Brent Poggenpoel is studying towards a BA in Psychology and English literature at Varsity College, Cape Town. He was born in Cape Town, on the Cape Flats and enjoys writing short stories.
The late Ernest Mancoba, painter and sculptor, should be to South Africans as Van Gogh is to the Dutch and Picasso is to the Spanish. He, like others, have for too long been excluded from the South African narrative. He is considered to be in a class of his own and yet his work is not sufficiently studied at South African universities or art schools. The father of writer Njabulo Ndebele, Nimrod Ndebele, a playwright and friend, is known to have described Mancoba as the leading intellectual of his generation in the 1930s.
This week on 29 October 2021, The Art and Ubuntu Trust (AUT), the organisation that has worked, building on Dr Elza Miles foundational efforts, to end the erasure of Mancoba, reached a major milestone when it donated a tapestry of Mancoba’s oil painting, L’Ancêtre (1969-71) and a bust of him to the Constitutional Court Trust (CCT) in 2017. Renowned master weaver Joseph Ndlovu wove the tapestry but sadly died recently before seeing this work publicly acknowledged at the highest court in the land. Sculptor Dorothy Randell sculpted the bust in 1930.
As a celebration of these notable artwork donations, the Constitutional Court Trust (CCT), custodian of the Constitutional Court Art Collection (CCAC), and AUT will host a webinar entitled – “African spirituality, humanity and heritage”. The webinar will discuss master weaver Ndlovu’s interpretation of the oil painting transformed into a tapestry.
A six-minute video artwork “Reading the Ancestor” by Abdulcadir Ahmed Said, donated to the CCAC by Tomas Films in 2021, will also be screened during the webinar as it enriches the interpretation of these artworks.
According to Justice Sisi Khampepe, outgoing chairperson of the CCT and the CCAC Artworks Committee, the interplay of mediums between these four distinct yet interrelated works (Mancoba’s original painting, Ndlovu’s textile, Randell’s sculpture and Abdulcadir Ahmed Said’s film) offer bountiful interpretive possibilities. The interconnectedness of South Africa with the African continent, and how the CCAC “doesn’t just look inwards but considers constitutionalism more broadly,” was noted.
“The significant context of Mancoba’s time spent in exile, and the sense of community across the world around what our Constitution comes to represent today was also recognised. “Mancoba’s message […] saying we need to preserve African heritage as a shared heritage of humanity, resonates with Joseph Ndlovu’s Humanity, the very first artwork of the CCAC, aptly speaking to our constitutional ideals, as reflected in the CCAC,” Justice Khampepe said.
“We are delighted that the Constitutional Court Trust has agreed to add this work to its art collection and collaborate on the webinar,” said Bridget Thompson, Executive Trustee at Art and Ubuntu Trust who is the originator of this effort. She further explained that after making a film in 1994 about Ernest Mancoba’s first return to South Africa in 56 years and having thereby been exposed to his work and ideas she had felt the necessity in 2004 to curate an exhibition to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth. This exhibition, ‘In the Name of All Humanity: The African Spiritual Expression of Ernest Mancoba’ initiated the work of the Art and Ubuntu Trust which is committed to developing understanding of and preserving Mancoba’s legacy and that of other African artists. Thompson met Mancoba through Govan Mbeki who described Mancoba as his mentor.
The Trust has so far preserved his legacy through significant outreach programmes in all nine provinces. Seminars on Mancoba’s work at community art centres over the past ten years have reached thousands of artists, teachers and learners. This effort was consolidated in a special ArtSAT Webinar series held every Saturday over 12 weeks recently. These sessions focused on his work and the work of other leading South African artists and brought together some of the country’s leading brains in the art space.
Abdulcadir Ahmed Said director of “Reading the Ancestor”, the short video artwork that will be part of the webinar, collaborated with a team to make several short films on leading artists and these were shown in the ArtSAT series. Through these collaborative efforts Thompson said that AUT is realising its aim of developing awareness about the indigenous knowledge in the arts that informed Mancoba and other South African artists, musicians and writers.
Mancoba was born in 1904 in Gauteng. He left the country in 1938 and was unable to return after being interned during World War II and then marrying a Danish artist, Sonja Verlov. “His work was ahead of its time but very much centered on an African spiritual expression,” said Thompson. “This started in 1929 with a sculpture in wood, The African Madonna and finishing in the 1990’s with oil paintings and lithographs. The L’Ancêtre/The Ancestor took him from 1969 to 1971 to complete,” she said. He died in Paris in 2002.
Join in the webinar at 10am on Friday 29 October to enjoy a feast of speakers including Justice Albie Sachs (member emeritus of the Artworks Committee), Stacey Vorster (former CCAC curator and Artworks Committee member), Zubeida Jaffer (AUT chair), Ziphozenkosi Dayile (Independent Curator), Bridget Thompson (Executive Trustee of the AUT), Prof Pitika Ntuli (CCAC artist), Abdulcadir Ahmed Said (CCAC artist), Bongiwe Hlekiso (University of the Western Cape Doctoral Fellow), Sokhaya Charles Nkosi (CCAC artist), Vincent Baloyi (CCAC artist), Thato Ndhlovu (daughter of the master weaver Joseph Ndlovu), Imruh Bakari (filmmaker and poet), and Mgcineni Sobopha (artist and fine art lecturer at University of Fort Hare), amongst others.
To register click here: https://zoom.us/meeting/register/tJYpd-yhrDoqHdVNdWwhLxDVIcNQXKy18x08
Limited places available for 100 only.
For more on Ernest Mancoba visit the Art and Ubuntu Trust website @ https://artubuntu.org/
For more on the Constitutional Court Art Collection visit https://ccac.concourttrust.org.za/.
Shepherd Mphofu and Zubeida Jaffer
Despite the attainment of democracy in 1994, South African children continue to understand their history as one which coincides with colonialism. The authors outline a way forward to tell a fuller story of the people of this part of the world.
South Africa’s transformative national narrative sprung from the intellectual strata. Way back in 1911 a South African lawyer, Pixley ka Isaka Seme, delivered a lecture that gave intellectual stimulation to the decolonisation process. Seme’s address was part of a cultural and intellectual movement of writers, artists, religious and political leaders whose objective was to construct a counter-narrative to European modernity by defining African modernity. Professor Ntongela Masilela, a US-based South African academic has referred to this early initiative as the New African Movement and recorded these efforts in his book An Outline of the New African Movement in South Africa. He defines this movement as stretching over a century from about 1862 (Tiyo Soga) to 1960 (Ezekiel Mphahlele). Similarly, the new democratic narrative, under considerable pressure presently was largely crafted by lawyers and politicians involved in the negotiations from 1990 to 1994. Will we draw on our past narratives, acknowledge the three major dominant narratives and craft a fourth way that moves us forward?
