His father took him to isangoma when he wanted to be an actor. Today Dr John Kani is revered the world over. He tells Athandiwe Saba about his passions
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I know it’s a long time, but think back to the most treasured moments of your 77 good, difficult, interesting, fascinating years of life.
I was born in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth in 1943 to two wonderful parents. My mum was very religious and truly believed we have to go to Sunday school. And we have to be baptised. And we must know Jesus exists. My father was a traditionalist, who believed in the ancestors and knew that he had nothing to do with the Jewish history of Abraham and Jacob. He knew that at the end of his life, when I bury him, I must follow with an ox so that he could be with his ancestors. I asked him: “Why do you go to church every Sunday?” He said: “Just in case there are two roads out there.”
My elder brother was working at an assembly plant. Importantly, my younger brother is Reverend Kani, which was the fulfilment of my mother’s dream. I’m the one who took a left. I said I want to be an artist. The difficulty there was how do I explain this to him [father]? My father’s definition of an artist [was someone] who would just sit at home wearing jeans, smoking and looking stupid. But he liked going to the cinema. And I said to him, “Do you know that John Wayne is an actor?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “That’s exactly what I want to be.” He said, “But you don’t live in America.”
So, finally, 1965. I took the plunge. I said I am going to pursue this passion in me. I write; I act. I am involved in the creative world. And then Winston Ntshona and I were members of a group called The Serpent Players.
How did your father take that?
One day my father woke me up and I realised he was taking me to isangoma. He wants to know what’s going on with me. The sangoma threw the bones … and said, “You have brought your son because you’re worried … Because your son is deciding to do something you don’t like. Because your son has been bewitched by the neighbours. They’re going to talk in his ears.” My father said, “Yes, yes, I saw him yesterday, walking up and down at the back of the house talking to himself.”
I was learning my lines.
What is your favourite piece of work that you’ve done?
I have seven children: four sons and three daughters. A beautiful wife, Mandi Gulwa. I have nine grandchildren. You’ve just asked me which one I love the best.
As an actor, even as a writer, when you engage material, it becomes the only thing that you’ve ever done in your life. So each character that I’ve ever played in theatre, from 1965 to 2021, has its special moment in my career. I’ve done the kaleidoscope of the art world. Any writer you think of, I have dabbled or explored and understood. The process always is an honest journey with an open heart, vulnerable, and it says, wash me over.
There are great plays, of course. Sizwe Banzi is Dead. The Island. These two plays were motivated by our love for our people, our country and for freedom. They were performed at a very difficult time, when even opening your mouth was dangerous. Even thinking about an idea, you felt like perhaps the enemy might know what you were thinking. We took the greatest chance in our lives as artists. And we paid for that. We were harassed, arrested and detained. I was attacked. Assassination attempts and all that. But in the middle of all that, we won the Tony award for best actor on Broadway.
What are your thoughts about the growth, the transition, the changes in the art space?
Each generation has its challenges, unique to that time. When my father was young, his father thought he was a little too unmanageable because he did not want to work on a farm. He did not want to say “baas” to nobody. Then when I was born, my father thought I was crazy. “These whites are gonna kill this young boy.”
Now I have children who look back on what I have done. They feel I’m a bit soft.
Right now, I have a son who was born in June 1994. Sometimes I think he is more racist than me. Sometimes I think he’s more unforgiving than me. In one of the plays, Missing, which I’ve written, I said, “We fought for liberation. And what did we get? Democracy. Can someone tell me: What the hell is democracy?” That, I got from my son.
You’re a very private person. Give us a glimpse into that world of the father and husband.
My sons and daughters know a father who asks them if they tidied up their bed. “Where’s your washing? The helper in the house is not yours. They’re mom’s. Have you done this? Don’t talk to me like that.” We don’t have a conversation when I don’t get the word “tata” in, every second breath.
I am a mixture of a very conservative traditional African father, and on the other side, I’m as modern and as Western and one of the top actors or icons.
Every month, we all meet once, at my place, just, you know, for them to talk.
And there’s another day, which everybody hates. We call it a men’s braai, which Atandwa is missing so much because he’s in New York. So it’s only me, my sons and sons-in-law. And we could just talk about men’s issues. I tell them of grandma one, a traditionalist who made us believe that we were descendants of great kingdoms and that my great, great, great grandfather was the king. And she made us so proud. [She] was preparing us for the onslaught of an inhumane apartheid system that would define us as lesser human beings.
You wake up in the morning, and you do what?
I wake up in the morning — it’s after I’ve been awake in that bed for nearly 90 minutes to two hours thinking — and I walk out, and I think I’m going to write a play celebrating the 25 years of our democracy. Then me and my wife have a cup of coffee and make porridge, and we talk, and she does the washing. I mean, we do the washing.
One time we were doing the washing together, and out of my son’s back pocket of the jeans, a condom fell out. We looked at each other in great silence. And she said, “Oh, my God.” I said, “No. No. Let’s celebrate. This fool wants to live.”
What is your favourite food?
I’m not a fool. Whatever my wife cooks is my favourite dish that evening.
What is the greatest achievement in this life?
In 1985 I was coming back from New York, and I go see my father. I bought him a bottle of rum from a duty-free shop. He says, “Und’phatheleni namhlanje. What have you brought?”
And then he looks at his friends. From 1965 to 1985 was the first time that my father found the words with dignity and pride to describe what I do. He died three months later. Nothing can be better than that. Not even an Oscar.