Gamakhulu Diniso and the Busang Effect: Arts and politics in the Vaal Triangle

POSTED ON: May 31, 2021 IN Arts centres & networks, Nkululeko Khumalo, Word View

by Nkululeko Khumalo


The 1980s in South Africa are remembered for their heightened political turmoil. This was a turning point, as the apartheid government began to weaken for a number of reasons, including increased pressure from the arts sector. This could be seen in the activities of the United Democratic Front (UDF), and other anti-apartheid cultural work in the form of festivals, conferences and exhibitions. [1] It was the decade of art’s increasing use as a ‘political tool,’ instrumentalising the slogan, “culture as a weapon of the struggle.” [2]

Forced removals, the Sharpeville Uprising, Pass Law protests, and the conviction of Nelson Mandela at the Treason Trial in the 1960s, necessitated new art forms, which came to be known as ‘protest art’ or ‘resistance art.’ [3] Under these circumstances, art became the visual ‘voice’ of the people, an immediate and direct means of communicating the oppressive nature of apartheid.

Joel SM Modiri explains that racial hierarchies of power and privilege have been cemented through the perversions of South Africa’s apartheid legal processes, and that this has come to threaten the higher values of our society. Historically, black people have had to deal with these hierarchies in various ways every day, and so have produced artworks that reflect those experiences. [4]

Diverse artists and cultural workers were active, contributing immensely to this important decade in the history of South Africa. Their involvement in protest art, social activism, community work and political organisations played a crucial role in the history of the struggle, which led South Africa to democracy in 1994. These artists and cultural workers operated from both within and outside of their communities in South Africa. [5]

The Vaal Triangle

Sedibeng, in the Vaal Triangle, is one of Gauteng Province’s districts, and has three local municipalities located within its boundaries. Like many other areas, the space has historically been defined by class division, separate and substandard education (so-called ‘Bantu Education’), and whites-only areas. But there’s more to it: the Vaal Triangle is scattered with numerous historical heritage sites, apart from just those memorialising the Anglo-Boer War and the signing of key treaties. South Africa’s ground-breaking Constitution was signed by the former President Nelson Mandela on 10 December 1996 in Sharpeville, Sedibeng. And in the eighties, the area was home to a vibrant art centre.

But in terms of South African art history, only a few art centres and artists have been made dominant or mainstream, whilst others are ignored. Those outside the urban centres of Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, for example, are either excluded or marginalised from the written history of 1980s South African art. It is therefore necessary to revisit this literature in order to contribute to its (re)writing. This essay will do that by putting on display the important work of Vaal Triangle institutions like the Busang Art Centre in Sharpeville, and the life and work of its artist founder Gamakhulu Diniso.

Gamakhulu Diniso: Biography

Gamakhulu Diniso, born in 1956, is an extraordinary man, who could be described as a community engagement guru for the entire Sedibeng region of the Vaal Triangle. His love for the arts and people is evident in his work and the arts centres and institutions he has founded during various phases of his life. Why he chose, at the height of apartheid, to follow his dream within the arts, remains a mystery, still being revealed.

Gamakhulu Diniso featured in ‘The Sowetan’, clipping from Thursday 1 December 1988.

He was born at Top Location, a pre-apartheid settlement, perceived to be a rainbow community, comprising a diverse group of non-white people. This settlement was situated near Vereeniging, providing a labour pool for nearby industries.

In the late sixties, due to apartheid forced removals, Diniso’s family relocated to the Sharpe Native Township (later known as Sharpeville). In Sharpeville, he attended the Bantu education missionary schools, until choosing a life in the arts. He enrolled at the Rorke’s Drift Arts and Craft Centre in Dundee, KwaZulu Natal, where he specialised in fine art. While he was there, Soweto erupted, and this was when Diniso expanded his artistic journey to include becoming a community development activist too. [6]

After Rorke’s Drift, and over the years, he participated in group exhibitions at Fort Hare University in Alice, at Mofolo and Funda Arts Centres, and at FUBA (Federated Union of Black Artists) in Johannesburg. Diniso won awards and sold numerous artworks, and developed a growing love for theatre.  [7]

In 1980, he established Busang School of the Arts in Sharpeville, named after the then love of his life, who later passed on. At this school, the first in a South African township, he saw scores of young people coming over to learn. He offered numerous arts disciplines and invited other artists to assist with the teaching.

