Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world

Ukunuka Theatre Forum: Ukunuka lets audience members take over the plot and change the outcome — perhaps finding a different kind of solution to the mess we’re in. Image: Sue Maclennan

OpenUp supported six young teams that set out to tell stories about corruption in South Africa

Whistleblowers, mental healthcare in South Africa, gentrification, land grabbing, service delivery, and the stains left by years of corruption were just some of the topics dealt with by participants in our Creative Storytelling project.

Told against the backdrop of articles investigated and written by local journalists, the teams did this through the use of theatre, a makeshift gameshow, and a public-engaging social media campaign. Our goal as OpenUp was to inform people wherever information was not previously made accessible; empower communities by providing them with the tools needed to effect change, and encourage citizens to trust that their voices will be heard by the government.

These are all issues that matter to South Africans and while many of these performances took place during the last round of General Elections, the country remains rife with corruption and we hope to assist these storytellers to continue to shed light on this and make noise about problems that are not even nearly fixed.

The stories told were as follows:

Uthuli Othulini — Amagugu Alelizwe was performed in the style of a live game show and weaved in a story about land corruption, where the building of housing estates was taking place on the graves of black people. Actors Jefferson ‘Bobs’ Tshabalala, Phillip Dikotla and Nicholas Welch brought AmaBhungane’s investigation by journalist Zanele Mji to life over a series of performances in Gauteng. Humour and entertainment were used to depict the theft of land from those who could no longer defend themselves and encouraged their audiences — many of whom were high school learners — to engage with the story throughout.

Boxes: Aunty Sumaya, as portrayed by local performer Quanita Adams. Image: Retha Ferguson

Whistleblowers: #Khuluma! is the isiZulu word used for “speak”, and was also the hashtag selected for an anti-corruption social media campaign headed up by local creative Brenton Maart. The team highlighted pivotal heroes — whistleblowers — who have come forward, often at great personal and professional risk and sacrifice, in order to unmask the rot of corruption that has seeped into so many parts of South African society. Articles from the Daily Maverick provided the content for a series of digital posters, produced in English, Afrikaans and isiZulu, and distributed via a network of social media profiles and platforms as a campaign that took place in the run-up to the 2019 General Elections.

Over the course of five short scenes, Boxes set out to probe the legacy of apartheid spatial planning and forced removals, interrogating notions of ‘development’ and ‘progress’, by posing the question: Who is really benefitting from so-called progress? Written by Neil Coppen and Ameera Conrad in collaboration with journalist Daneel Knoetze, Marí Stimie and performers Quanita Adams and Mark Elderkin, Boxes was a touring, social justice theatre production which connected South African investigative journalists with theatre-makers and artists. Over a period of three weeks, the show was enjoyed by more than 2, 000 people and in most instances, these were school-going learners and tertiary education-based students, as well as members of non-government organisations.

As part of Human Rights month, the Ukunuka Theatre Forum created a participatory theatre production about ghost workers, undrinkable water and poo in Makhanda, told against the backdrop of corruption. Its aim was to engage community members in the Makhanda Municipality about the conditions in which they live. Performances took place throughout April 2019, and drew large crowds at each show — the cast was not always welcomed by the community, but robust debate took place before, during and after each performance despite the hostility.

#Stains: After each performance, Chale and Makhubele engaged with their audience on what corruption is, how we can end it and whether they were going to vote in the upcoming National Elections.

#Stains took place in various locations around the country and at the end of each performance, actors Pristine Makhubele and Katlego Chale asked the audience three questions: “What is corruption to you?”, “How do we end corruption as you define it?”, “Are you going to vote?” These elicited moving and engaging responses from audience members, who expressed anger, despair, hope and the desire to change the way things are now. The discussion, which centred on the stains of corruption in South Africa, extended to social media, where the performances were streamed live on Facebook and were viewed by several hundred people at a time.

Life Esidimeni: The Irony was a powerful collaboration of theatre and journalism, and looked at the Life Esidimeni tragedy, which involved the deaths of 143 people at psychiatric facilities in Gauteng, due to starvation and neglect. Actors Aphiwe Livi, Awethu Hleli, Emmanuel Ntsamba, Siphenathi Mayekiso and Thumeka Mzayiya set out to bring Daily Maverick journalist Marianne Thamm’s articles surrounding the Life Esidimeni scandal to life, in the form of a live performance. One of the biggest successes of the project was that more civil society members who were not previously aware of the incident learned more about what happened, and voiced their shock across various platforms.

With this project, we set out to work with creatives to tell stories in ways that audiences do not usually experience. In doing so, we hoped to develop deeper connections with different types of local storytellers, and contribute to innovation in storytelling.

You can watch these performances and read more in-depth about the stories they told at You can also follow along as we delve deeper into corruption-related issues on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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