We need a simple story that acknowledges our failings, but also recognises our strengths. The narrative could run alongside the National Development Plan, spelling out what is expected of us all. The challenge in South Africa is to find the right words that will inspire us to understand what we have to do (right action) to live in a country and a continent that deserves to fully taste what it means to be free. Contestations around narratives could be intense.
How will we ensure that a new narrative will shift us as far away as possible from authoritarian control that some political and economic interests would favour? Through a broader story must come a simple statement that could make sense to a very wide constituency providing the youth especially with a clear context in which they could live and work towards a kinder and fairer South Africa and Africa. Finding the right words could inspire the right action and state of mind to move the country forward. This paper cannot pretend to have the answers but would like to suggest some possible elements of the story that could help deepen our understanding and develop a different, more confident mind set.
In 2017, anthropologist James Suzman published his book, Affluence without Abundance, in which he argued that the Bushmen give us a pretty good insight into how Homo sapiens lived for 95 or 98 percent of human history. European colonialism enjoyed its heyday for 400 odd years and while the Bushmen’s way of life prevailed for at least 70 000 years. He made an extraordinary observation that: “If we judge a civilisation’s success by its endurance over time, then the Bushmen are the most successful society in human history.”
Suzman argued that humanity was on the edge of change (2017):
“Something fairly fundamental is shifting. We have all these big new questions about sustainability, about whether the world can continue as it is. Looking back at how the most sustainable cultures in human history organise themselves might give us some idea of how to organize ourselves in the future.”
He further said that some settlers were quietly impressed. The expressed admiration for their extraordinary knowledge of local flora and fauna and the ease with which they procured “remedies” for all sorts of different ailments from the plants around them. Why was this an important body of research for the development of a new national narrative? The Bushmen were spread across the Southern African mountains. In South Africa, they are considered to be the first people based at the Cape and were referred to as KhoiSan. Over time they were known to intermingle with the Southern African Bantu (these were anthropological terms.) This intermingling over time resulted in the birth of a little boy in 1918 who was to grow up to become the most famous South African president and one of the most recognised leaders in the modern world. In 2018, the country stood poised to celebrate the centenary of his birth on 18 July. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela’s lineage was disclosed through DNA testing nearly 20 years ago and yet absolutely nothing has been done officially to pull this information into the national narrative. These tests proved that his maternal roots were KhoiSan and his paternal roots were Southern African Bantu. These two groups represent the largest collective of those who were dispossessed by European colonialism.
Academics could gather this story and delineate other key elements of a broader South African story that our children could eventually be schooled in. They should know and read Mhudi, the first novel written by an African. Bridget Thompson, editor of the soon to be published book Listening to Literature, A South African Canon, described Sol Plaatje as the father of modern South African literature. Mhudi, she said, preceded Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart by four decades. More than 100 years ago, he also produced a foundational book on South African history and politics Native Life in South Africa, that has remained largely absent from current university curricula. She further referred to some of the grand poets.
One might expect, in our orally literate society, that South Africa’s poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile (1938-2018) would be a household name. Regrettably not. Neither is Mazisi Kunene (1930-2006), poet laureate before him and designated African poet laureate by UNESCO in 1993, nor is Samuel Edward Krune Mqhayi (1875-1945), affectionately known as Imbongi yesizwe jikelele (The poet of the nation as a whole). Nontsizi Mqwetho, a remarkable woman about whose life very little is known but whose poetry written in the 1920s and 1930s amazes and delights to this day, is familiar to an even smaller circle.
To conclude, these four elements taken together with Thabo Mbeki’s I am an African speech, provide some of the material needed to rescript a new and deeper narrative in and of South Africa.
In 2017, (name) Ndebele warned that this would take time. The formulation of a collective narrative had to be such that it drew on all elements of the historical experiences of those who make up the collective, he said. While in I am an African speech Mbeki seemed overly generous, his disappointment at how South Africa turned out to be cannot be magnified any further than his “two nations” speech. Besides, overtime, the economic beneficiaries of the current dispensation, remain the same as those who benefited during Apartheid and the historical narrative remains set into that epoch. The national narrative favours and is considered valid only as it goes as far as favouring the story of the arrival of the Dutch, and not how, before then, Africans lived. It seems not so much a promising journey unless we take seriously the whole project of decolonisation. It is only under a decolonised regime that the narrative could be sanitised and objectively capture a people’s history and being.
South African soprano Pumeza Matshikiza has come home to present a special solo concert at the Roodepoort Theatre on 2 November 2021. She will sing a selection of opera arias and traditional South African songs from her current repertoire.
I was fortunate to be invited to preview the show with family and friends at the theatre on Friday 15 October 2021. She and her accompanying pianist Paul Ferreira received several standing ovations from the enthusiastic audience.
A UCT Music School graduate, Matshikiza is an exclusive Decca Classics recording artist and has released two albums Voice of Hope and Arias.
In the 21/22 season, she made her house and role debut as Fox in Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen at the English National Opera. She has also appeared there as Moira in the world premiere of The Handmaid’s tale, written by Poul Ruders. She has performed in Ireland and would have performed elsewhere such as with the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra if Covid had not led to cancellations.
Operatic talent has flourished in South Africa since democracy in 1994. Watching her powerful performance I could not help being reminded of a time long ago in 1892 when South African choral singers performed in Britain. I note in the book, Beauty of the Heart, The Life and Times of Charlotte Mannya Maxeke, the commentary of British Music critics in various local papers.
In August 1892, the Musical Times wrote as follows:
A quartet, or rather a solo accompanied by three voices, bore so close a resemblance to Rossini’s Cajus Animam that it is difficult to accept it as a specimen of Native music at all.
Their manager, a Mr Vert, was quick to brief other journalists and the following commentary appeared:
This quartet, ‘Africa’ is the composition of a Kaffir who had never heard of Rossini or his Stabat Mater and did not dream that such a selection of Cajus Animam was in existence. It is descriptive of how the Natives hum some portions of their songs.
Another critic wrote:
The music capabilities of the Kaffir Choir which during the last month has claimed attention in London must have been a surprise to many. Hitherto the African has been deemed so undeveloped as to be thought scarcely worthy of association with music, but as in many other instances, this supposition has apparently arisen from ignorance rather than knowledge.
Listening to Pumeza’s soprano voice explode in Roodepoort, I could not stop smiling. It was an evening of pure delight to see her claim her space in the country and in the world in defiance of all prejudice that her ancestors had to endure.
The performance starts at 19:30 sharp and tickets are only R180.00 and R340.00 for two. Patrons are encouraged to book seats online to avoid disappointments, as seating is limited. Visit www.roodepoorttheatre.com
Ylva Rodny-Gumede, Colin Chasi, Zubeida Jaffer and Mvuzo Ponono
There is no doubt that in the 21st century, journalism is undergoing radical and fundamental change. Journalism worldwide is adapting to an ever changing digital and social media environment with competing forms of information dissemination, and stricter if not harsher economic conditions. In South Africa, questions regarding whether journalism will survive this time of flux are often coupled with further enquiry around the role of journalism in a changing socio-political landscape. These debates are often characterised by renewed and amplified calls for a decolonisation of news media.
