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Journo Can Themba was a razor-sharp debater, writer and thinker

He used the power of the pen to challenge apartheid dogma

Vusi Kunene, Alistair Dube and Jon Kubatsi during the rehearsals of The Suit Concert-ized production.
Vusi Kunene, Alistair Dube and Jon Kubatsi during the rehearsals of The Suit Concert-ized production.
Image: Veli Nhlapo

He has been described as the most fluent speaker of English in Africa of his time. This observation was made by Ugandan writer, poet and critic, Taban Lo Liyong. It’s a poignant remark, which suggests that Can Themba’s reputation as a writer and thinker extended way beyond the borders of his beloved country.

A legendary literary luminary, he used the power of the pen to challenge apartheid dogma. As a writer of fiction, in particular the short story form, Themba’s efforts were peerless.   

Fifty-six years after his death the world hasn’t stopped celebrating him. And exactly thirty years after his play, Mothobi Mutloatse and the late Barney Simon staged The Suit (1993), based on Themba’s famous short story, The Market Theatre production is back at the same venue. Also created by Mutloatse, The SuitConcert-ised is a musical rendition of the original and explores the tragic story of Philemon and Mathilda from a feminist perspective.

Acclaimed journalist Can Themba died in exile in eSwatini on 8 September 1967 after a heart attack.
Acclaimed journalist Can Themba died in exile in eSwatini on 8 September 1967 after a heart attack.
Image: Sowetan

A teacher by profession, in 1953 he was recruited by proprietor Jim Bailey as a journalist on the Drum staff after his short story, Mob Passion won the first prize in the  magazine’s inaugural Great International Short Story Contest, ahead of Nigerian writer Cyprian Ekwensi and colleague, William “Bloke” Modisane. Themba soon gained a reputation as a writer of substance and a cult figure in the world of words.

The magazine was launched in 1951 as a monthly targeted at African readers. Its racy coverage of black Johannesburg as symbolised by Sophiatown set the bar higher and gave birth to modern black journalism while at the same time unearthing fiction writers through the publication of poetry and short stories.   

The Suit is the author’s best known, widely read and most celebrated piece of his literary works. It was published in 1963 in the launch edition of The Classic, a journal of black South African writing edited by Nat Nakasa. Drum had discontinued fiction by 1957, a decision that was frowned upon by Themba and fellow writers such as Eskia Mphahlele, Arthur Maimane and Lewis Nkosi. The story, a kind of metaphor for the black condition under apartheid, appeared shortly after the author went into exile.

It was republished in 1967 in South African Writing Today, a journal founded and edited by Nadine Gordimer and Lionel Abrahams. And because Themba’s writings were banned in SA at the time, this volume was declared forbidden literature. However, it resurfaced in 1972 following the publication of The Will to Die (1972) and The World of Can Themba (1985) – both collections of Themba’s writings.

Born Daniel D’Orsay Canadoce “Can” Themba was born on June 21 1924 in Marabastad, a freehold location on the fringes of the capital. Another interesting twist in this regard is that his birthday is observed to celebrate the diversity of literary voices by Short Story Day Africa, a non-profit organisation. It is regarded as the shortest day of the year in the southern hemisphere – winter solstice.

A brilliant pupil with a deep love for English classics – particularly the works of Shakespeare and Dickens – Themba  was educated at Khaiso High, a prominent boarding school in Pietersburg (Polokwane), Limpopo. He was the first recipient of the Mendi Memorial Scholarship, which enabled him to complete his studies at Fort Hare University College where he got a distinction in English and graduated with a bachelor of arts in 1947.

A BA degree in those years was still a rarity among educated Africans, at a time when diplomas were still a novelty. His verses in a student magazine earned him the title of Poet Laureate of Fort Hare. One of them, “Recollection” won first prize of three pounds and three shillings in a poetry competition organised by Zonk magazine in 1949. It was a time when shebeen intellectuals and poets like Themba had to recite Shakespeare’s sonnets to gangsters at knife-point to save their lives.   

