Shakespeare in Mzansi: A South African
SLQ Interview with MINKY SCHLESINGER
Can Shakespeare be adapted to South Africa today, speak to
the hearts of South Africans about South Africans? The
answer to this question is yes. In 2008 the Gauteng Film
Commission of South Africa in collaboration with the South
African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) produced Shakespeare
Shakespearean plays centre on universal themes of love,
politics, power, religion, race and these are themes that
affect everyone wherever they may be. The Shakespeare in
Mzansi mini-series project delved deeper into and examined
the human experiences of South Africans, probing into the
morals and values that they use to shape their lives and
their country, and the films used historical and
contemporary contexts to affirm who they are, building unity
in an experience of their South Africanness.
One of the popular adaptations was uGugu noAndile inspired
by Shakepeare's Romeo and Juliet. Produced by Minky
Schlesinger and Lodi Matsetela, it was the third of four
mini-series which aired on SABC1 from March to August, 2008.
The others were Entabeni (Macbeth), Izingane zoBaba (King
Lear) and Death of a Queen (also Macbeth). uGugu no Andile
is a love-story set against the backdrop of the war that
raged through South Africa's townships in the early 90s. It
tells the tale of two star-crossed lovers, unlucky enough to
be born into families on opposite sides of the political and
cultural divide. Gugu is a sweet and innocent 16-year old,
coming from a Zulu-speaking family, while Andile, 18 and
equally ready for love, comes from a family steeped in the
Xhosa tradition. It is 1993, a year before the first
democratic elections in South Africa, and the township of
Thokoza is a hotbed of political violence, carved up between
supporters of the two main political parties.
The drama series uGugu noAndile was turned into a feature
film, which was well received in the rest of Africa. The
96-minute feature version was selected in the FESPACO
competition in Burkina Faso, the oldest and largest film
festival on the continent and clinched several awards at the
African Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) in Nigeria. African
audiences appear to relate to uGugu noAndile as a
recognizably African story. It went on a successful tour of
Europe as well.
Sentinel Literary Quarterly Editor, Tinashe Mushakavanhu,
interviewed South African filmmaker Minky Schlesinger.
Responding to questions after a lecture delivered at the
Baxter Theatre in 2005, Sir Peter Hall, the founder of the
Royal Shakespeare Company, was asked what he thought of
translations of Shakespeare. “Oh”, he responded brusquely,
“Shakespeare is untranslatable!” How was the process of
adapting Shakespeare for you?
I must emphasize that neither the 6-part series uGugu no
Andile, nor the feature film Gugu & Andile is a direct
translation of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. Our
intention was to remain faithful to Shakespeare’s themes,
which we see as the futility of war, and the hope for
reconciliation. In fact, these themes were the impetus for
creating uGugu no Andile, being vital issues in contemporary
Our film can be seen as an adaptation, rather than as a
translation, of Romeo & Juliet. We made no attempt to
incorporate Shakespeare’s language. Much of the beauty and
complexity of Shakespeare’s original lies in his use of
language. However, film language is more visual than verbal,
and we tried to find visual equivalents of the poetry where
In terms of translating Shakespeare: I’d imagine that his
language would be difficult to translate. That said, I
believe anything can be translated, given a skilled
translator with enough (paid) time to do the work. I see no
reason why Shakespeare would be the one writer to be
Is Shakespeare a necessary cultural figure in Africa? Why is
there a need to contextualize him in (South Africa)? Why
does (South) Africa have to bother with Shakespeare anyway?
Does a use of Shakespeare help in the understanding of South
Africa’s cultural identity?
I don’t see Shakespeare as a ‘necessary’ cultural figure in
Africa, but he’s a potentially valuable one. While it’s true
that we Africans need to understand and assert our own
cultural identity, especially in the face of rampant
globalization, I see no ‘danger’ or ‘threat’ in using
Shakespeare’s texts on this continent. If one sees culture
in Africa purely as a struggle for
self-determination, one might categorize Shakespeare as the
colonial voice that needs to be submerged or conquered.
However, we could find ourselves poorer for taking that
While I strongly support the values of rediscovering and
reasserting our African heritage, I don’t believe that we
can get back to some purer form of African culture in
contemporary South Africa. We live in a post-colonial world
and need to embrace that. If we can make Shakespeare work
for us in Africa, why not do so? As long as we are using
Shakespeare, rather than the other way round.
Our series attracted interest, less because it was based on
Shakespeare, than because it spoke to the audience about
burning issues in our own country. Shakespeare’s genius
(aside from his extraordinary language) lies in his complex
engagement with grand universal themes, which is probably
why his texts prevail.
