Walter Kefuoe Fikelephi Chakela was a revered playwright and poet born on 13 April 1953 in Vryburg, a small, conservative Afrikaner town in Transvaal (now North West Province). His father, Augustine Tjato ‘Chateau’ Chakela, was a travelling agricultural inspection officer and a captivating storyteller who found an eager listener in his son.
The young Chakela started schooling at the local Mokgosi Primary School. At first, he wanted to become a lawyer, however, this changed once he was introduced to a number of African writers who ignited his passion for literature. Together with his childhood friend, Johannes Africa De Beer, he read every book he could get his hands on, including banned books that his friend would get from the library at a school for Coloured learners. It was at this time that Chakela discovered the works of some of the most prominent African writers like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Mazisi Kunene, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Es’kia Mphalhele, Bessie Head and Bob Leshoai. These writers played a significant role in shaping his political, philosophical and artistic outlook going forward.
These books broadened their political awareness and their conversations often focused on their shared dream of a South Africa that was racially equal. His political consciousness grew stronger when he started high school at Huhudi High in Ganyesa. After his father gave him a small portable radio that could access Radio Freedom, the underground station used by the African National Congress (ANC) as a tool for fighting apartheid, he learnt about some of the jailed and exiled leaders of the ANC, such as Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, and Ahmed Kathrada. The station was very influential in planting the seeds of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) and Pan-Africanism in his mind.
Chakela was introduced to some of the founding members of the South African Student Organisation (SASO), which was a Black Consciousness organisation. He spent two days under the guidance of Jerry Modisane who was the president of SASO. Soon, together with his friend Barney Segwai, Chakela launched a door-to-door campaign to popularise Black Consciousness as well as to explore the possibility of establishing a SASO branch in Vryburg. However, the apartheid security police found out about this and after his father advised him to be careful, Chakela changed tactics and instead redirected his time and energy into mobilising his peers at Huhudi High to found and launch the Molopo African Writers and Artists Forum (MAWAFO). This forum laid the foundation for other writing, theatre, poetry, dance and music practitioners whose work was oriented towards an Africa-conscious agenda. While still at high school, Chakela wrote his first play in 1973, which he produced with his peers. Seeing his ideas come to life on stage was all he needed to pursue a career in theatre.
He enrolled at the newly established University of Bophuthatswana (now the North-West University) in 1975 and got involved in numerous literary and artistic activities. During the 1980s, he became a prominent member of the Congress of South African Writers (COSAW). Over time, he also became a founding member and leader of several organisations, most notably the African Writers Association (AWA), the (MAWAFO), the Soyikwa Institute of African Theatre and the Molopo Experimental Theatre Group (METGRO), which was the first professional theatre group in Bophuthatswana, a former Bantustan established by the apartheid government in North West, where Chakela, who was the group’s first artistic director, wrote, adapted and directed an impressive collection of plays. Furthermore, he served as the Artistic Director at Windybrow Centre for the Arts and Mmabana Cultural Centre.
His younger brother, Themba Chakela, was killed in what initially seemed like a random act of violence in the township but investigations later revealed that the security police were behind his brutal murder. Ironically, he was killed on 16 June 1976.
Through MAWAFO, he was invited to the board of the university’s Institute of African Studies which was led by Professor Leshoai, the same man who had been one of his influences while growing up. Furthermore, through his involvement in the institute, he got to meet prominent literary figures such as Alan Paton, Professor Es’kia Mphahlele, Njabulo Ndebele, Sipho Sepamla, Richard Rive, Mothobi Mutloatse, and others.
His role as the president of AWA allowed him to meet and create a strong network of fellow writers and artists. Amongst these was Zakes Mda, who became good friends with Chakela – a friendship that would last for decades. Their friendship translated to them working together on some productions. For instance, Chakela staged some of Mda’s works: You Fool, How Can The Skies Fall? and We Shall Sing for the Fatherland. Some of his notable other plays include Crises of Conscience, Kedisaletse, The Wrath of the Gods, Gathering of the Birds, Bloke, Sweat and the Setswana adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar.
His works were not always well received by the apartheid government, however, as some of them were an attack on the regime. For example, the play The Encounter (written by Kenyan playwright Kuldip Sondi) was banned and Crisis of Conscience which was linked to ideas of the BCM. Many of his plays were banned. Countless times, he would be allowed to rehearse his play but just before opening night, the government would issue him with a banning order that prohibited his play from being performed. As a result, only some of his plays were performed during apartheid.
From 1993, Chakela was appointed as the first Black Artistic Director and CEO of Windybrow Centre for the Arts in Hillbrow, Johannesburg. For the next decade, he created a theatrical hub for both aspiring and established practitioners and opened up opportunities for many African writers and artists. Along with Dr Keorapetse Kgositsile, Chakela worked hard to make Windybrow a space where a Pan-African artistic expression could be found, promoting works by acclaimed South African and African writers. This culminated in productions like Anasi the Spider, Maru by Bessie Head, and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, just to name a few; these productions often played to full houses. The adaptation of Head’s novel, Maru, became one of the longest-running productions in South Africa.
His aim for Windybrow was to conscientise people about Black Consciousness and Pan-Africanism through the arts. Chakela’s vision for Windybrow was an all-inclusive one, which is why people like Nadine Gordimer, Annamarie van Niekerk, and Stephen Gray also felt welcome. Furthermore, Chakela consciously sought to give women writers, actresses, producers, directors and intellectual thought leaders a spotlight to shine while grooming them to become future leaders.
He played a hand in nurturing young talent by mentoring several artists in various fields, including well-known actors and theatre personalities like Masoja Msiza, Martin Koboekae, Moagi Modise and Dinana Kukana. He opened the door to other playwrights such as Duma Ndlovu and guided future theatre administrators. Singers and poets like Vusi Mahlasela and Lesego Rampolokeng were first exposed to theatre audiences by Chakela, and he worked with jazz musicians such as the trumpeter Prince Lengoasa. The annual Windybrow Arts Festival served as an important event as it was a tool for Chakela to further his pan-Africanist ideals as the festival’s diverse programme included works by artists from all over the continent.
Other than the awards he received for his work as a playwright, poet and director, he was also acknowledged for his Pan-African activism through the arts. In 2018, he was honoured by the Pan African Writers’ Association in Ghana for his dedication to helping young people and his commitment to emancipating African people. He was bestowed with the status of ‘Nana’, a noble title reserved for those who dedicate their lives to selflessly serving Africa and its people. Furthermore, his works have appeared in numerous international publications like A World Assembly of Poets (2018). Besides his plays and poems, Chakela also produced a television series based on Vera the Ghost – a township legend.
At the end of his stellar career, Chakela had written 22 plays and directed more than 100 productions. He spent the last few years of his life confined to a wheelchair after suffering a stroke.
Walter Kefuoe Fikelephi Chakela died on 15 May 2020 at the age of 67. At the time of his death, he was the founding president of the National Writers Association of South Africa (NWASA). He was buried on 30 May 2020 in Mahikeng, North West Province.
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- Paget-Clarke, N. (2002). Interview with Walter Chakela, [online] Available at: https://inmotionmagazine.com/ac/wchakela.html. (Accessed on 02 June 2020)
- The Market Theatre. (2020). The Market Theatre Foundation remembers the life of Walter Chakela, [online], Available at: https://markettheatre.co.za/productions/the-market-theatre-foundation-remembers-the-life-of-walter-chakela/. (Accessed on 02 June 2020)