The recovery of the responses of Southern African people to colonial conquest two hundred years ago is complex. Their feelings must be deduced from their actions, as recorded in hostile written records. A two-person play, Umnqa!—Never Defeated portrays the fighting spirit of a young man who eluded colonial controls three times. Produced in 2015–16 in the context of militant student unrest demanding intellectual inclusiveness, the performance aimed to engage nonacademic audiences and speak to their experiences. Grounded in the theories of Paolo Freire, it became a foundational example of an emerging creative history methodology which promotes a robust partnering of history and art to tell partly imagined stories.

I say fly…fly high little bird because your story speaks to us…this is not just any story, but of our people.1

The production of a two-person play in Makhanda, Eastern Cape, South Africa, about the 1820 escapades of a young African man named Piet left its township audiences feeling that at last, their own history was being told.2 It developed out of what I called “the Piet challenge,” an invitation that I frequently gave to creative artists to construct a human story from a tiny piece of archival material. The written records about Piet tell of a young man who one night liberated his mother eight years after she had been taken as a prisoner of war. But that was all. The act of rescuing one’s mother after eight years moved many listeners to tears. But what else was there to this story? What did Piet think, how did he feel, what inspired him over those eight years? Historical records are silent, but creative artists could imagine the rest of the story. While I was running a program on taking history to the people, I always gave Piet’s story as an example of what was not known about the past, but also an opportunity to move beyond the archive. It was an invitation to overcome the systematic silencing of indigenous voices from constructing their own historical narratives, and to close the gap between the powerful writers of records and everyone else.3

Two young local artists took up the challenge. One was a writer and poet who had participated in several short-term arts projects. The other was a pantsula dancer, well-known for his energetic performances. Together, they produced an innovative performance entitled Umnqa!Never Defeated, to tell Piet’s story.4 The title came from their deep sense that Piet was a determined person who refused to let adversity keep him down, an inspiring virtue for the present and rather like the spirit of pantsula dancing. Pantsula is a particularly South African dance form which originated from urban centers in the 1940s and 1950s. Its very rapid footwork is reminiscent of the young men who outran and outsmarted the police as they searched for elusive pass documents necessary for Black people to live in cities. The passes were a key tool of the apartheid policies of full racial segregation at that time. A whole pantsula culture arose around the image of the clever, fast, bad boys, who did their own thing.

Performance of Umnqa!—Never Defeated at KwaNdlambe Women’s Day Celebrations, August 9, 2019. (Photo by Alice Draper, used with her consent)

Performance of Umnqa!—Never Defeated at KwaNdlambe Women’s Day Celebrations, August 9, 2019. (Photo by Alice Draper, used with her consent)

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This two-person show has been shared in a variety of times and places, including at the 2018 National Arts Festival, winning first prize in a district drama competition which brought it to a provincial showcase event, a few stage showings, international conferences, and several smaller events. In 2019, it began being shown in rural villages under traditional leadership.5 The groundwork laid by this performance also led to the nurturing of a specialist arm of public history called creative history. A grant from South Africa’s National Research Foundation supported efforts to define this new methodology. The grant funded work on a variety of projects with local creative artists, as well as support for graduate student research.6 A further grant from the Mellon Foundation sponsored the development of an undergraduate history course on creative history as a methodology.7 Additional interest has been shown in applying the approach to high school classrooms, within correctional services and museums, and among traditional leadership.

It might appear naïve to assume that art and history need something new to make them work together. The world of entertainment and literature is full of historical novels, films, plays, music, and visual art. Indeed, that is part of the problem: artists have long used historical information far more than historians have used creative outputs as new ways of telling the stories of the past. Too often in drawing on history for creative work, artists miss important points or leave out crucial analytical components, making mistakes that could have been corrected by a robust partnership with a historian. So, in part, creative history is also a plea to encourage creative people to make better use of historical skills and research.

The development of the performance fits with the priorities and demands to deepen social change in South Africa today. From its inception, the target audience was not ticket-buying customers, but people living in low-income neighborhoods. Indeed the point was to take the history to the people. The overwhelming and consistent response the performers got was that “this is the kind of history we have been waiting for”—locally relevant, “in our own voices, giving our side of the story.”8

This article first explores the context which fostered the production of the performance. From there, the dynamics of the production process are considered, examining what was included from historical facts, what was discarded, and what was invented. Then implications for creative history methodology are explained. This case study provides an example of how public history can be developed to meet the conditions of a still-evolving postcolonial society. By representing bold moments of fighting back, it also links the past with the present. Perhaps its most important contribution to public history methodology is promoting the role of creativity and imagination in dealing with the silenced stories of a long-ago colonial and precolonial past. Although the stories start with the dominant written records of the colonizers, they aim to go far beyond them by reading the actions of the silenced people as giving another version of history.

A recent columnist described South Africa as a nation in “social despair” as it faces the bitter fact that “the majority of black South Africans achieved emancipation without liberation.”9 The promises of the turn to democracy in 1994 appear to be fading, as poverty, crime, violence, and corruption proliferate. The disenchantment erupted with particularly violent force in 2015–16 with the two-year-long struggle of university students demanding total transformation of their worlds. Dubbed the #FeesMustFall movement, reflecting the initial demand for affordable higher education, the unrest witnessed the closure of universities for long periods of time, as well as running battles between police and students. At its core, the essence of the struggle was a demand for “decoloniality,” a quickening of the pace of change and the eradication of the social differences left in place from the colonial era.10 Militant students spoke of “black pain” as a key issue, saying they felt they had entered foreign countries when they came to the previously all-white universities.11 Many commentators have observed that students spoke directly to the need to “decolonise” thinking.12 The writings of both Franz Fanon and Steve Biko, intellectuals who understood the psychological damage caused by racism, inspired them. Indeed, the South African students’ revolt bears many similarities to the explosion of support for the Black Lives Matter campaign in 2020. Both brought to the fore the fact that racism is deeply systemic and will not go away without being directly confronted.