Alongside Busang work, Diniso continued his love of art, creating his own collection, which evidences his accomplishment as both a visual artist and an archivist. He also continued to illustrate books, and worked for Ravan Press, the iconic Johannesburg-based struggle publisher. His illustrations were published in various art magazines such as Staffrider, Classic and Wietie, and he has also illustrated widely for an impressive list of books and short stories. [8]

Diniso never had any formal higher education. But to quote Antonio Gramsci, he is recognisable as an ‘organic intellectual’, meaning that his cultural work and organising has always been collectively and communally oriented, rather than towards achievement of his own upward mobility. [9] Diniso’s involvement in the struggle against colonial apartheid should be celebrated: he is an embodiment of the country’s best historical memory, worth preserving and learning from, especially in the Vaal region.

Busang Arts School

In the early 1980s, Diniso became involved in community cultural activities, initiating programmes that were supplementary to the formal education syllabus. Through this, he discovered that he loved working with children. In 1980, he founded Busang Arts School, which was located at the Sharpeville Hostel. The site, a men’s hostel, was being converted into family units, and Busang occupied a room, amongst other activities like a Karate Dojo, and boxing and bodybuilding gyms.

The school, which was connected to community cultural activities, taught drawing, drama, and dance to children of various ages. During Diniso’s employment at SACHED from 1979 to the end of 1983 he gained experience in illustration, which equipped him to teach this to Busang students. [10] From its founding, various learners around the Sharpeville area, Kensington and Phelandaba enrolled themselves at Busang School of the Arts, and this is where their views of life were sharpened from a very young age. I was born around the time that Busang was established, and have engaged with some of Diniso’s previous students to try to verify his stories. Some of these former students continue to work with Diniso on projects to this day.

Photographs from Busang’s early days at the Sharpeville Hostel. The school was named after Diniso’s late girlfriend, who had passed away as a result of a car accident.

Nicho Ntema, one of Diniso’s former students, who later became a colleague, states that:

Some called this an art school and some called it a community art centre. When I left the establishment in 1984, I was already a Music Student at FUBA Academy in Johannesburg and also playing in a Band but the character that was shaped by the establishment in the four years that I spent there, created the Nicho Ntema I am today. [11]

One of the things that Ntema remembers is that the children came from acquaintances of Diniso across the length and breadth of Sharpeville. The children loved him, and they still do today – parents would trust him to take care of their children, even during the times of riots. Diniso explained that the children from the age of four and up to teenagers were well behaved, and there was no improper activity, danger or abuse. Everyone knew why they were there – he indicated that he believed that negative behaviours usually occur when people have too much time on their hands. It was a safe haven for children with a number of backgrounds.

Between 1980 and 1984, various activities from drawing, painting, poetry, drama, reading and story-telling, to chess, beauty contests and musical performance, were introduced to the children for the very first time. They also played games: I remember stories of a ball game called Bang! near Dlomo Dam. Diniso would also take the kids to outings like the Market Theatre, and give them each a responsibility and title within the group. [12]

“Busang Sharpeville Art brings you ‘Phinda’, 1983 Brief Report.”

Busang School of the Arts (in variously named manifestations) became the best collaborative establishment in those times, creating links with other art centres, in order to further the student’s artistic skills. Between 1980 and 1994, they enrolled twenty learners in the FUBA Academy, under the Directorship of Mr. Sipho Sepamla. This collaboration helped the learners develop relationships with other students, gain confidence by learning to evaluate their own artworks, and get exposure to other practitioners. Diniso had people like Gcina Mhlophe coming in from FUBA to engage with the Busang learners. Busang also had connections with FUNDA in Soweto, and so we participated in some of the activities of Katlehong Art Centre (KAC) too.