These calls are not new. However, at the birth of South Africa’s democracy in 1994 they slipped into the background, as the word “transformation” became the dominant focus of the discourse. There was no widespread effort to place the issue of “transformation” into the historical context of decolonisation and what the relationship was between the two.
Since the emergence of the #RhodesMustFall student movement there has been renewed interest in South Africa on questions to do with decolonisation. The decolonisation debates that were catalysed by the #RhodesMustFall movement in South Africa have established their new narratives that distinguish this moment from the transformation discourse that was mainstreamed in the early 1990s.
Where the transformation discourse appeared to take cues from notions of South African exceptionalism, thus treating apartheid as distinct from wider colonial experiences, the renewed focus on decolonisation finds its grounding in reading apartheid as an extension and expression of colonialism, a colonialism at once both refined and denied by the South African Nationalist Party. Thus, the call for decolonisation is not one of only breaking down the legacy of apartheid, but of ending colonialism and its resultant indignities.
Journalism is central to democratic processes and plays an important role as disseminator of information, formation of public opinion and the scrutiny of power. This said, current debates around journalism and news dissemination are centred around a crisis of journalism. Where some see journalism in free fall and whose fundamental values can no longer be upheld. Others see, and welcome, a debate that questions the hegemonic role of journalism, particularly as it pertains to the news media’s role in upholding the status quo, discursive practices, representations and ideology.
In spite of the history and the often bad reputation, individual journalists and media outlets have defended the autonomy of news media and have vigorously championed for an independent media system free of government oversight. The good to have come from an independent media system cannot be overlooked, as journalism has been a steady force in keeping an eye on abuse of power. Media houses and individual journalists, often at a great price to their own safety as well as their careers, have played a leading role in shaping post-apartheid South Africa. Thus, the role of the news media in this sense has often been ambiguous. Various chapters in the book explore these issues in more detail: the call for a media system that is inward looking but also free to fulfil its mandate as watchdog. The aim with this book is to understand journalism from a broad historical and social science perspective. It is also to question the idea of professional journalism, which wields much influence over societal discourse, legitimately representing the public in a country with a history of disparity. This is to understand that journalism has never been a fully cohesive model of self-regulation, especially in the context of South Africa, where the news media, as throughout the post-colony, has often served as an extension of colonial administrative power. This need to preserve independence whilst avoiding an alignment with the hegemonic powers deserves further scrutiny.
The book argues that journalism and its education, a core sphere for the study of communication and media practices, is an arena that can be served better by reflection on decolonisation, and an adoption of its core values. The decolonisation agenda calls institutional cultures into question. It demands access to education by challenging limitations to access that are posed by economic and other structural injustices. It demands curricula reform in how teaching and learning are conducted, including, but not limited to, assessment practices. As a radical demand for democracy, it speaks for freedom of expression, understanding that colonialism conduces to the silencing of those it oppresses.
The study of journalism is, after all, a theatre for understanding how people get to know who they are, or at least it presents grounds for understanding how people are estranged from each other. From this vantage point, scholarship on journalism should vitally engage with patterns by which social orders are brought into play to suit the powerful, those who, colonialism and its legacies, casts in the role of what Biko called “the perpetual teacher”.
Mazisi Kunene believes that through performance and celebration, we rediscover the splendour, the grandeur in ourselves. Central to all these elements of orature is performance. Story, riddle, proverb and dance constitute a performance genre.
The carnival takes place in the streets. Dance is a celebration of form over fixity, a momentary triumph over gravitational pull, a symbolic conquest of gravity. In the vein of Afro-Brazilian capoeira, it becomes an anti-oppression martial art-cum-dance sequence. Motion is inherent in change, growth and development in nature and nurture. Orature is a living tradition precisely because orality, its base, is always at the cutting edge of the new and the experimental.
Mphahlele, Kunene, wa Thiongo, Masilela, Nyembezi
Orality is a central technique for orature. Orature is a systematic recording and transmission of systems of knowledge via oral means. It is the primary means of managing indigenous knowledge and has many branches: literature, art, medicine, philosophy, child-rearing practices and methodologies of social cohesion.
E’skia Mphahlele (Voices in the Whirlwind: 1967) notes: “The praise poem and the epic events and deeds of a heroic nature, are ancient forms of oral poetry. When African pre-industrial communities recited praise poetry and folk tales, sang ballads, dramatised healing processes, ancestral worship, when society had not yet disintegrated, there was no talk about a ‘unified sensibility’, it was a natural thing.”
And Kunene, (Anthem of the Decades: 1981) writes: “I think it’s logical, normal to write in your mother tongue because there’s a psychology, a philosophy connected with the selection or even the shape of the words you use that is linked up with your experience as a person in the language. My great grandmother, Maqandeyana of the Ntuli family, told me, ‘Knowledge is of the ancestors. The secret of ancient wisdom lies in the names of things and their forgotten meanings.’”
African oral literature is not just the antithesis of a written literature, but a development of a more complex literary genre which has utilised social and linguist symbols that are organised to appeal to a complex and varied set of community emotions.
Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiongo (Globalectics: 2012) reminds us of the advocacy by African scholars. “It took the fighting pioneering spirit of those African historians, led principally by Bethwell Allan Ogot of Kenya and Kenneth Onwuka Dike of Nigeria, to have oral sources accepted as valid by universities and institutions of higher learning in Africa and the world.”
The language of cyberspace borrows the language of orality. It is neither one nor the other. It is cyber-orality. The problem has been their placement in a hierarchy. Network, not hierarchy, will free the richness of the aesthetic, oral or literary. We can talk about classical and contemporary orature. Nature in orature manifests itself as a web of connections of mutual dependence. New combinations and new platforms: nature, nurture, cyberture, orality, orature and cyborature.
Significance and Meaning
Why does Kunene choose the epic format? The epic incorporates networks, realms and time and space elements within a large body of work. Generic elements of orature – riddle, proverb, story, song, poetry, drama, dance, myth – nourish the imagination, explain the universe and help humans to come to terms with it.
Ntongela Masilela (An Outline of the New African Movement in South Africa: 2012) emphasizes this Afro futurism stance of Kunene – the continuities in the past, present and future. These are triple streams of consciousness, as they exchange confidences, knowledge, wisdom and dreams.
“Kunene had to search for his own particular classicism demanded by Xhosa poet, S.E.K. Mqhayi, Kunene’s master, Benedict Wallet Vilakazi, as well as the classicism of two great Zulu poets of the nineteenth century: Magolwane and Mshongweni. Kunene premised the tradition, styles, poetic form, and manner of rendition and the coinage of new expressions, from the early Zulu praise poets. Just as C.L.S. Nyembezi (Izibongo zamaKhosi: 1958) recounted in the explanatory texts to his, Kunene turned his back on Zulu poets by imitating the English romantic poetry of Keats & Shelley.”