The highly emotive demands and clashes of the #FeesMustFall movement strongly influenced the way the play developed. Both performers found themselves close to some of the most militant clashes with police as they tried to attend on-campus rehearsals. As the tensions died down once the government met many of the demands for subsidized higher education, universities throughout South Africa opened channels to discuss a “transformation agenda.” Students had called for a complete revamping of the curriculum to step outside of western models of knowledge, including the promotion of interdisciplinary teaching, the integration of African lived experiences into the curriculum, and a more constructive and meaningful relationship with communities outside the university. By its very nature, the play was interdisciplinary, with its high-level partnership between history and performing arts. In addition to the artistic skills of the two cast members, the show benefited from advice and guidance from graduate students and a dance lecturer from Rhodes Drama Department.13 The play actively embraced the external, nonacademic community as contributors and as audiences.

In the context of the strong intellectual ferment of the times, I was approached by a handful of graduate students, from history, drama, fine arts, and ethnomusicology, as well as a nonacademic hip-hop community arts organizer. They shared an interest in finding historical content to inform their work. Their thinking stimulated the creation of the Isikhumbuzo (Memories) Applied History Unit within the Rhodes University History Department, which started to operate at the beginning of 2016. The unit’s first program included hosting a series of imbizos (a Xhosa term for problem-solving sessions) which brought together people with historical expertise and local performing artists in community venues. The goal was to invent safe spaces where thinking and exploration could take place. From these sessions, some of the artists developed performances of their own. The two performers of Umnqa!—Never Defeated both agreed that their enthusiasm for the play was stimulated by this process, which had made them curious to do much more work to combine history and art. It was at these sessions where I repeatedly used the “Piet challenge” as a way of making the point that we need to invent much of what we do not know in history.

My own turn to artists as the potential storytellers of the silenced past arose from my involvement as a historical consultant with an art project in 2000 about the 1819 battle of Grahamstown. Each of the thirty visual artists in the project produced an image that touched on some aspect of the history of the battle. The depth of their insights and feelings stood as a vivid testament to what was missing from the written texts. Their assorted voices profoundly expanded the historical record, mostly by adding an indigenous African point of view. The energy that came with unlocking an important untold story was channeled into developing a community art center, the Egazini Outreach Project, which has now operated for twenty years.14

Our approach was directly shaped by the thinking of theorist Paulo Freire. Although Freire’s writing targeted the overthrow of tyrannical governments in the 1970s and 80s, he identified the need to transform peoples’ attitudes as the starting point. Today, decades after Freire’s lifetime, the need for liberation of the mind remains, as demanded by the South African student movement. His dedicated disciple and “father” of theater of the oppressed, Augusto Boal, became famous for coining the phrase “the cops in the head” as shorthand for the on-going struggle for mental liberation.15 At the heart of the methodology outlined by Freire and Boal lies the question of how people can learn to stand up for their rights and feel empowered. For the team producing the play, this was the foremost question. Where and how does liberatory thinking start? Paulo Freire points out that “the oppressed are reluctant to resist, and totally lack confidence in themselves. They have a diffuse, magical belief in the invulnerability and power of the oppressor.”16 Change comes when people choose to take charge of the things they can control in their lives, ranging from forms of service to others to outright revolution. People must free themselves. But this leap in consciousness can be triggered by an intervention in the form of “critical education,” the introduction of new ways of thinking. In Freire’s experience, this starts with an invented space in which issues are tackled through open-ended dialogues. Giving people a voice boosts their self-confidence and opens the doors to thinking in new ways about not only the past, but also the future.

Freire’s methodology provides a thoughtful analysis of the essence of the colonial experience, as well as its enduring legacy. By its nature, colonialism everywhere was deeply violent. According to Freire, it was based on greediness for land, natural resources, and cheap labor, and defined “natives” as sub-humans not deserving of usual ethical standards.17 Such attitudes permeated all parts of life. Drawing on the work of Albert Memmi, Freire understood that the colonized developed an “implacable dependence” on what the colonizers offered.18 The conquered people learned to admire the colonizers passionately, while also hating them. The mass impoverishment left people feeling helpless to control anything about their lives, unable to plan or build a future. All of these symptoms can be applied to today’s “social despair” in South Africa, where self-interest seems to overtake everything else. The historic effects of greed, racism, and the abuse of human rights refuse to fade away.