Gerard Hagg argues that community arts centres and art schools play a major role in empowering township communities, providing community self-development and teaching students to have confidence. [13] But community development policy generally emphasises housing, job creation, health services, and education, rather than culture or the arts. One could find various reasons for this neglect, including the ambiguity of the term ‘culture’, and how difficult it is to quantify, rationalise or predetermine. [14]

However, the value of the arts for community development has been proven. [15] Guattari says “Art is not just the activities of established artists but of a whole subjective creativity which traverses the generations and oppressed peoples, ghettos, minorities.” [16]

As a further narration of Busang experiences, Diniso recounts how he and his learners won the East Rand Administration Board Annual Art Exhibition’s Certificate of Excellence and Special Certificate of Merit in 1980. They subsequently won another award in 1981 at the same event, where Diniso was awarded The Most Accomplished Young Artist of the Year.

Busang Thakaneng and Thakaneng Youth Club

In 1981, Busang Arts School’s founded the Busang Thakaneng Theatre, which presented plays concerning the living conditions of that time, highlighting socio-political issues through their content and messages.  [17]

Ntema recalls:

The following couple of years at Busang, I witnessed the birth of Thakaneng Theatre where I became a Lights Operator and learnt my basic electricity connections skill. I also learnt how to play a guitar and drums but also learnt how to draw and played music in a play. These are skills within the creative world that shaped me within the highly political environment that the Sharpeville Arts and Sports Centre was, where this Busang Thakaneng was situated. [18]

Ntema, shaped by Gamakhulu’s philosophy, later became an independent researcher and community activist. [19]

Later in the same year, Thakaneng Youth Club took over from the theatre. Its main objective was to encourage creativity and innovation, combating crime in the township by involving youth in positive activities. Thakaneng Youth Club continued its activities until 1983.

Sharpeville Resource Centre

In 1995, Diniso’s student Ntema, quoted above, joined him as executive director to establish the Sharpeville Resource Centre. They worked together for three years, the centre giving birth to the Eski Art Gallery, The Gibson Kente Intimate Theatre and the DK Khunou Auditorium, all of which were associated with some of Dinisio’s ex-students, including Kenneth (Majozi) Tekane and others. [20] The centre was the culmination of Diniso’s significant artistic journey until that point, and it preceded the birth of various other community arts projects in the area. [21] Later on, Diniso, along with Kenneth, and two other former students, Tiro and Michael, formed an arts organising group that came to be known as ‘Vusa Tsosa Di Arts’. [22]

Diniso and Technikons

Following the work at the Sharpeville Resource Centre, Diniso went to Wits Technikon, where he was appointed the director of drama. There, he formed a student group called Culture Reclamation Youth. They held their first programme at Wits Technikon in September 2000, entitled Observing Steve Biko, which involved dance, performance, theatre and talks regarding the Black Consciousness Movement. [23]

Diniso: Living Archive and Archivist

As Diniso travelled through his life’s journey, he met and engaged with many people, collaborating beyond his own school and career. Along the way, he met people like Bongi Matsose, Charles Sokhaya Nkosi, Matsemela Manaka, Sam Nhlengethwa and Peter Clarke. [24]

A National Archives text explains that “Archive collections are usually unique, which is why it is so important to take proper care of them. They need to be carefully stored and managed to protect and preserve them for current and future use” [25]

Diniso, as a result of both his life experience and his artwork, is known as a ‘living archive’ to many people. He has many historical moments etched in his memory, and when narrating his life story, often makes links with political, social and environmental issues of that particular time. For example, he would relate running the resource centre with students in the 1990s, with shootings that were taking place around the hostels. Every story Diniso tells has a historical event as its point of reference, enriching his accounts. [26]

Apart from being just a ‘living archive’, Diniso collected his own documentation archive, including newspaper articles of the events he would be hosting, or in which he would be participating.

Ilizwe: Not a Children’s Play, was performed as part of ‘Pact’ Drama’s community outreach program at Windybrow’s Dalro in 1992. The cast included writer and director Gamakhulu Diniso, alongside seven of his students aged between 10 and 16: Mpho Mohlouoa, Mphonyana Mphlouoa, Bontgle Mosai, Mateke Pule, Kgantshe Pule, Semakaleng Tlali and Mapuleng Tlali.

