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Saturday, May 1, 2021


(Left: Ronnie Govender)

(A tribute from Solly Pillay, former stage and TV actor and Cultural Activist)

By His proud Protégé, Solly Pillay

Ronnie Govender, the quintessential Thespian, an exceptional doyen of the Arts, international Writer, Playwright and Director extraordinaire, has tragically played out his last role as he passed away in his new abode in Cape Town on Thursday afternoon (April 29, 2021), leaving the Arts world mourning an irreplaceable loss.

To many people in this country the phrase “he needs no introduction” is often a mere cliché. With Mr Ronnie Govender, it is certainly a truism that he always needed very little introduction wherever he went.

Born Sathiseelan Gurulingam Govender, Ronnie was indisputably one of the most remarkable men in the theatrical fraternity here and abroad. Ordinarily, that introduction would be sufficient because “remarkable” suggests a spectrum of attributes that ends in infinity and in the case of our Mr Ronnie Govender, that is not far from the truth. 

Born out of very simple but profoundly religious parents in Cato Manor, Ronnie was more a student of the world rather than a student of any particular parochial discipline and formal educational institution, a process in which he nevertheless was a reluctant participant. Therein perhaps lies the qualities of his greatness – having been weaned in an unrestrictive environment and unleashing an unbridled venting of his indomitable creative recesses. His very existence was a generous tribute to the indestructible resolve of the human spirit, having struggled through a sparse and frugal childhood existence into one of the most erudite personalities in the literary world both within Africa and internationally.

Apart from being an insightful social leader and an artist of profound genius, he was an unflinching devotee to the struggle for liberation and emancipation in this wonderful land of our birth. He has been one of the most influential forces within the South African theatrical and literary world - using it to make a very significantly positive impact on people’s perceptions and understanding of the old oppressive political regime in South Africa. Through his numerous successful and deeply poignant satires, he was able to conscientise especially the Indian people against the apartheid puppets within the old Tricameral system. Ronnie was in no small way responsible for the eventual paltry four percent average turnout at the polls of the Tricameral Parliament through this impact so craftily articulated in his dramatizations. His famous line in one of his greatest political satires was ‘What is the difference between a cactus and the Tricameral Parliament – with the cactus, the pricks are on the outside….’. That epitomized his onslaught against the Tricam Parliament which directly led to their paltry showing at the polling booths.

In the theatrical world, he was perhaps most famous for the longest running play in this country – The Lahnee’s Pleasure which played to international audiences around the world. The play ran for over 700 performances and I was proud to star in at least 400 of them. In the absence of professional theatres for Black people at the height of apartheid, he was content to play in Halls and make-shift theatres. The iconic Himalaya Hotel was converted into one of the most famous theatre venues when The Lahnee’s Pleasure first played for a non-stop run of about twenty weeks. Audiences filled the hall to the brims every single night and often left a few puddles on the plastic chairs when they literally ‘pissed themselves’ laughing.

Ronnie ‘created and crafted’ more Black actors of stature than any other personality in this country. He was the founder and creator of the talents of the famous Kessie Govender who starred in his blockbuster, Swami. He then went on to discover and create the talents of Essop Khan and Mohammed Alli, the unforgettable stars of The Lahnee’s Pleasure. He took me under his wing and grew me into one of the most accomplished artists in this country by his reckoning. My role in impersonating PW Botha and Rajbansi in his blockbusters Inside and Offside catapulted me to new heights. He introduced the now enormously famous Jack Devnarain (Rajesh in Isidingo) to theatre in his first role in the re-make of Swami in which I took the lead role. He spawned the talent of Alfred Nokwe who then went on to leave his indelible mark on the theatrical landscape. Through his internationally celebrated collection of short stories on Cato Manor, At the Edge dramatized into a major theatrical production, he catapulted the careers of Pat Pillai and eventually Jailoshini Naidoo who took over from Pat.

Despite this formidable larger-than-life stature, he was a man who was truly the salt of the earth - whose integrity, warmth, love and respect for his people and the human race is embedded in every fine line of every compelling story with which he had enthralled and entertained thousands of people. His rare and supreme ability has been evident through his success in entrancing entire generations with his power to entertain, fascinate, awaken and challenge the spirit in all of us. He was of a rare breed, a hero, a gentleman of letters, a man of the people and a son of the soil of South Africa – but more significantly, and despite his very African being, had never renounced his profound Hindu spirituality which, by his own account, had enhanced his existence to the greatest heights.

His pride in being of Tamil origin is indelibly etched in all his writings – always paying homage to his Mother who had infused in him a deep-seated appreciation and love for the Hindu religion and the unique ethos of his Dravidian roots that he always referred to.

If he were not a South African living within an immensely suppressive apartheid regime, his fame would have transcended in an even greater fashion, the borders of this isolated world many decades ago. His commitment to the struggle and his unflinching resolve in avoiding the apartheid temptations to commercialize his numerous successful works, had resulted in keeping him away from the international world and thus robbing the international community of a rare talent. When indeed the international doors were opened to South Africa, his reputation was instantly catapulted onto the world arena, albeit somewhat late. This led to his celebrated international status of being the Commonwealth Writer’s Award winner and the English Academy medal winner. He proudly wore on his lapel the badge of being the first Tamil in Africa to receive the Writers Award. He was also honoured with a Lifetime Achievements Award from the South African Arts and Culture Trust for his contribution of over 16 theatrical productions.

No number of accolades will do total justice to this man who possessed a timeless elegance within a monumental talent. A raconteur supreme, a writing genius, a profound and sovereign influence on our lives, but above all a warm and wonderful human being. And as Mark Antony said of Julius Caesar…’When comes such Another’. 


Ronnie’s final journey is on Monday at 14h00 at The Maitland Crematorium in Cape Town.