Never the same old story: A tribute to Christine Basson

MISCHIEVOUS grin. Christine Basson. Photograph courtesy

Researched by Robyn Jordaan

COMPLETE WITH HER freshly applied lipstick and her internal fierceness in the face of the ordinary, Christine Basson shied from the light of media sensationalism, but had the temerity to take on some of South African theatre’s most controversial roles luminously. She raised a quiet middle finger to Calvinist values, but drew the line around some obscenities over others. Armed with her sense of integrity and her skill, she made her way into the hearts of her many fans. She died on 10 June 2019, from a physical deterioration related to osteoporosis. She had just turned 78.

Born in Bloemfontein on 9 June 1941, Basson attended Oranje Meisieshoërskool and Stellenbosch University, where she studied drama. After completing her studies, she joined the Pieter Fourie Genootskap, an Afrikaans travelling theatre repertory company, along with Fourie and Marie Pentz. The company was active between 1964 and 1966, performing and travelling through the country’s rural areas in a caravan, like the troubadours of yore. This type of travelling company was not unknown in South Africa, but the Pieter Fourie Genootskap was the last of its kind.

Enjoying professional credentials with The Space Theatre in Cape Town and the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, Basson was associated with the Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal and the South West African Performing Arts Council, until the demise of these institutions in the 1990s. She lived with her elderly mother, in the Johannesburg suburb of Crosby.

It was, however, her association with veteran satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys that first put her on the South African theatre map. In 1974 she starred in Uys’s play Selle Ou Storie at The Space Theatre. Her performance – deemed by Uys as ‘luminous’ – won her the coveted Computicket Prize for best actress in Johannesburg, and the Fleur du Cap equivalent, in Cape Town. She went on to perform in Uys’s God’s Forgotten and Karnaval, both of which were banned by the apartheid government.

Basson was never afraid to skirt boundaries, especially when the works she performed in were demonised by the censorship board. However, Uys describes her in his 2005 autobiography, Between The Devil and the Deep: as one who “couldn’t say ‘kak’. As a child, her mother had washed out her mouth with soap [for swearing], and she still found the word impossible to articulate. So she said ‘stront’. I think this sounds worse,” Uys adds. “But it didn’t matter to Christine because it wasn’t a familiar swearword to her.”

He goes on, describing the pall of Calvinism for performers of Basson’s ilk during this time. “Some actresses didn’t feel comfortable saying ‘God’ or ‘Jesus’ for Calvinistic reasons. I learnt early on that in Afrikaans theatre, the culture wouldn’t tolerate the use of words like ‘kak’ and ‘poep’ or the mention of God. By all means, tell the truth about what we do to each other. Torture, maim, kill and orphan. But leave God out of it. Very logical for a Calvinist society.”

She was the performer who reprised the role of the mother of exotic dancer Glenda Kemp famously known for her pet python called Oupa, in the controversial 1976 film Snake Dancer. Unequivocally, she had an astounding stage presence. Every one of her performances was fresh, each character was unique.

Basson was on the Springbok Radio comedy serial, Hartjie, my Liefie, for more than two years alongside close friend and fellow actor, Wim Vorster. She was equally talented in all fields – comedy, drama and tragedy alike. But it is probably her role as Nora Naude, a strong, concerned maternal figure, for which Basson is best known and loved by a mainstream audience. This was her role on the South African soapie Egoli for a whopping 18 years – the entire run of the series on MNet. The show, created by Franz Marx, ran from April 1992 to March 2010. Basson starred in 4 423 episodes. She was one of the pillars of the soap opera, showing the ropes to many younger and newer actors.

And there was life after Egoli, too. When the soap opera reached closure, Basson reshaped herself as a dialogue coach on Danie Odendaal Productions’ 7de Laan between 2011 and 2014. There, she continued to spread her influence and to share her extensive knowledge to the cast.

Basson referred to acting as a “job to get on with”. She was known to refuse interviews with the media. She preferred to concentrate on her work on-set as well as behind the scenes. A deeply private person, Basson was an only child. She was married and divorced early on in her career, and all her life maintained a close circle of dear friends who she entertained often.

Unstinting in her capacity to celebrate others, Basson was widely respected as someone who could work with anyone in any setting and could be relied on to be the epitome of professionalism, work ethic, energy and focus. Her ever-blonde hair and wide, red-lipsticked smile were iconic, and her razor sharp wit was always on point. Everyone always knew where they stood with her.

A quiet, no-nonsense person, Basson knew how to laugh. She made a place for herself in the hearts of multitudes of fans.

  • Robyn Jordaan was a first year fine arts student at the University of Pretoria, in 2020. She was a part of the VIT101 arts writing class.

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