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Interview: Nwabisa Plaatjie by Lindokuhle Nkosi

Land as Milk: The Body as a Border

Lindokuhle Nkosi engages with director and theatre maker Nwabisa Plaatjie about her adaptation of the play The Native Who Caused All the Trouble (2017) . In doing so the two black women exchange meditations on the body, the land and the natives who dare to disturb.

Lindokuhle Nkosi: Nwabisa, you have described the land as something that leaks. Something that purposefully or accidently loses or emits contents. The leaking land as something that can exude, but also as something that allows things to escape. The leaking land as porous, as perforated. The land as a gaping wound and a cautious, safe cleft.     

In accordance with popular narrative, the land is something that can be taken and taken back. Or rather, it is a thing to be given, still useful for all its leakiness. The land is breathing, it is heaving. It is racialised and gendered and politicised and it is here where you meet it in your re-imagining of the play The Native Who Caused All the Trouble (Van Rensburg, Keogh, Cooke, Haysom & Kani, 1989).

Nwabisa Plaatjie: Land is something that we use. Land is something that we are. Land is something that leaks. Something that gives things to us. Something we pollute at times. Something that we are constantly engaging with in our daily lives.

[Nwabisa’s voice comes through steady, but she pauses often, sometimes breaking a word unnaturally. Stopping mid-speech to find, to allow for exploration, what land can be. If there are other ways to describe it.]

NP: Of course, there’s much more [to it than the] simple narrative of “Give us back the land”. We can use the land as a resource, but when I was doing this particular play, I was following uTselilo’s narrative of land being something that is God given, that does not belong to anyone. I was looking at it from an embodied point of view. Looking at this, I had to start with myself, as a female, as a black woman. This is why I delved in deeper kulendawo [to that place/reality]. I made the main character a black woman. I looked for a black female protagonist to play uTselilo.

LN: The Native Who Caused All the Trouble is a re-interpretation of a play written by Vanessa Cooke, Fink Haysom, and Danny Keogh, which made its theatre debut in 1986. Three years later, in 1989, it would be adapted for screen and a movie of the same name would tell in celluloid the story of a Mosotho man called Tselilo — played by John Kani — who, believing that the land is not something that can be owned by anyone but God, takes the leadership of the day to court. Pitting man-made laws against God’s laws, Tselilo called into question the nation-state, and the idea of the native.

Based on actual events and set in 1937, the happenings play out 24 years after the enactment of the Native Land Act of 1913 (Feinberg 1993: x) and just one year after the Native Trust and Land Act of 1936 (Feinberg 1993: x) came into effect. The 1913 Native Land Act came after centuries of colonial dispossession and alienation of black people, putting into statute what had already been the de facto law of the land. It relegated the black majority to seven per cent of South Africa’s land.

This 1913 Act would stir a person (with a name very similar to your own) — Sol T. Plaatje — to write the seminal text Native Life in South Africa (2016 [1916]). The first chapter begins: “Awakening on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, the South African native found himself, not actually, a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth.”

In your version of the play there is a similar change in status—from human to sub-human— which impels Tselilo to challenge his “nativeness”. Having earmarked land for the construction of a church, he returns to it only to a find a shack erected on the premises. It is now occupied by an Indian man who is the legal owner of the land. Tselilo evicts the man from the premises and is eventually arrested for doing so.

Tselilo is an unlikely protagonist: his radicalization, spurred by religious fastidiousness, depicts the ways in which, for black people, even the desire for the mundane becomes extraordinary. The everyday is spectacle. Places of prayer are places of protest. Worship is woe. And the power of the sacred is something that can be deputised to whiteness.

In the 1980’s staging of the original version, the story is told from the perspective of Edna, a liberal white woman. Edna is married to a policeman, who, while sympathetic, is the same officer who cuffs Tselilo and carries him off to jail. In order to be heard, Tselilio’s screams must be transcribed through the concerns of a benevolent collaborator.

NP: It’s based on a man who fought with colonial officials about the law that they can’t own land; land belongs to God and he wanted to use a certain piece of land to build his church. So, this man fought with them… And then Cooke, Keogh and Haysom wrote a play around that, which was The Native Who Caused All the Trouble.

They were quite aware of their own positionality as white people, and we are introduced to the story of Tselilo through a third person, through a couple. When I decided to do the adaptation, I focused solely on the story of Tselilo, the story of this man who decides “I’m going to fight these officials because land cannot belong to anyone.”

The Rabbits Who Caused All the Trouble is a short fable by James Thurber first published in The New Yorker in 1939. Used as allegory, “the rabbits” refers to persecuted minorities while “the wolves” in the story are the oppressors. As the wolves enact their violence, the other animals are just mute spec- tators as the events build up, leading to a genocide.

“They were trying to escape,” said the wolves, “and, as you know, this is no world for escapists.”


LN: While the character of Tselilo is a man, in your rendition the part is played by actress Faniswa Yisa. In a 2017 conversation with Mail & Guardian journalist Faye Kabali-Kagwa (2017), you locate the border on the body, and the body as that of a woman.

NP: We can’t talk about the land without engaging with the body, and I’m talking about the female body. I’m talking about the physical body and the limitations and the fears, and the stories, and the narratives, and the politics that go along with it.

LN: With actress Faniswa Yisa as the lead, Tselilo is feminised, but all the other characters address Tselilo as a man. Sand leaks from a container balanced on her head. She births a sand baby. She cradles and rocks it as it bleeds hard gravel.

