Alumna using drama to rehabilitate prisoners

During the apartheid era, South African prisons gained a fearsome repuation as sites of extreme violence and injustice, where detainees were categorically tortured and denied their basic human rights.  In recent weeks, our partners at the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) have been involved with the reopening of the inquest into the death of Ahmed Timol, a young schoolteacher and anti-apartheid activist who died in police custody under suspicious circumstances over 40 years ago. As the historical maltreatment of prisoners comes back under scrutiny, it provides an opportunity to assess whether things have really changed much for South Africa’s prsion population since the advent of democracy?

Depressingly, after all these years, the South African prison system still fails to safeguard the fundamental rights of prisoners. Our partners at Wits Justice Project have, for years, been investigating severe miscarriages of justice and maltreatment of prisoners in facilities that are overcrowded, unfit for purpose and rife with physical and sexual violence. Just this week, WJP exposed severe physical abuse by prison guards at Kgosi Mampuru prison in Pretoria, perpetrated against inmates who were protesting against huge backlogs and delays in their parole processes.

Canon Collins alumna Chiedza Chinhanu (MA Applied Theatre and Drama, University of Cape Town) conducted her Masters research, running theatre workshops at the notorious Pollsmoor Maximum Security prison in Cape Town and currently works as a Prison Theatre Practitioner in Chikurubi Prison in Zimbabwe, where she uses theatre and drama as a mediation between prisoners and the general public, facilitating their smooth reintegration back into society. Chiedza spoke to us about her experiences of researching and working in the current systems of incarceration in South Africa and Zimbabwe, highlighting how prisons can be transformed from places of punishment and degradation to sites of rehabilitation.


What first drew you to drama and how did you become aware of its power as a tool for social change?

I have always been interested in drama from a very young age. I was a member of a Drama Club throughout primary school and I remember the freedom I felt being anyone or anything I wanted to be on stage. Acting made a huge contribution to the power of my imagination, building my confidence and helping me to overcome my stuttering. So I applied to study drama at university mainly because of how it made me feel on a personal level. It was only in my second year of undergraduate studies when I was introduced to the field of applied theatre (theatre or drama used in the context of addressing something beyond the form itself) that I became aware of its power as a tool for social change. I became involved in an applied theatre project with some university students living with disabilities. I was fascinated and amazed by how theatre had the ability to affect the participants’ selfhood. I then wrote my Honours thesis on the project and have been involved in a variety of applied theatre projects since then.

How did you become interested in prisons and the rehabilitation of prisoners specifically?

The particular interest in prison theatre came during my teaching year at the University of Zimbabwe when my friend was imprisoned for engaging in unlawful conduct over foreign currency exchange. I saw close hand the appalling treatment of prisoners. What was more shocking was the attitude of the public regarding the treatment of crime and criminals. The popular feeling is that life should be made so terrible for the convict so that when he comes out he will warn others to behave, for fear of ruthless punishment. It made me question the idea behind imprisonment and how I could contribute to the transformation of my country’s prison system. Winston Churchill (1911) said, ‘”The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilization of any country… the treatment of crime and criminals make and measure the stored-up strength of a nation and are signs and proof of the living virtue in it”. I began having conversations with my undergraduate supervisor about how I could be relevant and responsive to this as an aspiring applied theatre practitioner. He connected me with Dr. Veronica Baxter from University of Cape Town and, as we exchanged emails, she told me about a prison theatre project she was planning. It sounded exactly like something I wanted to be involved in and I saw this as an opportunity to enrol at the University of Cape Town for my Master’s and learn more about facilitating a prison theatre project.

How can theatre help educate the general public about restorative justice?

Theatre can engage the public in discussion about restorative justice through “Forum Theatre”. In Forum Theatre the audiences are transformed from being mere spectators to “spect-actors”, meaning that they watch, but also act in the performance. The performers rehearse scenarios on the theme of restorative justice, present them to the public for consideration, with both the performers and the audience consciously and conscientiously formulating the problem or challenge depicted in the theatre performance, applying themselves to it and through critical dialogue and action, coming up with practical solutions. The Forum is facilitated by a person called a “Joker” or “difficultator” who is responsible for provoking deeper thinking and understanding of the topic. In Forum Theatre, all grey areas are clarified and magic solutions are dissolved as the audience get to actively participate in the performance, discussion and solution.

