The Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards 2019: On Politics, PR and Prejudice

This article reflects on my personal experience of the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards and what they say about transformation in the Western Cape theatre sector and about freedom of expression.


About 17 years ago, the Performing Arts Network of South Africa (PANSA) hosted a Festival of Reading of New Writing to encourage new writing for the theatre.  A panel of at least three judges would read the submissions without knowing who the writers were; they would make a shortlist of 5 plays which would then each be allocated to a director to produce as a staged reading over the demarcated festival weekend.  After each reading, the audience and judges would give their feedback for the writer to consider, and at the end of the weekend, the judges would make a Jury Award to the play they considered the best of the five as well as to a Runner-Up.  The audience was invited to vote, and the play that solicited the most votes, would be given the “Audience Award”.

I submitted the newly-written Green Man Flashing to the 2003 Festival, where it was shortlisted as an anonymous script, and subsequently, it was awarded the Jury Prize (the shortlisted scripts and writers were announced once the initial selection had taken place).  One of the other writers who had been shortlisted suggested that it was a “hometown decision” since I served as the Secretary General of PANSA at the time.  (The PANSA Steering Committee had decided that individuals involved in leadership positions could submit work, or members would decline to stand for leadership of the organisation if they were unable to participate in PANSA’s projects).

While there had been broad affirmation of the play at the time (and Green Man Flashing has since become my most produced play and is studied in schools and universities), I nevertheless wondered whether it had indeed been a “hometown decision”, and whether I had been favoured because of my position within the organisation. 

So, the next year, I submitted a play to the Festival of New Writing under the pseudonym, Peter September (a name that had to approximate my Cape Flats background so that judges would not be tempted to be swayed by a “white name” or a “black African name”).  No-one in the organisation knew that Hostile Takeover – a satire on the free market economy and black economic empowerment which was quite different to Green Man Flashing - was my play.   

The play was selected as one of the five finalists and the brilliant Matthew Wild was assigned as the director of the staged reading. I had a second phone through which communication about the play occurred (always by sms), and when it was close to the rehearsal process and Matthew wanted to meet the writer, I briefed my brother and had him play “Peter September” in the discussion with Matthew.

Hostile Takeover, a three-hander, was awarded the Jury Runner-Up prize which made me less insecure about my writing.  It was produced by the Market Theatre and premiered as my first Main Festival production at the National Arts Festival the following year.  A few years later, as Artscape’s Associate Playwright, I reworked the script as Just Business.  Mbulelo Grootboom was cast in the original staged reading, and about seven years later, he was cast in Just Business, a role for which he won the Fleur du Cap Best Supporting Actor Award in 2012. 

That was the last time anyone associated with my plays in Cape Town won a Fleur du Cap Award.

Critique of the 2012 Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards

The year before (2011), the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards and judges were heavily criticised because white winners were selected in all seventeen categories.  I subsequently did an analysis of the productions eligible for the awards that showed that it was less the fault of the judges and more the responsibility of theatre managements and independent theatre-makers that had provided the pool of overwhelming white talent from which judges were obliged to make their selections.  I argued that the awards were symptomatic of the industry and could not be expected to reflect nominations and winners that were inconsistent with the reality of who was on our stages, who was directing them, who was providing technical support and so on.  The challenge of transforming the demographics (the most superficial form of transformation) of our sector lay with the theatre industry rather than with the judges or the awards system. (Substantive transformation i.e. providing access to infrastructure, access to capital, developing skilled human resources, was primarily – though not only – the responsibility of the state).

However, stung by the criticism and with the sponsor – Distell – suffering huge reputational damage as a result of the criticism, in the following year, the judges of the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards selected persons of colour in all four major acting categories – Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor (Mbulelo Grootboom for his role in Just Business) and Best Supporting Actress. 

After the 2012 awards event and with criticism far more muted, I undertook another analysis and wrote an article in which I showed that while there had been a larger pool of black talent from which the judges were able to make their selections than in the previous year, mathematically, it was just about impossible for them to have arrived at persons of colour winning all four of those categories.  This did not exactly endear me to the judges, one of whom phoned to express deep anger at having the integrity of the judges challenged.

