Joburg Theatre turns 60 in style

The old saying that all that glitters is not gold is the furthest thing from the truth when it comes to the arts in Johannesburg. It’s a city that dances to the beat of its own drum, the place where many come to chase their dreams. The city is overflowing with talented storytellers who use performance to share their creativity and shine a bright light on issues affecting society. 

Some of these giants of the stage include John Kani, Athol Fugard and Desmond Dube whose respective work has not only shaped the way younger generations understand the history of South Africa, but has set a precedent for excellence in the arts. Kani’s most notable work includes Nothing But the Truth and Sizwe Banzi is Dead with Fugard. 

Dube, who appears on both seasons of the Netflix series How to Ruin Christmas, has played leading characters in the plays Jozi Jozi and the Musical Street Sisters

One thing they have in common is that they’ve graced the Joburg Theatre’s stage. 

Situated on top of Braamfontein hill, the theatre took two years to build and was opened on 27 August 1962. It is a towering building with enormous glass windows and a waterfall at the entrance. 

The decision to build the theatre was made by the city council, which called it the Johannesburg Civic Theatre. Funding to build  it — which amounted to R100 000 — came from the council in 1959 and it was intended to mark the 50th anniversary of the Union of South Africa. 

The aim was to create a space that would store European “high culture” in South Africa, a sign of the times when only white audiences were allowed into the theatre. In addition, it was to promote and advance aesthetic education; develop and improve public taste in drama, opera, music, ballet, dancing, painting and other art forms. 

In its first year, the theatre presented the operas The Tales of Hoffmann, starring Mimi Coertse, Hansel and Gretel and The Masked Ball. Experienced manager and administrator Michal Grobbelaar was chosen to run it. He did the job for more than 30 years, before being replaced by Alan Joseph in 1993. Joseph was the general manager of The Market Theatre in Newtown, Johannesburg. 

Although the theatre was marked for white audiences only during apartheid, benefit and fundrasing concerts were allowed for black South Africans, but they needed a permit to attend. 

Later in the 1980s, the building was improved and upgraded making it one of the most technically advanced theatres in the Southern Hemisphere. After the anti-apartheid campaigns and protests in the 1990s, the theatre opened up to black performers and performances, with the help of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. 

Since then it has staged the musical King Kong by Todd Matshikiza, which launched the careers of some of the country’s best known talent such as Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa and Abdullah Ibrahim.    

The Joburg Theatre recently welcomed its new artistic director, James Ngcobo. He is also responsible for the Soweto Theatre and Roodepoort Theatre which fall under the umbrella of the Joburg Theatre. 

Xoliswa Nduneni Ngema, the chief executive of the Johannesburg Theatre, says the productions featured at the theatre have diversified and cater to the interests of various audiences. It’s home to performances ranging from ballet and theatre to orchestral performances.

 “Theatres are important for the artists to be creative and have spaces where they can present their work. It is important for audiences locally and internationally to sample what South Africa has or what Joburg has,” says Ngema. 

“The culture of this country is so rich and so diverse. Culture and creativity — because you have to bring them together — are almost the soul of a nation.” 

Ngema believes the role of the theatre is to tell local stories as well as bring in international acts. She believes that nurturing young people in the arts will promote and preserve the country’s history and art of storytelling. 

This Saturday the theatre is celebrating its 60th anniversary with a star-studded event, with performances by trailblazing artists. There will also be a surprise to honour various theatre icons.

To commemorate this milestone, the theatre has also put together a coffee-table book that documents its history and the changes over the years in the way art has been experienced.

“For the next 60 years we hope that the young ones will be able to carry on. We will hand over the baton to them so we are training a lot of young producers. We need to train more directors so that they can continue to tell more stories,” says Ngema. 


The M&G Friday is giving away three double tickets for the Joburg Theatre 60th anniversary celebrations. Taking place this Saturday at 4pm at the Joburg Theatre in Braamfontein, the event will be attended by some of SA’s theatre stars. To win tickets to this exclusive event follow the M&G Friday and Joburg Theatre social media pages. Go to @mailandguardian_friday and @joburgtheatre on Instagram and follow. Answer the following question: How many years will the Joburg Theatre be celebrating? Post your response on your story and tag both pages. The competition closes 16 July at 12pm.

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