For Kunene to arrive at his poetic identity, his tone, his amplification of ancestral voices, was a tough call. He says: “As the Zulu literary tradition had been devalued, I started writing without models, but eventually discarded all these experiments, in preference for an internal rhythm which I found in studying traditional poetry.”
And Kunene’s internal rhythm style gave us the masterpieces such as Emperor Shaka the Great, Anthem of the Decades, The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain, Impepho, IGudu likaSomcabeko.
Not only did Kunene harbour a fascination with creation myth legends from ancient Egypt, the Maya in present Mexico and Guatemala, the Berber in present Morocco and Algeria, and the Hindus of the Ganges Valley. Kunene had the special gift and interest to probe behind the meanings of the narratives, to decipher the secret revelations. He was always bold, anti-colonialist and upfront, with a ringing voice for African/Black sovereignty, dignity, freedom and re-connection with Africa’s greatness in the realm of world cultures.
Vusi Mchunu read his contribution to the book – Listening to Literature: Towards a South African Canon –at the ArtSat series produced by Art and Ubuntu Trust. The book was edited by Bridget Thompson and is available at africansunmedia.co.za. For more on ArtSat series visit artubuntu.org.
Dr. Onkgopotse JJ Tabane
Dr. Onkgopotse JJ Tabane argues that media and politics cannot be separated as both exist within the public sphere which should ideally afford all freedoms of expression. The Journalist publishes this commentary and excerpts from Tabane’s PhD research Bridging The Gap: An Analysis Of The Complicated Relationship Between The Government And The Media 23 Years Into Democracy.
The tension that is alive between media and the government is caused by wrestling for either to be dominant over the other, to control the national narrative and the public sphere agenda. While South Africa as a country has come a long way since the dark days of apartheid where the government of the day used ‘a myriad of laws in its books and employed multiple tactics to gag the media’ (Armoudian, 2013), we have something to celebrate yet we have to continue keeping our guard up.
The world is aware of the Black Wednesday – October 19, 1977, when the erstwhile white-only National Party apartheid government gagged the media through laws designed to make it almost impossible to publish any information without authorisation from the government, especially on political and national security issues. When newspapers such as The World and Weekend World were banned, even journalists were criminalised and thrown into jail without trial, all of which was legitimised by the country’s public policy agenda through intricately crafted acts, leaving no possibility of escaping the wrath of the brutal and unjust apartheid against the media. All of this in the effort to evade government accountability.
Times have changed
While we must acknowledge that much has changed under South Africa’s democracy, post- 1994 wherein “constitutional rights” protect media freedom, today media freedom is protected by the constitutional law – the Bill of Rights. However, the push and pull effect between lawmakers and the media still exists, and – sadly – it will be a permanent state as both sides are constantly attempting to set their agenda and frame their messaging to shape public opinion.
While things are not bad, media is not free from threat
Reid argues that “just because things are not as bad as they were during apartheid does not mean that the media system is entirely free or free from threat. Nor does it indicate that the sector is operating as well as it should, according to democratic principles” (Reid, 2017). It was the emergence of Protection of State Information Bill (POSIB) in 2013, in the middle of (Jacob) Zuma’s tenure, which attempted to criminalise media activities, which is in the public interest and that would have adversely affected the manner in which journalists delivered their investigative reports (Harris, 2013). Thankfully – the bill, commonly referred to as the Secrecy Bill, never gained traction as civil society activism surged and media practitioners interested in protecting public interest, public opinion and the public sphere defied the gagging and as a result it was withdrawn twice, but that doesn’t mean government didn’t and doesn’t continue to attempt to subliminally influence public discourse.
Media’s complex relationship with government
In the last two decades South Africa has seen developments that define the complex relations, for example:
The Role of the Media in a Democracy – Trust issues?
A democracy requires a decent amount of information flow to function optimally. In other words, the less information available, the less empowered citizens become. In the context of our history, where there were information structures, the conduct of the government to make information available must be scrutinised, as better is expected in a constitutional democracy.
Spiess (2011), in From watchdog to lapdog? The impact of government intimidation on the public watchdog performance of peace media in processes of democratisation, concentrating on what is referred to as investigative journalism also known as watchdog media (WM), describes it as ‘reporting that serves’ (Spiess, 2011) the exposure of wrongdoing in the public interest‘ (Coronel (2009: 3), cited in Spiess, 2011).
Such journalism does ‘not only provide information but particularly focuses on malfeasance’ (Spiess, 2011:5). Media as watchdogs ‘can therefore contribute to each phase of democratisation and in several ways, including policy-making and law abidance, their main contribution is to hold powerful actors accountable’ (Spiess, 2011:5). We see this in the role the media played to unearth corruption in the Zondo Commission with the Gupta saga.
One of the researchers (Spiess, 2011) cautions that the media ‘can also harm fledgling democracies such as in developing countries, for example on the African continent, excessive criticism and ‘attack dog’ journalism (Voltmer, 2009: 5). Unprofessional and unethical watchdogs can erode trust in the media, thereby undermining a vital ingredient for a well-informed citizenry (Tettey, 2006). Also, sensational and ‘adversarial watchdogism’ causes detrimental frictions (Louw, 2005: 64) and journalists in need of sensational stories, coupled with informants who strategically leak information, reinforce the power of elites rather than holding them accountable (Waisbord, 2000), (Spiess, 2011).
Media should not be political players
In a paper entitled The Role of Media in the Arab World’s Transformation Process, Kai Fahez (2011) argues that the media must not see themselves as political players, but rather as mediators between the state, the opposition, and civil society. For instance in South Africa, the present day and first democratically elected government of the African National Congress (ANC) still engages the media as though the governing party has a monopoly of the public sphere in conveying its message rather than those of oppositional policymakers. The media must ensure that it can play an almost neutral referee role. However, following the discussions about the possibility of media regulation, the ANC had stated, through its then treasurer-general, Zweli Mkhize, that ‘the ANC was perturbed by the oppositional stance of some sections of the media. “We take serious offence and we need to look at the adequacy of the peer-driven mechanism.” (City Press, 2015).
According to Warren Francke in his paper entitled The Evolving Watchdog, the media’s role in the government ethics can be considered to play two roles in society: that of a watchdog and that of a societal player, as it is part of civil society. Francke suggests a role of influence on ethics in public life (Francke, 1995), which certainly undoes the ANC’s argument of expecting media to ignore oppositional views to its own strategic messages.
Media and the government should be accountable
South Africa’s political system does not lend itself to holding members of parliament accountable by their constituencies. Because the system leans heavily on a party system, there is scant accountability. The media creates a platform that ensures that citizens’ representatives can be held to account.
