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21 ICONS: John Kani

John Kani


Widely recognised as the grandfather of South African theatre, the internationally acclaimed actor, playwright and director John Kani is featured in this edition of 21 ICONS South Africa.


His plays “The Island” and “Sizwe Banzi Is Dead”, written in collaboration with fellow actors Winston Ntshona and Athol Fugard, became international hits in the apartheid era and remain relevant and popular productions even now, four decades after they were first performed. Deeply politicised from a young age, Kani says it was his meeting with Fugard and the Serpent Players theatre group in the 1960s that made him realise he could use his acting skills to fight apartheid — and that white people had a place in that struggle too.


Growing up in New Brighton in Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape, Kani was instilled with a strong sense of pride in his Xhosa heritage by three grandmothers, the wives of his polygamous grandfather. And it was this sense of self-worth that he wanted to instill in fellow black people through his work with the Serpent Players.


Kani was harassed during performances by the security police many times and admits that he deliberately sought to provoke them through his work. He once spent 23 days in prison, mostly in solitary confinement, after he had been arrested with Ntshona as the curtain came down after a performance of “Sizwe Banzi Is Dead”.


Filmmaker and photographer Adrian Steirn, the creator of 21 Icons South Africa, used this arrest as his concept for the portrait of Kani. Shot at the Market Theatre, Kani’s artistic home where he also founded the Market Theatre Laboratory with Barney Simon, the portrait shows the multi-award-winning artist sitting, his hands cuffed, on his beloved stage. It is a stark reminder of what Kani had to endure in the pursuit of his passion. The original, signed version will be auctioned at the end of the series and the proceeds donated to the John Kani Education Fund which assists Drama students attending The Lab who cannot afford their study fees.


Over 21 weeks black and white portraits of 21 South African heroes will be shared as collectable posters in the Sunday Times newspaper, and the accompanying short films will air on SABC3 at 6.57pm, just before the 7pm news. Fans can follow the series online through the digital campaign launched by Quirk Joburg on Facebook, on Twitter or at, where you can find icon profiles and behind the scenes images uploaded weekly. Or you can catch up here.


21 ICONS South Africa is proudly sponsored by Mercedes-Benz South Africa, Nikon, Deloitte, The Sunday Times, SABC3 and the Department of Arts and Culture. Additional credits go to content-creation company Ginkgo Agency.








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