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Monday, November 18, 2013


(Renowned cartoonist Nanda Soobben)

When internationally acclaimed South African cartoonist, Dr Nanda Soobben, was asked to create artwork for a new staging of the late Kessie Govender’s play, Stablexpense, he jumped at the opportunity to pay tribute to the playwright, whom he fondly recalls.

“During the dark years Kessie and I often spoke of working together, but our focus was on finding work that would put food on the table, so we never got the chance to collaborate,” he says. “Like the name of another one of his plays, Working Class Hero, Kessie was a man of the people and a man of many talents who fearlessly used his skills to expose the injustice of Apartheid.”

One of Durban’s cultural struggle icons, Kessie Govender refused to perform in front of segregated audiences, as was the Apartheid law at the time. In the mid-1970’s, Govender started his own company, Stable Theatre. Its first location was on Queen Street (now Denis Hurley Street), then West Street (Dr Pixley KaSeme Street) until Govender discovered an abandoned electrical warehouse in Princess Alice (now Johannes Nkosi) Street. He moved in with his Stable Theatre Company and refused to vacate the premises, despite efforts by the Corporation to evict him. He eventually claimed squatters’ rights and won his case and this is where Stable Theatre is today. It became the first independent black-owned theatre company in South Africa.

First performed in 1974, Stablexpense makes a biting comment of the fact that the Durban Municipality of the time allocated more money to the building of a stable for a horse than it did to one of the new low-cost houses for Indians in Chatsworth after their eviction from areas that were rezoned for whites only.

Soobben was approached by directors, Caroline Smart and Jayashree Govender - the playwright’s widow - to recreate the art depicted in the play.

“I remember that scene,” recalls Soobben with a chuckle, “a shebeen featuring paintings of voluptuous women baring body parts.”

Soobben, who is Director of the Centre for Fine Art, Animation and Design, in Durban and Cape Town, wishes that Govender was still alive. Referring to the recent brouhaha over scholars producing contentious art, he reckons that “Kessie should have been here in the new South Africa, to speak out in this environment where picking on a corrupt government is deemed to be racist. Kids should not be thwarted. They should have freedom of expression. In Stablexpense, the playwright was comparing skewed priorities during Apartheid. He would have had a lot to say about the current skewed priorities.”

“Kessie was not only an actor, director and playwright, but also a good artist, a sculptor. He was helpful and was always willing to go out of his way to assist other artists. One fond memory I have of him illustrates this. One evening, about 25 years ago, he was asked to judge a fashion show which was miles away. Not only did he agree to help out, but he also drove for miles in the opposite direction to come and fetch me, so that I could be part of the event. This sort of commitment was par for the course for Kessie.’

Soobben initiated the Too Little Too Late Awards, to acknowledge contributions towards the Arts and the Struggle during the time when people of colour were sidelined. Govender was a recipient of this award, which was presented to the playwright by the late Aziz Hassim.

And now, thanks to sponsorship from the National Arts Council and support funding from the KZN Performing Arts Trust, Stable Theatre will honour its founder by presenting a revival of his first play.

“We are very proud to have been given permission by Kessie Govender’s family to do this work, which represents the first time any of his plays have been performed since his death in 2002,’ says Stable Theatre Centre Manager, Thanduxolo Zulu. ‘Without Kessie Govender, Stable Theatre itself would not exist and it is fitting that we honour him in his own home.”

Stablexpense runs at Stable Theatre at 115 Johannes Nkosi Street from November 22 to 30. Tickets R50 (R40 pensioners/students/scholars) booked through Computicket. For block bookings (R40pp for more than 10) contact Stable Theatre on 031 309 2513 or email or

There is safe off-street parking. For directions (to navigate the approach via various one-way streets) visit