Diniso had also started collecting art while he was at Rorke’s Drift, beginning with his own school mates’ work, in what became a ritual of art exchange. At the time, he collected a number of pieces from other artists such as Bongi Matsose, Shadrack Spinya Hlalele, Ben Ntsusha, Maribe Mamabulo, Dumisani Mabaso, Charles Nkosi, Rochester Mafafo and Goodman Mabote. After leaving Rorke’s Drift, he started collecting some of Peter Clarke’s artworks through the letters they would write to each other.

Most of his collection dates from 1978 up until he closed his portfolio around 1986. [27]


The absence of a record of the contribution of the black artists of the Vaal region from literature on art in South Africa is a serious concern. They were part of the cultural work movement, which helped to push socio-political changes in the country. Marginalisation of these artists’ stories, distorts readers’ knowledge and deprives them of information. It is this, that inspired Diniso to document everything he did so carefully, leading me to take an interest in narrating the stories of Busang, Thakaneng Theatre and the history of the arts in the Vaal Region.

Through his Rorke’s Drift years, Busang, Thakaneng, and other projects in Sharpeville, Diniso become known as the art legend of the Vaal Triangle, now Sedibeng. His latest venture is Diniso Kasi Art, at his place in Bedworthpark, Vanderbijlpark. [28] The venue is a theatre and exhibition space, combined with a coffee shop. Here, he runs various activities, including art training; people can also book the venue for theatre shows and performances.

Although Diniso’s initiatives – due to lack of support from government – have not resulted in a vibrant Vaal art scene today, he did manage to teach his students the practicalities of life. What I have observed about the students and artists Diniso worked with during those years is that they are all go-getters who are ambitious and driven, never giving up and constantly reinventing themselves. He taught them to know their worth and to be outspoken – things missing in many people of the Vaal Triangle, as a result of South Africa’s racist history. He is the kind of person who thinks of an idea, and within a few hours, is already implementing it.

Without Diniso’s hard work, the Vaal Triangle would not have such a remarkable story to tell.

Nkululeko Khumalo is an independent curator and a printmaking lecturer at the Vaal University of Technology (VUT).

[1] Mandisi Majavu and Mario Pissara, ’Charting Pathways in an Era of Posts’. In Visual century, South African art in context, Volume. 4: 1990 – 2007, edited by Thembinkosi Goniwe, Mario Pissarra and Mandisi Majavu (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2011), 3.

[2] Majavu and Pissara, ‘Charting Pathways,’ 3.

[3] Amanda Anne Jephson, Aspects of twentieth century black South African art, up to 1980 (Cape Town: University of Cape Town, 1989).

[4] Joel SM Modiri, ’The grey line in-between the rainbow: (Re)thinking and (re)talking critical race theory in post-apartheid legal and social discourse,’ SAPL 26 (2011), 180.

[5] Many South African artists and musicians were exiled at this time, but contributed to the struggle from outside the country’s borders. The Medu Art Ensemble, a cultural work collective operating from Gaborone, Botswana, are a prime example of this.

[6] The arts played an extremely important role in the solidarity movement amongst South African artists. Many artists from Rorke’s Drift worked as a united group while they were students, and continued this way into their professional careers.

[7] In 1977 at Mariannhill College, Diniso won a Graphics Lino Print Merit Award. Later, in 1979, he was awarded a ‘Certificate of Excellence’, and ‘Special Certificate of Merit’ by the East Rand Administration Board Annual Art Exhibition. At this time, Mariannhill dealt with the sales of his works through the Race Relations offices in Johannesburg and Durban. In 1989, Diniso won the Fedics Greetings Cards Competition’s Runner up Prize. Thereafter he produced a series of greeting cards with various messages using his artworks. As a member of the African Writers Association (AWA), he drew and designed a calligraphy plaque that was given to President Nelson Mandela by the Sedibeng Metropolitan Council for the ‘Freedom of The Vaal’ in 1999.

