Renowned activist and playwright Ronnie Govender dies

30 April 2021 - 09:19 By nivashni nair
Veteran activist and writer Ronnie Govender died on Thursday. File photo.
Veteran activist and writer Ronnie Govender died on Thursday. File photo.
Image: JACKIE CLAUSEN

Tributes for activist and renowned playwright and author Ronnie Govender poured in following his death on Thursday.

SA film producer Anant Singh and his wife Vanashree described Govender as a prolific writer and true son of the soil.

“Ronnie was a man for all seasons a journalist, political activist, playwright and author.  He took his inspiration from the ‘Indian experience’ of apartheid South Africa and immortalised this rich cultural and social tapestry in his many works,” the couple said.

South Africans remembered Govender’s work, including his seminal stage play The Lahnee’s Pleasure which based on characters in a hotel in apartheid SA.

“It became one of SA’s longest running plays and played to capacity audiences around the country,” Singh said.

“In a bold political statement, he wrote Off Side as a parody which took aim at those who participated in the house of delegates in the tricameral parliament of the 1980s, and followed it with the sequel Inside.

At the Edge and Other Cato Manor Stories was a brilliant account of life in the cultural melting pot that was Cato Manor. This play travelled to the prestigious Edinburgh Festival and he was recognised with the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for this work.”

Singh knew Govender since the 1970s.

“We spent memorable evenings in his company when he ran the Aquarius Restaurant in Reservoir Hills. Due to limited theatre venues for Indians in those days, he opened the Aquarius as a theatre venue to stage his plays and that of fellow playwrights, making it one of the most popular entertainment venues of the time,” he said.

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Govender was born on May 16 1934 in Cato Manor in then Natal.

His father was a bakery van driver and his mother a housewife. Govender has 10 siblings.

According to SAhistory.org, Govender attended the Cato Manor Government Aided Indian School and then went to Sastri College. He spent a year at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and then went to the Springfield Training College for teachers in Asherville, Durban.

“His brother was instrumental in helping him to get a job with the New Age as a sports columnist. This helped him to pay his way through university. At UCT he was elected treasurer of the Students Democratic Association that was formed to protest against the exclusion of African students from outside SA attending universities here.

“After high school Govender got a job working for an agricultural implements company. At the same time he did part-time sports writing for the Graphic, earning 10 shillings a week  writing a boxing column as he was very keen on boxing. As a journalist he attacked racism in sport and that attracted the attention of the Special Branch,” the website said.

When the New Age was banned, Govender could no longer earn and could not pay his fees.

“As a result he returned home to Durban and enrolled at the Springfield Training College to become a teacher,” SAhistory.org said.

Govender formed the Durban Theatre Association with the late Slim Moodley, Muthal Naidoo and Prem Singh.

They produced the South African version of the Greek classical play Antigone.

“That was in the 1950s. Again this attracted the attention of the Special Branch as it reflected the South African political situation. Following his relocation to Cape Town the Durban Theatre Association folded.”

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Govender was the former vice-president of the Natal Congress of South African Writers.

In 1991 Govender was appointed marketing manager of the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town, and two years later was appointed director of Durban’s Playhouse Theatre. In 2000 Govender was awarded a medal by the English Academy of SA for his contribution to English literature.

In 2006, Song of the Atman, which is partially set in “old” Cato Manor, was published. The book was also shortlisted for the 2007 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

SAhistory.org said in 2008, the SA government conferred the Order of Ikhamanga on Govender “for [his] excellent contribution to democracy and justice in SA through the genre of theatre”.

In 2014, the Durban University of Technology conferred an honorary doctorate of technology in arts and design on Govender “for his contribution to literature and the arts in general as well as his contribution to democracy, peace and justice in SA through theatre”.

At the Edge and Other Cato Manor Stories, for which he received the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the Africa region, played at the Edinburgh Festival. He was then invited to stage the play at a festival in Toronto and in Glasgow and was invited to tour all the major cities in India, where it received standing ovations for every performance. The play won Vita nominations for Best SA Playwright and Best Actor.

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