His career as an English teacher began at Western Native High (Madibane), a legendary institution renowned for its illustrious headmaster, Harry Percy “HP” Madibane, outstanding teachers and famous ex-students. Two of the pupils he taught, Stanley Motjuwadi and Casey Motsisi, became household names in South African journalism. Another one, Desmond Tutu made a name for himself as a crusading anti-apartheid leader, cleric and Nobel Peace Prize recipient.

Themba’s reputation as a teacher with a rare skill of imparting knowledge in both the classroom and newsroom has been articulated by ex-pupils and proteges like Joe Tlholoe. The former press ombudsman said Themba had guided him in the basic skills of newspaper reporting when he was a rookie at the Golden City Post.   

His House of Truth, a dingy back room at 111 Ray Street in Sophiatown is remembered by former students as a platform of debate and forum of enlightenment where dialogue was elevated above dogma. Any idea was interrogated with intellectual rigour and philosophical scrutiny. The host and his patrons could speak truth to power without fear or favour.

Themba was known as a razor-sharp debater who enjoyed tossing an idea in the air and looking at it from all sides. This is evident in the shebeen scene from Come Back Africa (1959), the Lionel Rogosin docudrama that was filmed underground in Sophiatown during its dying days.

In The House of Truth there was no place for populist rhetoric and political slogans. The only motto he embraced was the Drum office slogan, “Live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse”. It was lifted straight from Willard Motley’s American classic novel, Knock On Any Door (1947).

A case has been made about Themba’s fondness for the bottle but what is often overlooked is that he was a product of his times. His generation of black men lived during the prohibition era when shebeens flourished despite the fact that Africans were not allowed to buy the so-called “white man’s liquor”, except the few who had permits to do so. His anguish and frustration with a system that treated Africans as fourth-class citizens in their native land is poignantly expressed in autobiographical gems such as The Bottom of the Bottle, Crepuscule and Requiem for Sophiatown.

This inhuman treatment by apartheid authorities reached crisis point with the destruction of Sophiatown and other western areas in 1955. “Long ago I decided to concede, to surrender to the argument that Sophiatown was a slum, after all. I’m itchingly nagged by the thought that slum clearance should have nothing to do with the theft of freehold rights. But the sheer physical fact of Sophiatown’s removal has intimidated me,” he writes in Requiem.

Besides the heavy drinking and highbrow debates, The House of Truth was also an important space where a significant output of his works happened in the early hours under candlelight. The pad was immortalised on stage in The House of Truth (2016), a one-man hander written by Themba’s biographer, Dr Siphiwo Mahala and performed by Sello Maake Ka Ncube. Based on his life and times as a Drum scribe living in Sophiatown, it has since become one of the longest running shows at the Market Theatre.

Actor Sello Maake ka Ncube stars as Can Themba in The House of Truth.
Actor Sello Maake ka Ncube stars as Can Themba in The House of Truth.
Image: Neo Ntsoma

Following the destruction of Sophiatown, he relocated to Swaziland where he was received by Father Angelo Ciccone, a young Catholic priest from Napoli, Italy and at the time head of the St Joseph’s missionary school in Mzimpofu, Manzini. It couldn’t have been much fun for Themba as he had neither friends nor family in Swaziland. He spent most of his days in the library, teaching, in church or in his room. “Yes, he was a lonely man and I was his only friend here,” Father Ciccone would later recall. He offered him a job as an English teacher.

His wife, Anna Sereto-Themba later joined him in the tiny kingdom where they raised four children – three daughters and a son. They remembered him as a hopeless romantic who used to write poems for his wife. The Themba household became home away from home for many young activists fleeing apartheid and were en route to countries like Mozambique and Tanzania for military training.

According to his daughter, Morongwa, that stable life was shaken when Themba was fired from his teaching post after organising a strike for better salaries. Consequently the family lost their house and were helped by neighbours who accommodated them in backyard rooms.        

Following his death in exile in Manzini, Swaziland on September 8 1967 after suffering a heart attack, he was buried at St Joseph’s missionary school, the first non-priest to be given the honour.

In 2010, the family exhumed the body and he was reburied in the Anglican section of the Westpark cemetery in Johannesburg. In 2017, on the 50th anniversary of his death he was exhumed again and reburied in the section called Place of Eminent People together with his beloved wife, Anna Sereto-Themba. She passed in 2014.

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