90 years of thespian Sol Rachilo

‘Twas just a fortnight afore his 90th birthday celebration and he was in typically high spirits! 

He incurred the physical scar – including broken ribs – he explained, from the rifle butt of a policeman whilst coming from the abode of Dr Nthato Motlana right in the thick of the June 16, 1976 students’ uprisings which were to turn the course of South Africa’s struggle against Grand Apartheid.  The incident resulted in his having to spend 28 days in Baragwanath Hospital’s ICU.

On the wall of the same living room hung an instantly recognizable monochromatic image of a handsome young man with a perfect white dental set dressed in a pressed shirt replete with cuff links whilst he peers from behind a copy of a 1958 edition of Drum magazine featuring a smiling beautiful lass on its cover. 

The man himself flashes an urbane smile at the camera – that of the publication’s pioneer photographer, Jurgen Schadeberg. He went on, he informed me, to have an affair with the model on the cover page!  “Ke ne ke baba!” (I used to be chivalrous), he reminisced of the moment the image was recorded in Sophiatown – a renaissance epoch when he served a freelance writer’s stint on the magazine, having been recruited by its editor, Can Dorsay Themba, a former English teacher of his at Madibane High School in Western Native Township.

That 18 months jaunt with the talents of Jim Bailey’s newsroom even led to him featuring alongside a duo of them, namely Bloke Modisane and Lewis Nkosi, in playwright, Athol Fugard’s theatrical play No Good Friday

In that very year, 1958, he had first crossed paths with Fugard whilst on a Drum assignment to cover on-goings at Joburg’s famous rendezvous of creatives, Dorkay House, and recalled that he “stumbled” into the play which he was cast into on the spot!  Unbeknownst to him, the moment was to mark a turning point in his career trajectory as he veered from journalistic designs and into the world of theatre (which was to occupy his life for more than four decades) and a lifelong association with Fugard. 

From thereon in, he switched from being a journalist to becoming a thespian.

An affable and meticulous fellow, he handed me a notebook containing timelines of his involvement in theatre starting from 1959 when he got a lead part in Fugard’s Nongogo; 1967, the period he got to direct a trio of his own plays; 1975, when he featured in Fugard’s Boesman and Lena; 1977, when he directed, The Way We Saw It Happen (based on the 1976 Riots – and a play whose remake he mentioned that then president Nelson Mandela saw at the Market Theatre in 1994) and Township Housewife; 1978, had him forming the Federation of United Black Artists (FUBA), etc.

Long a household name which invariably wears the hats of a poet, playwright, author, director, publisher, speech and drama teacher – among some of his legacies entail initiating the Children of Soweto Action Centre (COSAC) where he taught children drama lessons, with some of his protégés numbering similarly household names such as the late Ingoapele Madingoane and Matsemela Manaka, as well as Kenneth Nkosi, Nandi Nyembe and Trevor Yamba, among others.

As an author and publisher, he has three recently penned tomes in the offing, namely, Some Came Running, The Sad Saga of the Calamitous Educational System and Mzansi Musos Introducing the New Breed (which he collaborated on with the late Sibongile Khumalo).

A spell-binding storyteller, his memory is as sharp as a split second ago!

The man-about-town (by his own description) whose wardrobe items were supplied exclusively from the US, and erstwhile member of actor Tony Curtis’ Fan Mail Club (through subscription to Esquire magazine) nostalgically recalled the then Dollar Brand’s brief stay at his family home in White City, Soweto in 1956 – with the devoted jazz musician ultimately having to move on after neighbours objections to his all-night tinkling of the family’s Kahn piano’s ivories! 

And the literary rendezvous on the Market precinct in 2010 with Nigeria’s Nobel Literature Laureate, Wole Soyinka, who, amidst the glare of press cameras, had the following compliment to intone to a fellow man of letters: “Brevity is the soul of wit – that is where your greatness lies in writing poetry!”

Who is this figure exclaiming to me, “I’m as healthy as a baby!” upon my enquiring after his well-being?  This is none other than, Sol Rachilo, a Pietermaritzburg-born soul about to turn nonagenarian (90 on December 12 – with a celebratory razzmatazz in his honour to be hosted by the Africa Museum on the day) – and someone who has lived through World War II, Apartheid and more than a quarter century of South Africa’s Democratic era! 

One of six siblings (three boys – one of whom, Simeon, succumbed to TB in infancy – and three girls) who stayed in Alexandra and thereafter Soweto, his dad, China, ran a bookstore which also traded in music vinyls in Mofolo – with the family owning the distinction of being a rare Black one which actually owned a piano (a Kahn – the one which put paid to Ibrahim’s shot stay). 

(Sol Rachilo, in deep chat with Abdullah Ibrahim and Rashid at Newtown).

His mom, Emma serenaded the family over it – with the thespian himself, taught by Emily Motsieloa (a lady who regularly featured in Drum in the 1950s) how to play it whilst schooling in Western Native Township.  

Indicative of being raised in a domestic environment which contributed to the honing of his creative proclivities, an indelible memory of Rachilo’s features Black Consciousness leader, Stephen Biko coming into their bookstore to purchase a copy of Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, whilst in Soweto to visit Wessie Mphahlele, in 1973.

A father of three sons, Mpho (with his wife, Sylvia Goba, a Model-of-the-Year from Durban to who he was married from 1962 until her passing in 1998), Rachilo and China (with a partner), asked whether he was looking forward to his 90th birthday celebration, Rachilo responded circumspectly, adding that he’s of the Jehovah Witness faith – a lifelong devotion and a factor which explains why in spite of a lifetime in showbiz, he’s been a teetotaller all of nine decades! 

“My mother,” he told me, “used to sniff my clothes to ascertain that I didn’t reek of liquor!”

Rachilo will be turning 90 on Sunday December 12, 2021.

Museum Afrika will be hosting a bash in his honour.

A happy 90th birthday, Bra Sol!

Images Jacob MAWELA (Thespian Sol Rachilo conversing with celebrated dance Nomsa Manaka at the Newtown Precinct).

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