JOHANNESBURG — In some ways, the most remarkable aspect of the new Soweto Theatre is that it’s taken this long to open one in the township in the first place. Soweto, the “South West Township” of apartheid-era Johannesburg has long been an artistic hub in the country. This 25 May, Africa Day, the 436-seat main theatre will open its doors for the first time.
The $18 million theatre is one a handful of legacy projects planned around the 2010 World Cup. Years after Spain hoisted the Cup and the tourists returned to their home countries, one of the last of these projects is about to finally open.
Once home to both Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, Soweto is by far the country’s largest and most storied township. Half of the Johannesburg’s four million people live here. First designed as little more than a hostel for the cheap black labor that apartheid depended on, it became a hotbed of political activity and resistance. Eighteen years of democracy has seen the township slowly change from the rough and tumble heart of the struggle to a South African cultural center. But the township has always lacked a proper theatre venue.
The Soweto Theatre is the first one of its type in any township in the country.
The theatre is expected to be the lynchpin in program to revitalize the Jabulani section of Soweto. Jabulani, which means “be happy” in Zulu and was also the name given to the official World Cup ball, has been home to an amphitheatre for more than half a century. But, like many places in Johannesburg, the district has seen better days. The opening is seen as the first step in reversing this. Along with the refurbishing of the Jabulani Amphitheatre and opening the new Soweto Theatre, the city plans to develop commercial and residential space throughout what has been deemed the “Cultural Heart” of a massive business improvement district.
At the groundbreaking ceremony in 2009 Johannesburg’s then-mayor Amos Msondo said, “We are striving to change Soweto into a sustainable human settlement that is known not just as a place where people come from but where people also go to.”
The theatre cuts a unique silhouette in the low-slung township. The structure consists of three theatres-the main one and two smaller buildings-each brightly tiled in primary colors. Clara Cruz Almeida of Afritects Architects said, “This beguiling effect is intended to parallel an African dance with its glimmering torso and flashes of body adornments.”
The theatre is expected to stage mainly traditional African dance, singing and spoken-word poetry, although performance art drawing on other influences will also be included. It is expected that the new structure will give young local artists opportunities to train and perform in a state-of-the-art facility.