The arts will miss ded­i­cated sol­dier in Wal­ter Chakela

Ac­tivist play­wright, poet big­otry of apartheid and in­jus­tice

Sowetan - - Obituaries - By Sam Mathe

Wal­ter Ke­fuoe Fikele­phi Chakela, 67, was an arts war­rior who worked tirelessly to pro­duce mem­o­rable works in his ca­pac­ity as play­wright, poet, broad­caster and arts ad­min­is­tra­tor.

But he was also a ded­i­cated and self­less cul­tural worker who men­tored a whole gen­er­a­tion of artists in var­i­ous spheres. Born in 1953 in Vry­burg, a small con­ser­va­tive town in North West, he was des­tined to chal­lenge the big­otry of apartheid.

His early learn­ing started at the lo­cal Mok­gosi Pri­mary School. At the time he wanted to be­come a lawyer but af­ter dis­cov­er­ing a num­ber of African writ­ers his pas­sion for lit­er­a­ture took over. His­tory, Tswana and English were among his favourite sub­jects.

It was when he was a stu­dent at Huhudi High in Ganyesa that his po­lit­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion be­gan in earnest.

His fa­ther had given him a small por­ta­ble ra­dio with a short­wave that could ac­cess Ra­dio Free­dom, the voice of the ANC that was broad­cast from Lusaka, Zam­bia. The sta­tion greatly in­flu­enced his po­lit­i­cal aware­ness.

In 1975, Chakela had en­rolled at the newly es­tab­lished Univer­sity of Bo­phuthatswa­na (now Mahikeng cam­pus of the Univer­sity of North West) prob­a­bly for a law de­gree but be­came ac­tively in­volved in var­i­ous lit­er­ary and artis­tic pur­suits.

In this re­gard he was a found­ing mem­ber and leader of var­i­ous or­gan­i­sa­tions, notably the Molopo African Writ­ers and Artists Fo­rum (Mawafo), African Writ­ers As­so­ci­a­tion (AWA), Soyikwa In­sti­tute of African The­atre and the Molopo Ex­per­i­men­tal The­atre Group (Met­gro).

The lat­ter was the first pro­fes­sional the­atre group in the for­mer Bo­phuthatswa­na. The group boasted an im­pres­sive reper­toire of plays that he wrote, adapted and di­rected. Chakela was the first artis­tic di­rec­tor of the the­atre group.

Through Mawafo he was in­vited to the board of the In­sti­tute of African Stud­ies of the univer­sity. The in­sti­tute or­gan­ised the an­nual Solomon Plaatje Me­mo­rial Lec­ture, which fos­tered an in­tel­lec­tual and aca­demic focus on the ideas and writ­ings of Plaatje.

Through the in­sti­tute, Chakela was per­son­ally in­tro­duced to lit­er­ary lu­mi­nar­ies such as

Pro­fes­sor Es’kia Mphahlele, Alan Paton, Richard Rive, Sipho Sepamla, Njab­ulo Nde­bele, Mothobi Mut­loatse and many oth­ers.

The Plaatje lec­tures in­spired Chakela to pro­duce and di­rect the Tswana ver­sion of Shake­speare’s Julius Cae­sar by this pi­o­neer­ing writer of Setswana prose and gram­mar. His pres­i­dency of the AWA en­abled him to build a strong net­work of fel­low artists and writ­ers.

Most prom­i­nent among these was a friend­ship with Zakes Mda, which has en

dured for decades. As artis­tic di­rec­tor at in­sti­tu­tions like Mma­bana Cul­tural Cen­tre and Windy­brow Cen­tre for the Arts, he staged Mda’s works, notably We Shall Sing for the Father­land and You Fool, How Can The Skies Fall?

Chakela also worked with other prom­i­nent thes­pi­ans such as Matsemela Manaka, Maishe Maponya and John Led­waba. A play such as

Cri­sis of Con­science was in­flu­enced by black con­scious­ness, an ide­ol­ogy that held sway in every as­pect of black ex­is­tence in the 1970s.

Since 1993 he had gained na­tional promi­nence when he was ap­pointed di­rec­tor of the Windy­brow in Hill­brow, Joburg. For the next decade, it be­came a fo­cal point for the per­for­mance arts and a vi­brant plat­form for both es­tab­lished and as­pir­ing prac­ti­tion­ers.

He opened doors for other play­wrights such as Duma Ndlovu and guided fu­ture the­atre ad­min­is­tra­tors like out­go­ing Mar­ket The­atre Foun­da­tion CEO Is­mail Ma­homed and Gita Pather, who un­til re­cently served as Wits The­atre artis­tic di­rec­tor.

He ex­posed singers and po­ets like Vusi Mahlasela and Lesego Ram­polo­keng to the­atre au­di­ences. He worked closely with jazz mu­si­cians like trum­peter, Prince Len­goasa. The Windy­brow Arts Fes­ti­val was an im­por­tant event on the cen­tre’s an­nual cal­en­dar. It di­verse pro­gramme in­cluded works by play­wrights from other parts of the con­ti­nent, most notably Kweku Anansi, based on a pop­u­lar West African folk­tale.

Other mem­o­rable stage pro­duc­tions that he pro­duced at Windy­brow sug­gested that he was in­ter­ested in cel­e­brat­ing our dy­namic cul­tural past in black com­mu­ni­ties. This he achieved bril­liantly when he di­rected Bloke in 1994, based on Drum writer Bloke Modis­ane’s mem­oir, Blame Me On

His­tory (1963).

In re­cent times, a stroke at­tack con­fined him to a wheelchair, re­strain­ing his abil­ity to work while his Midrand house was bur­gled and valu­ables stolen.

At the time of his death Chakela was found­ing pres­i­dent the Na­tional Writ­ers As­so­ci­a­tion of South Africa.

He’s sur­vived by chil­dren, grand­chil­dren and sib­lings.


Play­wright, poet and the­atri­cal di­rec­tor Wal­ter Chakela re­mained true to the mis­sion of serv­ing and pro­mot­ing the arts un­til his dy­ing day. He was 67.

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