That was also the last time that I attended the Fleur du Cap Theatre awards as – in my view - it had become less of a “celebration of excellence” within the Western Cape theatre sector, than an event in which political correctness, personal prejudice (on the part of some of the judges) and the brand of the sponsor played no small parts in the nomination and selection of winners, as well as in the actual awards event, where over the years, ad hoc awards were made to maintain an acceptable “demographic spread”.

Notwithstanding this trend, two years ago, four women - Chuma Sopotela, Buhlebezwe Siwani, Zikhona Jacobs and Mamela Nyamza -staged a protest at the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards event to highlight the under-representation of black people in the list of nominees.  Last year’s awards were, in my publicly-expressed view – largely – another predictable, politically correct response to the criticism of the previous year.

Why does it matter?

Some would argue that in contemporary South Africa, most – if not all awards – have an element of political correctness, of conscious or less overt correcting of historical legacies in the affirmation of talent, particularly as it relates to “race”, and to a lesser extent, gender.

I do believe that it is appropriate and morally imperative to address the inherited inequities of the past but not in ways that mask and so perpetuate the structural and systemic inequities of the present.  This is, and has been, my key criticism of the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards for the last number of years: that the corporate interests of the sponsor and the political interests of at least some of the judges who are active in the industry beyond the awards, overall selections are made that do not rock the Awards boat, but which in the process, give a false impression of demographic transformation of the theatre sector in the Western Cape.

For example, over the last ten years, there have been 45 nominations in the Fleur du Cap Best Director category; of these, only four have been persons of colour (less than 10%), and of these, only one (2% of the total) has been a woman (an English woman, born of South African parents in exile in Swaziland, and who has lived in English since the age of 7).  During the same period (2009-2018), 21 of the 69 Best Director nominees in the Naledi Awards, have been persons of colour (30%), with 7 of these being women (10% of the total).

There is still much work to do in both of the country’s primary theatre regions, but the answer to the question about who gets opportunities to direct in the Western Cape is starker than in Gauteng. 

Persons of colour have increasingly been represented in the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards’ Best New Director category over the last 4-5 years, but how many of them have been invited to direct a play in one of our mainstream theatres or festivals subsequently?  Beyond giving the awards a good demographic spread, how have these awards actually helped the careers of the young nominees, if at all? 

The Market Theatre and the State Theatre have contributed to the emergence of new black directors in Gauteng; in the Western Cape, it has to be asked – what has Artscape which receives the largest state-subsidy of the nationally-subsidised theatres, contributed to changing the theatre status quo in the last while?

Lesedi Job, director of my play When Swallows Cry, was the first black woman to win the Naledi Theatre Award for Best Director of a Play.  She directed the same play with a Cape Town-based cast, and was nominated, not in the Best Director category, but in Fleur du Cap’s Best New Director category.  Interestingly, Tinarie van Wyk Loots was nominated in both the Best New Director and the Best Director categories for the 2018 production of Swerfgoed.  In Johannesburg, Lesedi won against seasoned directors such as Sylvaine Strike, Lara Foot, Lara Bye and Andre Odendaal; in Cape Town, she was “lucky” to be nominated as a Best New Director.

Is it because Lesedi hails from Johannesburg and the Fleur du Cap Theatre judges are notoriously parochial?  Is it because she was good enough to make up the demographic numbers in the nominations list, but not good enough to make the Best Directors category, unlike her fellow new director nominee?  (Note: this is by no means a reflection on Tinarie who is not responsible for her nominations; this is to raise necessary questions that are too often lost in the euphoria of celebrating “black excellence” when awards are made to some black winners, while other potentially worthy black nominees are treated differently to their white counterparts).  Is it that the production of When Swallows Cry was so much poorer in Cape Town than the one in Johannesburg, or relative to other productions which were under consideration?  (After all, When Swallows Cry did not receive any other nominations, unlike in Johannesburg where it won the Best Production, Best Director and Best Script categories, and its three actors and lighting designer, Mandla Mtshali – who also did the lighting in Cape Town – were all nominated in their respective Naledi Theatre Awards categories.  And yet, when one reads the Cape Town “four star” reviews of When Swallows Cry – some of them written by FDC judges – and compares them to the reviews of some of the other nominees, one has to wonder….).  Was it that Lesedi had the misfortune of being associated with one of my productions?

