It gives me considerable pleasure to present my annual report for the Speech and Drama Association of South Africa for the year 2022-2023, particularly because this year is our eightieth ‘birthday’.

I think it important to look back over those eighty years, and even further back in time.

In 1907, the population of Durban numbered nearly seventy thousand, the first electric trams were carrying passengers in West and Smith streets, Mahatma Gandhi had established settlement at Phoenix, Lillie Langtry had visited Durban and performed at the Theatre Royal in West Street, ‘kitchen suits’ for black servants and gardeners, police and ricksha pullers were being manufactured by Greenacres and Co., and within a few years the imposing new Town Hall would be completed.

In 1925, The Natal Mercury reported that a “young Durbanite won a distinction as an elocutionist which is worth recording”.  For three consecutive years she had won the highest honours in the elocutionary section of the London College of Music examinations, and in that year had “excelled herself by obtaining the maximum marks (100) in the Associate Section, which entitled her to the Gold Medal yearly awarded to the highest placed student in the Dominions”.  She was born in Durban on 26 October 1907, was then seventeen years old, attending the Ladies’ College, later to become Durban Girls College, where she was Head Girl and Dux, and where the Drama Room is now named after her. 

That “young Durbanite” was Professor Elizabeth Sneddon, who had the vision to establish our Association in 1943, in the firm belief that Speech and Drama is “a basic tool in the development of all children’s powers of thought, imagination and communication”.  From the outset, therefore, the Festival has been “run on a non-competitive basis”, and “candidate’s work… graded” on an individual basis.

In its first year, the Festival, then named the Durban Speech and Drama Festival,

attracted more than one thousand entries, in three sections, English, Afrikaans and French, with separate items set for girls and boys.  In 1966, the name changed to “Speech and Drama Festival of South Africa”, and in 1968, the year of the 25th Festival, it changed again, to the “Speech and Drama Association of South Africa”.

Professor Elizabeth Sneddon’s achievements and awards over the years are too numerous to list here, so I will focus mainly on this vision, that of speech and drama as a formative aspect of all education.  When she passed away in 2005 at the age of ninety-seven, she was fittingly described as a doyenne of theatre, and a forerunner in education, in South Africa.  During her lifetime, she worked as a tireless theatre practitioner and lecturer, founding eight theatres, and directing more than seventy productions, in this city, and she devoted as much energy in developing the joy in and skills of communication with people of every age and race.

Elizabeth Sneddon studied at Glasgow University, where she obtained her MA (Honours) in English Literature in 1932, and thereafter an Education Diploma at University College, London, and the Licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music.  Returning to South Africa, she taught at St Cyprian’s Girls’ College in Cape Town, before joining the English Department at the University of Natal.

In 1935, Professor Sneddon founded the Shakespearean Society here in Durban, to present annual productions of her favourite playwright, and the Durban Drama Society a year later.  While lecturing at the University of Natal, with Mabel Palmer and Frances MacDonald, she taught black and Indian students at Sastri College to prepare them for University of South Africa BA degree.

In 1946, she was appointed Head of Department of English at the University of Natal, and began her first battle for the recognition of drama as a subject in its own right, and not only as a branch of literature.  She had already received recognition for her work in theatre, and was a founder of the National Theatre in 1948; a year later, she established the Department of Speech and Drama at the University and, to its credit and owing to her indefatigable drive and relentless persistence, it was the first tertiary institution in South Africa, indeed the whole of Africa, to recognize drama as an academic discipline.  The department opened in 1951 with seven students and one small room.  In the same year, she founded the Natal Theatre Workshop Company, and converted lecture rooms at the University of Natal’s City Buildings in Warwick Avenue into a theatre for the company’s productions. 

She retired as Head of the Department of Speech and Drama in 1972, but retirement did not mean she retired from promoting the cultural life of our city and the value of drama in education.  Largely through her endeavours, and after years of striving, in 1977 Speech and Drama was granted official recognition by the Joint Matriculation Board as a matriculation subject. 