Who is the primary target of the Shakespeare in Mzansi
project? Is this for a specific black audience? If so,
doesn’t this confirm Shakespeare as a European cultural
import and complicates the very idea of an autonomous South
African identity you are also trying to promote in the
I think this is more a question for the broadcaster who
commissioned the Shakespeare in Mzansi project, than for the
individual filmmaker. The SABC has an agenda to build a
unified South African nation. As a filmmaker, I’m not trying
to promote a South African, or any other kind of identity. I
am South African and identify myself as such.
However, I see identity as being fluid and complex and would
hope that my work reflects this.
As for uGugu no Andile, it is a profoundly South African
series, and makes no gestures towards British or European
culture. Being predominantly in the languages of isiZulu and
isiXhosa, it is definitely aimed at a local black audience.
This audience identified with it strongly, eager to watch an
authentic portrayal of a vexed period in our history.
But can Shakespeare be really adapted to South Africa and
speak to the hearts of South Africans?
Judging from the response to the Shakespeare in Mzansi
project, I would say ‘yes’. All the series in the project (2
different versions of Macbeth, a King Lear,
and our Romeo and Juliet) had huge returning
audiences each week, and certainly spoke to ‘the hearts of
South Africans’. Partly, this might have had to do with the
careful scripting and high production values we maintained,
rather than that they were based on Shakespeare’s texts.
However, Shakespeare knew a good story when he came across
it, and used such stories as the basis for many of his
plays. Essentially, we are continuing his process.
Was the scripting of uGugu no uAndile difficult? Are there
many points of divergence with the original Romeo and
Juliet? Did you face any challenges?
The scripting of uGugu no Andile was certainly challenging.
That our medium was television made it all the more so.
Watching a stage performance, an audience happily suspends
their disbelief in aspects of the production. Television or
film requires far more ‘believability’. One cannot expect an
audience to ‘buy’, for instance, the idea that two teenagers
in contemporary South Africa would marry without their
parents consent or knowledge, as Romeo and Juliet do.
Likewise, we needed to broaden the idea of the feuding
families so as to encompass the entire community of Thokoza,
rather than using Gugu and Andile’s parents as the focus of
Essentially, we retained much of Shakespeare’s broad
structure and many of his characters, but added elements of
our own (the photographs of Third Force agents, for
instance) to get our story across. The photograph subplot is
the major divergence from the original, and was necessary to
make this series primarily for a local audience, rather than
another verbatim adaptation of Shakespeare.
The major challenge in scripting the series lay in local
sensitivity around the issues we were addressing. We South
Africans see ourselves as the ‘Rainbow Nation’, an
inspirational model for less democratic societies. While we
have made enormous strides in that direction, divisions
based on ethnicity, race and language are deep-seated, and
result in horrifying incidents such as the xenophobic
killings of May 2008. It is partly because these divisions
seemed (at least to me) to be deepening in our society, that
I wanted to make uGugu no Andile. It is to the SABC’s credit
that they broadcast the series, deeming it to be in line
with the aim of nation-building.
uGugu no uAndile certainly incorporates local social and
political allusions, in which period of the South African
history is it set, and why that specific period or context?
The series is set in the township of Thokoza in 1993, just
prior to the first democratic elections.
This era was fraught with tensions based on
political/ethnic/language divides, providing the appropriate
setting for a version of Romeo & Juliet. To get an
audience to accept that the enmity between two feuding local
factions was strong enough to see them killing each other in
the street, Thokoza 1993 was the best place to set it.
We were asked for a local, contemporary setting. For me, the
requirements of the story are paramount, with the proviso
that the history is not misrepresented. Since it would have
been remiss to present this version of events as stemming
from some sort of ‘natural’ hatred, we introduced the
Third-Force-photographs subplot, providing a necessary
Is there any specific filmic model you followed in making
this drama, considering that Shakespeare has been adapted
for TV drama before, elsewhere – eg, in London and
No, uGugu no Andile wasn’t based on any other version of
Romeo & Juliet. Over the years I’ve seen the Zefferelli
version, Baz Luhrman’s version, and numerous stage-plays,
which no doubt influenced the film-making. But I was
probably equally influenced by any number of other films and
books about young love and death, that had nothing to do
with Shakespeare. Influence is everywhere.
Ok, what is Shakespearean about the adaptation except the
fact that Romeo and Juliet is the template from which this
creation has sprung?