Before and After 2012 

Before my articles in 2012 and 2013 about the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards, I had won two FDC Best Script Awards (Dinner Talk, 1997 and Die Generaal, 2008).  In the seven years from 2005 till 2011, I also had three scripts nominated in the Best Script category (Green Man Flashing, 2005; Mixed Metaphors, 2006 and Iago’s Last Dance, 2009).

In the subsequent seven years, 2012-2018, none of my scripts was nominated, including Brothers in Blood that had won the Naledi Theatre Award for Best New South African Script in 2009 and When Swallows Cry, the most recent Naledi winner in this category.

With the announcement of the nominees for the 2018 Naledi Theatre Awards the night after the FDCs in Cape Town, there are now four post-2012 scripts (Pay Back the Curry, When Swallows Cry, Another One’s Bread and Land Acts) that have been nominated in the Naledis, and which were staged in Cape Town, but none of which was nominated in its equivalent FDC category.  I note this to highlight the lack of FDC nominations coinciding with the period after my criticism of these awards.

What irks me is not the lack of nominations (I’ve asked before: how many nominations – or awards – does one need to be an “award-winning” or an “multiple-award winning” playwright), but the apparent reasons for it.  These reasons – I am convinced – have little to do with “theatre excellence” or the lack of it, and far more to do with the judges who are happy to pronounce on our work both as judges and as sometime theatre reviewers, but who take great personal and collective offence when their work, decision-making and personal prejudices are held up to scrutiny.  An industry that is premised on freedom of expression surely cannot allow itself to be compromised by those who exercise power and influence over the sector (by determining what is “excellent”) and who victimise those who exercise freedom of expression by analysing and critiquing their actions and decisions?

What also irks me is how those associated with my work appear to be prejudiced by this association, particularly since I would like to believe that at this stage in my career, I should be providing platforms and opportunities for younger creatives to profile their talents.

Rainbow Scars, my post-Marikana massacre play that employs the extended family as a metaphor to explore for whom the “rainbow nation” actually works (i.e. a ‘multi-racial’ elite) earned six Naledi nominations including a “Best Newcomer” for Kertrice Maitisa, won a Standard Bank Silver Ovation Award at the National Arts Festival and was selected for the Afrovibes Festival in the Netherlands and the UK, but did not get a single Fleur du Cap nomination.  Daniel Mpilo Richards, an extraordinary talent, won the Naledi Theatre Award for Best Newcomer/Breakthrough Artist for his performance in Pay Back the Curry as well as the Standard Bank Ovation Award for the Most Outstanding Performance at the National Arts Festival for State Fracture (both dealing with contemporary South African issues in satirical fashion); while he was nominated for Pay Back the Curry and Land Acts, he did not make it to the Fleur du Cap podium.  Brothers in Blood earned Greg Homann a Standard Bank Ovation Award as the director of this play that explores prejudice against the backdrop of the three Abrahamic religions; it won the Naledi award for Best New Script and had a return season at Artscape because of its box office popularity, but it, too, did not get a single FDC nod. 

Much of my adult life I’ve spent fighting, not to be a “winner”, but for social justice, for people to be treated fairly.  I do not need to do another “Peter September” to know that for the last 6 or 7 years, this has not been the case with the FDCs.  The facts speak for themselves. 

Today, it is me.  Tomorrow, it could be the 2018 Standard Bank Young Artist for Performance Art, Chuma Sopotela, victimised for her participation in the 2017 protest.  But it will not be noticed, or commented upon, because others within a similar demographic would have been affirmed.  For this is how the status quo remains: through divide-and-rule and co-option.


In our industry-of-small-returns, it is churlish to undermine the winners and those who received recognition and cash prizes at the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards; that is not at all the intention of this article, nor of previous critiques of the FDCs.  On the contrary, those who have received public recognition, should enjoy it and where possible, use it to advance their careers in this most competitive of industries.

In the absence of interrogative journalists and academics who should be doing this kind of work, the article aims to reflect on how the FDCs, conducted – as are most of these kinds of awards events - un-transparently and without the sector being aware of what criteria are used to determine “excellence” in the decision-making processes may

  1. mask the lack of demographic and substantive transformation within the Western Cape theatre industry
  2. primarily serve the corporate image interests of the sponsor rather than the theatre sector and
  3. victimise critical voices which is a fundamental contravention of the principle of freedom of expression

It won’t make any difference, but at least it’s been said.

Mike van Graan

March 2019