Is the past an inevitable curse, or can it be used as an inspiration? The colonized mind-set feels cut off from a sense of history, where memories of freedom are very distant and the knowledge of brutal wars of conquest are deeply buried. Such are the issues addressed in Umnqa!—Never Defeated. Freire stresses that “rebellious, daring moments of fight” lead the way to alternatives.19 Piet’s story falls into this category. As poet and performer Azile Cibi put it, “I could directly relate to the Never Defeated story and felt others would benefit from hearing it. I wanted to share it because it speaks to me and many others like me. These views have always been there. This story is so rich in history.”20

Developing Umnqa!—Never Defeated

While historians have traditionally crafted meanings out of texts, both archival and oral, the creation of a performance contains within it “the possibility of materializing something that exceeds our knowledge, that alters the shape of sites and imagines other as yet unsuspected modes of being.”21 Theorists D. Soyini Madison and Judith Hamera stress the “infinite possibilities of performance…in expanding complexifying and enriching meanings and practices.”22 The imagination that comes to play during a performance opens up a world of alternative possibilities. As Maxine Green puts it, “of all our cognitive capacities, imagination is the one that permits us to give credence to alternative realities. It allows us to break with the taken for granted, to set aside familiar distinctions and definitions.”23 She believes that all forms of social change start with a creative vision: “It may be the recovery of imagination that lessens the social paralysis we see around us and restores the sense that something can be done in the name of what is decent and humane.”24

Piet’s story is based on a historical fragment from the archives of the colonizers. There he was described as a young man who freed his mother from working for the magistrate of Uitenhage, Col. Jacob Cuyler, after she had been with him for eight years.25 They ran away under the cover of night. Piet was eventually captured and sent off to Robben Island prison, making his name slightly visible in the records. A few months after he arrived, he took part in another dramatic escape, but was once again recaptured. The play, however, originated from the story of his mother. The performers took on the challenge of trying to imagine what feelings such a daring son must have held for his absent mother. They felt justified to construct a personality who did not accept the restrictions of conquest, no matter how onerous, someone whose spirit was never defeated. The paucity of hard facts turned it into an exercise of a creative blending of history and fiction. The style of the performance was designed by its creators to be as simple as possible so that it could be easily performed in a variety of spaces.

The work on the play started with a simplified historical account from me of the known details of Piet’s story and the times he lived in. The team also undertook site visits to places relevant to the story, including an 1811 massacre site deep in the Zuurberg mountains and Cuyler Manor, the preserved home of Col. Cuyler, where Piet’s mother worked. “The site visits were the most exciting part,” said poet Azile Cibi.26 They also helped with team building and in generating discussions. For the team, travelling through the timeless landscapes of the Eastern Cape and seeing its plains, its mountains, its rivers, and its animals was a vital lesson in thinking about a distant past.


The most robust dialogs took place within the team as the play developed, but this, in turn, triggered thinking and dialog with audiences who saw the performance. An important part of the play’s methodology was to perform each scene, as it was written, in a public open space in a different low-income township every weekend. The actors engaged in dialog and solicited feedback from the audiences. One of the most animated responses came from a praise singer who said the following,

I say fly…fly high little bird because your story speaks to us. Let me break it in half, so we can have two sides to pull, not one, one that is dominant but one that is silent. Let us build a nation not only with people but heroes of our soil that speak in the same voice…a voice that is unity, that is pride in our ancestors because it plants a seed of wisdom. I will trace my own past with the breath of my voice and the rhythm of my feet, to make sure that we are sure that this is not just any story, but of our people.27

The performers felt that people really appreciated that this was local, East Cape history. “People really liked it and engaged with it. They wanted to be a part of it. The response was always ‘we need more of this.’”28

It was feedback like this that kept the performers constantly refining and developing their show as an ongoing process. Dancer Likhaya Jack remembered the road shows for the advice received on the technical parts of the performance which helped get the right balance between movement and spoken words.29 Young people often offered suggestions for music to be used, thus confirming their engagement with the story and its message. “The roadshows were important for deciding what to keep or not,” recalled Azile Cibi, “It was a good way to test their understanding of the issues.”30 He felt that audiences internalized the show and the story and were willing to contribute to it.

Masixole Heshu leads audience in activities at roadshow, Jazz Corner, Joza township, Makhanda, March 10, 2018. (Photo by author)

Masixole Heshu leads audience in activities at roadshow, Jazz Corner, Joza township, Makhanda, March 10, 2018. (Photo by author)

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From the outset, the performers were highly conscious of seeking to juxtapose the past with the present. As Freire wrote, “history…makes and remakes us.”31 Both performers understood that their present realities derived from the events of the past. The high-energy contemporary pantsula dance style used in the play is associated with the present, making it abundantly clear that this was not a reenactment. But the dancer wore a few symbolic pieces of clothing from Piet’s time, a feathered hat and buckskin shoes (both pink), to establish that he played the role of Piet, regardless of the style of the movements. The poet represented modern, contemporary youth in his words and dressing style. At times he wore black pants, a white shirt, suspenders, and a red bow tie. The two spoke to each other and moved as past and present linked and united.

Because of the plan to keep things simple, a set of portable fireplaces and a large portable speaker were the only pieces of equipment used. This made it easy to undertake the roadshows, but also to perform in a variety of settings, often on short notice. Other simple props included two pieces of semi-transparent white cloths, traditional Xhosa fighting sticks, and a few books to represent the ponderous nature of written history.

The very style of the play assured accessibility to audiences who were in most cases not standard theatergoers. Further, the performers chose to design the performance for outdoor venues, as a way of demonstrating Piet’s knowledge of nature, proven by his ability to trust in his survival skills when he escaped. His indigenous knowledge of the world around him gave him an alternative to the colonial mansions and jails. In his day, there were still places to escape to, safe, familiar places. The outdoor performances allowed the audiences to also participate in this connection with nature.

