By Sandile Memela

RENOWNED playwright, poet and theatre director Walter Kefoue Chakela was one of very few artists who were able to deal concretely with the realities of being an African in a changing cultural landscape and society, in general.

He was able to intuitively link the past to deal perceptively with present socio-political complexities.

Perhaps his outstanding characteristic was his focus on cultural and political history and how this affected the present and future.

In fact, at the time of his death, at the age of 67, he was one of very few links between South African artists and the philosophy of Pan-Africanism, the continent and Diaspora.

Although growing up in a Bantustan, his politicisation began in his teen years during the late 1960s when the popular philosophy of Black Consciousness was at its height.

Stephen Bantu Biko and his philosophy of mental liberation and self-reliance were the dominant ideology.

The African National Congress was in exile with the Rivonia Trialists, including Nelsom Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki serving life sentences.

However, he was exposed to the diluted African nationalism of the exiled African National Congress when he tuned into Radio Freedom broadcasting from Lusaka in Zambia. This happened when his father gave him a portable radio to follow current affairs and broadcast stories.

The seeds of BC / Pan Africanism had already grown roots in his heart and soul.

Between that moment of owning a small transistor radio and 1975, Chakela had evolved into a politically conscious and proud exponent of African self-determination through the arts.

He had become part of a cultural network that saw him become a living, active catalyst of promoting African self-love and knowledge through the creative arts.

In fact, as a young lad, fate introduced him to some of the influential founding members of the BC-oriented South African Student Organization. He spent two days under the tutelage of Jerry Modisane who was the president of the organisation, SASO when the latter was visiting his Fort Hare graduate cousin, Mazileleni Ganda in Vryburg.

Soon after he grew to hobnob with a remarkable generation of leaders including Job Mokgoro, and Stanley Ntwasa. Together with a fiery and articulate friend, Barney Segwai, Chakela embarked on a door-to-door campaign to popularise BC and explore possibilities to found and launch a SASO branch in Vryburg.

But the security police got wind of this development. His father, Chateau, who moved in top social circles, advised him to be cautious. Thus, Chakela was forced to change strategies and tact. He chose to redirect his energies and time to mobilise his peers at Huhudi High School to found and launch the Molopo African Writers and Artists Forum.

This laid a foundation for conscious art practitioners in creative writing, poetry, theatre, music and dance who pursued an Africa-conscious agenda in their work.

The fate of the organisation is not clear but this saw Chakela emerge as a pioneering cultural visionary with strong BC leanings in Bophutatswana.

In the repressive South African environment he used the works of people like former ANC secretary general, Sol Plaatjie to communicate subtle political messages. He directed and adapted William Shakespeare’s politically loaded Julius Ceasar which was a prescribed work for high school students.

Sol Plaatjie translated the book into SeSotho.

Also notable was his stage adaptation of exiled writer Bessie Head’s novel, Maru. Head was a pioneering and fiery female African writer who was forced into exile by the apartheid regime.

No doubt, the mention of these writers piqued the curiosity and interest of pupils who, subliminally, would be conscientised to become critical of the status quo.

Significantly, the underlying purpose of doing setworks was to introduce African students to the arts. This saw Chakela rise in stature and position to become the artistic director of the Mmabana Cultural Centre.

He moulded and reshaped the institution to become a trendsetter in producing African artists of global stature. This was a giant leap in the career of a young man whose passion for the arts was ignited by the theatre of the mind on a small radio.

This was enhanced by his artistic and literary bent while still at high school.

When he enrolled at the University of Bophutatswana he remained a steadfast lover of the literary and artistic fields.

No doubt Chakela did an excellent job of entrenching the arts as what nourishes the soul of the people, especially the youth.

As his reputation spread, Chakela was recruited by the Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal at the State Theatre in Pretoria to become the first African head and artistic director of the Windybrow Theatre. The Windybrow was home of the artistically inclined mining engineer who built the mansion in 1896. It had been lying abandoned and neglected for years before PACT took it over to turn it into a satellite cultural centre in 1987. Five years later Chakela was thrust into the leadership helm.

