Saturday, 22 June 2013

Honouring Can Themba and building on the legacy

Can Themba would have turned 90 years of age on 21 June 2013. This writer of great brilliance, who used language in new ways and possessed incisive ways of seeing and reflecting, has been a beacon to huge numbers of emerging South African writers in the 70s and 80s.

Can Themba was a member of the so-called Drum writers, a kind of bang-bang club of literature. The group included writers such as Arthur Maimane, Todd Matshikizi,, Henry Nxumalo, Lewis Nkosi and Nat Nakasa. They had a mastery of language; they probed urban reality in which black people lived with sharp pens; they lived edgy lives and (in many cases) did not recoil from personal risk in the pursuit of the story.

Themba was distinctive among them. He forged a 'Can Themba style' not only in his writing but also in his capacity, using his presence, to turn drinking holes of Sophiatown into places of ideas and debate. His first story was carried in the Classic in 1963. Despite his immense talent, by the time of his death, he did not have a book published. His writings were only collected much later, in 1972, in The Will to Die. He was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga. His short story, The Suit, which marks its 50th birthday this year, is a landmark in South African literature. The story, and its later manifestation as a play, has a powerful and enduring appeal – those interested in the tortuous journey of Mzansi literature turn to it again and again.

Can Themba studied teaching but quit the profession after Bantu Education was introduced. Education’s loss was journalism’s gain, as Mbulelo Mzamane puts it. Later, thanks to state repression including being banned from publishing and being quoted, he returned to teach at a Swaziland school. He was reportedly an excellent and inspirational teacher, and people like Mzamane, Bloke Modisane, Njabulo Ndebele and even Archbishop Tutu passed through his hands. He died in Swaziland in 1967 at the age of 44.
The literary and journalistic contributions of the Drum group of writers represent an important foundation for later writers. Many young writers of the 1980s could look back at the flair, boldness and talent of the Drum writers and other writers of the 1960s and be inspired.
But how do we connect the present generation of youth to the contributions, ideas and talent of writers such as Can Themba? Themba and his group initially faced a similar challenge: how to connect to the ideas and thinking of the generation before? Direct censorship and other state controls were taking its toll. Writers like Themba became immersed in English writers of the romantic period. Nadine Gordimer notes that this resulted in some unfortunate effects on the early work of Themba – writing that was in many places stodgy, turgid, stilted and overly formal. But he grew and - with the emergence of local literary magazines showcasing indigenous voices – the context changed. His later prose contains a liveliness and deftness “steeped in the nuances and rhythms of life in the township” (in the words of Keorapetse Kgositsile) – a language more appropriate and effective for describing the crazy times, far-reaching social changes and remarkable survivalist strategies of black life in Johannesburg of the fifties.

The issues of intergenerational communication and continuity are critical for South African youth at this time. It raises the questions, for them, about which sources to use, what stories to tap into, which wells of inspiration to drink from. It asks: how can we encourage young people to recover gems from the past? Today’s youth do not have to contend with the banning of books and the erasure of key voices from the mass media. But they do have to deal with the pockets of amnesia and with what Mzamane claims is an education system that fails to be “South African” in character. Youth also have to contend with our generation’s mode of telling stories. As parents, our recounting of the past is often boring, filled with repetition of selected certain bits, predictable and frequently served up with a moralising tone which suggests that “we were better than you”. Needless to say, there is also a great deal of myth-making (heroes without flaws) and airbrushing. I am sure that young people, listening to us, often feel like crying out (in the words of the song): "Can it be that it was all so simple then? Or has time rewritten every line?”

Maybe, just maybe, we can enrol (the story of) Can Themba and other Drum writers to trigger wider youth interest in the past and inspire them for the future. The story of the Drum writers has it all. There is the heroism and sense of adventure. The swashbuckling style, the boldness, their powerful use of language, the subversion of the oppressor’s language, a commitment to truth, the willingness to “break the mould”, the insights into township life with its mix of vibrancy and precariousness, hope and despair. There is also the shadow side: the corrosive effects of alcohol abuse, the contributions cut short by what Lewis Nkosi called the “wasteful” early deaths, and (taking up what Mzamane said about Themba) the “disappointingly” low output given the prodigious talent. In all of this, there is much to learn and build on as we reflect on who we are and think our way into the future.

(The Department of Arts and Culture honoured Can Themba through a Memorial Lecture on 21 June 2013. Joe Thloloe, Nadine Gordimer and Mbulelo Mzamane were guest speakers at the event, which took place at the State Theatre in Pretoria).