Transforming lives through theatre is no child’s play

The National Children’s Theatre is an old establishment shaping the futures of young artists.

LITTLE FEET stomp on the wooden floor above me at the National Children’s Theatre’s (NCT) during Saturday morning workshops. The old wooden ceiling below them squeaks, simulating their excited voices while revealing it has stood the test of time. It’s intriguing how an old building, a Johannesburg heritage site, has become home to the nurturing and development of youth’s theatrical talent.

It is 9 o’clock on a warm and cloudy Saturday morning at the NCT in one of Johannesburg’s wealthier suburbs, Parktown. The theatre consists of two houses separated by a parking lot for staff and visitors. Children aged 3-17 are being dropped off at the theatre by their parents. Some parents wait with their children until the workshops start. Others wait in the parking lot with their car doors open and seats laid back. The oldest children go to the main theatre. There are 12 of them, six boys six girls. All classes rotate around different skills: physical theatre, music and dance classes, all lasting 40 minutes each.

I arrive at the building housing the main theatre. The house is overcrowded with props overflowing from their storage rooms into the downstairs passages. The stuffy smell from the props, along with the creaking floors and staircase, remind one of the age of the building, as youthful and joyful screams can be heard from the main theatre, which is roughly the size of a classroom. Half the theatre is taken up by a stage with stained white tiles and dull green curtains.

OLD WORLD CHARM: The room where the audience congregates before shows.

The dusty and creaking stairs lead me to the theatre. The children are playing their own version of musical chairs where the music – South African hip-hop – doesn’t stop. Each person rushes hastily to fill a seat. There’s a rather shy-looking, tall, young man with a black puffer jacket on, this hot morning. While the rest run and scream at each other to fill vacant seats, he merely jogs in between to eventually fill a seat.

The young man’s name is Clayde Peterson. His father and grandmother are in one of the cars in the parking lot waiting for the workshops to end. At the end of the music class, the last 40-minute class for the day, the children from all classes make their way out to the waiting parents. It is raining. It begins to thunder as Clayde and I make our way to his father and grandmother. A little girl of about four years old cries hysterically at the clap of thunder, desperately searching for an adult to run to.

WATCHFUL EYE: The NCF’s emblem displayed in the waiting room.

As we sit on a dusty, stained couch in the veranda of the second house, Clayde’s father, Clayton Peterson, reflects on the personality of his son. The large, yet gentleman, says Clayde, has been coming to the theatre workshops for four years.  

OPEN DOOR POLICY: This heritage building houses the main theatre which holds an audience of about 100.

“At [age] nine he told me he wants to act. I went on the Jozi Kids [website], saw an ad and booked him for a holiday camp [with the NCT],” Peterson says. “He loves acting. He’s more involved by being here. His social skills have improved. He was very reserved to interact but now it’s much easier for him,” the 46-year-old says.

Clayde adds, “I’ve been more open and wanting to talk to people and learning different accents…I’ve been trying to get better at what I do here.” Neither as quiet nor shy as he had seemed at first, Clayde is rather outspoken, to my surprise. “The most significant thing I’ve learnt is to project my voice so that everyone can hear you. When I practice, my grandmother always tells me that she wouldn’t be able to hear me if she was sitting at the back,” the young Peterson continues.

HONOURS: A wall displaying the awards that NCT founder, Joyce Levinsohn, has amassed throughout her time at the theatre.

“He likes to watch different YouTube videos, practise acts and different accents,” Clayton says, and, chuckling, adds, “Sometimes he gets it right, sometimes he doesn’t.”

Clayton says that he likes to bring his son to the theatre. “The focus here is on the individual as opposed to school. At school there’s no time to focus on the individual. Since coming here, he’s been much more outgoing and willing to try new things.”

 Although Clayde is learning to act at a theatre, he hopes to pursue an onscreen career. “I would love to pursue a film career. For me it’s interesting. There’s lots of takes. With theatre you cannot make mistakes,” the young actor-in-training says.

Chief Executive Officer of the NCT Moira Katz, refers to the theatre as an educational children’s theatre. “Our motto is transforming lives through educational theatre,” she says.