Along with the decision to adhere to simplicity and a creative blending of past and present personas came the agreement that the play would be more about the emotions and feelings involved in the events than about historical detail. Although the year of Piet’s escapes, 1820, is highlighted in the opening of the show to make the point that this is a story not about the well-documented British settlers of that same year, the action soon shifts to a lively rendition of his escape from Robben Island. This linked Piet’s unknown story with the far more familiar one of Nelson Mandela, Robben Island’s most famous political prisoner. The emotions represented include the cleverness and bravery of the planning, the sheer determination to get away, and the joy of success in overcoming all odds.

Another emotional high point was the representation of Piet being reunited with his mother while she was still a domestic worker at Cuyler Manor. The poet drew on his actual visit to the preserved manor to paint a verbal picture of how strange and alienating a place it would appear to be through African eyes. The emotions of a child being without his mother for eight years and the intensity of longing to be together again were understood to be powerful universals, easily understood by every culture.

In the play, the destruction of Piet’s childhood village and the kidnapping of his mother are told through the eyes of an adolescent boy, who is both wise enough to find ways to survive, but young enough to feel the loss of all that was familiar. His survival of brutal colonial conquest using scorched earth tactics was in fact his first escape. What he faced is what haunted colonized people for many generations into the futureconfusion, the need to adapt, and a deep sense of loss of a viable and comforting way of life. Yet he never accepted that his family was torn apart forever. The play shows this through his seeking out his mother and then freeing her. Near the end of the play, the poet gets wrapped in white fabric, representing the entangled consciousness of colonized people today. He laments how the people of European descent used guns to get their way, which made the battles highly unfair and unwinnable by Africans.

Audiences enjoyed the lively innovative performance but were amazed by the fact that it represented real history.32 In the play’s first appearance at a Sarah Baartman District drama competition, where it won first prize, the judges and members of the audience noted that, due to its sophistication and complexity, “it was beyond what was expected.”33 When a representative of local government viewed the play a year later, he commented, “I am impressed! There is still a much greater role to be played by the arts. They must be taken seriously. Art should be compulsory at schools…art is a mirror of society. It enables us to look at ourselves.”34

The interest of the performers about the past pushed me to look seriously again at the existing written histories and records. A few simple questions about Piet’s age, where he lived, who his parents might have been, and how they subsisted required plausible answers. We guessed his age as about twenty-four, based on the records of other young men he was imprisoned with on Robben Island.35 The prison records list him as a “Ghona-[Xhosa]” which led us to assume that his mother was Gona and his father most likely to be from the imiDange people living in the area at the time.36

The work of creating a complex person based on cold, written impersonal accounts resulted in six major revisions of traditional historical accounts of the time, which have been fully explained elsewhere.37 Briefly, these revisions include: a new appreciation of the pivotal role played by fighting in the Zuurberg mountains during the frontier war of 1812; a perception of the Gonaqua people as a category of intercultural people, not a “tribe”; placing the imiDange chieftaincies in the forefront of the earliest colonial encounters; a better understanding of how the colonial boundaries actually worked to give African people a safety-net; a heightened sense of the times and places where seeking justice for captured African women and children took place; and fresh insight into how the regulations for using African labor in the Cape Colony did or did not work. All of this provided more detail than the play required, so much of it was not directly used. The point of the play was never to convey everything that could be known or guessed about Piet’s life, but rather to illustrate the broader dynamics of his time. The use of performance as a medium left space for the imagination to fill historical gaps. In many instances, details did not exist and informed guesses had to be used to contribute to building the larger story.

The performers omitted the kinds of historical information that forms the heart of the colonial archive: written records about the actions of armies, including its role in banishing African people from newly conquered territory, inventing boundaries, and inflicting punishments on those who broke their laws, as well as attributing most conflict to African backwardness or irrationality. Although Col. Cuyler could have been easily constructed as a central protagonist, his name is barely mentioned. He is the author of all the documents which tell us about Piet, acting as both a magistrate and as a householder who lost his servant. By allowing him to remain on the margins of the story, the play presented him as a representation of colonial thinking. His representation was not about him as a person, but about a mindset.

Piet’s generation was probably the third to have been in contact with people of European descent, a process that started in the mid-1700s. Drawing on available information, the performers chose to portray the gradual settlement of itinerant Dutch-speaking farmers as something that was at first accommodated by indigenous people. The white cloths used as props represented the arrival of white people from the west in covered wagons, as well as the hospitality they initially received from their African hosts. According to the African account, a period of peaceful accommodation of people from all backgrounds ended when the Dutch became greedy and “coveted their all and aimed at their destruction.”38 One of the themes included in the play was the insincerity and two-faced deeds of the colonizers who professed Christianity but practiced theft and hatred.

If Piet’s mother had been with Cuyler for eight years in 1820, this made her a probable victim of a war in 1812 which resulted in the expulsion of twenty-thousand African people from their homes in the area then called “the Zuurveld.” This was part of the effort made by the British government to take full control over the eastern regions of the Cape Colony, which it had inherited from the Dutch in 1806. The British forces admitted to taking many women as captives, presumably to be placed into forced-labor situations with Dutch African farmers.39 Rather than focusing on the reasons for war, the play portrays a young man fleeing for his life as his home is destroyed and his family disappears.

