited franchise and representation in separate race-based legislatures, this while clamping down on freedoms through the introduction of states of emergencies. 

Theatre, and political satire, especially, became an important conscientising tool. 

Govender, in keeping with his independent theatre approach, would tour political plays such as Offside! to community halls and school auditoriums around the country.

Govender, among his many guises, would by the the end of the 1980s have started and run various independent theatres and worked as a rep for South African Breweries.

Into democracy and the 1990s and the former vice-president of the Natal branch of the Congress of South African Writers (Cosaw) would find mainstream work as resident director of the then-University of Durban-Westville’s Asoka Theatre, as the marketing manager of the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town and as a director at Durban’s Playhouse Theatre.

But he had remained a bon vivant with myriad interests, including becoming intensely involved in the anti-apartheid sports struggle as a founding member of the radical nonracial South African Council on Sport in 1973 and executive member of the South African Soccer Federation. He also moonlighted as an announcer at football matches hosted at Curries Fountain which, in the 1970s and 1980s, was both a sports stadium and a political greenhouse.

With the cockerel-like brushback-bouffant that remained thick well into his 80s, strutting bounce, large nose and jaw, and an inescapable sense that he would be up for a parah (fight), there was something palpably virile and manly about Govender. A notion of Norman Mailer, the hint of Hemingway, but singularly Ronnie Govender — what the writer Pravasan Pillay described as being a “ballie’s ballie”.

“Ronnie was at the intersection of a literary fiction writer and a popular writer. He was a proper working-class intellectual. There was also a very real sense of something hardboiled about him. He was street smart. He had a sharp wit. He was a ballie’s ballie. But he was, of course, also this incredibly sensitive man,” said Pillay, whose collection of short stories, Chatsworth, was recently translated into Swedish.

Govender’s daughter Pregs, a lifelong gender activist, agreed: “Ronnie was both a product of and ahead of his time — one of his first plays when I was very little, Beyond Calvary, was about religion and abortion. It was critical of the narrow moralistic religious view and had a strong female lead. He was a sensitive man who was, also, as you say, a ‘ballie’s ballie’.”

“My father came from a working-class home where he was very close to a strong mother and had strong independent sisters. He and my strong and spirited mother chose each other as powerful people who were unconventional in many ways,” she added.

Pregs Govender said her own memoir, In Love and Courage: A Story of Insubordination, is replete with stories “about his role in my life and my feminism”. 

She described a father who encouraged her to debate ideas, “delighted and nurtured my independent spirit” and indulged a daughter’s exhortations to break the speed limit.

Govender also sought out her advice and input as a teenager:  “I felt proud when he would ask me to read his writing and correct it if I wanted to and when he took my changes seriously,” she said. “When I criticised the lack of female roles in several plays he took it on board and created roles that women stepped into.” 

“When I worked in the trade union movement, he heard from someone that a comrade had physically and verbally attacked me. He went to the union to find the guy, who apparently hid cowering in another office until my father left. So, yes, he was both a gentle father and a man in a man’s world.” 

The actor Jailoshni Naidoo, who reprised the more than thirty characters in At the Edge in the early 2000s, said Govender had no qualms about casting a woman for the one-hander: “Initially I raised the fact that only men had played the role and his response was typical Ronnie. He said: ‘My darling, my baby’ — this is how he spoke all the time — ‘there is no such thing. I know you can. I believe in you.’”

The show experienced a sold-out run that was extended several times, and Naidoo said Govender was a flexible director, open to listening to her perspective on a play that had previously found such success with a male lead.

“But this is unsurprising,” she said. “It is clear that Ronnie was a feminist in how he wrote his characters. The character of Savvy in Saries, Bangles and Bees [a short story in At the Edge] for example: it’s clear that her spirit cannot be contained by the stereotypical role of an Indian housewife, that she sought her own personal liberation.”

Ronnie Govender speaking at a non racial event. (Courtesy of Karlind Govender)

But Govender did not merely seek to achieve social and political liberation. In using patois specific to Durban’s South Africans of Indian descent he liberated a dynamic language.

As he told Chetty, his biographer: “Yes, I dressed like them and I spoke and wrote in English but I was not ‘English’. When you are born into a language even if it is ‘foreign’, that language becomes you. The challenge was to bridge the nexus between ‘correct English’ and so-called patois. The latter, though born out of imposition, bears the richness of cross-fertilisation, even in servitude. The great strength of English is its elasticity and its dynamism. The problem was that it was appropriated in the cause of colonisation and class. English, however, does not belong to a small tribe on a small island anymore.”

“Ronnie made an important distinction between language and accents,” Chetty said. “We’ve all seen the sadistic delight that white comedians, especially, take in using Indian accents, but what Ronnie did was focus on a language that was nimble and dynamic and flexible. A language where the turns of phrase were absolutely dramatic — and he gave it a literary legitimacy.”

This hyper-local attention to language and space is what won Govender international accolades and standing ovations from Delhi to Edinburgh. Along with the Commonwealth Prize, it also ensured he was recognised for his contribution to English literature with a medal from the English Academy of South Africa in 2000 and the government’s Order of Ikhamanga in Gold in 2008 for his contributions to democracy, human rights and justice through theatre.

Yet, it is also what allowed the white establishment in South Africa to dismiss Govender for long periods as a South African Indian writer, rather than a South African writer.

This is, Chetty observes, because the white establishment, in media and academia, “have and do exercise their power to devalue your creativity because it is not in the realm of their own imagination”.

This racist crisis of the imagination was apparent as recently as a few days after Govender’s death when the Daily Maverick published a tribute to him by the University of Victoria, Canada’s Dr Neilesh Bose, with an imposed headline referring to Govender as the “grand old man of South African Indian letters”. Such a distinction was never made of the white Jewish Nadine Gordimer or the white Afrikaner JM Coetzee.

I can almost hear Uncle Ronnie, wherever he is, going: “I’m not a fucking ‘South African Indian writer’. I’m just a bloody South African writer.”

This is an edited version of an article first published by New Frame

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Niren Tolsi
Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist whose interests include social justice, citizen mobilisation and state violence, protest, the Constitution and Constitutional Court, football and Test cricket.

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