The World Bank report entitled The contribution of government communications’ capacity to achieving good governance outcomes, underlines three simple pillars that can help us understand the role of communications in a democracy, namely, enhancing the capability of the state to get things done, making the state responsive to the needs of citizens, and upholding their rights and enhancing the ability of citizens (and civil society in general) to hold the government accountable (World Bank Report, 1999).
‘Forty years later, it is important to acknowledge the advancements for media freedom since those dark times’ (Reid, 2017). South Africa’s Constitution protects a Bill of Rights guaranteeing freedom of expression and of the media. ‘But just because things are not as bad as they were during apartheid does not mean that the media system is entirely free or free from threat. Nor does it indicate that the sector is operating as well as it should, according to democratic principles’ (Reid, 2017).
For instance, the government of president Thabo Mbeki was unhappy about how it had sometimes been treated by the media and how the president had been caricatured. Even then there had been no attempt to censor or punish the media or to pass laws to regulate the media or to prevent them from doing their job of making the government accountable for its actions. It was under his watch as deputy president under the (Nelson) Mandela government that the Comtask report was put together and ultimately led to the formation of GCIS (De Villiers, 1996).
Under Zuma South Africa saw the emergence of the Protection of State Information Bill (POSIB) in 2013, which criminalised media activity that is in the public interest and would adversely affect the manner in which journalists delivered their investigative reports (Harris, 2013). The bill commonly referred to as the Secrecy Bill, never gained traction as civil society activism surged and media practitioners interested in protecting public interest, public opinion and the public sphere defied the gagging. As a result, it was withdrawn twice, but that doesn’t mean the government didn’t and doesn’t continue to attempt to subliminally influence public discourse.
Zuma inserted himself into the public sphere, encouraging and endorsing what were to be his presidency’s mouth-pieces the New Age newspaper as well as ANN7 TV news channel, which were run by the Gupta family with close association with his family. All in the name of not wanting to be held accountable.
Dr. Onkgopotse JJ Tabane’s full thesis Bridging The Gap: An Analysis Of The Complicated Relationship Between Government And The Media 23 Years Into Democracy submitted in 2019 at the University of Witwatersrand can be accessed in The Journalist’s Academic Papers section.
As South Africa commemorates the 44th anniversary of this day – October 17, 1977 – which, in history became a dark spot and a reminder to reflect on how freedoms of expression were trampled upon, violated and suppressed by the apartheid government, this edition examines where we are today and where South Africa needs to be, looking into the future as we guard against tampering with all freedoms provided for in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, including the media’s.
The Journalist team has put together this Black Wednesday edition, first and foremost, to gather a sliver of distinctive voices that have been working towards contextualising the importance of creating the spaces to narrate our stories with broader more inclusive lenses.
This edition is not confined to journalism as the only conduit to truth-telling but it also extends to the literary critical works that situate the plurality of realities in the public sphere, thereby enriching the public discourse. Four media practitioners – Frank Meintjies, Shepi Mati, Zubeida Jaffer and Phindile Xaba – share a forward looking statement to open up a platform for engagement, while Meintjies, Vusi Mchunu, Sabata-mpho Mokae, Dr JJ Tabane, Sylvia Vollenhoven, Jaffer and Ylva Rodny-Gumede, Colin Chasi, and Mvuzo Ponono add their voices and share their works.
Meintjies writes on Can Themba’s craftiness to converge reporting and creative writing to highlight the plight of the marginalised and oppressed, Mchunu emphasizes the grandeur in ourselves while Mokae’s Sol Plaatje – a writer as the righter of past (mis)representations – is a take on his novel Mhudi that took a decade to be published and challenged the status quo to give this piece of literature a feminist voice in the protagonist’s character. Then there is Sylvia Vollenhoven, whose excerpt from the book Rethinking Africa: Indigenous women reinterpret Southern Africa’s pasts, writes us back into history while the prodding research work of Tabane’s PhD thesis interrogates the role of players (media and government) in the public sphere and the cause of the tensions between them.
Rodny-Gumede, Chasi, Jaffer and Ponono share the yet-to-be published book Decolonisation of Journalism in South Africa: Critical Perspective pointing out the importance of a university curriculum reflective of its environment.
This is our offering and much more for this issue.
Special Projects Editor for The Journalist.
Ongeziwe Babane and Phindile Xaba
What came to be known as Black Wednesday – October 19, 1977 – has left an indelible blemish on the history of the National Party’s (NP’s) rule and its suppression of freedom of expression.
On this bleak day, then apartheid state minister Jimmy Kruger clamped down on the media leading to the closure of The World and Sunday World, and the Christian Institute’s publication Pro Veritate that was edited by anti-apartheid activist and Dutch Reformed Church clergyman Beyers Naudé. Percy Qoboza, who was at the time editor of both The World and Sunday World, was frog-marched off to detention under Section 10 of the Internal Security Act.
Veteran journalist, Mathatha Tsedu, who suffered the NP’s wrath, along with other writers such as Don Mattera and Joe Tlholoe, were detained, tortured and even slapped with five-year banning orders. Last year in 2020, Tsedu put his experiences on record at the Azanian People’s Organisation seminar that focused on the events. In a paper entitled, The real meaning of Black Wednesday – October 19, 1977, he said that he, along with his colleagues, members of Media Workers Association of SA (MWASA) leadership – Zwelakhe Sisulu, Thloloe, Charles Ngqakula, Mono Badela, Subrey Govender, Phil Mthimkhulu – were banned for organising journalists into a unitary voice of challenging the apartheid rule.
He asserts that these efforts by the apartheid regime did not dim the highly organised black journalists’ efforts.
Activist Malesela Steve Lebelo explains the events that led to the clamp down of NP’s attempt at squashing all freedoms, from a unique point of view giving credit to the media’s role in exposing the atrocities of the apartheid regime and fuelling its global condemnation. He wrote in Black Wednesday was not an attack on the media (October 18, 2020) published in the City Press, that what precipitated Black Wednesday was the NP “regime’s failure to contain the insurrection that erupted in Soweto in June 1976, heightening white society’s fears over a looming ‘swart gevaar’ [black danger] thus prompting “the apartheid government to ban publications and organisations such as the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) and its 18 affiliates.”
Tsedu explains that Black Wednesday was a culmination of all converged efforts including organised black journalists’ which could not be thwarted by the apartheid regime’s tactics: “However, the revolution was not going to be dimmed, just as the Union of Black Journalists was banned, Writers Association of South Africa (WASA) came into being and later became MWASA,” he writes in his paper.
He then points out that journalists such as Nat Serache who had been detained in April 1977, and had been subjected to 11 days of torture, went into exile when released. Thenjiwe Mtintso, who had worked with Steve Biko and Mamphela Ramphele in the BCM, at the time was a journalist at the Daily Dispatch, after being seconded by Biko to Donald Woods. She had also been detained (along with Biko) and tortured in the earlier parts of 1977, and she too fled the country once released to join Africa National Congress’ underground military arm – Umkhonto We Sizwe.
