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

After the performance of The Dunlop Play, some of the participants, together with a group of committed activists who had worked with them, were joined by workers from other factories and unions, and they began to meet regularly in the union offices. In early 1984, workshops started around a play about a migrant worker, who confronts the typical problems of accommodation and unemployment and the dissolution of his family as a result of migrancy. Why Lord? was performed to Dunlop strikers and resulted in a renewed surge of membership to what was now becoming the ‘Durban Cultural Local’ (dcl). Amongst them was Mi S’dumo Hlatshwayo, now one of the leading izimbongi (praise-poets) in the movement. He describes how, after watching his comrade A.T. Qabula perform one of his poems, he was inspired with confidence to create and present his own work: ‘The Black Mamba Rises’. What is important to note is that the one overriding element all participants have in common is their suffering as exploited labour and their union membership which arises out of the recognition of the necessity for unity: ‘We were there, every day of our lives—in front of our machines, tools and implements; for years we were struggling to survive, to feed the children, earning a wage through our sweat. We realized that we needed each other if we were to survive. We realized that we needed each other if we were to improve our lot. We united. We unionized each other. We said: together we can change the situation.’ The ‘divide and rule’ policy of the state had succeeded in separating the workers on the basis of ‘tribal’ origins, but as workers they saw their communality. ‘We discovered that our fate as workers and our needs as human beings bound us together, but language, cultural chauvinism and divisions tore us apart . . . We agreed that our union is not an office, it was a movement of workers, a black mamba rising in anger disturbed by the exploiter from its ancient old sleep.’ footnote7

Together this grouping began to make the plays that will be described below. Most of the work was collective, based on workshop techniques, fed by the communal experience and focused on a common goal. Shopsteward councils and union organizers/leadership began to take note and placed culture firmly on the agendas of both mass-gatherings and smaller meetings. By now, there are hardly any meetings without praise poets pacing up and down in between discussion points, playlets being performed during tea-breaks and/or as ‘relief’ between strenuous debates. Supply and demand of cultural items are fairly evenly balanced: the Metal and Allied Workers Union requests items for its Annual General Meetings; the culture group offers existing work or is spurred into action to produce ‘special’ new ones.