NP: Sand in the play is used to represent land in an embodied form; this includes a baby, where the sand takes a leaking form. Or [actress] uNomakrestu who had the boobs made out of sand, spilling… spilling sand….

We can say that sand represents the land as a resource, the land as milk. Or when Tselilo gives birth to the land and this land being taken away and she’s rocking it like a child.

Sand got to be a metaphor for the many forms that land can take. Land as a commodity, as something that can be sold. Land as something very significant to culture and being.


LN: On the 19th of April 1907, an Mfengu man, Enoch Mgijima, who was at the time a member of the Wesleyan Methodist Church, was out hunting small game when an angel appeared, addressing him as follows: “I have sent you to these people because I am worried that although they worship me, they are not honest in their worship of me. I want you to worship me according to your old traditions.”

Almost exactly three years later, Halley’s Comet made its return, visible from Earth for the first time in 76 years. The comet passed so close that the Earth moved through the comet’s tail, and many groups of people all over the world took this as a sign that the end of the world was beginning.

When Mgijima saw the comet, it affirmed the vision he’d had in the field three years earlier: God was angry. God required human beings to return to their Old Testament beliefs. It was at this time in 1912 that Mgijima left the Weseleyan Methodist Church. In November that year he would begin to pray over people, dipping them into the waters of the Black Kei River, baptising them as his followers — as Israelites (Edgar 2018).

Mgijima later went on to join the Church of God and Saints of Christ, but his visions, which had become increasingly violent, were incongruent with the teachings of that church. Refusing to renounce his visions, he would be excommunicated, taking his Israelites with him.

In 1919, Mgijima stood in front of his tabernacle and uttered these three words, “Juda, Efrayime, Josef, nezal wane” [ Judas, Ephraim, Joseph and brethren].  Those who followed him and heard understood. They were to travel from their corners of the world to the holy village of Ntabelanga to await the coming of the Lord. To the chagrin of the authorities, three thousand Israelites then descended upon Ntabelanga, where the Israelites, had been occupying and building on the land without the permissions required by the law.

For a year, the government tried and failed to evict Mgijima and his followers from Ntabelanga, resulting in a confrontation in May 1921. Around 200 Israelites were killed by the police, a hundred were wounded and 141 people, including Mgijima, were arrested in an incident that has come to be known as the Bulhoek Massacre.

The 141 arrested were brought to trial in November of that year, charged with sedition or “violent and forcible conduct against the authority of the state”. All the charged Israelites were found guilty and sentenced to hard labour: sentenced to work the land that they could no longer belong to.

As black people and as women would you say that we have been twice displaced?


NP: The narrative is changing. It’s hard for me to hold onto the idea that I’m twice displaced, probably because I think times are changing and I think it’s an incredible period to be black and to be a woman, especially with the opportunities that are coming our way. There are women rising who are inspiring us to be better versions of ourselves and encouraging us to be our greatest selves.

Which is also something that I liked in Tselilo, the main character—it was his courage to fight authority, to be unreasonable. That is what I find about young black women and older black feminists in this generation—it is that everyone is being encouraged to be quite courageous and to fight for their dreams, to become who they want to be.

I acknowledge all the violence and the crimes that women have faced. I acknowledge the oppressions that we face on a daily level, but on the other scale of things there is a wave of black feminism that is constantly encouraging us to be our greatest selves. You know, forcing everyone to accept our greatness, and I think that that part has more power than the oppressed side or being displaced in a type of way.


Nwabisa Plaatjie (director), Reimagining The Native Who Caused All the Trouble, 2017. Performance created with the support of The Theatre Arts Admin Collective Emerging Theatre Director’s Bursary. Images courtesy of the Institute for Creative Arts, UCT.


Nwabisa Plaatjie from Ugie in the Eastern Cape, hold a BA Honours in Theatre and Performance from the University of Cape Town where she created Identirrhaging. Her first professional year was spent at Magnet Theatre through their year-long Theatre-Making Internship Programme where she created Aha! and 23 Years,  a Month and 7 Days, both of which have toured internationally. Most recently she was awarded the Theatre Arts Admin Collective’s 2017 Emerging Theatre Director’s Bursary where she created Reimaging The Native Who Caused All The Trouble as well as being the first recipient of the Baxter Theatre Centre Playlab Residency for 2017.

Lindokuhle Nkosi is a writer, editor, from Johannesburg, South Africa whose textual work often merges with installation and performance. She completed her MA in Creative Writing at Rhodes University, using artistic imaginary as a tool to investigate the mechanisms of creativity and art-making in hyperviolent societies, and how this - impacts artistic and creative cultural production, and the femme imaginary.



Robert R. Edgar, The Finger of God, University of Virginia Press, Virginia, 2018.

Feinberg, Harvey M. “The 1913 Natives Land Act in South Africa: Politics, Race, and Segregation in the Early 20th Century.” The International Journal of African Historical Studies, vol. 26, no. 1, 1993, 65–109. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/219187. Accessed 10 Aug. 2020.

Faye Kabali-Kagwa, “Reimagining the Lens of Land”,

Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg, 2017.

Sol T. Plaatje, Native Life in South Africa, Wits University Press, Johannesburg, 2016 (originally published in 1916).

James Thurber, The Rabbits Who Caused All the Trouble, The New Yorker, New York, 1939.

Manie van Rensburg, Danny Keogh, Vanessa Cooke, Nicholas Haysom, and John Kani, The Native Who Caused All the Trouble, (video) Film Resource Unit, Johannesburg, 1989.

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Issue 49

Decolonial Propositions