The Petersons’ experience of the workshops reflects the objectives of the theatre as expressed by Katz. “We strive to transform children’s lives through theatre,” she says. “Our children’s lives have been changed and they’ve found a home. This especially for sports-orientated schools with artistic children. They have found a place in the theatre.”

Katz took over the NCT in 2012, succeeding Joyce Levinsohn who had run the theatre since she started it in 1989. Levinsohn had been involved in the world of children’s theatre from when she gained qualifications in the field in the 1950s (Encyclopedia of South African Theatre, Film, Media & Performance, 2018). At the time, Levinsohn took a chance, through her housekeeper, to educate black teachers about a technique called, ‘Theatre in Education’. The theatre has kept to this approach to this day.

Theatre in Education has earned the NCT recognition. The work done at the theatre saw it winning the prestigious Naledi Awards five times, the most recent being in 2016 for the musical, Khokho’s Treasure. The play is about the death of an old man who has left behind a suitcase of treasure. The lesson is that not all rewards are monetary. Fitting enough for the NCT, Khokho’sTreasure was heritage that was transported through the music of the likes of Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Johnny Clegg.

RECOGNITION: The theatre has won numerous awards.

The incorporation of the fun side through learning is a consistent element in the production and teaching at the theatre. While the children may enjoy the approach to learning, the teaching doesn’t come across as strongly. The trainers are recent graduates from university, mainly the University of the Witwatersrand. To an observer, the workshops seem to lean more towards a Saturday social activity rather than training in theatre.

The NCT carries with it a rich architectural history. The first building, Ridgeholm, is a white single-story house with a thick black strip covering the bottom fifth of the wall. The house marks the first time that Cape Dutch gables were used in Johannesburg. It was designed by architects Leck and Emley and constructed in 1902 for an attorney, Richard Baumann, who served on the committee responsible for the return of the British after the Anglo-Boer war (The Heritage Register, n.d.). Today it houses the administration of the NCT, a small theatre and music room. 

The second, and asymmetrical, double-storeyed building was designed and constructed on the same grounds over a decade later in 1913. The house was designed for a Mr Gregory who was a messenger of the court, who lived in the house with his wife until 1931 (The Heritage Register, n.d.). Both houses boast large bay windows. The municipality purchased the property in the 1970s with the plan to demolish the buildings and build the M6 motorway, but instead leased it out to the NCT for 50 years.

The plays reflect the edutainment approach. Eleven-year old Angelen van Heerden attests to this, saying that she started attending the workshops shortly after seeing a play at the NCT. “I came to see Pipi Longstockings two years ago as my friend was in it. The play taught me that it’s okay to be yourself. Pipi is a strange girl and she’s okay with it. Sometimes if you’re like everyone else, you’re a sheep. That’s what my mom says.I don’t like to be like everyone else. I feel like I’m being a sheep.”

Van Heerden says she feels more at home at the NCT than she did at her previous dance school. She says she was pushed too hard and felt as though she was not ready to be where her instructor needed her to be. “[At the NCT] they’re friendly, they don’t take everything so serious. It’s a nice environment. I like the fact that it’s more chilled.”

HISTORY: The blue plaque marking the National Children’s Theatre as a Johannesburg heritage site.

Media liaison officer Sydwell Koopedi, who has a background in musical theatre, has been with the NCT since 2004. His work is more on the public relations side. Koopedi describes his job as being inclusive of press releases and bookings for upcoming shows, arranging auditions, organising casting briefs, liaising with agencies, confirming bookings with schools, organising tours and sending out advertisements.

He says he faces challenges with the advertising since newspapers such as The Star did away with theatre sections. He adds that a lack of funding has negatively affected the theatre’s advertising.

Koopedi also assists with funding, as the NCT is a non-profit organisation that relies on funding and ticket sales. Tickets cost between R100 and R120 and can make up to R8 000 on a full-house. The National Lottery and Department of Arts and Culture are the major funders of the NCT. Koopedi’s duties include writing up budget reports, collecting invoices and filling out forms. “Its about four to five files,” he says with pride.

As he continues, his colourful character brightens against his black and white outfit. “I do tours. This year we did My Children! My Africa! for grade 12. It’s for setwork. When we’re doing our social programmes, I’m the one who books the schools and ensures that everything is booked: what time they get there, who to contact when they are there. So, it’s quite a lot!” he says as he shares how underprivileged schools are challenging in terms of organising, paying and communicating with the theatre.