What has been the most important lesson that you, as a theatre maker and academic, have learned from your work with prisoners?

For my Master’s research, I facilitated a theatre project with 20 male prisoners that led to a theatre performance titled ‘You can make a change in your life’. Whilst the theatre process and final performance challenged the participants’ perceptions and attitudes about ‘being a man’ in present day South Africa, the men challenged me to think about a ‘change in my life’, in terms of my work in prisons. One participant said, ‘This drama programme was really great, every time I came for rehearsals I would take one step forward, but when I went back to my cell, I took two steps back’. Although the participants acknowledged the good that the project did, they still experienced the feelings of hopelessness and despair perpetrated by the harsh realities of prison life, and anxiety when they thought about the future. The same sentiments were shared by an ex-offender at the 2016 Human Rights Lecture hosted by the South African National Institute of Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders (NICRO). He spoke about the gross violation of human rights inside prisons and the impact that it had on him upon release. He also spoke about the frustrations he felt in the community for close to five years after his release because of the disconnect that existed between him and society, and how it almost led him back into reoffending. The change I now seek to make in my life as both a theatre practitioner and academic is the consideration of prison theatre as a valuable public service, not only to prisoners, but to all people whose lives are affected by the problems of crime. I argue that prison theatre needs to value its public mission and acknowledge its social responsibility. In the case of Zimbabwe where prison reform is considered unaffordable due to economic hardships, it is crucial that the prison system reaches out to civil society for reformation and rehabilitation.

Much of your work has focused on the importance of assisting prisoners to make a smooth transition back into society. In what ways do you feel that the current systems of incarceration in South Africa and Zimbabwe are failing prisoners in this regard?

Current systems of incarceration are failing to prioritise reintegration. Much of public discourse on prisons is about crime statistics, efficiency of prison systems, problems of poor security and overcrowding and not about whether or not the system actually sufficiently prepare prisoners for return to society. Practitioners working in prisons are yet to pay much attention to what different roles members of civil society can play in the rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders. Reintegration has to start at the rehabilitation stage. Prisoners are not the only ones involved in the rehabilitation process, though they are the most important, therefore, no one party can be ignored or eliminated; each depends on the others and consideration of a unified approach ensures the greatest strength and meaning for rehabilitation and then safe transition.

You currently work as a Prison Theatre Practitioner in Chikurubi Prison in Zimbabwe but you conducted your Masters research in Cape Town. What was the most striking difference that you encountered between the Zimbabwean and South African systems of incarceration?

Beginning of this year, I was involved in discussions with the Zimbabwean Prison and Correctional Services (ZPCS) about starting a prison theatre program in Zimbabwean prisons. While the idea was received very well by ZPCS, the government could not set aside funds for the program because it is a luxury they cannot afford. It is very sad that Zimbabwe unlike South Africa, still espouses the neo-classical response to crime. The system functions just like it did under colonization, to discipline and punish the incarcerated through the control of the body in space through time. For example, the Zimbabwean Attorney General Patrick Chinamasa was reported to have said: “Prison by its nature is not supposed to be a cozy place. It should not in a way bear resemblance of a hotel; otherwise we will be like boarding schools. These places should at least teach offenders that committing a crime can burn their fingers”.

The motivation in Zimbabwean prisons is still very far from the notion of correction, rehabilitation, behavioural change and personal growth. The state has been responsible for violating and sacrificing prisoners’ rights on the grounds of expediency, citing costs, limited resources and the prioritisation of other, more obviously sympathetic, groups. Yet the Zimbabwean Constitution clearly states that everyone who is detained, including every sentenced prisoner, has the right to conditions of detention that are consistent with human dignity, including the provision, at state expense, of adequate accommodation, nutrition, reading material and medical treatment.