It was a different time. Black Wednesday will not be erased from the collective consciousness of South Africans and particularly the journalist community. Today it has become the country’s official Media Freedom Day and will always serve as an opportunity for reflection on how it is important to safeguard freedom of expression.
Zubeida Jaffer, Shepi Mati, Frank Meintjies and Phindile Xaba
South Africa has come a long way from the dark day of October 19, 1977 when the Apartheid regime squeezed the noose tightly around press freedom.
Known as Black Wednesday, the day has appropriately become the official South African Media Freedom Day. On that day in 1977, the whites-only racist government banned 19 Black Consciousness Movement organisations and detained scores of activists. It further closed The World and Weekend World newspapers and detained the editor Percy Qoboza for five months at the Modderbee Prison under section 10 of the Internal Security Act of 1950.
Jailing journalists without trial, banning them and forcing some into exile became the order of the day. Diverse voices were suppressed and the public sphere was populated with propaganda. The media operated in a minefield of intricate laws designed to make it almost impossible to publish any information without authorisation from the government, especially on political and national security issues.
Adoption of inclusive constitution
Finally, in 1996, with the adoption of the inclusive South African Constitution, Clause 16 of the Bill of Rights elegantly broke this noose and created space for the re-centering of the age-old traditions of the lekgotla or indaba – also known as the public sphere – where everyone was encouraged to speak their minds. It further brought journalists back to the time-honoured practice of the imbongi, the person selected to praise and criticise without fear or favour to ensure the health of a community. Linked to the notion of the imbongi, and further helping to deepen our understanding of press freedom, are the roles of storyteller, griot, sanusi, truth-sayer, seer, sangoma, healer, village fool. These were people who, as part of their roles or calling, often held a mirror to the community for introspection and who spoke the truth using code, song, mime, physical expression, satire, mocking as well as symbolism and allegory.
Internationally, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) guarantees the right to freedom of expression. It states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the right to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
In South Africa, the relevant clause reads:
(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes
(2) The right in subsection (1) does not extend to
The limitations placed on free expression in this clause blends well with the spirit of Ubuntu that does not tolerate hate speech. The grounding principle of the philosophy that a person is a person through other people stands at the core of an approach that has evolved through the centuries in this part of the world.
South Africa’s Media Freedom Day
On South African Media Freedom Day, these rights and practices are fully institutionalised and stand as a core pillar of a country that is crafting its future in the present.
They have been further concretised in our law. In Khumalo and Others v Holomisa, the Constitutional Court explained that:
“The print, broadcast and electronic media have a particular role in the protection of freedom of expression in our society. Every citizen has the right to freedom of the press and the media and the right to receive information and ideas. The media are key agents in ensuring that these aspects of the right to freedom of information are respected. The ability of each citizen to be a responsible and effective member of our society depends upon the manner in which the media carry out their constitutional mandate.”
These consolidations of free expression and media freedom have to be vigorously defended and protected. The easy spread of disinformation represents the greatest challenge currently and needs constant vigilance. Fortunately, there is considerable magnification of this challenge and through the to and fro, greater clarity of possible solutions will come with time.
Commitment to free expression
The Journalist chooses on this day to celebrate the commitment to free expression but believes that for South Africa to flourish, there must be recognition that suppression of free expression has not been the only noose placed around our necks.
Colonialism and apartheid did not only suppress free expression and silence critics but also ignored and systematically marginalised the voices of the great majority. It was as if the majority simply did not exist and their stories did not matter at all.
Buried deep within the South African psyche is a wealth of expression, including understandings and perceptions of the world and life that have been marginalised under colonialism and apartheid, that has to come to the fore and can no longer be ignored. The Journalist on these pages provides a glimpse of the richness of expression that has so long been written out of national public life. Has the time not come for us to think in new and more dynamic ways of what it means to expand the public sphere; to revisit what it means – in our context of rebuilding and restoration – to ensure it is truly place of multiple voices? Has the time not come for us to vastly extend the list of our expressive forebears and deeply enrich our current discourse with a symphony of inputs that breaks free from the constraints of recent colonial history that so colours our perspectives?
“My initial foray into the world of telling stories for a living leads me into a media environment that requires you to leave your critical faculties behind. My career begins on a small newspaper in the 1970s. The Cape Herald is owned by the rich, white Argus company but is aimed at the black working-class people of the Cape Flats. The content is strictly controlled by a British editor appointed by the white, male, middle-class (invariably middle-aged and urban) South African bosses. We hardly ever question why we should straight-jacket our world to fit into the diminished perspective of the management.
“We are discouraged from taking history or politics too seriously and pushed towards the titillation of crime, sport and frivolity. The confines of being blinkered in this stifling box is a fitting metaphor for where we find ourselves in the 21st century. Our story is still controlled too often by bourgeois economic interests with agendas that mitigate against telling the truth about who we are.
“This chapter is written from the perspective of a storyteller who has gone in search of a healthier way of positioning myself and my people in the landscape of our history…
“This lack of knowing the exact destination, or the means of getting there, is completely contrary to everything I have been taught as a journalist. But fortunately, the blind trusting that is required is perfectly attuned to my early training (a kind of apprenticeship) with my maternal grandmother, Sophia Petersen. When I ditch almost everything that I have been taught about storytelling at the Argus Company Journalism Cadet School, the chaos is overwhelming, completely destabilising. But to avoid clichéd creativity, we have to embrace a disorderly artistry, a process that involves bypassing the intellect. My whole life has been a preparation for the writing I begin when the stranglehold of journalism weakens.
“Embracing a new kind of narrative has required a different way of life that opens up the doors of perception, to allow the unhindered flow of inspiration between the realms of the seen and unseen self.
“I have been inspired to address primarily the problems caused by problematic histories and by the fact that Khoe and San characters, my First Nations ancestors, hardly ever drive mainstream storytelling in South Africa. A turning point in my writing and understanding of myself comes with the discovery of the story of //Kabbo in the Bleek-Lloyd Archive, housed at the University of Cape Town.
“In 1870, //Kabbo /Uhi-ddorro Jantjie Tooren, a pipe-smoking, revolutionary Bushman hunter, driven by his need to safeguard his fragile culture, travels hundreds of miles through the Karoo to find city people whom he has heard can write down stories and preserve them in books. The result of this vision quest is an archive recorded over a thousand days and nights. More than a century later, this Bleek-Lloyd Archive is entered into UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. It contains over 100 notebooks and more than 12,000 handwritten pages. In this work of Victorian philologist Wilhelm Bleek, his sister-in-law, Lucy Lloyd, and their informants, //Kabbo is the main informant as well as their teacher.