However, Professor Sneddon was “appalled” to discover that it was not ‘accepted’ by pupils.  Why?  Because the subject was introduced only at the Standard Grade level.  Mistakenly, Speech and Drama was regarded by pupils as inferior to the subjects on offer on the Higher Grade.  It took a further four years to convince the Joint Matriculation Board that a misguided emphasis only on the acquisition of knowledge, ignored the integrated development of the whole being, and that “every other subject is a by-product of speech”.  She was throughout her life a very determined and exceptionally energetic person: Speech and Drama was accepted on the Higher Grade; it had taken thirty-seven years of effort, an effort she described as “like moving a mountain”.

Elizabeth Sneddon always maintained that two of the greatest miracles are the miracle of how life begins and the miracle that distinguishes the living from the dead.  She never dwelt on how exactly the miracle of life begins, but she was fond of pronouncing with a toss of her head:

“Mine is in fact the oldest profession in the world, even older than the so-called ‘oldest profession’, and I am delighted to say:  If you love life, then it’s the field for you.  It will lead you, as it led me, because I love people, and I care about the quality of what they do, and what they make of their lives, to a far deeper appreciation of life’s possibilities than I might otherwise have had.”

She would however, spend a great deal of time and energy explaining what she meant by “the miracle that distinguishes the living from the dead”.  Appropriately, given that the word ‘drama’ is derived from the Greek word for ‘do’, and ‘action’, she believed that that miracle was in movement, in action.  “Drama,” she would declare with authority,

“is about human action and the inevitable consequences of human choice.  The merit of drama lies in the fact that it bridges the chasm of non-communication that separates the individual from his fellow man, and speech is the tool.” 

And what is ‘speech’?, she would ask, and after a few attempts at definition, she would command those present to write the following down: “Speech is integrated audible and visible movement to externalise what one thinks and feels.”

In my more than thirty years of teaching, the most succinct and accurate definition of what constitutes ‘good speech’ was that formulated by Professor Sneddon.  Good speech is: 

“Speech which is free from strain, including physical strain, mental strain, and emotional strain.  The test of good speech is that it communicates what the speaker intends to say, nothing more and nothing less.”

As proof of the benefits of speech and drama, she was fond of retelling an anecdote:

“One of the most charming tributes I ever received came from a clergyman who in presenting a token of his appreciation [for helping him overcome his fears of being able to speak in public] inscribed in the book the following: ‘I asked her to teach me to speak.  She taught me to think, to feel, to live,’ and concluded with an extract from Ecclesiastes – ‘Judge no man before you hear him speak.  For speech is the trial of man.’”

Those beliefs have been implicit within the mission of our eighty-year old Association:  speech and drama are the means to communicate meaning and feeling, and that, as importantly, to Elizabeth Sneddon, “the physical control of one’s power to communicate is vital to life in terms of health, in terms of creativity and in terms of the acquisition of knowledge”.  In what we do, then, as the clergyman found, we do not teach young people to speak, but “to think, to feel [and] to live”.

But I would amend Professor Sneddon’s claim that this is a miracle.  It is also a right.  As soon as we speak we are judged, about our intelligence, our background, class, race, education, and ultimately about our power.  The ‘right to speak’ is one that we all have, but it is a right we do not all use to our benefit.  Every single person needs to develop a speaking body, an instrument to communicate her or his ideas and feelings clearly and confidently.

As with Professor Sneddon’s experience with the clergyman, anyone who works in the field of speech and drama can testify to its benefits, to the ways it helps individuals develop and grow in confidence, creativity, and the ability to communicate effectively.  Her ideas do reinforce my own belief that, if the word Drama means “to do”, “action”, then we can all be actors, in our careers, in our daily lives, in how we can relate to and affect others.  Engaging in drama empowers us all with the skills to “do” and “act”, in the fullest sense of the words. 

That’s not a miracle, it’s a fact.  We’ve seen it happen, we too have letters testifying to the benefits of having studied drama, we have heard from young people who have kept their certificates for years, who have expressed their appreciation for the part that the encouragement and recognition played in making them able to express themselves with confidence. 

