Children's Theatre

Making Mandela and history to make children swoon

Don't steal my mealies: Nelson Mandela (Mlindeli Zondi) and his relation Justice, with whom he was raised (Jaques de Silva) are lambasted by Noengland, the wife of the Thembu regent, for nicking mealies. Photograph courtesy

Don’t steal my mealies: Nelson Mandela (Mlindeli Zondi) and his relation Justice, with whom he was raised (Jaques de Silva) are lambasted by Noengland, the wife of the Thembu regent, for nicking mealies. Photograph courtesy

Armed with a couple of cardboard trees, some simple box-like structures and tiny reflections of buildings and cows, three able young performers tell what could easily be South Africa’s most romantic and beautiful tale, offering a trajectory that stretches from the idyllic rurality of Mvezo in the Eastern Cape all the way to the racially complex rush and tumble of the city of Johannesburg, Making Mandela is a lovely work, albeit with a few dents that affect its clarity.

In February of this year, the work was reviewed on this blog after its 2014 Assitej season in Denmark, during a brief season at the State Theatre in Pretoria and before its season at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. It’s back on the boards, and offers the same physical theatre fire as it did then, but feels a little bruised for wear.

While the compelling story that highlights Nelson Mandela’s early childhood has been constructed for a young audience, and holds its own with graphic interpretation, half-face masks and choreographic vibes that make it stand out, it seems longer than it was before, and coarse exaggeration in some of the performances hurt the clarity and poetry of the material.

The woman who raised Mandela, Noengland, the wife of the Thembu regent of the time, is a case in point. Dressed in an orange doek and little skirt, and performed by Barileng Malebye, she’s the direct opposite of the humble and ageing woman (also performed by Malebye) who gave birth to Nelson, but Malebye gives her such emphasis that every syllable is characterised by a twitch of her bum, chest or head. While initially, this is cute, it tires quickly and affects the character’s sense of believable gravitas.

While Mandela’s growing human rights awareness is articulately threaded into the body of the work – more, perhaps, than it was in the production’s first manifestation – there’s a sameness in the texture of the work as the second half unfolds that occasionally loses audience focus. It has to do with the delicious and articulate balance of emotion in the work’s first half, and how it lacks that kind of fire as the story glosses quickly through Mandela’s young adulthood.

This is still a production that could hold a whole generation’s imagination, and features stand out performances by Jaques de Silva in a range of noteworthy interpretations of South African stereotypes, from the child in the classroom and Justice, who was raised as a sibling to Nelson, to the Afrikaner broederbonder. Mlindeli Zondi’s stage presence and smile feels just right for an interpretation of Nelson Mandela.

The play is constructed on the twin trajectories that take you from 1918, and the establishment of the notorious Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) a severely right wing political movement which infiltrated the country’s racist ideology, and the birth of Mandela, in July of that year. It does need more nuance, though; while the physical energy of the work is gorgeous, the work would benefit with more performative shade and darkness that holds its complex whole together.

Telling Mandela’s story to young people is a massive challenge as it is a tale so rich with values, contradictions and real life adventures. In the hands of this talented cast and creative team, it needs a little more massaging, but promises to be the play that will touch and ignite many a young person’s reflections on one of the biggest historical heroes that was a part of South Africa’s bigger narrative.

  • Making Mandela: The Boy Who Defined A Future, is written by Nick Warren and Jenine Collocott and directed by Collocott. It features design by Duncan Gibbon (set), Peter Cornell (sound), and is performed by Jaques de Silve, Barileng Malebye and Mlindeli Zondi at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until October 3. Visit or call 011-883-8606.

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