A five-minute walk up the road from the theatre is the Netcare Park Lane Hospital. A security guard there, Sandile Mdluli, says that the area is not safe. “During the week it’s busy and quiet on weekends.”

I found this to be true. The narrow Junction Avenue where the theatre is situated has barely enough room for cars to drive through, because of cars that are usually parked on both sides of the street. On weekends, however, parking is the least of one’s worries. There seem to be more of the patrolling security guards for the corporate buildings between the theatre and Park Lane, and the French-speaking car guards than parked cars.

“This is a high risk area. They steal cars like no-one’s business,” says the 37-year-old Mdluli. “We’re next to Hillbrow and Alexandra. Since the car guards got here two years ago, it’s been better. They used to steal one or two cars in a week. Now it’s maybe a car per month,” the Servest guard says.

Mdluli says that to tackle the crime problem, the security guards from Park Lane, Wits Junction (Wits University student residence), Life Brenthurst Clinic, Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital and security company ADT communicate regarding security related issues. He says that it is mandatory for them to help each other out to curb crime.

Although there are safety concerns about the area where the theatre is situated, it has become a home away from home to some children, a treasure for children’s arts. However, the heritage houses do not portray that image. Old, dusty and cluttered, the houses need to reflect the work being done inside, otherwise they just blend in with the surrounding rundown area.

While the weekend workshops set the theatre apart from other youth centres and theatres, the lack of focus on the skill in some of the workshops needs addressing. The NCT may struggle with funding, but to its credit, the theatre has been consistent in ensuring that such issues do not affect the children, reflecting the safe place and home that the theatre has become to many children.

FEATURED IMAGE:  The room where the audience congregates before shows. Photo: Onke Ngcuka.


Under the skin of tattooing in Orlando

This piece explores all aspects of the tattoo culture in one of the most iconic parts of Soweto – from the tattoo artists themselves to those who just enjoy the feeling of a tattoo needle piercing their skin, permanently marking their bodies with impressions of their experiences.

In the sweltering heat of the Soweto summer, a small group of people gather outside a home in Orlando West. The house is a two-bedroom, brick face building with a green corrugated roof. Apart from a small sign on the gate with a cellphone number underneath some text, one would probably drive past, oblivious to what was going on inside.

The artist is 30-year-old Andile Mazibuko, who has been tattooing since the age of 18. The self-taught artist used his own body as his canvas when he first began to learn how to tattoo.

He started out with a home-made machine, which he still has, tattooing “laugh now, cry later, masks” on his thighs.

SELF INKED: Orlando West tattoo artist, Andile Mazibuko, tattooed himself with a home-made tattoo gun.

The machine itself has the same shape as a professional machine, which resembles a mini drill or electric screwdriver, but the components used to make it could rival something that MacGyver would be able to come up with.

The machine still runs and consists of a motor, adapter, an on-off switch and a sewing needle. Since then he has moved on to a more professional machine and has been using it for the last five years.

Again, he tattooed himself in learning how to operate the new machine, tattooing his left forearm with a tribal pattern.

Amazingly, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the two in terms of quality and finish.

Mazibuko found his way to tattooing through his love and passion for art, and found tattooing more “common nature” when it came to expressing himself.

He says he found it tough in the beginning because people didn’t really know what he was doing or what tattoos were about. However, in recent years, “Tattoos themselves have become more common and the artists themselves are getting better at what they do,” said Mazibuko.

“As an artist now, it’s all about getting your work out there, so you find that guys might operate in a similar set up to mine but then also do a lot of house calls where the clients might feel more comfortable and open up more. Even though people might not have the money to spend on tattoos, we still do what we can for them and it also helps us to build our portfolios. The culture of tattooing is definitely there and there are a lot of artists around as well,” said Mazibuko.

BIG MIKE: Michael Ngceshe stands outside his tattoo studio on the outskirts of Orlando West.

“As an artist now, it’s all about getting your work out there, so you find that guys might operate in a similar set up to mine but then also do a lot of house calls where the clients might feel more comfortable and open up more. Even though people might not have the money to spend on tattoos, we still do what we can for them and it also helps us to build our portfolios. The culture of tattooing is definitely there and there are a lot of artists around as well,” said Mazibuko.

