Tuesday 3 May 2011

Mkhumbane (1960)

Alan Paton’s play Mkhumbane with music by Todd Matshikiza opened in Durban on March 29th, 1960. It was a turbulent period in South African history and the play’s opening was framed by major events in what was a time of great political change.

On March 21st, one week before the opening 69 protesters demonstrating against the carrying of pass-books were gunned down by police in Sharpeville. On March 28th, Albert Luthuli burnt his passbook in protest at the shootings and declared a day of mourning. On March 30th, the day after the play opened, the Nationalist Government declared a State of Emergency, arresting more than 18,000 people, detaining Luthuli and confining him to his home in Stanger, KwaZulu Natal. On April 1st the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 134 condemning the Sharpeville massacre and by April 5th both the ANC and the PAC had been banned. On April 9th David Pratt, a white farmer, attempted to assassinate Prime Minister Verwoerd by shooting him twice in the face. The playwright, Alan Paton traveled to New York later that year to receive the 1960 Freedom Award from Freedom House, but on December 5th, upon his arrival at Johannesburg airport, his passport was withdrawn by the South African authorities. It was a status that would remain in effect for the next 10 years.

Mkhumbane refers to a settlement just 7 km from central Durban. Officially named Cato Manor, it was called Mkhumbane by its black residents after the Mkhumbane River, which ran through the area.
With an expanding post-World War II economy, Durban had seen a massive influx of rural black workers coming into the city seeking jobs and by 1952 Mkhumbane, with its close proximity to the city centre, had grown into a vast informal settlement of 90,000 people. Though vibrant, living conditions were poor and crowded and the settlement increasingly became the site of significant conflict between residents and governing authorities.

In 1909 the Durban City Council established a revenue system of selling alcohol to the black population exclusively through a series of Beerhalls. The acquiring of alcohol from sources other than these official Beerhalls was declared illegal for black South Africans and the residents of Mkhumbane resented such control over what had been regarded as a tradition. Illegal brewing developed as a result, and in response the South African authorities regularly raided what were considered to be illicit businesses and made numerous arrests. Protests at such police action resulted and often led to violent clashes.

By the mid 1950s Mkhumbane had also become a political hotbed with Albert Luthuli gaining support for the ANC by linking the settlement’s problems to the greater struggle against apartheid. In response to the increasing political action in the area and anxieties over the large numbers of non-white residents living in close proximity to the city, a nervous Durban City Council issued a proclamation in June 1958. Inhabitants from Cato Manor were to be moved to the more distant regions of Umlazi, Chatsworth and the newly developed township of Kwa Mashu. In 1959 the City Council declared Cato Manor a white zone under the Group Areas Act and in June began the process of forcibly moving Mkhumbane residents to Kwa Mashu.

At this time a response to the increased liquor raids in Mkhumbane put into play a series of actions that soon spiraled into significant violence. It began on July 17, 1959 when a group of women gathered at the Cato Manor beerhall, threatening the men drinking there with sticks. This same group of women then proceeded to attack the central beerhall in Durban and a boycott of the beerhalls began. On July 18th, the following day, 3000 women gathered around the Mkhumbane Beerhall, and while clashing with police, set it on fire. It is significant to point out that these grievances were not over moral issues around the use of liquor, but rather the control of its production and sale. By some accounts it is these grassroots activities by women that contributed to the strengthening of the ANC’s Women’s League at the time. After more raids on January 23rd (some have it in early February) of 1960, an angry mob killed nine policemen at the Cato Manor Police Station.

It is not insignificant that this event, which occurred just six weeks before the infamous Sharpeville shootings, was fresh in the minds of the inexperienced Sharpeville policemen who opened fire on protestors, killing 69 people.

Within this politically charged context the play Mkhumbane opened in Durban with a cast made up almost entirely of residents from the Cato Manor area. Produced by The South African Institute of Race Relations the production featured a multi-racial collaboration with Paton as playwright and librettist, Matshikiza as music director and writer and Malcolm Woolfson as director.

Mkhumbane was Paton’s first attempt at a musical, while Matshikiza had already proven his talents with the hugely successful King Kong, performed for the first time the previous year in 1959. While Paton’s lyrics in English give some of the songs an awkward formality, they are not without deep political significance verging at times on the satirical. The track Bantustan features an ironic conversation between men wooing women that sets up a dichotomy between the negatives of city life and the benefits of life in the newly formed “Bantustans”:

“For city slickers I don’t care,
I want a man who will and can
I want a man from Bantustan…
A nice little house Kwa Mashu way,
Perhaps a nice little car one day.”

This strategy is very reminiscent of that in the song Meadowlands popularized by Nancy Jacobs and her Sisters five years before. Strike Vilikazi’s lyrics in that song appear to praise the benefits of moving to the new township of Meadowlands, but in reality were understood by listeners as a critique of the government’s forced removals of residents from Sophiatown.

The souvenir programme that accompanied the play features a text by Dennis Hurly, the Archbishop of Durban, as well as a range of images of the cast and period advertising. A PDF of this document as well as the accompanying lyric sheet can be downloaded from the flatinternational archive.

Interestingly, Alfred Nokwe, legendary actor, director and father of singer Tu Nokwe, makes a cameo appearance, his first, in Mkumbane as one of the tsotsi’s. He would much later stage his own production of the play.

Unlike the success of King Kong, which made its way to London, Mkhumbane closed only after a few months in Durban. Of the play, David Coplan in In Township Tonight says: "Though production difficulties, police harassment and mixed reviews combined to allow Mkhumbane only a short run, its particular uses of theme and musical dramatics made it an important forerunner of the popular working-class township theatre of the 1970s.”

GALP 1103


  1. Thank you for this extraordinary recording and the many images packaged with it. Your contextual essay is excellent. Thanks for that, too!

  2. A little out of sync here and a bit gushy but anyway ... can I just say to all of you working on this blog thank you so much for the sharing of near impossible to find music and contextual knowledge......! I have spent a wonderful series of hours (!!!) reading back pages and (once I'd worked out how) downloading quanities of pennywhilste kwela and also recordings politically inspired songs of the people.... fantastic!! I will be returning again and again

  3. Thanks so much for the share and the essay, and I would like to second both the previous comments as what they say pretty much sums it up for me as well.


  4. This is heaven.....galactarian....

  5. wish to have a reupload...thanks in advance


Electric Jive is currently receiving a deluge of spam. Apologies for the additional word verification requirement.