In dire need of Can Themba’s disciples

Published Oct 2, 2017


Can Themba’s generation was exasperating and inspirational; foolhardy and courageous; suicidal, and they loved life. After all they were only human, but they left us with rich lessons for our country. (I was net a laaitie in that generation.)

Can the journalist - no, much more than that, the writer - captured these agonising contradictions in his piece “The Bottom of the Bottle”:

“The table was spired with bottles of brandy, gin and beer; and we were at the stage of high discourse, much like the majestic demons in the burning pit.

“For a moment, as I looked at those young men around me, the luxury of a mild flood of conscience swept over me. They had all at one time or another had visions: to escape their environment; to oppose and overcome their context; to evade and out-distance their destiny by hard work and sacrifice by education and native ability, by snatching from the table of occupation some of the chance crumbs of the high-chaired culture. Lord, it struck me, what a treasury of talent I had here in front of me. Must they bury their lives with mine like this under a load of Sophiatown bottles?

“I say it was conscience that struck me, because I knew that many of them looked up to me, my way of life, and repeated my despair and its defences behind my back. 

"I knew that they were excited by me when I said: ‘Why should one believe in anything, when one could live - live, gentlemen, at 212º Fahrenheit? The trouble is, gentlemen, for me, human nature stinks; but that is all the material we have to work with.’ 

"They said these things I said. But never with my own deep sense of doubt, the sleepless, tossing suspicion that often made me itch in the very heat of my enthusiasm.”

The texture of this writing captures the richness of thought and feeling in the way only Can could.

This past weekend, the family and the Department of Arts and Culture unveiled his tombstone at Westpark Cemetery, marking the end of Heritage Month, and 50 years after his death in exile in Swaziland.

Almost three years ago to the day, the same department repatriated the remains of Can’s protégé and friend Nat Nakasa from New York, also 50 years after his death in exile.

The lives and struggles of the two friends tell the story of South Africa and of journalism in this country, a country still suffering from post-traumatic stress after the demise of apartheid and a journalism that has not been able to define the debate about our present and our future.

Can was teaching at Madibane High School in the then Western Native Township, across the street from Sophiatown, when he won a Drum magazine short story competition in 1953. The victory changed his career. 

At that time, Drum and Golden City Post owner Jim Bailey had started his strategy of matching Fleet Street, UK, editors with South African writers in his newsrooms to develop a new brand of journalism - not quite the uppity British journalism, but truly South African.

That brew gave us some of this country’s best literature - see Es’kia Mphahlele, Bloke Modisane, Bessie Head, Lewis Nkosi, Casey Motsisi and Stan Motjuwadi, to name only a few.

The defining mark of the journalists then was their love of literature. And Can was outspoken in demanding that journalists read. And read. We read the English classics, African-American writers such as Langston Hughes, and others.

Can writes: “I think the rest of African society looked upon us as an excrescence. We were not the calm dignified Africans that the Church so admires (and fights for); not the unspoiled rural African the government so admires, for they tell no lies, they do not steal, and above all they do not try to measure up to the white man

“We were those sensitive might-have-beens who had knocked on the door of white civilisation (at the highest levels that South Africa could offer) and heard a gruff ‘No’ or a ‘Yes’ so shaky and insincere that we withdrew our snail horns at once.”

This was a generation that threw everything - their very lives - against the racism that was prevalent then. Drinking “white man’s” liquor when we were not allowed to, staying away from work, stealing from “the oppressors” was a blow against apartheid. We did not calculate the effects of all this on us.

Came 1994 and we assumed we would be cleansed by the signatures of Mandela and De Klerk at Codesa. Sorry, the ills persist. And we need pens, notebooks and laptops with the same strength as that of the Can Thembas to help heal our society.

These days of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media, the internet, journalism schools, the texture of the writing coming out of our newsrooms cannot be compared with the South African brand of the 1960s and 1970s.

We are not capturing the feel of our Marikana Shantytowns and our still-dusty township streets.

We don’t speak truth to power with the authentic voice of the vulnerable in our society.

We write from the lofty heights of the formerly white suburbs, in spite of our Press Code stating that we will always strive for truth, avoid unnecessary harm, reflect a multiplicity of voices in our coverage of events, show a special concern for children and other vulnerable groups, exhibit sensitivity to the cultural customs of our readers and the subjects of our reportage, and we will act independently.

The Can Thembas did not carry AK47s - their pens, notebooks and typewriters were their weapons.

They threw their bodies at the mighty state. Drinking, staying away from work and producing a fake doctor’s note.

Post our trauma with apartheid we needed therapy. Nothing has been done. The culture we developed during the apartheid years continues and our country hasn’t found the healing it cries for.

We desperately need Can Themba’s disciples.

Tlholoe is a veteran South African journalist and editor and one of Themba’s protégés.

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