Die Generaal/The General

As part of its tenth anniversary in 2007, the Aardklop Arts Festival commissioned this work which I wrote in English, and the director (Jaco Bouwer) and cast translated it into Afrikaans during rehearsals. It won the Anglogold Ashanti Award for Best New Afrikaans Script at the Festival.

I first heard Bok van Blerk’s song ‘De la Rey’ at the Aardklop Arts Festival in September 2006 just as it was becoming a huge hit and the source of much political hand-wringing. This play features a very different kind of general, a hardened criminal who aspires to become a general in one of the notorious prison gangs.  I’ve chosen the title first as a reference to the song, since it will strike a chord within the primary market of the play. It also serves as an ironic reminder that the general of the play is in many ways a monster created by the past who now brings a kind of liberation for black and white, speakers of Afrikaans, other indigenous language and English, through their common experience of criminal violence, or the fear of it.

Sizwe and Anna first meet when Sizwe serves as a prosecutor and Anna works as a defence attorney. They fall in love and marry - their relationship being a metaphor for our new society coming to terms with its past and the challenges and possibilities of the present. After their marriage, and so that they no longer meet as adversaries in court, Sizwe finds alternative employment as a director in the Independent Complaints Directorate that deals with complaints against the police. In their previous roles though, Sizwe prosecuted a young criminal, Bolla, for housebreaking and he was convicted even though he didn’t do it. Anna was Bolla’s defence attorney.

Johan and Fani are police partners and have been for three years. Fani hails from Limpopo where his family lives and his twin brother, Moeketsi, is a leader of the local community who have a land claim in the area, including the farm belonging to Anna and her brother Willem who runs the farm. They inherited the farm after their parents were murdered in the farmhouse.

Johan is married to Mari, a God-fearing woman who has three children. They struggle to make ends meet on a policeman’s salary, so Johan also moonlights – against police regulations - some nights for a private security firm.

Sizwe and Anna, Willem and Moeketsi and Johan and Fani all struggle in various ways with engaging each other across old racial, language and class divides, with the baggage of the apartheid past being messily intermingled with the huge challenges of the present like crime, poverty and ownership of land.

Into this different and yet similar worlds, steps Bolla, a rank outsider who – as he sees it - was a reject in the old South Africa, and is now alienated in the new South Africa, a man whose only affirmation comes from a community inside prison, someone with absolutely nothing to lose. He is released after his stint in jail for housebreaking, but he wants to return to prison, this time as a general in the prison gang.

To earn these stripes, he is required to kill a policeman and a prosecutor.

This sets the stage for an explosive, sometimes brutal and yet, at other times a moving human drama played out against the ever-present past and the scalding current.


ABSA donated R1,4 million to Aardklop to commission four new plays to mark the tenth anniversary of the Festival in 2007. I was very honoured to be selected for one of these commissioned works along with Saartjie Botha, PG du Plessis and Lara Foot Newton.

With this generous funding and an invitation to present a work at the Festival, I wrote The General, from the privileged position of being a relative outsider (of the primary market of the Festival) and yet having been exposed to the Festival before.

It was submitted to the Festival management at the end of February 2007, just before the media introduction of the commissioned writers in early March in Johannesburg.

Through engagement and dialogue about the text mainly with Ilse van Hemert, a celebrated theatre director who now works in other fields, I developed the text further and engaged Jaco Bouwer as the director.

Jaco selected the cast and, once this was done, the script was tweaked a little more before the cast met for the first time on 15 July 2007 to read through the script which was then still in English.

I served as member of the Smeltkroes Paneel for two years (2005, 2006) which was responsible for evaluating and selecting the best new work in Afrikaans at the Aardklop Festival. I have also attended the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees in Oudsthoorn on numerous occasions where I presented two of my plays, Green Man Flashing in 2005 and Some Mothers’ Sons in 2006.

What struck me about the Afrikaans theatre work that I saw is that much of it shied away from the kinds of themes that particularly white Afrikaans speakers – the primary markets of these festivals – experience or confront in contemporary South Africa, themes like crime, land claims, farm murders, the perceived downgrading of their language, etc. These were the themes of many stories and letters to the editor in Afrikaans newspapers like Die Burger and Rapport which I read.