[8] He illlustrated a book of poems by renowned authors and writers, including Rev. Frank Chikane, where his artwork also graces the cover. He illustrated Chabani Mangayi’s biography of Es’kia Mphalele, Exile and Homecomings, as well as its expanded edition, Bury Me at the Marketplace: Selected Letters of Es’kia Mphahlele 1943 – 1980. His artwork is featured on the cover of Es’kia Mphahlele’s Unbroken Song, B.L. Leshoai ‘s Iso le Nkhono (African Folktales for Children), Narain Aiyer’s the Cain Is Singing, Letshaba Thubela’s Sethokgwa, Christopher Charles’ White Lies, Prof. Njabulo Ndebele’s The Prophetess, John Samuel’s Darkness, Thamsanqa’s Have You Seen Sticks, and Lindiwe Mvemve’s the Crowd That Stands Half Naked and Singing).

[9] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, (New York: International Publishers, 1971).

[10] The SACHED desk he worked had been occupied previously by renowned Alexandria artist, Thami Mnyele, which was very inspiring for Diniso.

[11] Ntema and Khumalo, conversation, 2020.

[12] A former student, Gloria, recalls one Market Theatre outing when they did not have money for the train fare to go back home to the Vaal. He told her to go to the theatre manager and tell him that we do not have money to go home, and since Gloria was the ’Minister of Finance’, she needed to make a plan of how we could get home. Gloria spoke to the theatre manager and told him that we did not have money to go home. Luckily the manager gave us money to go home and said that if we came back next week he would give us money again.

[13] Gerard Hagg, ’Every Town Should Have one: The role of the arts centre in community development and employment provision,’ Suid Afrikaanse Tydskrif vir Kuns Geskiedenis 9 (1991), 32 – 46.

[14] Hagg, ’Every Town should have one,’ 32.

[15] Hagg, ’Every Town should have one,’ 33.

[16] Felix Guattari, Chaosmosis: an ethico-aesthetic paradigm (Sydney: Power Publications, 1995), 91.

[17] In 1983, Diniso had resigned from SACHED in order to pursue a theatrical career. He had worked to perfect his talent within the performing arts for a long time, but only achieved recognition for this later in his career, winning awards for play-writing, acting, directing and dancing. To date, he remains one of the most revered, though underrated performers in the country.

[18] Ntema and Khumalo, conversation.

[19] Ntema’s Sharpeville-born company Truth Tours International, remains operational to this day. Other former Busang Thakaneng children include Jabulani Mahlangu, Tefo Mothibeli, Sphiwe Mashinini, Thato Mongali, Matiro Hlahane, Teboho More, Thabiso Selepe, Mfanelo Mtambo, Nduka Mntambo and many others.

[20] Kenneth (Majozi) Tekane adapted a theatre space and named it the Poze Theatre.

[21] Michael (unknown surname) opened his gallery space, not only for visual arts but for performance arts. It was located at the Sharpeville Sports Centre and it focused on power poetry. Tiro (unknown surname) had a visual arts gallery in his own backyard, which operated after work hours from 5-9pm. His theatre was focusing on breaching the gaps in art education.

[22] Initially the group was formed to create a National Arts Festival and Tourism Art Route in the Vaal Triangle Township. This was followed by a festival, which ran from 2000 – 2005. They invited many students from the Vaal Technikon which is currently named Vaal University of Technology (VUT). 

[23] On Youth Day of the following year, Diniso took Vaal Technikon students to visit Steve Biko’s home in Ginsberg, King William’s Town, as a way to commemorate the Soweto Uprising of 1976.

[24] He worked with Nkosi at the Funda Centre, bringing his students to be part of the arts there. He also ran workshops at Funda.

[25] The National Archives, Archive Principles and Practice: an introduction to archives for non-archivists (2016), 4-5.

[26] Another example of the way Diniso‘s memory works is from a video interview he did with Nduka about his achievements. Diniso remembers the year Nduka was asking about, because it was a year after his last child was born. 

[27] This followed an incident at the Carlton Centre in 1979, where he was cheated, regarding the price of his artwork. Additionally, his brother was on waiting lists to be hanged in 1986, which affected Diniso drastically.

[28] This is near to Sharpeville, Vereeniging, Vaal University of Technology (VUT) and North West University.