Workers’ theatre on the East Rand

Dismissed Heineken factory worker and theatre-maker Gladys Thaane is using performance as an educational tool to teach and empower workers on and around the factory floor.

Grey clouds gather above the Georgetown bus stop station in Germiston. A downpour of rain is imminent as the wind starts to pick up.

Members of the Simunye Workers Forum hurry past the station and file into the Casual Workers Advice Office on the corner of Knox and Station Streets for their morning meeting. Others enter from different directions. With a young child draped over her back, one young woman calls out to another, “shesha sesizoqala!”, urging her to hurry up.

A rendition of the Asinavalo struggle song can be heard inside the small hall. Sazisiwe Khanzi, 33, leads the group of casual and  contract workers in song over the microphone. Workers continue coming into the hall, some making their way to the back where three large Tupperware dishes are filled with brown sugar, creamer and coffee.

Vuma msebenzi, vuma engathi sisesontweni” urges Khanzi, resembling a charismatic pastor in an attempt to lift the spirits of the workers who have dedicated their Saturday morning to discussing collective workplace and community issues. The meeting serves as a platform for new and old Simunye Workers Forum members to share, discuss and advise one another about grievances and to consult with the legal representation provided by the advice office about their rights and entitlements in the workplace.

Phantsi ngama labour brokers, phantsi (down with labour brokers)!” chants Khanzi. “Phantsi!” responds the crowd over the sound of paper crinkling as the printed agenda is refashioned into fans in the February heat.

A “settlement agreement drama” is the fifth item on the agenda. It features 29-year-old Gladys Thaane, the coordinator of a small collective of workers who recently started dramatising worker issues in an effort to educate workers on their workplace rights.

Setting scenes

“We are going to be pretending to be at the CCMA [Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration] and portraying a scene in which workers have been unfairly dismissed,” explains Thaane to New Frame before the performance.

“This kind of thing is something workers are likely to experience, so we wanted to give a clear demonstration on how to deal with these kinds of issues should they arise.

“You know, most people, when they find themselves at the CCMA being unfairly dismissed, their first instinct is to try to settle. They sign a document which may be harmful to them in that it cuts down their hours and impedes on their rights as workers – some even opt for re-employment.”

Thaane adds that “Re-employment is a problem because where some workers have worked for over 10 years, all of a sudden by signing this document they have to restart their term of contract and start from day one, losing all the benefits they may have accrued over the years. We will be talking about that in this scene and trying to show that there are alternatives and that workers can defend themselves”.

Unorthodox curtain call

Five performers make their way to the front of the hall, towards a slightly raised stage. Phones pop up as members of the audience start filming. “Thula phela, ubukele” says a man, phone in the air, trying to quieten those around him so he can start recording.

The furniture used for the general meeting is repurposed as a sparse set for the performance, a table and five chairs. A pair of actors sits at either end of the table – one representing workers who have filed a dispute, the other depicting the employers – and Thaane sits in the middle as the commissioning officer.

The actors, the audience is told, are in the office of the CCMA.

Khanzi tells New Frame before the performance that he feels it is important to present a united front as workers and that the “dramas” or performances play an important role in educating and explaining the rights and demands of workers.

Fanele sihlale sibumbhene njengaba sebenzi” he says, emphasising how performances such as these allow for a sense of unity and solidarity among workers as they see their issues and their struggles reflected back at them.

Apart from Thaane, none of the other actors have a background in the creative arts or performance.

Khanzi and Simphiwe Nchodu are factory workers at the Heineken Sedibeng Brewery. Thaane was a factory worker for Heineken, but was dismissed on 6 December. Khomotso Maleka works at the Estée Lauder factory and William Gundwane is a small-scale farmer who grows cabbage, spinach and pumpkins.

16 February 2019: Simphiwe Nchodu is a factory worker at the Heineken Sedibeng Brewery.

Thaane’s performance background

Thaane started performing at Makabelane Technical and Commercial High School in Qwaqwa, Free State, from which she matriculated. Around the same time, Thaane volunteered in various community theatre programmes and youth workshops.

Thaane had hoped to study dramatic arts at a tertiary level but could not secure a bursary or funding from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). She had set her sights on the drama and production studies department at the Durban University of Technology and left for the coastal city, matric certificate in hand, but had to return soon after it became clear that funding was unavailable.

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When she got home, Thaane decided to start teaching and training various acting skills to young children in her community while performing in the youth clubs she had been part of in high school.

She eventually moved to Johannesburg and started working as a casual worker for the Heineken Sedibeng Brewery through labour broker Imperial Managed Logistics. In 2015, Thaane signed on with an agent and, shortly after, landed roles as an extra in South African soap opera Generations and sitcoms Abo Mzala and Ses’ Top La.

