Sathieseelan Gurulingam Govender (more popularly known as Ronnie Govender) was born on 16 May 1934 in Cato Manor, Durban, Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal).  His father was born in Cato Manor and his mother was born in Fynnlands, Durban. His paternal and maternal grandparents came from South India.

After they gained their freedom from indenture his grandparents chose to live in Cato Manor. They bought a small piece of ground to develop a market garden. His paternal grandparents hawked vegetables from that garden for their entire lives. His maternal grandfather was a court interpreter.

His father, Jack Dorasamy Govender, was a bakery van driver and his mother, Chellama Govender, a housewife. Govender has ten siblings. He attended the Cato Manor Government Aided Indian School and then went to Sastri College (high school), Durban. He spent a year at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and then went to the Springfield Training College for teachers in Asherville, Durban.

His brother was instrumental in helping him to get a job with the New Age as a sports columnist. This helped him to pay his way through university. At UCT he was elected treasurer of the Students Democratic Association that was formed to protest against the exclusion of African students from outside South Africa attending universities here. Former Constitutional Court judge Albie Sachs was the president of the Students Democratic Association.

After high school, Govender got a job working for an agricultural implements company. At the same time, he was a part-time sportswriter for the Graphic, earning ten shillings a week, writing a boxing column as he was very keen on boxing. As a journalist, he attacked racism in sport and that attracted the attention of the Special Branch.

Govender had completed his examinations at UCT and then the New Age got banned. Hence he couldn’t earn any more and thus could not pay his fees. As a result, he returned home to Durban and then enrolled at the Springfield Training College to become a teacher.

Before he left for Cape Town, Govender formed the Durban Theatre Association with people like the late Slim Moodley, Muthal Naidoo and Prem Singh. They produced the South African version of the Greek classical play Antigone. That was in the fifties. Again this attracted the attention of the Special Branch as it reflected the South African political situation. Following his relocation to Cape Town the Durban Theatre Association folded.

When he got back to Durban and started teaching, a group of politically conscious people like Fatima Meer and Ismail Meer, and others backed an initiative by the Union Artists who were based in Johannesburg at Dorkay House, which was about the only institution where free cultural activity was taking place in terms of a South African ethos. They brought out an eminent American director called Krishna Shah to direct and to put on his play King of the Dark Chamber written by the famous Indian writer, Rabindranath Tagore, and also to direct Sponono by Alan Paton. Shah was persuaded to run a three-week clinic on different aspects of theatre.

Govender had written a story, on one of the people who had taken part in King of the Dark Chamber, a remarkable dancer called Bashkar who was also a boxer.  Shah liked the story very much and he persuaded Govender to join his clinic where he received some very clear insights on the technical aspects of theatre. At the end of this three-week course, Shah selected three plays to stage, one of which was Govender’s play, Beyond Calvary, based on a couple from two different religious backgrounds.  

Another play that he wrote at that time was called His Brother’s Keeper, based on the life of singer Eddie Gratino.  Govender’s brother introduced Gratino to him. He brought him and said: “Look this guy is out on the streets and he is a nice guy. Can’t we keep him at home?”  Govender said: “Ja there is a spare room. Let him come and live there.” Gratino was actually an African person who was pretending to be an American. He was earning a living as a singer at a Durban nightclub. Govender found Gratino’s life to be an interesting story and the play His Brother’s Keeper, based on an identity crisis, emerged.

The Lahnee’s Pleasure was based on characters in a hotel in apartheid South Africa. It was one of South Africa’s longest running plays. In line with the then cultural boycott against South Africa, Govender refused invitations to play at establishment venues and in London.

He also penned Off Side lampooning people who had participated in the House of Delegates in the Tricameral Parliament in the 1980s. A sequel to this was Inside.

Govender is the former vice-president of the Natal Branch of Congress of South African Writers (COSAW).

In 1987, Govender participated in the Culture in Another South Africa (CASA) conference in Amsterdam for which he wrote a play, Blossoms from the Bough based on the life of a young lady Lily Felito, an honours student in Speech and Drama at Natal University. She was the partner of a fifth year medical student. Both of them were from Wentworth, Durban. The man was very politically involved and police had arrested him. Govender got Felito to talk about her life and based the play on her life – a one-person play, which received very good reviews for the play.

In 1991 Govender was appointed Marketing Manager of the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town, and two years later appointed Director of Durban's Playhouse Theatre. In 2000 Govender was awarded a Medal by the English Academy of South Africa for his contribution to English literature.

In 2006, Song of the Atman, which is partially set in ‘old’ Cato Manor (Durban), was published. The latter book was also shortlisted for the 2007 Commonwealth Writers Prize. His In the Manure (2008), is a book of personal experiences and reflections.

He was appointed the resident director at the University of Durban-Westville’s (now University of KwaZulu-Natal – Durban Westville Campus) Asoka Theatre.

Govender was an executive member of the South African Soccer Federation (SASF), the non racial soccer body in South Africa and became one of the foundation members of the non racial South African Council on Sport (SACOS).

In 2008, the South African Government conferred the Order of Ikhamanga on Govender “for [his] excellent contribution to democracy and justice in South Africa through the genre of theatre". In 2014, the Durban University of Technology conferred an Honorary Doctor of Technology in Arts and Design upon Govender “for his contribution to literature and the arts in general as well as his contribution to democracy, peace and justice in South Africa through theatre”.

At the Edge and Other Cato Manor Stories, for which he received the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the Africa region, played at the Edinburgh Festival, where it was called, ‘Resounding into humanity’ by London Stage and Television Today Magazine.  He was then invited to stage the play at a festival in Toronto, Glasgow and then it got invited to India, to tour all the major cities in India, where it received standing ovations at every performance. His most well known play, At the Edge, won Vita nominations for Best South African Playwright and Best Actor.


1978. The Lahnee's Pleasure. Johannesburg:  Ravan Press.  (Play)

1986. Swami. Cape Town: David Philips Publishers. 

1996. At the Edge and Other Cato Manor Stories. Pretoria: MANX. 

2006. Song of the Atman. Johannesburg:  Jacana Media.

2008. In the Manure: Memoirs and Reflections. Cape Town:  David Philips Publishers.

2009. The Lahnee's Pleasure. Johannesburg: Jacana Media.


1997. Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for best First Book (Africa Region) for At the Edge and other Cato Manor stories  

Sathieseelan  (Ronnie) Gurulingam Govender passed away on 29 April 2021 in Cape Town, Western Cape Province, South Africa. 

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