TRIBUTE TO LAVONA DE BRUYN BY OLGA-LOUISE LEMMER.
SHE WAS A woman with an epic level of complete enthusiasm for life: An artist and a social activist, a theatre practitioner and a teacher who touched so many lives and gave them direction, this was Lavona de Bruyn, who brought joy wherever she went. She passed away on 11 September 2019, from aggressive pancreatic cancer. She was 67.
De Bruyn began to make an impact on other people from the moment she chose teaching as a career in 1968. Born in District Six in Cape Town on 12 December 1952, she spent her formative years under the discriminatory regime of apartheid, but she never allowed herself to forget that she could make a difference in the lives of children whose racial identity was defined by the Powers that Were.
She began her professional life as a high school English and History teacher, with fierce anti-apartheid credentials. From the vantage point of the classroom, she encouraged her students to analyse their identity, interrogate what the textbooks said about their history and to observe the ways in which they viewed themselves. It was important to her that young people should reinforce their identity as equal before the law.
Twenty six years later, De Bruyn opted to return to university to read for her masters degree in drama at the University of Cape Town. She graduated in 2009, but during the last two years of her study, she became a fieldworker in the Clanwilliam Arts Project. Established under the aegis of Magnet Theatre, which was cofounded by Jennie Reznek and Mark Fleishman, this arts project in the small sleepy Western Cape town of Clanwilliam, remains one of the jewels of the theatre company’s social development programmes.
Until 2012, De Bruyn remained associated with Clanwilliam and collaborated with Fleishman and Reznek, in growing the core of the project, which remains a nexus of community outreach in the region. From the get go, it brought together actress Riana Alfred, director Mandla Mbothwe and 14 teen participants from the Clanwilliam coloured community, with a bid to articulate dreams. The first collaborative theatre production under De Bruyn’s watch, called Jingle Dreams, had grown out of her masters dissertation in Applied Theatre.
But this was just the beginning. De Bruyn extended the reach of Clanwilliam Arts Project to neighbouring villages and towns. She aimed her involvement in schools to provide a foundation from which to inspire and empower youth in the area, using theatre skills. She became a mother figure to the participants as trust and love developed between them with the thrill of creative collaboration.
De Bruyn left Clanwilliam in 2012 with the insight that she is not defined by her race as a so-called “coloured” woman but that her social identity is continually being shaped with people with whom she shares a common goal, vision and experiences of belonging. She became principal of The Ark Christian School at the Ark City of Refuge in Cape Town, a position which she held until her untimely passing.
Her zest for life didn’t fade, even when she was very ill. “My mom has said that she didn’t want a funeral – she wanted a celebration party, complete with dancing, music and cake,” said her New York-based son, Ramon. De Bruyn also leaves her sons Nathan, literally thousands of youngsters whose lives she touched with her sense of possibility, and devastated colleagues and friends.
- Olga-Louise Lemmer is a first year Fine Arts student at the University of Pretoria. She is part of the VIT 101 class, being taught the rudiments of arts writing by Robyn Sassen during 2020.