Interview:  A cheeky poke at do-gooders, behaving badly, in Delela, the play by Tiisetso Mashifane wa Noni

Delela – the play – premiering at the 2022 National Arts Festival, Makhanda (June 23 to July 3, 2022)

When: Delela is on for four performances: June 30 (8pm), July 1 (8pm) and July 2 (noon and 6pm) at Graeme College.
Direct booking link:
Playwright, director and production designer: Tiisetso Mashifane wa Noni
Cast: Katlego Lebogang, Frances Sholto-Douglas and Daniel Barney Newton

Scroll down for production credits

Delela is a verb – “to be disrespectful, cheeky, rude, out of line” and it is the title of Cape Town theatre maker, Tiisetso Mashifane wa Noni’s new play. Delela will be on the Curated Programme at the 2022 National Arts Festival [NAF] in Makhanda. Mashifane wa Noni made waves at NAF 2018, when her debut play, Sainthood was staged on the festival’s Fringe. Delela is a play which is creating interest, sparked by the quirky title (it has Nguni etymologic origins) and the knowledge that Mashifane wa Noni is a scribe with an edgy eye and an acute ear for vivid dialogue with a mirthful edge – no matter how dark the territory. Delela, she says is a cheeky play and she as playwright is being intentionally cheeky. In the play, there is a hectic clash of the public, private, political and personal – with unfiltered and unplugged cringe-y dialogue by millennials- operating in the realm of vanity philanthropy. What happens when you think that you can talk freely but actually, it is all on the record? This is what we see in Delela, the play. The theatre audience is voyeuristically watching and will hopefully consider its own behaviour and what it means to be ‘giving’. NAF 2022 runs June 23 to July 3, 2022. There are four performances of Delela: June 30 (8pm), July 1 (8pm) and July 2 (noon and 6pm) at Graeme College. Mashifane wa Noni in conversation with TheCapeRobyn, provides a peek into Delela. Please note that there are minor plot-line reveals:

Delela – transformation and diversity is not an easy gig

Delela is a three hander – starring Katlego Lebogang as Letsatsi Letseka, Frances Sholto-Douglas as Alex Strauss-Smith and Daniel Barney Newton as Nic Strauss-Smith. Tiisetso Mashifane wa Noni: “The narrative follows The Strauss Smith Foundation- a fictional foundation – moulded on wealthy charitable institutions that exists in the same world as ‘The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’ or ‘The Sackler Trust’. These are foundations founded by wealthy individuals and function through a ‘philanthropic’ lens which is very different to foundations that are community driven or driven by public servants who may not be as well-resourced. I think that there is something interesting in looking at wealthy foundations founded by wealthy individuals– particularly the stories behind their wealth and what potential social, racial and economic exploitations may be involved and perhaps, ignored.”

The narrative

Insights into three characters? Tiisetso Mashifane wa Noni: “We have two white characters- one male and one female. They are twins. The twins are heirs to the Strauss Smith fortune and they have been tasked to run the foundation’s transformation and diversity project. The third character- a black female character – has been hired by the two heirs to help them with the transformation project and once they get into the gritty politics of this transformation project, things go badly. It is a PR disaster and the three characters end up being interviewed by an unseen journalist trying to figure out why this transformation project went wrong.”

Three hander plus an unseen Voice

There is a fourth character – a journalist- and that is you? Tiisetso Mashifane wa Noni: “Visually, Delela is a three hander but the journalist is a fourth character who happens to be unseen. I’ve stated in the journalist’s character description that it is up to the production team to decide the journalist’s gender, race, age, accent etc. to fit their interpretation of the show but they must be a voice performed live. I will be the journalist for the NAF run of Delela and perform the lines in a different place in the theatre, so people will only hear a voice. I won’t give them a body on stage because I think that it’s an interesting exercise for an audience. Every audience member will see someone different and I wonder how that affects how they see the play.”

Behind the Scenes – unfiltered and unplugged

You told me that the journalist’s personality comes out in how the questions are pitched, provoking the characters to explain ‘something’? Tiisetso Mashifane wa Noni: “You have the characters being asked the same set of questions on the event that happened [the PR mess up] and they all have their unique view of how they saw the problem. The characters do not only verbalise their side of the story, their side of the story is performed on stage. What the audience will see is the journalist interview each character, one by one, on the same series of events and this results in some scenes being performed more than once with some telling changes depending on which character is telling the story and each character is unfiltered and unplugged with the journalist because they try and make themselves look good and that may not necessarily result in them telling the full truth.”