On the outskirts of Orlando West is an off white-coloured shipping container with the word “Tattoos” in bold, red letters on the front of the container. This studio shares a lot with a car wash and a small food stall that serves pap, meat and vegetables. The studio belongs to a 34-year-old man who is covered in various tattoos, from a fish on his back to a cross on the inside of his right calf.

Michael Ngceshe, more commonly known as “Big Mike”, not because of his stature, but rather due to his status as the self-proclaimed, “most famous artist in Soweto”, is also part of the “informal” tattoo community and has been a tattoo artist since 2011. “The reason we do tattoos is because we love to do it. We are artists, but we are different to other artists because they hang their art and we wear our art. Wear your art, don’t hang it,” he says while lighting a cigarette.

While you would think that a place as vibrant and young as Orlando West might have a tattoo style of its own, that is not the case.

“Tattoos are universal and so the ideas that people have can relate to a lot of other people from all over the world,” says Ngceshe. “I would say that the one thing that makes Soweto artists unique is that we cater mostly black people, so there are different techniques and other things to consider when tattooing.

“The lines have to be thicker and bolder so that they can show up nicely on the skin and that takes a different set of skills as opposed to working with lighter skin. Not everyone can work with different skin types, but I think I have mastered them all,” Ngceshe says.

He also believes that the tattoo industry is growing and the reason is that people are beginning to understand that they get tattoos for themselves and not for other people to just look at. “You know what your tattoos represent and it’s a way of expressing yourself or keeping those that you might have lost close to you, and that’s all that matters. You live your art in that way, because every life on earth is art,” says Ngceshe.

Culture and stigma of tattoos in Orlando West

HEAVY EQUIPMENT: A home-made tattoo gun (left) alongside a professional machine (right).

While the culture of tattooing may be growing and becoming more commonplace in Orlando West, there is still a stigma that is attached to having tattoos.

“This stigma mainly comes from the older generation where they think it’s satanic and going against religion,” said Mazibuko. It also depends on the tattoo itself and what it is.

“The nicer it looks, the less of a stigma people will attach to you. People would be more accepting if you had a rose or a bird, rather than a skull.”

That stigma is something that Orlando West resident Tebogo Shumayeli, who at 16, got his first tattoo from Mazibuko, has experienced.

“My first tattoo was all about being cool and really didn’t have any meaning, but as time went on I started getting more meaningful tattoos and ones that had more significance in my life,” said the 26-year-old.

“I think about 80 percent of the people in this area have tattoos and they feel the same way. That’s why you won’t really find people branding themselves with logos or big names, of soccer teams, for example. It’s more like you are promoting that kind of logo and you would probably have to get paid for something like that. You find that most people think it’s quite ridiculous to get tattoos like that,” said Shumayeli.

The culture of tattooing is growing in Orlando West and in Soweto as a whole. While it is mostly young people who have opened up to the idea of tattoos and what they represent, the older generation is gradually beginning to open up to the industry as well.

Promoting tattoos and tattoo artists

Ndumiso Ramathe is a man who knows all about tattoos and is not afraid of getting inked. Having covered both of his arms and part of his chest, he even has a tattoo of his birth year, ’86, on his chin. Ramathe, who is the owner of Soweto Ink and organiser of the Soweto Ink Festival in Kliptown, said that he had noticed more parents coming in to get tattoos done and that some of them were even bringing their children with them. “A very small percentage of people do this, but it shows that the industry is opening up, which is really exciting to see,” said Ramathe.

The Soweto Ink Festival, scheduled to take place in December at Walter Sisulu Square in Kliptown, is in its second year and was expected to host both local and international artists who would be able to showcase their work.

“The development of the tattoo culture is slow, but it is getting there. This is why I am getting involved in conventions and festivals, to educate people that a tattoo is not something that you just get from the guy around the corner,” said Ramathe.

“These conventions and festivals aren’t only aimed at prospective clients, we also use them to try to educate artists themselves about the proper hygiene and safety certificates that they have to have in order to operate and be able to get products from suppliers,” he said.