This is an interesting question and brings up the issues of
intertextuality and postmodernism. Scholars who have a
deeper understanding than I do of these ideas would be
better able to analyze the series through such filters.
Let me say that, for me, uGugu no Andile is an entirely new
creation. Although ‘new’ films/books/plays/ pieces of visual
art may be based on, or incorporate, preceding works, they
are still separately themselves.
What is Shakespearean about the series is the general theme
of war between brothers, and the tragic consequences before
peace and reconciliation can be reached. We have also
borrowed from Shakespeare’s wonderful characters in the form
of the hot-headed Mandla/Tybalt, the peace-loving Ras
Bennie/Mercutio, the teasing Ma’Lizzie/Nurse, and others.
Romeo and Juliet is about a forbidden love at first
sight and popular culture deployments of Shakespeare have
tended to advance uncritically common ideas without
necessarily questioning the complicated dynamics layered in
his plays. In light of this, what is different about your
I’m not really sure what you are asking here. Are you asking
whether we have given our Romeo/Andile and Juliet/Gugu
enough shading and complexity as characters? Ie Have we
dealt with their love in a complex enough manner?
If this is the question, I don’t believe their love story to
be particularly complex in the original. They are together
only a few times in the play, and spend the second half
separated and pining for each other.
The complexity lies more in the plot with its missed
letters, and false (then real) suicides. We have used the
element of the missed letter (as in the original) to
underline the role of chance in the tragedy. I believe that
we were highly aware of the ‘complicated dynamics’ of the
play - that it is as much about sacrifice and
reconciliation, as it is about love - and worked with the
dynamics that elucidated our own story. We also threw the
pretty complicated dynamics of our own South African
situation into the pot.
How did you balance the original dialogue and the nuances of
the new language?
We did not attempt to translate Shakespeare neither were we
faithful to Shakespeare’s language. uGugu no Andile is not a
translation of Romeo & Juliet, in that sense. Rather, it is
a free adaptation of the play - an attempt to make the ideas
of the play chime for a television-watching local audience.
I’m not sure what the value would be of a direct translation
of the text into our vernacular.
After the scripts were written (in English) we spent a week
with our cast translating them into the vital street
language of Thokoza 1993. Of course, Ma’Lizzie speaks a more
classical, rural language, coming as she does from rural
kwaZulu. This is a version of the language people
sometimes refer to as ‘deep’ isiZulu. The other major
language, spoken by Andile’s family, is isiXhosa. It
was hugely important for us to get the quality of the
language right, since much of the conflict at the time
focused on the language a person spoke. Shakespeare’s
language was secondary to these considerations.
Can you define the Shakespeare in Mzansi project from a
directorial point of view?
I cannot speak for the directors of the other Shakespeare in
Mzansi mini-series. As the director of uGugu no Andile, I
relished the opportunity of attempting tragedy, as opposed
to melodrama, on the small screen, and for this opportunity
I need to thank William Shakespeare. In general, television
offers ersatz emotions and neat resolutions. Audiences are
not used to seeing both their hero and heroine die at the
end of a series. Neither are they thrown back on the ideas
and themes of the drama, once their heroes are dead.
Directing tragedy, rather than melodrama, meant that I had
to think hard about the necessary performance style, the
rhythm and weight required, without allowing the series to
become portentous, which would have been a sure way to lose
How has been the project received by the South African
uGugu no Andile had the highest Audience Ratings (ARs) of
any drama on South African television for the full 6 weeks
of broadcast. This was in the region of 4 million viewers
(or one tenth of the population) every week.
Viewership and popularity were high, but the series was not
without controversy. Some people were fearful of the
possible effects of being reminded of a dark period in our
history. Others argued that we need to remember such times
so as not to repeat them.
Some traditional Zulu leaders complained to the SABC that
Zulus were being portrayed as unnecessarily violent. To
their credit, the SABC took a firm stance on this. They
believed that uGugu no Andile did not take sides, but spoke
of a national tragedy where all were potential losers. The
SABC also knew of the rigorous political analysis we had
been through, during the scripting stage. In answer to the
complaints, the SABC devoted a popular talkshow to a
discussion on the image of the Zulu people on television,
and invited the leaders to participate.
The drama has also been well received in the rest of Africa.
The 96-minute feature version was selected in competition
for FESPACO in Burkina Faso, the oldest and largest film
festival on the continent. The feature has been nominated in
numerous categories at the African Movie Academy Awards (AMAA)
in Nigeria in April. Africans appear to relate Gugu & Andile
as a recognizably African story. SLQ