H.I.E. Dhlomo, one of the first African poets to write in English, lamented the predicament of the ‘People’s Poet’ who, as a committed artist, reaches out to the masses but remains unheard:

Must I ever remain unheard
in vain to get
Through mighty grind of printed
world—a hearing? footnote1

Like other poets of the people he yet failed to transform his scripted signs into sound for a ‘hearing’ by the people. Underlying his predicament, however, was an attitude shared by so many well-meaning artists and writers who wish to lend a voice to the ‘masses mute’ so that they might ‘raise their storms’ in opposition to their exploiters. This image of a serenely suffering, enslaved but mute people, in need of outside agencies to speak up for it politically and culturally, reflects a commonplace vision criticized sharply by cultural activists in Natal’s labour movement. In an interview in the South African Labour Bulletin they reject those ‘black creators who have a patronizing attitude towards us: a lot of people with a tickey’s worth of education . . . They speak a language we don’t understand. Our task is to take our rich or poor heritage and make it satisfy working people, their families and other suffering people in South Africa.’ footnote2

Unlike Dhlomo, the people’s poets who have emerged from the furnaces and factories of Natal are both of the people and are heard, and the class of people that has sprouted them is no less mute. ‘There are hundreds performing . . . in any place where people and workers meet.’ footnote3 In the space available here I can do no more than outline how, particularly over the last three years, theatre has emerged as a force to be reckoned with within labour organizations. I shall concentrate on Natal not only because it is the province I know best from participant observation but also because, as Sitas has shown, cultural action as an organized movement is at this stage unique to Natal. footnote4

In a previous article, I hinted at the formation of a cultural grouping in Natal, arising out of the experiences of The Dunlop Play in 1983. footnote5 Sitas has subsequently shown how this play became the root of an enormous cultural tree within the ‘moving black forest of Africa’—to borrow an image from one of the praise poems—‘since it created a space within the labour movement for cultural activity over and above union struggles.’ In addition, as a result of many of the participants becoming shop-stewards and worker leaders, ‘a strong affinity between grassroot leaders and cultural activists ensured the continuity of this movement; cultural work spread horizontally to other factories in Durban and beyond through “imitation-effects”: other workers, having seen The Dunlop Play, started organizing their own plays and cultural events independently. footnote6