According to the Body Artists Code, found in the South African Council for Piercing and Tattoo Professionals, these regulations include a variety of criteria, such as: “The premises shall not be used as or in connection with a living, food preparation or sleeping space unless a permanently constructed partition completely separates the working area”; “Tattoo and piercing needles, razor blades, scalpel blades, biopsy punches and shaving razors are single use only”; and “Owners must ensure that the transportation and disposal of medical waste is handled by government registered transporters and in accordance with governing municipal by-laws and national acts.”

Festivals also present artists with a chance to interact with other artists from different areas, not just in Gauteng, but from all over the country and to learn from each other. However, this is not always the case, with artists from particular areas, such as Orlando West, tending to stick together and those from other parts of the country doing the same.

“A lot of people from here will go to other parts of the province, like Pretoria to get their work done, especially those that work in corporate, so festivals like this also help us local guys to gain exposure among our own people. Most of the guys that I work with, work as a unit, but you do get those ‘ego tattoo artists’ who make more money than others, so they have cooler studios and those guys are more business driven than us smaller guys,” said Mazibuko.

ARTISTIC FLAIR: Graffiti on the wall of one of the many home-based tattoo studios in Orlando West.

“The older folks who are into religion don’t really support the idea of tattoos and see it as satanism. Personally, I see the tattoos as body art and a way of enhancing how you express yourself,” said Shumayeli.

While the tattoo community is a niche group of people, especially when it comes to the artists themselves, there is also a sense of competition between artists, in particular between those who operate in different parts of the province.

“Those bigger tattoo artists, it’s like they don’t trust us to do a good piece, because their shops will often get full, but then instead of maybe referring the client to us, they just tell them to come back another time, just because they don’t want to lose out on the money”, said Mazibuko.

Image is key

DEEPER MEANING: Butterfly and floral tattoos on Vanessa Myathaza.

Like many other professions, image is an important part of marketing yourself and what you are doing. Being a tattoo artist is no different. “You have to be wild and pretty out there for people to take you seriously as a tattoo artist,” said Mazibuko.

“People would rather get a tattoo done from someone who has tattoos himself, especially if they want to get a bigger piece done. If they want something smaller, then its okay if the artist only has one or two, but they generally get put off if the artist doesn’t have and they want something big or elaborate,” said Mazibuko.

With tattoos becoming an increasingly more common trend among a lot of people, there is a sense that our generation, might be the last to not have any tattoos.

That’s the feeling of Orlando West residen,t Thandi Mazibuko. “It starts with us, going down, and people younger than us will see our tattoos and also want one of their own.

I feel like our generation will also be more accepting if our kids get tattoos, because we have a better understanding of what it’s about and we have been through the phase of having a stigma attached to tattoos, so now our kids won’t have to go through that,” said Thandi.

“The older generation still understands tattoos as being something that maybe started in prison and so it is associated with that kind of thing.

When I got my first one, my mom was not happy with me, but eventually she came around. Nowadays it’s more of a lifestyle kind of thing and a lot of the tattoos that people get aren’t too hectic, so it will be a mother getting their child’s name, for example,” said the 32-year-old.

“I have 11 tattoos and to me, they represent identity. Nobody can have the same tattoo as me. Yes, the design can be the same, but the meaning behind it will be different.

That’s why I put a lot of thought into what I get and other people should too, because it’s very difficult to get it removed or covered up if you don’t like what you have,” said Mazibuko.

Tattoos still have a long way to go to become the norm within society, but it’s places like Orlando West, with its young and edgy vibe, open-minded people and talented tattoo artists that are beginning to change the perception of tattoos and tattooing in Soweto.

Having been permanently inked, the individual walking out into the sweltering heat once again, undoubtedly feels a sense of being part of a community and has a badge of belonging to show that they are part of that community.

FEATURED IMAGEOrlando West tattoo artist, Andile Mazibuko, tattooed himself with a home-made tattoo gun. Photo: Michael Pedro.


VIDEO: Wits Science Week – Opening by Prof Habib

National Science Week presents cutting edge science and technology at Wits University. Prof Adam Habib, Wits Vice-chancellor, opened the event by welcoming students, staff and visitors to the exhibition of innovation by Witsies in the Senate House concourse.




