My Travelling Life

There's one problem with travelling I wish I could solve, says John Kani

The acclaimed actor reminisces about his jet-setting life and the lessons learnt along the way

01 December 2019 - 00:00 By Sunday Times Reporter
Renowned South African actor Dr John Kani.
Renowned South African actor Dr John Kani.
Image: Supplied

I was born in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth. My father came from a village near Kenton-on-Sea, where my grandfather had a farm with 300 cattle, and that is where I first went on holiday as a child. It was the most beautiful place to visit. We were considered "the spoilt brats from PE" because we weren't used to sleeping on floors and collecting firewood and so on.

Going there was my first lesson in conservation - we had to collect firewood and would get into trouble if we came back with any branches that still had green on them. We'd also go hunting for dassies and rabbits and if I wanted to go again the next day my father would say no. Suddenly these little rabbits and dassies had faces and families! So that was my lesson in nature conservation and it has stayed with me.

Carriage Rock on Kenton-on-Sea is where John Kani spent his idyllic youthful years.
Carriage Rock on Kenton-on-Sea is where John Kani spent his idyllic youthful years.
Image: 123RF/bernardmackenzie

Because of my work, I travel all the time. I go to the US and London three or four times a year and I go around Africa as much as I can.

When I was younger it was the most exciting thing to tell my friends, "I'm going to London, Chicago, Paris, New York ... But the older I get, the more I start to think: "How can I get there without flying 14 hours?" If you could solve that problem I'd happily travel every day.

My first trip abroad was in 1973. I flew to London with BOAC (the British Overseas Airways Corporation, which is now BA). En route, I remember the plane landed in Nairobi. There was this man on the tarmac directing the plane with lights - and he was black! And then the plane stopped and all these guys got on the plane, and they were black too! It was my first image of a free country. Then we landed in a city almost the size of PE. It was called Heathrow Airport.

We landed in a city almost the size of PE. It was called Heathrow Airport
John Kani

My first time in London — I'd gone to perform Sizwe Banzi Is Dead — I looked like a plaasjaapie. I remember seeing so many people and thinking everyone would know I was black, and yet no one saw me. They all went about their business. I passed a policeman on the street and he didn't ask for my pass book - that was my first image of London and that has stayed with me.

Later I started to notice the grit and grime and the poverty, and after the season, I went home feeling happy to be in PE. And there was work to be done in SA.

The most difficult destination I've been to was Nairobi, Kenya. This was in 1976. I was staying at The Hilton and my friend, Joseph Louw, the photographer, said, "Let's go to the township. I said, "No. Kenya is an independent country. Let's not say 'township', let's say 'suburb'. That was my concept of freedom.

But just to see the conditions that people lived in, which were worse than anything I'd ever seen in my own country ... That was my first African country, and that's where I first felt we could do more as African independent countries.

Gaborone, Botswana, was totally different. It was so clean and beautiful and everything worked. The people had such an air of dignity.

Internationally, nowhere beats New York. It's beautiful, it's busy, it's mad. New York is the centre of the arts business - and it's also where I make a lot money.

When I first went there, I felt like the back of my neck was going to crack because I spent so much time looking up. You can always spot the tourists in the US because they are looking up.

Times Square is a crazy place. It's not as big as it appears in the movies. It's also strange because it is so big, yet you can stand there and feel completely alone because everybody else is moving.

I also love Paris — the culture, the language — it's a melody in the mouth. I love Parisians' unwillingness to speak English even when they can. I love the little bistros in the streets, and this feeling you get there all the time that 90% of the people don't work because they're always outside having breakfast, having tea.

The streets of Paris are lined with quaint bistros.
The streets of Paris are lined with quaint bistros.
Image: 123RF/OLGACOV

Unfortunately, I don't have any negative travel experiences to share. Because I go as part of my work, people have always made sure I get the best reception from the airport to the limo to the five-star hotel. They always make sure my travels are incredibly beautiful.

The oddest place I've experienced was Belfast in the '80s. It was amazing to see a city so starkly divided that you could sense the tension and fear. It was something so strange, almost as if the people walking on one side of the street didn't know the people on the other side of the street. I'd never felt segregation like that between the Protestants and the Catholics. At home the divisions were clearer because of race, but Belfast was a city hiding skeletons and ghosts. Even coming from SA, I felt I was not safe and something was not right there.

Some day I'd really like to see Beijing. I remember a film called The Last Emperor, which has stayed with me all my life, and it really made me want to see Beijing. I hope one day I get to make a movie there.

Dr Kani stars in 'The Lion & the Lamb', a hugely successful musical play originally created by Kani and Barney Simon, at the Market Theatre in Joburg until December 22.