Cleansing the image

The play prods at those with privilege who reckon that they can perhaps get a free pass and/or mitigate ‘bad’ and very ‘dirty in their wake, because of their so-called philanthropy and ‘good’ deeds?  Tiisetso Mashifane wa Noni: “Yes, the idea of ‘giving back’, though admirable, has some dangerous grey areas. I’m looking at it as ‘an act that kind of cleanses parts of privileged society’s complex reality. Take the controversial image of Kate Middleton in Jamaica. People found it very insulting to see a wealthy white woman, whose image relies on her charitable efforts, interacting with brown people through a fence. When you look at the Royal Family’s relationship with Jamaica, it is an insulting image. They colonised Jamaica and this idea of cleansing historical nastiness and racial nastiness with giving back while ignoring the fact that the Royal Family’s wealth and prestige is rooted in such horrible things is distressing.”

Complicity and Culpability

Your gaze is on public charitable institutions but it also circles back to private complicity and culpability, doesn’t it? Tiisetso Mashifane wa Noni: “I am looking at it from a macro level and I’m hoping that audiences will see it from a micro level. You will see the characters and things that they talk about and you will be able to identify them with something you have seen before whether it’s a Facebook friend’s controversial status or a cringe-y comment made during a conversation with a colleague etc. Without giving too much away, in our conversation, you spoke about people working in certain non-profits who posting about going on expensive work trips and one asks –‘where is the oversight’? There is a scene from Delela and I think it is one of my favourite scenes – where two of the colleagues are arguing about two separate events that are happening on the same day. The foundation has an arts centre which is opening in a township…but they also have a summit in Denmark that’s ‘Tech Culture’ like with lots of wealthy investors. The two colleagues argue which is more important to go to – and interesting politics come out in how they justify which event to go to.”

Takeaway of Delela

It sounds like the armature of this play sits on a behind-the-scenes safe haven- where people think that they can speak, without censure and in the safe space of theatre, we should all take note? Tiisetso Mashifane wa Noni: “The baseline takeaway of Delela is not from those been ‘given to’ – i.e. the recipients of the resources or the money. It is from the point of view of those doing the ‘giving’. The bottom line: For people that are in a position of ‘giving’- especially from a position informed by privilege, whether it’s racial or economic, social- that in truly seeking equality through transformation processes- because the transformation process is a very important part of this play – it is important for them to take the idea of transformation and diversity – seriously. It’s not an exercise that you do flippantly. It’s not something that you do to ‘look good’. It’s not something that you do to fulfil a quota. Transformation and diversity is very hard work. You need to ask yourself some very difficult questions- whether it’s how you have access to resources and how you enact your ‘giving back.’“

Unpacking privilege in the sphere of giving

Can you talk about the provenance of Delela in terms of your work? “Delela is the 2nd instalment in my exploration of social institutions that believe that they are contributing positively but in fact there are certain privileges and histories that they may not pay attention to and end up making social ills worse. Sainthood was the first instalment –where I was looking at private school institutions –through an all boy’s schools culture. I was making a commentary on private school institutions who think they produce ‘a certain kind of citizen’ through their systems but there are racial issues, rape culture issues etc. Delela is looking at private charitable institutions – looking at the problematic things that might inform acts of ‘giving back.’”

Giving is not a vanity project

As evidenced from your social media posts, there is tricky dialogue by the bunch of millennial characters but behind the narcissism, transformation is not a joke, it’s not a soiree? Tiisetso Mashifane wa Noni: “The Strauss Smith Foundation claims that it is going to do this transformation project but then a Black employee comes in and questions ‘how’ they are doing that and things get messy. People get defensive, don’t listen and things go wrong. Diversity and transformation is difficult. It is labour intensive. It’s not meant to be a pleasant exercise. It cannot be a vanity project. Delela gives you a glimpse of what it looks like when you don’t take the time to recognise the seriousness of a politic. The Strauss-Smith Foundation is not serious about their [diversity and transformation] project so it goes bust and now they are trying to clean up their image by bringing in a journalist to write a story about them but the journalist is making sure that they get the story from all perspectives.”

Trying to dissect through terror, in writing Delela

What inspired you to write Delela? Tiisetso Mashifane wa Noni:  “A multitude of incidences inspired me to write this version of Delela.  But there are two fundamental ones that really stuck with me. The first one is a story that a loved one told me. In 2020, many South African private schools saw a call for ‘transformation and diversity’ as students publically voiced their frustrations with recurring racial incidences. There were ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests that occurred at some of these schools and this loved one of mine, who is an alum at one of these schools, was involved in supporting a ‘Black Lives Matter’ protest. Disappointingly, no white students or white parents showed up to that protest and my loved one and a group of other black alumni decided to contact a white former schoolmate (who was known to do a lot of charity work and giving back) to see if she could help them rally up some support by inviting some white alumni to the protest. This white former classmate declined to help by claiming that ‘she fulfilled her racial conscience, that public activism is not the path for her and that she will show up for ‘Black Lives Matter’ by liking and signing petitions’ –I was deeply disturbed by this response. Particularly the part where she said that ‘she fulfilled her racial conscience’… the implication that as a white South African citizen, she made a point of being known for ‘giving back’ in the past but now she had a ‘quota’ when it comes to fighting racial injustice and having the fearlessness to speak to a black South African in that manner indicated a serious danger to me. To say something like that and to say it in that manner is very worrying. So I was curious as to what it is that informs and allows a response like this in this day and age?