Eighty years… think of the number of young people who presented an item, the number of teachers who assisted and parents who encouraged that entrant, the many adjudicators who assessed the item, the principals who supported the festival, the schools and studios who participated, the committee members who gave freely of their time and expertise, the secretaries and festival convenors and the festival director – everyone who added to the foundation laid by Professor Sneddon in 1943, and in doing so, connected their present with the future, by adding to the foundations of the Speech and Drama Association.  As importantly, we can hope that by their involvement, each person realized that the arts of communication and performance have real benefit, and need to be fostered, not just at the moment of participation, but in life.

In our eightieth year I can say with pride that we have been acting and doing, that we have, despite having to ‘move mountains’, maintained Professor Sneddon’s vision. 

So much so, I hope that, in ten or twenty, or in another eighty years, there will be many who entered the sixty-three festivals held in the past year, who will remember their participation and acknowledge the value that it had in their lives; in the fifty-eight pre-primary and primary schools, the five high schools and colleges, and the three virtual adjudications: Ichthus School, King Edward High, and PEPPS Polokwane.  After the large fall in numbers during the Covid-19 Pandemic, we are pleased to report that the numbers are rising again, albeit slowly: seven more festivals than in 2021, with the number of entries per school increasing.  PEPPS Polokwane joined the Association in 2022, and we welcome Northland School, a school near St Lucia, and Gelofte Hoër Skool this year. 

And when they remember, even if they were not aware of the fact, those entrants from Berg Street Primary, Rosehill Primary and Sherwood Primary, will have benefited from the fact that the Association subsidized festival entry fees to the value of R10 210. 

Those who entered during 2022 may also not be aware that they will have benefitted in the past year, and in years to come, from the three staff workshops conducted during 2022, attended by nearly one hundred teachers, facilitated by Di Paterson on the North Coast (thirty staff), Rosanne Hurly-Coyne at Glenmore Primary (thirty-five staff), and Ida Gartrell in Eshowe (thirty staff).  To all three workshop convenors, our grateful thanks.

So, perhaps they will be entrants who received at least one or more of the many certificates that were awarded for A’s and A-pluses in individual and group sections.  Perhaps they will cherish their new ‘Gold Certificate with Distinction’ as a record of their success.

As are we, so they should be grateful to the eighteen adjudicators who shared their expertise during 2022 in festivals throughout the region.  We are pleased that among those eighteen, there were four new adjudicators who joined the panel: Aasra Bramdeo, Seren Coetzee, Carla Tate and David Spiteri, who have already proved how valuable they are to us.  This year we welcome Genesis Cele and Lesley Coull as well.  We also wish Ann Walmsley and Aasra Bramdeo well in the future, and thank them for their services, as both have resigned owing to moving to Cape Town and Johannesburg, respectively.  Without doubt, our entrants must have benefitted from the very successful adjudicator workshop held at the central office in Glenwood on 22 February 2022, with our heartfelt thanks to Vyvienne Ball and the facilitators of that workshop.

Perhaps they could be one of the ten bursary winners during 2022, or from one of the three schools who made donations towards the bursary fund.  The recipients, schools, and amounts were as follows: Joel Barnes from Durban Preparatory High School (R3 000), Tia Robbertze from Manor Gardens Primary School (R300), and James Oosthuizen, Ruth Claassens, Suri Govender, and Safiyya Osman from Westville Senior Primary School (R500 each).  The three annual SADASA bursaries were awarded to Noluthando Mkhulisi and Daeurelle Lutula, both in Grade 6, at Berg Street Primary, who each received R500 from the Elizabeth Sneddon bursary, Lebo Lekhethoo, a Grade 9 learner from King Edward High who received the Jilian Hurst bursary of R1 000, and Letho Dlamini, in Grade 1, from Berea West Preparatory School who was awarded the Hazel Meyer bursary of R1 000.