At times, fictitious details were added by the team to reinforce the point being made. For example, creating a sister for Piet and having her also captured in 1812 further highlighted the special vulnerability of women and children as well as the decimation of Piet’s natal family. Similarly, how Piet survived the destruction of his home village is invented, based on the likelihood that he was a youth who had already developed the skills of subsisting in the bush. This further demonstrated how close to the land indigenous people lived. The written records offer no clues as to how exactly Piet found his mother after eight years. The imagined version of the story has his mother sending him dreams, summoning him to come.40

The time period of Piet’s life was marked by a series of five wars between African and European people. Yet most of the details of these conflicts are left out, even though the larger story is about colonial conquest. The creative team chose to filter out much of the information that might be considered symptomatic of “colonial arrogance.”41 For example, in discussion of how to portray cruelties we considered whether or not to include the story of the “tobacco trick.” This was an event in 1781 when Dutch-speaking soldiers came to peace talks designed to end a bitter war. They offered some tobacco to the imiDange men they were negotiating with. Instead of handing it over as a gesture of goodwill, they threw it on the ground and then shot and killed those who stooped to pick it up, wiping out most of the leadership and a generation of fighting-age men. Despite various attempts, this story was never integrated into the play. Similarly, an account of how Piet was recaptured when a group of Gona people were arrested for crossing the colonial boundary to seek employment was left out. Also excluded was Piet’s capture and imprisonment for seven years on Robben Island after his initial escape. All of these omissions minimize the sense of victimhood, leaving space to center the fighting spirit of resistance. This is precisely why Piet’s story matters—because his three daring escapes inform us of a time when colonial mental domination was not yet in place.

Finally, we discovered that the place we thought we had invented as the location for Piet’s home village had been a major site of contending forces two hundred years ago. We chose Nanaga, a popular rural farm stall between Makhanda and Port Elizabeth, as his home, because of its Khoe name and logical location. Further research, however, revealed that it had once been called “Quagga Flats” by the colonizers. Quagga is a now-extinct species of animal similar to a zebra but only partially striped. Their extinction carries echoes of the loss of indigenous African ways of life. Quagga Flats was also the 1812 location of the headquarters of the British army.42 Today, Nanaga is at the intersection of two national highways, maintaining its character as a meeting point of divergent people and interests.43 What we thought was imagined history turned out to be far more real than we ever expected.

Braiding together stratified ways of knowing44

Activist legacies

Within South Africa, there is a long history of activism that provides a solid foundation for today’s creative history practice. The era of the struggle against the apartheid government, from 1950–94, provided historians and artists with considerable experience in telling untold stories in ways that stimulated responses from the public. Both sectors have vibrant traditions of public engagement.

In the struggle against apartheid some historians took on an overtly activist role. The Wits History Workshop at the University of the Witwatersrand was directly inspired by the History Workshop movement at Oxford University during the 1970s.45 Both embraced Marxist ideology to promote new social histories, often focusing on working class movements. The Wits History Workshop aligned itself closely with the increasingly powerful trade union movement and came to host “open days” on campus, where all kinds of art forms promoted nonconformist, protest values. Historians researched and wrote new books, based on the championing of “history from below” and “peoples’ history.” In some instances, the new histories were produced in reader-friendly, popular formats to reach the wider public.46

At the same time, a surge of protest art forms grew both inside South Africa and among political exiles.47 With strong international support, the activist artists that challenged the values of the apartheid regime were brought together under the banner of “Art against Apartheid.”48 These activist traditions, however, targeted the overthrow of an overtly racist and nondemocratic government. The task of eradicating the more intangible and stubborn vestiges of racism continues, well into the twenty-first century.

Bringing Performance and History Together

The domains of history and heritage practice in South Africa have been criticized for their limitations. Former history activists lament that since the dawn of democracy in 1994, uses of the past have settled into predictable ruts. Criticisms of public history practice include questioning the overly heavy focus on the glorification of the heroes who headed the liberation struggle and issues broadly referred to as “nation-building.”49 The call to find ways to go deeper, especially when dealing with intangible qualities such as values and belief systems, has come from many fronts.50 Long before the student revolts of 2015–16, Mark Fleishman proposed that performance of historical material offered the key to decolonizing knowledge in the African context. He views it as offering far greater complexity than texts, saying “The creation of imaginary or potential spaces within which to engage with specific questions, is what makes performance able to articulate complexes of thought–with–feeling that words cannot name, let alone set forth.”51 He stresses the value of “the experimental nature of performance as process, the trial and error method of feeling one’s way towards a goal, open to the possibility of bumping into new discoveries along the way.”52

However, combinations of art and history are surprisingly rare, and seldom involve the general public. There are a few notable exceptions. In my own quest for good, contemporary examples in South Africa, a musical play produced by workers on a wine estate about an enslaved woman who took her master to court and the annual light parade in Clanwilliam of floats designed by school children incorporating their local heritage of rock art stood out as exceptional.53 The latter was a project run jointly by Mark Fleishman and visual artist Pippa Skotnes, based on the historical research of Andrew Bank.54 Internationally, the works of Jenny Kidd in Manchester and Alia Massallam in Egypt are notable for their similarities.55

Dancer Likhaya Jack engages with young, aspiring dancers at a roadshow, Joza Township, Makhanda, May 26, 2018. (Photo by author)

Dancer Likhaya Jack engages with young, aspiring dancers at a roadshow, Joza Township, Makhanda, May 26, 2018. (Photo by author)

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The exchange of ideas required to find a constructive balance between fact and invention, history and art, content and technical skills, often ends up being quite complex. Practitioners in similar activities stress the importance of combining different forms of knowledge to achieve a new model of interdisciplinarity. The three-sided nature of such work is a common theme. Dwight Conquorgood describes the three ingredients of braiding, mapping the stages as: 1) works of imagination; 2) source of inquiry—research; and 3) an intervention in a social space.56 Or put another way, he places “artistry, analysis, activism” and “creativity, critique, citizenship” at the core of performance studies.57 Robin Nelson also charts a triangular model of performance studies which includes a conceptual framework, critical reflection, and practitioner knowledge.58 This adds the subjectivity of the performer as an important factor.