“The Bleek-Lloyd duo’s account of their meeting with //Kabbo paints him as a passive informant whom they ‘discover’ in the Breakwater Prison in the 1800s. Many researchers, academics and artists repeat this version of events… When //Kabbo was in his early 30s, the colonial governor extended the boundaries of the Cape Colony, taking away almost all his people’s land, and thereby providing a conducive environment for Boer commandos to hunt them down. //Kabbo had a vision that he could save his people.
“As a hunter and visionary, //Kabbo knows his terrain better than any interloper. In the archives there are many accounts of his prescient dreams and abilities as a rainmaker. It is much more likely that, having lost so much due to colonial incursion and aggression, he realises that their most precious possession – the stories of who they are – should be saved. It is also likely that he has a dream that someone in distant Cape Town could assist with his Vision Quest. In this scenario, he allows himself and some of his fellow crusaders to be captured. Instead of being a passive participant in the grand plans of a Victorian academic and his researcher assistant, he becomes a co-creator of the Bleek-Lloyd Archive to tell the story of our people.”
The overarching aim of my writing and storytelling in recent times has been to place this kind of rich legacy squarely in the hands of ordinary people everywhere, especially the descendants of our First Nations – people who remain largely unaware of the existence or significance of visionary ancestors like //Kabbo. It is a continuation of the work //Kabbo, started in the mid-1800s. The result so far has been:
Sick and tired
Sick to death of marginalised Bushmen, the dancing tourist cliché, in skins clinging to fragile First Nation connections, I set out to create healthier stories of our common ancestry and heritage.
This is more than mere professional research and writing. It is my belief that a serious illness I suffered in recent times has been part of an ‘ancestral calling’ to undertake this work. I have been fortunate to find creative collaborators, a traditional healer and other professionals, who work outside of the confines of the mainstream, who have assisted me.
My storytelling is redolent of a broader movement that is using the power of creativity to create a new understanding of our traditions and of ourselves. However, these are strongly research-based works. I engage innovatively with text, locations, artefacts and art, excavating literal and figurative signatures of the character’s world, interrogating its relevance in ours. Writing ourselves into history requires a fresh approach that breaks down the barriers between the divine and the secular; tradition and modernity; spiritualism and materialism; us and them.”
The book Rethinking Africa: Indigenous women reinterpret Southern Africa’s pasts published by Jacana Media this year is available at bookstores. For more information on ordering direct contact email@example.com Tel: +27 086 127 2273.
“I have been busy writing two books. One is a novel – a love story after a manner of romances; but based on historical facts. The smash up of Barolongs at Kunana by Mzilikazi. The coming of the Boers and the war of revenge which smashed up the Matabele at Coenyane by the Allies, Barolong, Boers and Griqua when Halley’s Comet appeared in 1835 – with plenty of love, superstitions and imaginations worked in between the wars. Just like the style of Rider Haggard when he writes about the Zulus.”
He added that he was looking for a publisher. Mhudi was only published ten years later, in 1930. Now, a century later since Plaatje sat down in the cold concrete jungle of London, England, to write this novel, Mhudi is as relevant now as it was back then. Many readers in many parts of the world are still finding their thoughts and feelings in Plaatje’s text, with its language so powerful yet so beautiful.
Of major interest is how Plaatje, a black man, wrote a novel in 1920 and had his central character as a woman. He has given this character, Mhudi, after whom the novel got its name, immense power and agency, and let her shatter all myths of male supremacy. In Women’s Solidarity in Sol T. Plaatje’s Mhudi, Jenny Boźena du Preez writes: ‘One of the notable aspects of Plaatje’s treatment of these themes is that he centres women’s contribution to resistance (particularly the role of the eponymous heroine of the novel) rather than erasing them. This centrality and agency of women in the work have led to it being read, from a feminist perspective, on progressive on gender issues of its time.’
Plaatje started writing Mhudi after he had arrived in England as part of the second deputation of the South African Native National Congress in 1919. He finished writing it in 1920. The year 2020 marked a century since one of Africa’s earliest English novels by Africans was written. Due to challenges relating to publishing, Mhudi was only published in 1930.
“This book should have been published over ten years ago, but circumstances beyond the control of the writer delayed its appearance,” wrote Plaatje in the foreword.
Mhudi was the first full length English novel to be written by a black South African. Through it Plaatje carved a path on which, years later, African writers would tread on. These include Peter Abrahams who wrote Mine Boy in 1946, Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard in 1952, Mongo Beti’s The Poor Christ of Bomba in 1956 and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in 1958.
Plaatje added that at the time when he wrote Mhudi, South African literature was “almost exclusively European”. Mhudi was what Chinua Achebe later said were “new ways to write about Africa” which he argued were also efforts of “reinvesting the continent and its people with humanity, free at last of those stock situations and stock characters, ‘never completely human,’ that had dominated European writing about Africa for hundreds of years”.
By acknowledging that South African literature was “almost exclusively European”, Plaatje took it upon himself to be the righter of that which he deemed wrong with the “almost exclusively European” South African literature, what Achebe in The Empire Fights Back said was “the colonisation of one people’s story by another”. This was the task at hand for Plaatje and other African writers of his generation and those who came after them.
What Plaatje, as well as other writers including Achebe, Tutuola, Beti, Abrahams and Thomas Mofolo did was to reimagine the African into his story, the story into which he was thrust in way he would not like to see himself, nor believe the portrayal was real, fair or affirming. These African writers re-storied Africa and the African.
One of the questions that have been keeping mainly African language and literature scholars awake at night is: Why did Plaatje, who had already made his name as modibelapuo, the one who puts up a defence for expression in mother tongue and invest time in its development, choose to write his first novel in English?
In the reasons Plaatje outlined for writing Mhudi, in the foreword, the answer to the above question has been answered: “This book has been written with two objects in view, viz. (a) to interpret to the reading public one phase of the ‘back of the Native mind’; and (b) with the readers’ money, to collect and print (for Bantu schools) Sechuana folktales which, with the spread of European ideas, are fast being forgotten. It is thus hoped to arrest this process by cultivating a love for art and literature in the vernacular.”
In Politics and Politicians of Language in African Literature, Achebe explicates the position in which Plaatje found himself with regard to the language in which he chose to write Mhudi: “No serious writer can possibly be indifferent to the fate of any language, let alone his own mother tongue. For most writers in the world, there is never any conflict – the mother tongue and the writing language are one and the same. But from time to time, and as a result of grave historical reasons, a writer may be trapped unhappily and invidiously between two imperatives.”
Zakes Mda writes On Writing Historical Fiction vs Fictionalised History that Plaatje had hoped that the envisaged commercial success of Mhudi would enable to publish books in African languages, mainly for schools. He saw African languages being under constant marginalisation due to the unrelenting spread of the use of English as a language of education, commerce and the government: This objective speaks of the author’s interest in the efficacy of the oral tradition in storing and restoring for posterity the historical memory of African societies, which he felt was fading away as a result of Westernisation.