Or, perhaps they could be one of the ten candidates from St Anne’s Diocesan College, who participated in the Bruce Piper Award Monologue Competition held on 5 November 2022 in the beautiful St Anne’s College theatre, who hosted the event for the first time since its inception in 2003.  There were ten entrants, all specifically nominated by their adjudicator for outstanding achievement, over and above those others who received other A-pluses: six from St Anne’s, one from Grosvenor Girls’ High School in Durban, one from Wembley College in Greytown, and two from King Edward High School in Matatiele.  The competition was adjudicated by Mbali Nguse and myself, and the joint winners, both Grade 11 pupils from St Anne’s, were Lelam Mini and Ellena Chemaly.  We extend thanks to St Anne’s, to Minthra Baijnath and Lynn Chemaly, for hosting the event and preparing all the entrants so warmly, and Julie Meiklejohn who presented the certificates and stood in for Vyvienne Ball, who was sadly unable to attend for the very first time in twenty years.

The subsidies, the bursaries, the certificates that I mentioned above are only a small part of our annual expenditure, and the fact that we can continue with our mission is only made possible by exceptionally generous funding.  In March 2022 we received R200 000 from Concord Trust, and R218 000 from the National Lotteries Distribution Trust Fund in September 2022.  Without such generosity we, like so many other organisations and companies and individual artists, would not survive.  And without such generosity, every person I mentioned above, and in particular, all the entrants, not only in the past year, but for the next years, many thousands of young people will be the beneficiaries, will be able to experience and enjoy and develop their skills in communication.  They, and we, are exceptionally grateful.

In the financially hard times we live in, the arts are seen as a luxury, and one of the first targets of cuts.  I can but dream, but imagine if we had the resources to mount festivals in every school in our country, and that every pupil not only participated, but also was sponsored to enter by financial corporations, besides the Department of Education, because they recognise that investing in the arts is an imperative. 

And, as in the past, we are also  very grateful to Fenella Rivalland and her company, Loud Crowd Media, for her interest and her artistry in designing the logo for SADASA, and for keeping our website up-to-date and so user friendly.  So, too, thanks to Vyvienne Ball for the meticulously edited and interesting editions of ‘The Platform’, now in its twenty-second year.

Important as Professor Elizabeth Sneddon’s vision was of the use of speech and drama as vital to education in our city and country, a vision is abstract.  No vision can be realised in concrete terms without people to implement it, and no vision can be sustained without people to support, foster and sustain it.  To my colleagues on the Executive Committee, thank you so much for your valued support, for your belief in the vision, and for your continuing loyalty and commitment to the cause we believe in.  Margie Marnewick, who, as Vice-Chairman, is always so willing to assist and offer the benefits of her wisdom and guidance, and, alphabetically by surname, Brett Beiles, Rosanne Hurly-Coyne, Mbali Nguse, Philippa Savage, David Spiteri, and Jean van Elden. 

As you are all aware, and as we were all shocked, for personal reasons Vyvienne Ball resigned as from 31 December 2022.   Vyvienne, who joined the Association as the then Festival Convenor on 1 February 1999 did so much more than anyone to fulfil all that I have said of the vision.  Vyvienne will be sorely missed.  We have already passed on our gratitude to her when we celebrated her contribution to the Association on 10 March, but I want to add the following response, which was written the following day, from Di Paterson, a stalwart supporter and adjudicator:

“Dear Rosanne,

Graeme and I would like to thank you, Mervyn and the committee for the excellent send off celebration for Vyv.  A fitting tribute to a wonderful person.  It was so good to catch up with colleagues and special people.  We wish you great success and happiness Rosanne in your new venture and know you will give it your best.  A hard act to follow but right up your street.  I can’t think of a better person to fit the role.  Thank you all not only for the happy party but for all you do to keep SADASA up and running and playing such an important role in the schools and lives of our young people.

Heartfelt thanks from both of us.”    

I concur with all that Di has written, and can say with assurance and conviction that Rosanne has, in just two months, proved that she is indeed the best “person to fit the role” of our new Festival Director.

And thank you all, too, for your kind attendance and attention.  I present this report to you for adoption.

Dr Mervyn McMurtry

22 March 2023