Too many feelings and emotions for one man

EMOTIONAL PERFORMER:     Oupa Sibeko takes on his emotional performance for his new play 'Fear and Longing'.  Photo: Palesa Tshandu

EMOTIONAL PERFORMER: Oupa Sibeko takes on his emotional performance for his new play ‘Fear and Longing’. Photo: Palesa Tshandu

Universal feelings of anxiety and desire are confronted in the latest offering by performing and visual arts student Oupa Sibeko.  The one-man contemporary dance piece called ‘Fear and Longing’ attempts to challenge all human emotion.

The 21-year-old student premiered his show at the Roodeport Youth Arts Festival last weekend as part of his physical theatre course based on the “containment of the body”.

“The fear is portrayed in the fragmentation of the self and the longing is the escape”, said Sibeko to describe the visual dance piece whose text relies on audience’s interpretation of the play.

According to Sibeko, his character in the piece has no definite role but is an extension of humanity, relying on human experiences and emotion to tell the story.

“As humans we carry things in outer bodies that we grew up with, that affect how we move and how we interact with people which is body, archive and memory”, said Sibeko who was able to contextualize how the play is able to relate to the audience. .

The play also attempts to reject societies understanding of masculinity by providing a platform to express human vulnerabilities, says Sibeko.

“I had to pay attention to how society defines masculinity and how I define masculinity and the other side of masculinity”, said Sibeko who suggests that the play is inherently vulnerable and open to masculinity.

The dance piece is a combination of a contemporary dance, which includes a traditional Japanese dance style called butoh which “is connected to the soul and the spirit…tracing the human essence,” said Sibeko.

The piece will be showing at the Nunnery at Wits University from the 14th to the 15th of May.



Cool but costly

It may look cool, but graffiti is costing Wits University tens of thousands of rands every year.

The removal of graffiti cost the university R88 000 in 2011, up from R38 000 the previous year.

According to Grounds Manager Andries Norval, American films glamorising graffiti have influenced Wits students.

Norval said it is easy to paint over graffiti on a white wall. But with a lot of Wits buildings, the colour is in the plaster, so painting doesn’t work and the patchwork can always be seen.

“You can sandblast if off… using sand that is sprayed under pressure…but if you do it on surfaces like wood and marble, you actually damage the building.”

Visible patchwork where painters have tried to cover unauthorised tags on the walls of the Umthombo Building. Photo: Hazel Meda


“Proper graffiti is a work of art.”

Norval made a distinction betweengraffiti and “the squiggles they call tagging”.

“Proper graffiti is a work of art. If it’s done with the proper permission and in the right places, I’ve got no problem with it.”

He pointed out that Wits has a few designated graffiti zones, such as the pedestrian tunnel between East and West Campus, where students can paint without consequences as long as the material is not offensive to anyone.

Clarifying what is and is not allowed, Norval said: “Definitely not political. Definitely not religious. And definitely not contentious.”

Vuvuzela asked Norval what he would say to taggers who argue that the university is curtailing their freedom of expression by restricting them to designated areas.

He replied: “Ask him: if I paint on his car that is parked in a public space…would he like that? Yes or no? And does he not think this money could be better spent on better teaching facilities or fixing lecture venues or even library books?”

Campus Control officer Aaron Ngcongolo agreed: “It’s not good, because this thing is making the place untidy.”

Sharni Hart, an honours marketing student, said: “It’s a campus and it should be kept neat and clean. You can express yourself in another way. You don’t need to write all over campus.”

Graffiti depicting President Jacob Zuma. The tunnel between East and West Campus is one of the designated graffiti zones at Wits. Photo: Hazel Meda

“A youthful feel”

Several students expressed their appreciation for the graffiti in the designated zones.

As he walked past the colourful murals in the pedestrian tunnel connecting East and West Campus, 1st year economic science student Tarrin Skeepers said: “This is one of my favourite spots at Wits. Period. Because I just love the artwork. I just love the creativity.”

Ngoni Goba, a 1st year LLB student said: “It gives the university a youthful feel.”

Norval could not speak about the situation at other universities in South Africa, except to say that he visited the Soweto Campus of the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and saw no graffiti there. The UJ officials he spoke to told them that they do not have a problem with graffiti.

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