Athol Fugard: White Afrikaner fighter against evil Apartheid system

This is mid-1970s and these three boys have just changed the face of South African theatre. Wonder if they were aware of the historic nature of what they had done as they strolled down the street --- John Kani, Athol Fugard and Winston Ntshona

This is mid-1970s and these three boys have just changed the face of South African theatre. Wonder if they were aware of the historic nature of what they had done as they strolled down the street — John Kani, Athol Fugard and Winston Ntshona

Personal history

ATHOL Fugard was born as Harold Athol Lanigan Fugard, in Middelburg, Eastern Cape, South Africa, on 11 June 1932. His mother, Marrie (Potgieter), an Afrikaner, operated first a general store and then a lodging house; his father, Harold Fugard, was a disabled former jazz pianist of Irish, English and French Huguenot descent.

In 1935, his family moved to Port Elizabeth. In 1938, he began attending primary school at Marist Brothers College.  After being awarded a scholarship, he enrolled at a local technical college for secondary education and then studied Philosophy and Social Anthropology at the University of Cape Town, but he dropped out of the university in 1953, a few months before final examinations.

He left home, hitch-hiked to North Africa with a friend, and then spent the next two years working in east Asia on a steamer ship, the SS Graigaur, where he began writing, an experience “celebrated” in his 1999 autobiographical play The Captain’s Tiger: a memoir for the stage.

In September 1956, he married Sheila Meiring, a University of Cape Town Drama School student whom he had met the previous year. Now known as Sheila Fugard, she is a novelist and poet. The couple have since divorced. Their daughter, Lisa Fugard, is also a novelist.

The Fugards moved to Johannesburg in 1958, where he worked as a clerk in a Native Commissioners’ Court, which “made him keenly aware of the injustices of apartheid.” He was good friends with prominent local anti-apartheid figures, which had a profound impact on Fugard, whose plays’ political impetus brought him into conflict with the national government; to avoid prosecution, he had his plays produced and published outside South Africa. A former alcoholic, Athol Fugard has been teetotal since the early 1980s.

For several years Fugard lived in San Diego, California,  where he taught as an adjunct professor of playwriting, acting, and directing in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). In 2012, Fugard relocated to South Africa, where he now lives permanently. In 2016, in New York City Hall, Fugard was married to South African writer and academic Paula Fourie. Fugard and Fourie presently live in the Cape Winelands region of South Africa.

The Man:

Harold Athol Lanigan Fugard,  OIS (born 11 June 1932) is a South African playwright, novelist, actor, and director who writes in South African English. He is best known for his political plays opposing the system of apartheid and for the 2005 Academy Award-winning film of his novel Tsotsi, directed by Gavin Hood.  Fugard was an adjunct professor of playwriting, acting and directing in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of California, San Diego. For the academic year 2000–2001, he was the IU Class of 1963 Wells Scholar Professor at Indiana University, in Bloomington, Indiana. He is the recipient of many awards, honours, and honorary degrees, including the 2005 Order of Ikhamanga in Silver “for his excellent contribution and achievements in the theatre” from the government of South Africa. He is also an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.


Early period

In 1958, Fugard organised “a multiracial theatre for which he wrote, directed, and acted”, writing and producing several plays for it, including No-Good Friday (1958) and Nongogo (1959), in which he and his colleague black South African actor Zakes Mokae performed.

After returning to Port Elizabeth in the early 1960s, Athol and Sheila Fugard started The Circle Players, which derives its name from their production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, by Bertolt Brecht.

In 1961, in Johannesburg, Fugard and Mokae starred as the brothers Morris and Zachariah in the single-performance world première of Fugard’s play The Blood Knot (revised and retitled Blood Knot in 1987), directed by Barney Simon. In 1962, Fugard publicly supported the Anti-Apartheid Movement (1959–94), an international boycott of South African theatres due to their segregated audiences, leading to government restrictions on him and police surveillance of him and his theatre, and leading him to have his plays published and produced outside South Africa.

Athol Fugard (centre) in 'The Road To Mecca'

Athol Fugard (centre) in ‘The Road To Mecca’

Lucille Lortel produced The Blood Knot at the Cricket Theatre, Off Broadway, in New York City, in 1964, “launch[ing]” Fugard’s “American career.”

The Serpent Players

In the 1960s, Fugard formed the ‘Serpent Players’, whose name derives from their first venue, the former snake pit (hence the name) at the Port Elizabeth Museum, “a group of black actors worker-players who earned their living as teachers, clerks, and industrial workers, and cannot thus be considered amateurs in the manner of leisured whites”, developing and performing plays “under surveillance of the Security Police according to Loren Kruger’s The Dis-illusion of Apartheid published in 2004.”

The group largely consisted of black men, including Winston Ntshona, John Kani, Welcome Duru, Fats Bookholane and Mike Ngxolo as well as Nomhle Nkonyeni and Mabel Magada. They all got together, albeit at different intervals, and decided to do something about their lives using the stage.

In 1961 they met Athol Fugard, a white man who grew up in Port Elizabeth and who recently returned from Johannesburg, and asked him if he could work with them as he had the theatre know-how, how to use the stage, movements, and everything else.  They worked with Athol Fugard since then and that is how the ‘Serpent Players’ go together.

At the time, the group performed anything they could lay their hands on in South Africa as they had no access to any libraries. These included Bertolt Brecht, August Strindberg, Samuel Beckett, William Shakespeare and many other prominent playwrights of the time.