And I got my answer with the second incident that informed this version of Delela. At the reading of the 2019-2021 version of Delela, there was an audience member who believed that I, as a playwright, should not write about racial injustice in South Africa and that I should write about ‘togetherness and unity’.  This audience member expressed that they do a lot of giving back and sees how some South Africans really suffer and I should focus on real issues like ‘R350 grants’. Myself and the rest of the audience disagreed with her. Many audience members felt like her comment was disrespectful because it implied that as South Africans we must just ‘get over the racial stuff’ and I realised that she used her charity work as a way to express this sentiment. I immediately felt the same danger I felt with my loved one’s story. Aid work/charity work comes with its own power dynamics, the one doing the ‘giving’ is in a position of power and often those who are in a position of needing that aid/charity are in that position because of systematic and historical failures like racial injustice. So it is very dangerous for someone in a position of racial and economic privilege to view their ‘giving back’ as an act that excuses them from their other responsibilities in creating racial equity and correcting racial injustice. How dangerous is it?  Well we might end up with statements like ‘I’ve fulfilled my racial conscience’ and I don’t want to know what that means. But I know that as a society we should be petrified of statements like that. I know I am and so I wrote Delela in response to that terror.”

Public premiere of Delela

The NAF season of Delela marks its premiere? Tiisetso Mashifane wa Noni: “I had experimented with it being a sort of performance art/theatre piece in university. It is making its professional debut at the NAF. It’s previously been performed in private settings so it is first time being debuted to the public at the festival.”

Delela as title: The cheeky-ness and when being cheeky is not cool

And using ‘delela’ as the title? Tiisetso Mashifane wa Noni: “It encompasses many things- mainly me as playwright – experimenting with ‘cheeky and disrespectful’ social interactions. In this play, we see this through characters who are disrespectful. They don’t hold back. They are not really concerned about being politically correct. They are putting on a performance [as a charitable trust and its activities in the public sphere]. They want to be perceived as ‘good’. You will sit in this show as a human being and at some point, you will say: ‘That is a disrespectful thing to say/do. You cannot say that in public’. The dialogue itself holds some very disrespectful statements that I have picked up from people on social media, personal interactions or something that a public figure has said. The play is called Delela so the audience knows what they are about to see is, is what the title suggests. The characters are disrespectful. The dialogue is disrespectful. The situation is disrespectful. The politics are disrespectful. Everything is disrespectful!”

Enacting ‘giving’: Top image- Kate Middleton in Jamaica. Pic by Chris Jackson-Pool. Bottom image- Frances Sholto-Douglas as Alex Strauss-Smith in the play, Delela. In Delela, Tiisetso Mashifane wa Noni ignites conversations around the act of ‘giving’ in the realm of transformation and diversity. Delela is premiering on the Curated Programme at the 2022 National Arts Festival [NAF] in Makhanda. Graphic by Lesego Mashifane.

Interview going badly: From left to right: Daniel Barney Newton, Katlego Lebogang and Frances Sholto-Douglas in Tiisetso Mashifane wa Noni’s new play. Delela is premiering on the Curated Programme at the 2022 National Arts Festival [NAF] in Makhanda. Photo by Thabelo Monyaka.

Production Credits- Delela

Playwright, director and production designer: Tiisetso Mashifane wa Noni
Original score composer: Denise Onen
Stage manager: Dara Beth


Katlego Lebogang as Letsatsi Letseka
Frances Sholto-Douglas as Alex Strauss-Smith
Daniel Barney Newton as Nico Strauss-Smith

Marketing content creative team:

Director of photography: Thabelo Monyaka
Primary content photographer, sound and assistant producer: Lesego Mashifane
Film production advisor, assistant director of photography and editor: Simphiwe Shabalala
Video co-editor: Panduleni Khiba  

The Delela playtext was first developed with the support of The Baxter Theatre Centre

✳ Featured image- Daniel Barney Newton, Katlego Lebogang and Frances Sholto-Douglas in Tiisetso Mashifane wa Noni’s play, Delela. Photo by Thabelo Monyaka. Supplied.