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The making and breaking of an intellectual tsotsi

Published May 9, 2022


Lesego Makgatho

[email protected]

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Johannesburg - The life of iconic Drum journalist and writer Can Themba has finally been penned, thanks to novelist and playwright Siphiwo Mahala, who’s written a biography, Can Themba: The Making and Breaking of the Intellectual Tsotsi.

Thursday night last week saw attendees gather at Book Circle Capital in Melville, Johannesburg for the launch, at which Mahala spoke with owner Sewela Langeni and explained that working on the book had been a long journey.

“It’s a journey of 20 years. In 2002, I wrote a story called The Suit Continued, which was a re-imagination of Can Themba’s most famous story, The Suit. Since that moment, there have been a number of studies that compared my work to Can Themba’s. I felt like I had an obligation to know more about this man, but to my disappointment there was no definitive study or biographical text that told his story.”

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Guests listen to Siphiwo Mahala during the book launch. Picture Bhekikaya Mabaso.

Mahala said he was fortunate to speak to luminaries such as writer and educationist E’skia Mphahlele, as well as writer Lewis Nkosi, casually, to gain insight into Themba's intellectual work.

“It was in 2010 that Lewis Nkosi passed and I realised that he was the last of the Drum generation of writers. I took the initiative to reconcile some of the conversations that I had as I worked closely with the late Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile, Nadine Gordimer and poet Don Mattera. One conversation led to another, as many people had pieces of Can Themba.”

In 2014, Mahala enrolled for a PhD and he graduated in 2018. After that, he won the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences award to convert his PhD into a manuscript, which was then published as a book.

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“In my investigation of speaking to different people, I realised that Can Themba could talk to a professor in the morning, a beauty queen at lunchtime and a gangster in the afternoon and have them laughing and eating out of his hand. He was one person who could relate to everyone. I found some of Can Themba’s work that he wrote using pseudonyms that many people didn’t know. I went as far as Swaziland to try and find his material, which is included in the book,” he said.

Can Themba: The Making and Breaking of the Intellectual Tsotsi is available at all major bookstores nationwide.

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