(Video): An interview with Athol Fugard ‘The Shadow of the Hummingbird’ playwright actor  —

In an interview in California, Ntshona and Kani were asked why they were doing the play ‘Sizwe Banzi is Dead’, which was considered a highly political and telling story of the South African political landscape at the time.

Ntshona answered: “We are just a group of artists who love theatre. And we have every right to open the doors to anyone who wants to take a look at our play and our work. We believe that art is life and conversely, life is art. And no sensible man can divorce one from the other. That’s it. Other attributes are merely labels”.

They mainly performed at the St Stephen’s Hall – renamed the Douglas Ngange Mbopa Memorial Hall in 2013 – adjacent to St Stephen’s Church, and other spaces in and around New Brighton, the oldest Black township in Port Elizabeth. Wikipedia


Born:  30 August 1943 (age 72) New Brighton, Eastern Cape, South Africa
Occupation: Actor director playwright
Notable work:  ‘Order of Ikhamanga in Silver’
Books:  Nothing But the Truth, Sizwe Bansi is Dead and The Island
Plays:  Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, The Island
Movies:  ‘Nothing but the Truth’, ‘The Ghost and the Darkness’, ‘Sarafina!’, ‘Wild Geese’, ‘Coriolanus
Similar People:  Winston Ntshona, Athol Fugard, Atandwa Kani, Kenneth Griffith, Stephen Hopkins

Personal life

John Kani was born in New Brighton, Eastern Cape, South Africa. His son, Atandwa, is also an actor and made his debut on U.S. television on the CW series Life Is Wild.


Kani joined the Serpent Players (a group of actors whose first performance was in the former snake pit of the zoo, hence the name) in Port Elizabeth in 1965 and helped to create many plays that went unpublished but were performed to a resounding reception.

These were followed by the more famous Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island, co-written with Athol Fugard and Winston Ntshona, in the early 1970s. He also received an Olivier Award nomination for his role in My Children! My Africa!

Kani’s work has been widely performed around the world, including New York, where he and Winston Ntshona won a Tony Award in 1975 for Sizwe Banzi Is Dead and The Island. These two plays were presented in repertory at the Edison Theatre for a total of 52 performances.

In 1987 Kani played Othello in a performance of Shakespeare’s play in South Africa which was still under apartheid. “At least I’ll be able to kiss Desdemona without leaving a smudge.” he said then.

Nothing but the Truth (2002) was his debut as sole playwright and was first performed in the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. This play takes place in post-apartheid South Africa and does not concern the conflicts between whites and blacks, but the rift between blacks who stayed in South Africa to fight apartheid, and those who left only to return when the hated regime folded. It won the 2003 Fleur du Cap Awards for best actor and best new South African play. In the same year he was also awarded a special Obie award for his extraordinary contribution to theatre in the United States.

Kani is executive trustee of the John Kani Theatre Foundation, founder and director of the John Kani Theatre Laboratory and chairman of the National Arts Council of SA. He starred as King T’Chaka in the Marvel studios blockbuster Captain America: Civil War and will reprise that role in Black Panther.

In August 2017, Kani had been cast to perform the voice of Rafiki in the 2019 CGI live action remake of The Lion King directed by Jon Favreau.

Winston Ntshona

Winston Ntshona

Other recognition and awards

On 20 February 2010, Kani received Life Time award (SAFTA Awards). Kani has also received the Avanti Hall of Fame Award from the South African film, television and advertising industries, an M-Net Plum award and a Clio award in New York. Other awards include the Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation Award for the year 2000 and the Olive Schreiner Prize for 2005. He was voted 51st in the Top 100 Great South Africans in 2004. In 2006, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Cape Town. Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University awarded him an honorary Doctor of Philosophy in 2013.

In 2016 Kani received the national honour of the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver, for his “Excellent contributions to theatre and, through this, the struggle for a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa”.

The main theatre of the Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, has been renamed The John Kani Theatre in his honour.


  • Sizwe Banzi is Dead (1972) (co-authored with Athol Fugard and Winston Ntshona)
  • The Island (1973) (co-authored with Athol Fugard and Winston Ntshona)
  • Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act (co-authored with Athol Fugard and Winston Ntshona)
  • My Children My Africa! (actor)
  • Nothing But the Truth (2002) (sole playwright)
  • The Tempest (2008) (actor in the role of Caliban, at the Baxter Theatre, Cape Town; Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon; and tour of Richmond, Leeds, Bath, Nottingham, Sheffield)

Film and television

  • The Wild Geese (1978)
  • Marigolds in August (1980)
  • Killing Heat (1981)
  • The Grass Is Singing (1981)
  • “Master Harold”…and the Boys (1985) (TV)
  • Saturday Night at the Palace (1987)
  • An African Dream (1987)
  • Options (1988)
  • A Dry White Season (1989)
  • Othello (1989) (TV)
  • The Native Who Caused All the Trouble (1989)
  • An African Dream (1990)
  • Sarafina! (1992)
  • In Darkest Hollywood: Cinema and Apartheid (1993) (Non-fiction)
  • Soweto Green (1995)
  • The Ghost and the Darkness (1996)
  • Kap der Rache (1997) (TV) (German)
  • Kini and Adams (1997)
  • The Tichborne Claimant (1998)
  • Final Solution (2001)
  • Hillside (2005–2008) (TV series)
  • Silent Witness (Finding Rachel) (2008)
  • Endgame (2009)
  • White Lion (2010)
  • Coriolanus (2011) – Cominius
  • The Suit (2016) – Mr. Maphikela
  • Captain America: Civil War (2016) – T’Chaka
  • Black Panther (2018) – T’Chaka
  • The Lion King (2019) – Rafiki


  • Nothing But the Truth (2002)

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