Greatest Africans: Remembering Can Themba

By Katlego Mereko

 95 years ago, a writer whose literary work and reputation would grow increasingly significant in the South African literary landscape was born. Daniel Canodoce “Can” Themba!  He was born in Marabastad, Pretoria in 1924. He saw through his High School education at Kagiso Secondary School in Krugersdorp, where he first fell in love with the written word, he was later to master so compellingly.

Like most black people at the time, Can Themba enrolled for his tertiary studies at Fort Hare University where he graduated for his BA degree, with a distinction in English. He was a contemporary of well-known political figures such as Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Robert Sobukwe at Fort Hare. He subsequently taught in several schools, including Madibane High in the Western Native Township and Central Indian High School in Fordsburg.

In 1953 he won a short story competition run by Drum magazine where beat competition from the entire continent, pipping Nigerian author Cyprian Ekwensi to first place. As a result, Themba was hired by Drum as a reporter having grown disillusioned with the Bantu Education Bill imposed in the early 50s. Later he became an associate editor and wrote for Drum’s sister publication, Golden City Post.

It is in his occupation at Drum that his personality flourished, becoming a central figure in the famous “Drum Boys” who were the toast of black journalism in South Africa. This insurgent clique consisted of the likes of Henry “Mr Drum” Nxumalo, Peter Magubane, Lewis Nkosi, Todd Matshikiza, William “Bloke” Modisane, Zeke Mphahlele, etc. Collectively, they lived to the daring dictum “Live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse.”

Lewis Nkosi writes that Themba approached apartheid life with mocking cynicism. In one of his assignments, Themba frequents several white churches in Johannesburg in a cheeky effort seemingly to test the religious resolve of the congregations. He wrote: 

“A few doors away was the Baptist Church, and as I walked towards it, I began to think that people didn’t want me to share their church. As I walked through the Baptist door, I was tense, waiting for that tap on the shoulder…but instead, I was given a hymn book and welcomed into the church. I sat through the service… this up and down treatment wasn’t doing my nerves much good.”

Can Themba, a fast talker, “a very deft and quick thinker,” has become the embodiment of whatever imagination exists and persists of ‘the swarming, cacophonous, strutting, brawling, vibrating life’ of the near-forgotten township of Sophiatown.

He represents a generation of activists who, by way of demonstration, defied the classification of black people as ‘uncivilised’ or backward. Much of the Sophiatown generation took modernity’s suggestive standards by the scruff of the neck and made of it what they wished. They did not conform neatly to the demands imposed by the invading culture in their own country.

He also authored several short stories, the most popular of which is The Suit, which has gone on to be adapted as a stage-play and film. The polemic nature of that narrative has seen it become a subject of the feminist critic in the literary tradition.

In the early 60s, Themba went into exile in Swaziland and taught at St Joseph Missionary School in Umzimpofu outside Manzini. In 1966 he was declared a statutory communist by the apartheid government and his work could not be published nor quoted in South Africa. A year later he died of coronary thrombosis while in Manzini.

He was posthumously awarded the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver “For excellent achievement in Literature, contributing to the field of journalism and striving for a just and democratic South Africa,” and will see his legacy grow even more with important work, such as that of Siphiwo Mahala, done on this swaggering figure of kofifi. 


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South African Arts

Can Themba


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