Indeed, perhaps the discipline of performance studies comes closest to our work, although it does not necessarily focus on historical content. Conquorgood stresses that the close working relationship between text and performance is inseparable:

The performance studies project makes its most radical intervention, I believe, by embracing both written scholarship and creative work, papers and performances. We challenge the hegemony of the text best by reconfiguring texts and performances in horizontal, metonymic tension, not by replacing one hierarchy with another, the romance of the performance for the authority of the text.59

Indeed, the discipline of performance studies, which includes applied theater, theorizes the intangible qualities of art. Freire stresses that “Consciousness always has an imaginative phase, and imagination, more than any other capacity, breaks through the inertia of habit.”60 A creative historical output can be constructed to serve the purpose of opening minds to asking new questions and then seeking answers.

The call to pursue creative history today draws on multiple legacies of similar work in the past. Creative history braids together many threads from its predecessors. This includes the activist traditions of both art and history within South Africa, the social imperatives of numerous theorists of decolonization, the emphasis of public historians on reaching the public, the insights of performance studies into the power of intangible expression, and the recent movements which demand tackling the deepest, buried recesses of racism still carried inside peoples’ minds.

The focus of creative history is to promote a more robust interdisciplinarity, as well as the full inclusion of nonacademics in the processes of knowledge production. This responds to issues raised in South Africa’s transformation agenda. It is designed to meet today’s urgent issues of demolishing subtle racist assumptions through a focus on interiority. It is about getting rid of the “cops in the head” as has long been advocated by decolonial thinkers, such as Memmi, Fanon, Freire, Boal, and Biko.

There are several simple, basic features which characterize the creative history approach. It starts with an understanding that the worlds of both history and art have a good deal to offer each other. This makes them valued and vitally necessary partners in a journey of exploration which is likely to end with the production of new forms of knowledge and understanding. The final outcome needs to be fully sharable with public audiences, giving them insights into their social condition. It is a methodology primarily designed for practitioners who take on the task of managing an exercise whose outcomes might not be entirely predictable, precisely because it is the process itself that produces unexpected outcomes.

In the work on Never Defeated and many other projects, a simple formula developed. Work starts with historical facts which cannot be changed. As popular Canadian historical fiction writer Margaret Atwood puts it, “When there was solid fact, I could not alter it.”61 All facts, however, need rigorous interpretation, including analysis of the sources and their biases and discussion of the context of the times being represented, as well as consideration of dominant and subordinate views on what they mean. This is often seen as the traditional work of historians, but within creative history, the insights need to be shared with artists, who in turn, add their own analyses and insights. In explaining our methodology to our public partners in the simplest possible terms, we stress the interconnectedness of facts, interpretation, and imagination. Together the three create a new kind of knowledge to be expressed through a creative output.

Once the basics of a historical event or story are established, then imagination takes over to channel everything into a useable product. This can take many different forms, including performances, written and visual materials, podcasts, children’s books, videos, or other forms of media. With the methodology’s focus on simplicity for reaching popular audiences, the outputs are more likely to be storytelling than a staged theatrical production or a podcast instead of a documentary film. Since the majority of South Africans do not have access to affordable Wi-Fi, most outputs need to be nonelectronic. The current era demands digging deeper into the psychology of racial domination, bringing fresh urgency to telling new stories effectively. The example of Umnqa!Never Defeated shows how smallness and simplicity can take thought-provoking works to the people, not only entertaining and educating them, but also inviting their participation in speaking to the issues.

Our experience leads us to agree with Magelssen that “it is impossible to portray a simulation of history without it automatically becoming history,” and that performed history could even be viewed as “more true” than written history.62 A robust combination of imagination with historical facts can take us a long way toward recovering silenced voices. This kind of performed history offers several features for transforming understandings of the past.

Poet Azile Cibi takes equipment for a roadshow. (Photo by author)

Poet Azile Cibi takes equipment for a roadshow. (Photo by author)

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First, through simple staging, it avoids the artificiality of trying to reconstruct a “time machine” kind of experience. As Madison and Hamera put it, “performance directs us to the signs and symbols of indigenous life.”63 It is not about literal reconstruction. Freed from the materiality of the kind of displays one finds in staged plays, museums, or cultural villages, the focus remains on the emotions. Cultural stereotypes and representations of vastly different European and African lifestyles are overtaken by issues such as ingenuity, speediness, bravery, love for a mother, the shock of sudden loss, and surviving. Such subjectivities stand in sharp contrast to the more classic categories of historical enquiry and interpretation which focused on power, control, decision-making, and military technologies, often portrayed through elaborate material culture.