One of the themes of The General is language. As such, other languages are spoken in the play such as Tswana and English, but most of the play is in Afrikaans. With Afrikaans as my second language, the translation would have been time-consuming and the dialogue not as authentic as with native speakers. At the reading, it was agreed that the cast would translate the dialogue in character during the first week of rehearsals. While this delayed work on the floor, it helped with textual analysis and character development, and the actors owned the dialogue of their characters.

By the end of the second week of rehearsals when I first saw a run through, many of the actors were word perfect. And the text, the dialogue in Afrikaans, was beautiful and the themes being explored were so much more real in this language.

Initial rehearsals for Die Generaal (as it became known) were completed by the middle of August since Jaco was also directing Saad, also an Aardklop-commissioned play, by Saartjie Botha.

Gideon van Eeden has assisted with the translation of the rest of the play into Afrikaans. Die Generaal is my first play to be performed in Afrikaans, indeed, my first play to be produced in any language other than English. Given the strength of the Festivals and the importance of the Afrikaans theatre market, it will not be my last.

Production Details

First Production –

Aardklop National Arts Festival, Potchefstroom 25-29 September 2007

Director and Designer – Jaco Bouwer

Cast –

Lorraine Burger: Anna
Brendon Daniels: Bolla
Leanna Dreyer: Mari
Christopher Gxalaba: Fani and Moeketsi
Leon Kruger: Johan
Wiseman Sithole: Sizwe
AJ van der Merwe: Willem

Technical crew –

Kobus Verhoef: Stage Manager, set builder
James Webb: Sound track

Seasons –

25-29 September 2007 Aardklop Arts Festival, Potchefstroom

What the Critics Said


"Die Generaal, die bekroonde dramaturg Mike van Graan se eerste Afrikaanse drama...slaan hard. Dit bring taal, grondeise, plaasmoorde, misdaad, gemengde huwelike - al die kwessies waarop Afrikaanse mense passievol reageer - kragtig en onverskrokke op die planke...Die generaal bly 'n dreigende teenwoordigheid en uiteindelik word almal se lewens en verhoudings deur hom beinvloed. En die gehoor loop nie ongeraak daar uit nie."

- Kirby van der Merwe, Beeld

(Die Generaal, award-winning playwright Mike van Graan's first Afrikaans play...hits hard. It brings language, land claims, farm murders, crime, mixed marriages - all the questions Afrikaans-speakers feel passionately about - to the stage powerfully and fearlessly. The general (the title character in the play) remains a threatening presence throughout and eventually everyone's lives and relationships are affected by him. And the audience leaves, but not without being moved.)

"...Van Graan het dit reggekry om sy diepere, intellektuele insigte in 'n aangrypende en hoogs dramatiese verhaal to omskep...
Die Generaal is voorwaar een van die spogproduksies van vanjaar se Aardklop."

- Kobus Burger, Beeld

(Van Graan gets it right in presenting his deeper, intellectual insights in a gripping and highly dramatic story...Die Generaal is indeed one of the best productions at this year's Aardklop.)

"Die Generaal is Van Graan's most violent play and the level of gunfire, physical violence and emotional abuse between characters is unparalleled in any of his previous productions. At the same time, this is counterbalanced by the first character in his plays to turn to the conciliation of religion...what Van Graan's work often achieves (is) revelation, integration and redemption. His vigilant insights in response to the predicaments of power in South Africa are, at the very least, bold."

- Anton Kreuger, Spat

“Die Generaal is an excellent thriller enriched with complex themes of morality, identity and language.”

– 15 April 2008

“In Van Graan’s hands, the pen seems far more powerful than the deputy safety and security minister’s call to swords.”

– Karen Rutter, Cape Times 15 April 2008

“As die ligte finaal verdof, sit jy vasgenael en ademloos, met emosies wat soos ’n pendulum swaai tussen hoop en wanhoop, geloof en ontkenning, empatie en vergelding, optimisme en pessimisme, net soos die situasies en verhoudings in die stuk.”

– Maria Griebenow, Die Burger, 12 April 2008

“Die Generaal is a vivid depiction of the fragility of South African society beyond the confident opulence of the cities...Die Generaal is no mealy-mouthed indulgence in historic evil. It confronts today’s harsh realities, and it does so with honesty.”

– Len Ashton 15 April 2008


Anglogold Ashanti Prize for Best New Afrikaans Script, Aardklop Arts Festival, September 2006.
2010 Naledi Award for Best New SA Script.

Availability of script and visual material

The script is available in unpublished form both in English and Afrikaans. There is no visual material at this time.

Please contact info@mikevangraan.co.za for more details.