The Afrikaners may have made a mistake. They presumed that just because he was a trusted and highly esteemed citizen and public servant in Lucas Mangope’s bantustan, he was a pliable African apparatchik who could be a useful political pawn and tool. After all, in 1993 the winds of change were blowing through South Africa and verligte Afrikaner nationalists were looking for Africans who could work with them to gain African trust to rebuild the country.

Although he was a relative outsider in Johannesburg, no one was surprised when Chakela suddenly showed up at the top elite table of Pan Africanist intellectuals and writers.

The humble and self-effacing son of Vryburg soon was, again, on first name terms with legendary and iconic figures in the cultural sphere.

Think of Mongane Wally Serote, Mbulelo Mzamane, Keorapetse Kgositsile, Nomhle Nkonyeni and Christine Qunta ….

Among his first moves was to solidify relationships formed with playwright, novelist and painter Zakes Mda that went back to the late 1970s.

They discussed ways of opening up opportunities and platforms for African writers and artists who were custodians of the hopes and aspirations of the people.

Some of the plays that he billed at the Windybrow Centre for the Pan-African Arts included Mda’s We shall Sing for the Fatherland and You Fool, How Can the Skies Fall?

The titles of Mda’s plays suggest and connote – depending on how one looks at them – the uncompromising desire for freedom, self-determination and return of the land, if you like.

But it is also another way of expressing love and joy for the African continent and dismissing any thought that the world would come to an end when people live in harmony and unity.

After all, Mda was the son of the rabid Pan-Africanist political activist, philosopher and visionary, AP Mda who together with Anton Lembede were founders and thought leaders of the ANC Youth League in the mid-1940s.

Significantly, among the first plays Chakela mounted was Muthobi Mtloatse’s stage adaptation of Drum writer Bloke Modisane’s underrated classic, Blame Me On History. The play was simply titled Bloke in 1994. Modisane was a highly gifted but acerbic writer who wrote about the tragedy and trauma of mass removals and the destruction of Sophiatown.

In fact, there are few, if any, writings on Sophiatown that are a compelling narrative on the impact of apartheids forced removals. The stage production maintained the scope, colour and a sense of spiritual desolation with loads of political insight into African suffering and misery. It was reminiscent of Sol Plaatjie’s searing book on the impact of land dispossession, Native Life in South Africa

Chakela devoted a lot of time and energy to cultivating strong bonds with African intellectuals in the creative industry. With a single-minded focus, he pursued the dream and ideal of turning the Windybrow into the nerve centre of arts and culture in Johannesburg and the whole country – perhaps to rival the Market Theatre.

Naturally, similar minded artists with an inclination towards Pan Africanism embraced his dream with passion and enthusiasm.

This saw him forge close links with the constellation of Black Consciousness artists and thought leaders, including playwrights and poets Matsemela Manaka, Maishe Maponya, John Ledwaba, Don Matera, Motsumi Makhene, James Mthoba, Njabulo Ndebele and Sipho Sepamla, among others.

Other formidable characters that formed part of his artistic circle included Mongane Wally Serote, Mbulelo Mzamane, Mazisi Kunene, Ingoapele Madingoane and leading actors Peter Sephuma and Owen Sejake.

This artistic and cultural renaissance moved too quickly to attract and recruit a new generation of artists who soon basked in the inspirational engagement and company of Chakela.

Thus it was easy to meet, greet and share a drink with young artists destined to be luminaries like Xoli Norman, Vusi Mahlasela, Lance Nawa, Job Kubatsi, Arthur Molepo and Sello Make ka Ncube, to name a few. The Windybrow had become their home away from home where they could self-indulge in polemics of the arts.

But the Pan-Africanist vision that Chakela pursued was neither exclusive nor chauvinistic. It was open, broad-minded and receptive to minorities. It was for this reason that world acclaimed writers, playwrights and artists of high stature like Nadine Gordimer, Stephen Gray, Annamarie van Niekerk, among others, also felt welcome at the Windybrow.

And there was the formidable playwright and directors of Indian-descent like Ismail Mohamed and Gita Pather, among others, who took their rightful place at the Centre.