Secondly, the creative media leaves room for informed guesswork, allowing for a plausible story to be told as a coherent narrative. As long as it is grounded in solid historical research, the story line does not need to be submerged in excessive detail. Thirdly, the present and past are continuously joined. Throughout the play, the two performers each embody then and now. The emotional issues resonate with people of today who still face endless forms of discrimination but may not be aware of where and how it originated. The central point of the play is that like Piet, people today can find ways to escape their limitations. The obstacles are not nearly as formidable as they were in his days.

Like Freire, we believe that critical education can be empowering. Confronting the past breaks the stranglehold of passive acceptance and inspires the search for what can now be done to reclaim a more fully human set of norms. As Freire puts it, accepting that we are not bound by our pasts is the first step towards committing towards building a better future. “Humanization is the peoples’ historical vocation.”64


Akhona Bodlinqqaka Mafani, praise poem performance, March 10, 2018, Jazz Corner, Joza township, Makhanda. Praise poetry is part of the Xhosa cultural mode of expression, where a praise-singer spontaneously produces imaginative and insightful commentary on people or situations at a gathering.


The term “township” is commonly used in South Africa to denote low-income, segregated residential communities which remain as the legacy of the apartheid policies of total separation of the races.


The terms indigenous and African are used here to signify people whose cultural traits arose solely on the African continent. Such traits include language, styles of dressing, ways of living, and belief systems. Over time, several features were added from external sources, creating forms of hybridity. These will be noted directly. The focus on language and culture avoids the unacceptable practice of referring to people in Southern Africa by their skin color (black or white) as the defining characteristic.


Umnqa is a word from the Xhosa language meaning a decisive moment, or a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It is akin to an “aha!” moment in English.


In South Africa, the term Traditional Leadership refers to hereditary chiefs, but also often includes their advisory councils.


This project was funded by the National Research Foundation of South Africa, Human and Social Science Dynamics grant 2018–20.


This project was funded with the assistance from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s grant Unsettling Paradigms: The Decolonial Turn in the Humanities Curriculum at Universities in South Africa. An online course was offered in 2020.


Azile Cibi, interview by Jason Torreano, Syracuse University, June 8, 2018, Makhanda, South Africa.


William Skoki, “On Conspiracy Theories,” Africa is a Country, January 15, 2020,


Sandile Ndelu, “‘Liberation is a Falsehood’: Fallism at the University of Cape Town,” in #Hashtag, an Analysis of the #FeesMustFall Movement at South African Universities, ed. Malose Langa (Johannesburg: Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, 2017), 62.




See for example, Heike Becker, “South Africa’s May 1968: Decolonising Institutions and Minds,” Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE blog), February 17, 2016.


Masixole Heshu and Phemelo Hellemann were both graduates of applied theater programs who worked on and off with the performers, while Athina Valcha, a lecturer in dance and choreography, also assisted at times.


The work of the Egazini Outreach Project formed part of an exercise in reclaiming Black peoples’ histories which culminated in changing the name of the city from Grahamstown to Makhanda in 2018.


For example, see Richard A. Cope, “Augusto Boal and Forum Theatre,”


Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Beyman Ramos, 30th anniversary edition (1968; New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005), 64.


Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized, trans. Howard Greenfeld (Lexington, MA: Plunkett Lake Press, 1957), 14.


Ibid., 4.


Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Heart, trans. Donaldo Macedo and Alexandre Oliveira (1997; New York: Continuum International Publishing Group Inc, 2007), 45.


Azile Cibi, interview by author, August 8, 2018, Makhanda.


Elin Diamond, ed., Performance and Cultural Politics (New York: Routledge, 1996), 2.


D. Soyini Madison and Judith Hamera, “Performance Studies at the Intersections,” The Sage Handbook of Performance Studies (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc. 2006), xiii.


Maxine Greene, Releasing the Imagination: Essays on Education, the Arts and Social Change (San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 1995), 3.


Ibid., 35.


Cape Archives (CA), Colonial Office (CO) 2626, May 12, 1820, letter from J Cuyler, Landdrost of Uitenhage, to C Bird, Colonial Secretary, Cape Town.


Azile Cibi, interview by author, August 8, 2018, Makhanda.


Mafani, praise poem. Translated by Masixole Heshu from the Xhosa: Ndisithi ntinga ntaka ndini. Mandophule phakathi ndinyatshaleli calanye. Ndakhwe imbumba yamanyama yabantu. Abathetha ntonye. Kuni makwakheke ubuhlobo, nibambisane. Ngokwenza njalo kuqabela imiqobo, tyale intobeko, ndicuthe ukunyathela, niqiqe niqiniseke zizinto, nazintlwa.


Azile Cibi, interview by author, December 7, 2020, Makhanda.


Likhaya Jack, interview by author, December 3, 2020, Makhanda.


Azile Cibi, interview by author, August 8, 2018, Makhanda.


Freire, Pedagogy of the Heart, 32.


Azile Cibi, interview by author, December 7, 2020, Makhanda.




Ramie Xonxa, representing the Mayor of Makana Municipality, Amazwi South African Museum of Literature, Heritage Day Celebrations, interview by author, September 21, 2019, Makhanda.


Cape Archives (CA), Colonial Office (CO) 125, List of Criminal Prisoners for September, October, and November 1820.


Ibid. The term “kaffer” appears in the original records, but because it is viewed as a highly offensive term, it is replaced with “Xhosa.” The records use “Ghona” as the spelling of the name of the people, but today it is generally spelled “Gona.”


