Kliptown is the oldest of twenty-five townships that comprise Soweto (an abbreviation for South West Townships), now part of Johannesburg. It was first laid out in 1893 and from 1903 was home to ‘informal settlements’ – squatter camps or shacklands.
In 1955 the Congress of the People – organised by the African National Congress, the South African Indian Congress, the South African Congress of Democrats and the Coloured People’s Congress – took place in Kliptown on what came to be known as Freedom Square (now Walter Sisulu Square) across the railway tracks from the informal settlements. The Congress saw the declaration and adoption of the Freedom Charter, which set out the aims and aspirations of the opponents of Apartheid.
There is now a mixture of permanent housing and a large number of shacks and other informal homes. Kliptown’s present population is officially estimated at between 38,000 and 45,000.
Since my first visit in 2002, there has been little change in Kliptown. There is electricity in some quarters. Earth lavatories have been replaced by chemical toilets but are shared by as many as thirty people and there are still open drains.
Amid appalling deprivation, aspirations run high. A vibrant community is hungry to move out of poverty and alongside images of squalor there are pockets of hope: the girl in her precious school uniform, a requisite to be allowed to attend school, and the woman in traditional Sowetan dress crossing the railway line that divides their lives between opportunities open to the few and the shacklands; the young people who dance every day at the space provided by former street child, Bob Nameng, at SKY (Soweto Kliptown Youth); the enthusiastic response to a poetry project – stringing recycled rubbish to make improvised poetry lanterns organised by volunteers and actors from a theatre across the tracks.
The world of the child is one that is inquisitive, excited, and hungry for answers to an infinite number of questions; questions that are sometimes simple, demanding simple answers, but are frequently complex. The story of this piece of theatre has its roots in questions – and sometimes answers – from young children in workshops led by the writer Kevin Dyer, and young people’s theatre director Nina Hajiyianni. The first workshops held at The Brindley provided children with the opportunity, for many the first, of experiencing theatre as performers – exploring lighting, sound, space, and making stories to share with an audience.
Subsequent workshops were led by Kevin Dyer in Action Transport Theatre’s studio theatre. Sometimes the themes were inspired by artefacts and the children’s own ideas about how they might be used in a story. These were later developed to bring together groups to combine parts of stories where the dramatic convention of ‘still image’ led to a deepening feeling and intensity.
Further workshops took place in a number of primary schools over a year and involved hundreds of children. Question and answer sessions led to interviews of the children by each other, lively discussions and acting-out of possible scenarios.
Much of the children’s work was recorded and found to have a number of pearls of wisdom. ‘From the Mouths of Babes’ was adopted as a likely title for a piece of theatre devised by the joint efforts of the actors Michael Lattin-Rawstrone, Simone Lewis and Rebecca Rogers, dramaturg Kevin Dyer, director Nina Hajiyianni, designer Kate Unwin, and composer Patrick Dineen. Matt Bennett designed atmospheric light and sound.
‘There’s Only One of You’ – the title a contribution from one of the children – provided the key to a play about individuality. It was wordless except for Patrick Dineen’s imaginative soundtrack incorporating the voices of children and their wisdom.
By the second tour, FROM THE MOUTHS OF BABES was re-named STATik