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IN THE MANURE (article first published : 2008-08-12)

Tall, forthright and ironical, Ronnie Govender is Durban born and bred and one of the stalwarts of the theatre industry in this city. He has also been recognised on a national and international level. Ronnie and the late Kessie Govender were outspoken members of the arts struggle in the apartheid era through the content of their works and they were synonymous with the creation of the Shah Theatre Academy. The Academy moved away from what was established Eurocentric theatre in their communities at the time to create accessible productions more meaningful to a wider local audience.

Now living in Cape Town Ronnie Govender has been described as one of South Africa’s most accomplished and distinguished writers, and rightly so. He’s certainly one of the most prolific. He has written 14 plays, including Beyond Calvary, The Lahnee’s Pleasure, Off-Side, At the Edge, 1949 and The Great R31m Robbery. At the Edge was invited to both the Grahamstown (as was Swami) and Edinburgh Festivals, toured India and performed in Toronto and Glasgow.

His collection of short stories, At the Edge and Other Cato Manor Stories, won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book in Africa in 1997, while his novel Song of the Atman was short-listed for the EU Literary Award and the Commonwealth Prize in 2006.

His latest publication, In the Manure reads as an autobiographical account of his life and sees him taking on the persona of his given name Sathie (Sathieseelan – meaning man of truth), feeling that if he distanced himself somewhat, the narrative could taken on a more impersonal aspect. The title refers to the numerous times he always “put his foot in it”, dropping himself in the “manure”!

In his writings, Ronnie Govender draws strongly on his upbringing in the vibey and multi-racial Cato Manor, his descriptions immediately conjuring up the lush greenery of the area. Dominated largely by the descendants of Indian indentured labourers, it was one of the first and largest districts to be destroyed under the apartheid regime.

As a young boy, an overheard chance remark that you could make a bomb with dry ice was a turning point in Sathie’s life. His efforts went wrong. The bomb exploded in his hand and seriously damaged his right eye. This may have healed in time but for a biking accident six months later which lost him the eye for ever. I have known him for many years and this information came as a surprise to me. Other than wearing shaded glasses, he never gives evidence that he is only sighted in one eye.

While most of his childhood was filled with energy, exploration and argument – some of it progressing to fisticuffs! – there were incidents that made him take a closer look at the value of life, like killing a bird with a catapult and seeing a chicken running around without its head after he had slaughtered it. Another life-altering experience was witnessing a sit-down protest in Albert Park and coming to understand Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of Satyagraha.

Ronnie Govender believes that no writer should remain uninvolved in any struggle for freedom and In the Manure deals with the challenges that have faced the Indian community over the years as well as the many indignities. He has much to say about the 1860 Heritage Foundation from which he resigned and the role of Indians in local sport and journalism, all the while introducing amusing anecdotes or fascinating aspects of Indian culture. His humorous, tongue in cheek style makes for compelling reading as he charts his life story, remembering the pains alongside the pleasures.

He acknowledges the patience of his long-suffering wife Kay and her support as well as that of his past and present family through all his escapades and experiences.

In the Manure offers a fascinating and extensive glimpse of Ronnie Govender’s involvement in teaching, journalism, sport and theatre while providing an insightful view of a important period of South African history.

In the Manure is published in paperback by David Philip Publishers. Recommended retail price R162. ISBN 978-0-86486-720-9 – Caroline Smart




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