After losing her job in mid-December as a result of taking part in a strike to secure adequate shelter for day and night labourers and protection for those working outside the factory, she decided to join the organisations she had been part of prior to her dismissal, as a volunteer at the advice office and at the Simunye Workers Forum.

Long-running dispute

The strike Thaane took part in was one in a long-running dispute around the rights of labour broker workers to become permanent employees, as determined by section 198 of the Labour Relations Act.

Thaane recalls how, despite going to the bargaining council with her colleagues, the legal help of the advice office, and obtaining a certificate to strike (a procedural requirement of protected strike action in terms of the Labour Relations Act), Imperial interdicted them.

“I was suspended on the 30th of October. I was called in for a hearing in November and [they] dismissed me in December,” she says stoically.

During her time working for Heineken, Thaane would dramatise some of the issues that workers faced and turn them into plays.

Reflecting on her trajectory as a performer, Thaane says, “When I was in the youth club, it was more about youth and community [issues]. I didn’t have so much interest in politics then. When I got here, I started to turn the politics into acting.

“I would find women or anyone I could act with and [act] out anything that would come to my mind. Let’s say [there was an issue] at the CCMA or at work, I would just create a story about it and put it on stage. I mean like, here [at the Simunye Workers Forum], people don’t normally understand if you just read things to them, so I started thinking that if I could act [it out], people would understand it more.”

16 February 2019: Posters used during strike action now decorate the Casual Workers Advice Office in Germiston.

A history of workers’ theatre

This tradition of workers performing dramas for one another is not a new phenomenon. It is an important feature of the practices and traditions endemic to South African theatre.

In his collection of essays, The Flight of the Gwala-Gwala Bird, Ari Sitas describes some of the worker culture that was part of KwaZulu-Natal’s labour movement in the 1980s. He writes that, during this time, “new institutions began emerging: cultural locals, joint worker-community and youth projects; izimbongi were pacing up and down orating their ‘words of fire’ in mass gatherings. From Richards to Bay to Ladysmith in the north, from Howick to Durban and as far south as Port Shepstone, a multifaceted cultural contribution [was] growing.”

The role of theatre was central to this moment for both its pedagogical and political import.

Brazilian theatre practitioner and theorist Augusto Boal writes in Theatre of the Oppressed that the theatre is inherently political. Following on from the teachings of Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Boal says that “those who try to separate theatre from politics try to lead us into error – and this [in itself] is a political attitude.”

Boal writes further that “theatre is a weapon. A very efficient weapon. For this reason one must fight for it. For this reason the ruling classes strive to take permanent hold of the theatre and utilise it as a tool for domination. In so doing, they change the very concept of what ‘theatre’ is. But the theatre can also be a weapon for liberation. For that, it is necessary to create appropriate theatrical forms.”

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In her 1984 text, Workshop Plays as Worker Education, Astrid von Kotze foregrounds the importance of working-class cultural theatre and production and laments that “the so-called theatre experts and critics in the country focus largely on happenings inside institutionalised play-houses [and] while local plays increasingly portray working-class life and problems, they fail to come to grips with the dynamics of working-class culture.”

The same can be said of the contemporary sociopolitical order and the ways in which culture configures within that context.

Von Kotze cites Junction Avenue Theatre Company’s 1979 workshopped play Security as an example, which focused on “the dramatic presentation of cause-and-effect relationships as they affect the exploited and oppressed peoples of the country”.

This production took “the first step towards performing outside established theatrical venues, within the leisure of the working class, rather than the traditional evening shows at spaces where people were already gathered for some common purpose rather than inviting them to come specifically to see a play. For these reasons, the format of plays would allow for the changed conditions of performance. But not only that, the plays [could] be made and performed by the very audience they were meant for – working people” she writes.

16 February 2019: Simunye Workers Forum members use their mobile phones to record the performance by the drama group.

Worker-centred trajectory

Despite not being aware of these histories previously, Thaane forms part of this worker-centred performance trajectory.

“I write most of the scripts and while most [of the people I perform with] are not actors, they are trying,” she says, explaining the many creative roles she assumes as scriptwriter, director and coordinator.

“At Simunye Workers Forum, we have our own space as women. That is where I am acting with different women from different companies and, every time we have a workshop or a meeting, we create something. We also create [plays] about the problems women face in the workplace and even at home – these are problems men don’t face. So I am always writing something about that.”

As the meeting draws to a close, a young woman exclaims “Bayishayile!” to her friend, remarking on how impressed she was by the settlement agreement performance. Her friend agrees and asks to be sent the cellphone video of the show. It is clear the performance will be watched over and over again, as an instructive educational tool as well as a political means of entertainment.

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