Podcast series: The Arts as a tool for social change

At the Canon Collins Trust we believe in the value of the expressive arts, including theatre, film and literature, as powerful mechanisms for instigating social change, which is why we annually award a number of postgraduate scholarships in the field of Arts and Humanities.

In academic discourses globally there is a trend towards increased emphasis on STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), and southern Africa is no different. A 2016 report by the World Economic Forum stressed the need to address the skills shortage in South Africa to tackle youth unemployment and create a skilled workforce fit for the future. Yet in advocating for such change, there is a danger that a whole range of artistic and creative disciplines are being sidelined, and the critical and expressive faculties such disciplines promote are being neglected.

Recently, we have been interviewing Canon Collins scholars and alumni who are committed to championing the importance of Arts and Humanities in their research and professional careers. From using theatre as healing process for survivors of historic conflicts in Zimbabwe, to visual art as a mechanism for deconstructing embedded racial and gender stereotypes in South Africa, these inspirational scholars discuss their impassioned research and comment on the importance of sustaining and developing artistic fields for the betterment of the region.


Princess Alice Sibanda (PhD Drama and Performance Studies University of KwaZulu-Natal) is an activist, artist and academic who has an outstanding track record of advocating for the rights of marginalized women and LGBT communities. In her interview, she discusses how she uses participatory theatre to empower sex workers and outlines how her involvement in various NGOs compliments her ambitions to become a theatre practitioner and academic.


“My work is not so much about the rights of sex workers but about giving them a voice. What is it that they want to be called – sex workers or prostitutes? Are they doing sex work because they want to or are there alternative benefits? Coming from a professional NGO background I have been able to give sex workers advice about how to protect themselves but now I want to give them a space to speak about what they want. 

The process of creating theatre together has many benefits. LGBT+ people I have worked with have told me that it felt important that they could create something for the first time in their lives. Most marginalized people do not get space to speak or culturally create so when they participate in productions they feel significant.

Sex workers have told me that legalization is promoted for the benefit of others not necessarily sex workers themselves. Decriminalization is a welcome move because you fight stigma and it will reduce the legitimacy of police violence toward sex workers, but the saddening thing is that the ANC are using the issue as a political dice to whip up support.”




Sharlene Khan (PhD Fine Art, Goldsmiths, University of London) is a Canon Collins alumna who is currently lecturing in Fine Art and Visual Culture at Rhodes University, South Africa. She has an extensive portfolio of research and artistic works which highlight the complexities of identity in southern Africa and question gender and racial stereotyping. In her podcast she discusses these works in addition to highlighting the philosophical and practical benefits of an artistic education.


“I remember years ago applying for a scholarship and I was asked “why should we give you the scholarship over someone else who is doing HIV/AIDS research?” I explained that over 90% of the population are not dying from AIDS and once you save someone from AIDS or have a healthy person who is HIV positive, that person needs to function as a holistic human being, and that’s where the expressive arts are vital. We can’t have these conversations anymore about whether Humanities and Arts are important – they are important. They are important for making people think critically about their lives.”

“Human beings tend towards creativity. Throughout history, every time we have made something functional we’ve gone beyond that and beautified it because our souls are invested in creativity. The problem with scholarship that comes out of colonialism is that on one hand they appear to praise the arts but on the other they devalue a whole set of creativities that are important for sustaining people.”




Khutso Matlou (MA in Film and Television, University of the Witwatersrand), is inspired by the power of film and literature to advance the rights of queer South Africans. He discusses the portrayal of queer men in mainstream South African television and film, including the perpetuations of unhelpful stereotypes, and alludes to the importance of an intersectional approach in improving the region’s education system.

“The famous poet [Oscar Wilde] said that ‘life imitates art far more than art imitates life’. I wish to tell alternative stories that people can imitate in their daily lives which will help to liberate them. I don’t think the problems of being a member of the LGBT+ community are only external, they also come from within and the first step is to liberate ourselves from within, to be free and accept who we are.”

“The current discourse in South Africa is to decolonize our education system and to propagate black thought, literature and academia. But I think we are struggling because we are focused on decolonization and sometimes we forget that queerness is part of being African and I think a lot of people feel satisfied when blackness is brought into conversation and they forget issues of gender and sexuality.”




Cletus Moyo (PhD Drama and Performance Studies, University of KwaZulu-Natal), is a theatre practitioner and academic with a history of teaching drama at institutions across Zimbabwe. He discusses his PhD research which focuses on participatory theatre for second generations survivors of the Gukurahundi massacre, and comments on the importance of his role as an academic in bridging the gap between drama as a subject and drama as a form of employment. 

“Theatre creates a metaphorical world where people can stand back from their problems and look at them in different ways. It is also a way of tackling sensitive issues and people can say things and express opinions which they would not ordinarily discuss in day to day life. Theatre should be seen as complementing other mechanisms of shaping society.”

“My role as an academic is to bridge the gap between the theoretical side and the practical, creative side of theatre. Universities should not pride themselves on only producing a high number of graduates but should aim to produce graduates who respond to the needs of the drama industry. My aim is to see Theatre and Drama graduates from my university achieve this.”