Plaatje has also been lauded by many for his portrayal of women through the heroine of the novel, Mhudi, as visionary and way ahead of his time. DS Matjila and Karen Haire in Bringing Plaatje Home – Ga e Phetsolele Nageng: ‘Re-Storying’ the African and Batswana Sensibilities in Oeuvre, argue that Mhudi in the novel “exhibits an independence that challenges the stereotypical, traditional conception of a woman as a minor and dependent”. By so doing, they add: “Plaatje implicitly critiques African society for its exclusion of women from public decision-making and, by extension, African society’s general disregard for their potential in public life.”
Plaatje frequently shows the superior judgement of women. His elevation of women, through Mhudi in the novel, may have its genesis in his childhood and the women who lived in Pniel. Willan details this in the biography, Sol Plaatje: a life of Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje 1876 – 1942.
Plaatje’s mother was one of several women in Pniel who told him of family and tribal traditions, and from whom he learned Setswana, his first language. “The best Sechuana speakers known to me,” he observed later in life, “owe their knowledge to the teachings of a grandmother, or a mother, just as I myself … am indebted to the teachings of my mother and two aunts.”
Among these “teachings” was a fund of fables and proverbs, highly valued as repositories of the inherited wisdom of their people and passed on from generation to generation.
Another woman who left a deep impression on the young Plaatje was his paternal grandmother “Au Magritte” from whom he learnt in detail about his ancestry. It was also during his childhood that he was told about his paternal great-grandmother’s bravery.
She was gathering wood one day with some other girls in the bush near Kunana hills (so Plaatje related many years later) when they suddenly came upon a lion feasting on the carcass of a freshly killed eland. She rushed at the lion, waving her sheepskin in his face, causing him to turn tail and run off. When the girls returned home in triumph with the meat, the men would not believe their story. Only after returning to the scene where they convinced by the evidence of the spoors which revealed where the lion stood over the carcass, and how it ran away.
Mhudi can also be seen, to some extent, as a tribute to many other women who fell and rose up with Plaatje in difficult times, especially overseas while he was writing Native Life in South Africa and Mhudi.
Plaatje’s work, especially Native Life in South Africa and Mhudi, continue to draw international attention from scholars and inspire works of literature a century after it was written. The timelessness of his work is evidenced by volumes of essays in this day and age, analysing and grappling with the issues Plaatje wrote about then. His work deposits on our hands what we can use to examine life, question the centuries-old injustices and confront the assumptions that characterise life as it is at the moment long after he has ceased breathing.
Can Themba’s contribution to freedom of expression straddles journalism and work in fiction and poetry. And we have much to learn about the underlying drive that informed his work – a focus on the stories and lives of ordinary people.
Themba’s life testifies to a commitment to both journalism and creative writing, even though his gainful employment was squarely in the sphere of journalism and, at certain points, teaching. In one sense, educated black people in the 1940s and 1950s faced extremely limited employment options and we thus can’t deduce much from their job choices. However, in Themba’s case, it appears that journalism was a natural and congruent fit.
It’s understandable that he opted to make a social contribution through writing. Themba graduated from Fort Hare University with a first class pass in English. In his two periods on the campus, he regularly contributed opinion pieces, poems and short stories to the student magazine The Fortharian.
Later, poet and activist Don Mattera would describe Themba as a “connoisseur of the language”. This immersion in and passion for the Queen’s language was key to how Themba saw and positioned himself in the world, how he constructed his sense of self. It also tied in with what some such as Kelwyn Sole have termed petty bourgeoisie aspirations and the fact that, according to Michael Chapman, the people of Sophiatown commonly referred to the Drum magazine writers as “situations” – those situating themselves above the masses.
A form of self-liberation
For Themba and other writers in the Drum stable, writing was a form of self-liberation, a way of survival in the conditions of racial oppression. Britannica, describing Themba’s stories, noted: “They have a lively and perceptive wit, but their jaunty tone cannot conceal the self-lacerating cynicism that was required in order to survive under the existing social conditions.”
Themba was a leading light in the world of journalism at the time. He became known as “Mr Drum” and Stan Motjuwadi said that Themba’s invitation to him to join the Golden City Post newspaper was a singular honour since Themba was “rated one of the top black writers”. This was because his writing was distinctive. According to Chapman, he possessed “the easy flowing literary style of the intellectualised ‘township’ individual who wrote under apartheid” and, according to a former Drum editor, wrote “mighty good prose”.
However, for Themba, journalism was not insufficient as a mode of expression to articulate what he felt about – and how he was processing – what it meant to be a black person in South Africa at the time. He constantly returned to other mediums of writing – poetry and short stories – to express himself.
The focus of Themba’s writing was the view from below; it was about settings and characters of the ghettoes, those marginalised places into which black people had been herded but in many instances found ways of carving out a life which contained, amid all else, times of fulfillment, vibrancy and community.
Converging reporting and creative writing
What can we learn about the continuum between reportage and creative writing as reflected in Themba’s writing? Journalism is said to report on actual people and events and, according to Andre Wiesner, the head tutor of the University of Cape Town’s Feature Journalism course, journalists should never make things up. Creative writing is said to depart from true life narratives, and happily so, seeks to explore meaning from a different angle – from much more emotional, psychological and cultural depth.
However, the two modes come together under the banner of freedom of expression. Freedom of expression in our context – on in which blacks constitute a numerical majority but a cultural minority – is about worldviews, about bringing a multiplicity of voices into the public sphere, about foregrounding deep-seated conditioning processes and not just events. It is about stories from below as much as it is about the views and perspectives of decision-makers and influential people.
These modes converged in Themba’s own life and practice. In his more artistic work, he demonstrated how – in striving to bring truth to the fore – the imagination interacts with context. In his journalism, he showed how the context can be explored, discerned and understood by presenting information in a narrative way, using, for example, storytelling techniques, immersion reporting, symbolism and by focusing on ordinary people.
Motjuwadi, in a tribute after Themba’s death, wrote: “Can was more interested in people than in politics. When a man with a large family was arrested for a political offence, unlike other editors, he was more interested in the human story of the stranded family.”
This view is shared by Siphiwo Mahala who wrote that Themba focused “on the ordinary citizens, especially the marginalised communities and those whose voices are often overlooked by the mainstream media. Mahala added: “Themba would go down to the ‘grassroots’ level in the outlying communities to come up with an intriguing story of ordinary people.”
Chinua Achebe once said that Themba was a person who “moved and had their being in society”. Themba was immersed in the township life, argued John Harold Crowe, and, because he was part of it, easily drew his short story characters from it.
In the month when we highlight the struggles around press freedom and draw attention to the urgent need to broaden freedom of expression in our post-apartheid/post-colonial society, we can once again acknowledge the breadth and depth of Themba’s contribution.
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