Julia Wells, “Resistance and Survival: Demolishing Myths of Disappearing People, Minor Chiefs and Non-existent Boundaries in the Early 19th Century Zuurveld of the Cape Colony,” New Contree, 84 (July 2020), 1–29.


Andries Stockenstrom, The Autobiography of Sir Andries Stockenstrom, Bart., Sometime Lieutenant Governor of the Eastern Province of the Colony of the Cape of Good Hope, vol. 1, ed. C. W. Hutton (1887; Cape Town: Struik, 1964), 119.


C. T. Atkinson, ed., Supplementary Report on the Manuscripts of Robert Graham Esq of Fintry (Great Britain: Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts; London: HM Stationery Office, 1940), J. Graham to Lt. Col. Reynell, February 26, 1812. Lt. Col. John Graham reported that he had rounded up nearly one hundred women and children. Thomas Pringle, an 1820 English settler most noted for his poetry, coined the term Dutch-African farmer to refer to people of Dutch descent who still spoke the Dutch language, even though their ancestors might have settled in Africa many generations earlier. Farming was their most common mode of production. During the course of the nineteenth century, the term “Afrikaner” came into popular use to refer to such people.


Such a use of the supernatural is one of the techniques that Native American historians put forward as an important part of the indigenization of knowledge. Susan A. Miller, “Native America Writes Back: the Origin of the Indigenous Paradigm in Historiography,” Wicazo Sa Review 23, no. 2 (Fall 2008): 17.


Premesh Lalu, “The Grammar of Domination and the Subjection of Agency: Colonial Texts and Modes of Evidence,” History and Theory, Theme Issue 39 (December 2000): 57.


Atkinson, Supplementary Report, letter to Lt. Col. Reynell, January 8, 1812, written from Jokama, ten miles northeast of Sunday River mouth.


The two South African highways are the N2 which runs east and west and the N10, which follows a north/south trajectory.


Dwight Conquorgood, “Performance Studies, Interventions and Radical Research,” The Drama Review 46, no. 2 (Summer 2002): 152.


Philip Bonner, “New Nation, New History: The History Workshop in South Africa, 1977-1994,” Journal of American History 81, no. 3 (December 1994): 981. See also Noor Nieftagodien, “Reconstituting Activism at the Borders of Contemporary South Africa,” ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies 2, no. 2 (2012): 222–28; Onni Gust, “What is Radical History Now?” History Workshop Journal 83, no. 1 (Spring 2017): 230–40.


See, for example, Luli Callinicos, Gold and Workers, Peoples’ History of South Africa series, vol. 1 (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1985) and the Topics Series (Johannesburg: University of the Witwatersrand History Workshop with Ravan Press).


Anne Schumann, “The Beat that Beat Apartheid: The Role of Music in the Resistance against Apartheid in South Africa,” Stichproben. Wiener Zeitschrift für kritische Afrikastudien 14, no. 8 (2008): 17–39.


Shirli Gilbert, “Singing Against Apartheid: ANC Cultural Groups and the International Anti-Apartheid Struggle,” Journal of Southern African Studies 33, no. 2 (June 2007): 421–41.


Julia Wells, “Public History in South Africa: A Tool for Recovery,” in What Is Public History Globally? Working with the Past in the Present, ed. Paula Ashton and Alex Trapeznik (London: Bloomsbury, 2019).


Leslie Witz, Gary Minkley, and Ciraj Rassool, “Introduction,” Unsettled History, Making South African Public Pasts (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017).


Mark Fleishman, “Knowing Performance: Performance as Knowledge Paradigm for Africa,” South African Theatre Journal 23, no. 1 (2009): 116–36; quotation 124–25.


Ibid., 125.


Julia Wells, “When the Past Transforms: A Case Study from a Western Cape Wine Farm,” South African Historical Journal 69, no. 3 (2017): 345–60; and “‘deep wounds…left…in hearts and minds’: South African Public History,” Public History Review 24 (2017): 1–21.


Mark Fleishman, “‘For a Little Road It Is Not. For It Is a Great Road; It Is Long’: Performing Heritage for Development in the Cape,” in Performing Heritage: Research Practice and Innovation in Museum Theatre and Live Interpretation, ed. Anthony Jackson and Jenny Kidd (Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 2011), 234–48. The historical source used was Andrew Bank, Bushmen in a Victorian World: The Remarkable Story of the Bleek-Lloyd Collection of Bushmen Folklore (Cape Town: Double Storey, 2006).


Jenny Kidd, “Performing the Knowing Archive: Heritage Performance and Authenticity,” International Journal of Heritage Studies 17, no. 1 (January 2011): 22–35; and Alia Mossallam, “History Workshops in Egypt: an Experiment in History Telling,” History Workshop Journal, 83, no. 1 (April 2017), 241–51.


Madison and Hamera, “Performance Studies at the Intersections,” xii.


Conquorgood, “Performance Studies,” 152.


Robin Nelson, “Practice-as-Research and the Problem of Knowledge,” Performance Research 11, no. 4 (2006): 114.


Conquorgood, “Performance Studies,” 151.


Greene, Releasing the Imagination, 21.


As quoted in Camilla Nelson, “Faking it: History and Creative Writing,” TEXT 11, no. 2 (October 2007): 1.


Scott Magelssen, “Living History Museums and the Construction of the Real through Performance,” Theater Survey 45, no. 1 (May 2004): 70–71.


Madison and Hamera, Performance Studies, xx.


Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 85.