This revealed that the Chakela who was born and grew up in conservative Vryburg in North West had mellowed considerably into an anti-racist Pan-Africanist of the stature of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe.

He could easily have been mistaken by Afrikaners that appointed him to be a man of rather radical political temperament with allegedly ‘reverse racism’ tendencies.

But this would have been missing the point. In fact, no accusing fingers were pointed at him.
This was not a Pan-Africanism that led toward integration or so-called colourblind non-racialism.

In the final analysis Chakela’s gospel espoused that South Africa was home to all those who pledged loyalty to Africa, irrespective of origin, race, creed or station in life.

The Windybrow was a microcosm of an Africa that ought to be: liberated, creative, intellectual, democratic and, above all, loyal to the continent’s people.

Worse, a myopic nationalistic arts programme would not have been tolerated between 1993 and 2005 when he was ousted from the leadership of the Windybrow.

Significantly, the role he played proved to be a harbinger for the promotion of the much vaunted African Renaissance soon to be espoused by Nelson Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mvunyelwa Mbeki.

But it could not be taken to greater heights due to partisan politics and lack of appreciation for the arts in nation building and social cohesion.

The Mbeki government may have tried to elevate the arts to an agenda-setting role and strategic responsibility by making the specific department independent and autonomous.

Mbeki appointed leading ANC thinker Pallo Jordan and BC polemicist Professor Itumeleng Mosala to lay the foundation for the definite role of the arts in society. But without a hefty budget to boost the purses of artists to self-start, it was bound to falter.

The allocated money was only sufficient to pay fat cat salaries for officials to travel around the country and world.

Inadvertently, this preserved and protected the status quo of apartheid inequality and injustice.

Sadly, over the last 25 years the government has yet to succeed to harness the arts through substantial funding to be the leading sector to promote patriotism and to nurture a spirit of a united nation.

After the expulsion of Chakela on fabricated charges in 2005, it was taken over by a board that was entangled in self-interest, factionalism, infighting, corruption and desire for power.

By 2015, the once glorious institution had been placed under the administration of the Market Theatre – its former rival and competitor. At the time of Chakela’s death, the Windybrow was a shadow of itself.

This means that Chakela’s dream of pan Africanist Arts & Cultural Centre has, for now, been deferred.

But all is not lost.

Since his Pan Africanism was devoid of patriarchy, Chakela went out of his was to bring female artists into the fore and groom them into future leaders.

He boosted the profile and leadership profiles of female artists like Nomsa Manaka, Christine Qunta, Nomsa Nene, Thembi Mtshali, Margaret Williams, Nomhle Nkonyeni, Dieketseng Mnisi, Pamela Nomvete, Gita Pather, Shoki Maredi and Boitumelo Mofokeng, among others.

Chakela’s campaign was to give them a spotlight as influential actresses, directors, producers and above all, creative intellectual thought leaders.

Sandile Memela is a journalist, writer, cultural critic and public servant. He writes in his personal capacity.

This fact alone defines Chakela as an African feminist who believed that ‘no nation is free until all its women are free.’

Finally, if there is anyone close to the heart and soul of Black Consciousness and Pan Africanism philosophy, it was Walter Kefoue Chakela who used the arts to pursue an African cultural agenda and spiritual self-determination.

The fact that he was ousted out of his position at the Windybrow by self-seeking fellow Africans was not his fault.

The tendency for an African brother to kill another for position, power and money is nothing new in African politics, including in the arts sector.

Strangely, when an artist is principled, Africa-conscious and committed to advancing the interests of the continent, as in the case of Chakela, he will not be condoned in his Motherland.

But this slight will not go unnoticed to the African ancestors.

It was not an accident that Chakela was, ultimately, bestowed the noble and glorious status of Nana, in Ghana – a title that is granted to brave hearts that have dedicated their lives to the selfless service of Africa and her people.

Seen in it’s true context, Chakela’s love, passion and commitment was, to quote Steve Biko, “to give the world a human face” through cultural self-determination.

May Africa bless the soul of Walter Kefue Chakela who was born 13 April 1953 to die on 30 May 2020 at the young age of 67.

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