The arts will miss dedicated soldier in Walter Chakela
Activist playwright, poet bigotry of apartheid and injustice
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
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.