Can Themba: Intellectual Tsotsi
By Lewis Nkosi
A production of The Suit by the legendary Peter Brooke at the Brooklyn Academy of Music BAM.
Live Fast, Die Young & Have A Good Looking Corpse
The dictum of the Drum Generation
The brilliant mind of Sixties journalist Can Themba lives on in his work – his play The Suit has been performed around the world. He died at only 44 years, broken-hearted, in exile and declared a Statutory Communist. In this piece, used as a foreword to his collection of short stories The Will To Die, the late Lewis Nkosi, a leading light of the ‘Drum Generation’, not only pays tribute but he also gives us an exquisite, literary insight into South Africa in the 1960s. In passing he mentions Nat Nakasa whose remains were only recently returned for reburial in Kwa-Zulu Natal.
‘The son of a bitch had no business to die . . .’
- Speaking at a friend's funeral
Time, frustration and despair, with their attendant corrosive drugs – alcohol and suicide – are taking a toll on South African writers. Nat Nakasa. Ingrid Jonker. Now Can Themba. They are all surrendering to something inﬁnitely more difficult to describe. Their deaths are not simply natural deaths even when they are technically so; for even though they do not die at the end of a bullet, flattened against some executioner’s wall, their anguish is in so many ways related to the anguish of the people of South Africa. For those of them, like Nat Nakasa and Ingrid Jonker, who committed suicide, this is clear enough; but Can Themba’s own anguish and despair led to a suicidal kind of living which was bound to destroy his life at a relatively young age.
At any rate, the deaths of our writers are sometimes more dramatic than most deaths but are nonetheless part of the slow undramatic death of many. Nat Nakasa and Can Themba, personal friends and former colleagues, I knew better than most. I lived in the same house with both of them at different times. After they are gone it seems to me now that there was always something strangely sinister and altogether ominous in their form
of detachment and the desperate wit they cultivated, in the mocking cynicism of the one and the love of irony of the other. Each in his own way tried to reduce the South African problem into some form of manageable game one plays constantly with authority without winning, but without losing either. In order to survive and in order to conceal the scars, they laughed, clowned, mocked and ﬁnally embraced their ‘outlaws condition with all of its surrounding cloud of romantic tragedy and supposable drama. Lively and self-aware, sensitive as writers can be assumed to be, they were forced by a silly and grotesque regime to exist as though they lacked imagination, consciousness and their superb gift of eloquence. That is to say they were forced to look ‘dumb’ in order to reassure very dumb white citizens whose sense of security was threatened by any native who seemed imaginative enough and talented enough. Nat Nakasa appreciated the irony and got an enormous bang out of acting upon it. Can Themba similarly grew more ironical and colloquial, affecting to beat the system with a mocking cynicism and an extreme cultural ‘underworldism’ of the African township. He
fused into the English language the township idiom and rejuvenated tired words with an extreme imagery deriving from a life of danger and violence. .
For Can Themba the incursion into ‘white’ Johannesburg was, so to speak, a kind of temporary surfacing from what he has elsewhere described as ‘the swarming, cacophonous, strutting, brawling, vibrating life’ of the African township – in his case, Sophiatown. Indeed, Can Themba’s agony accentuates the razing to the ground of Sophiatown by the government and the disappearance of many of its folk institutions – the extravagant folk heroes and heroines, shebeens and shebeen queens, singers, nice-time girls, now dispersed by government order to the sprawling, camp-like location ghettos farther out of town. Of the destruction of Sophiatown he has written movingly in ‘Requiem for Sophiatown’.
Can Themba’s most splendid moments of journalism were therefore the celebration of this life, which is not to say he wished for the continuance of slum conditions in order to engender a spurious vitality but because, for Can Themba, the African township represented the strength and the will to survive by ordinary masses of the African people.
In its own quiet may the township represented a dogged deﬁance against official persecution, for in the township the moments of splendour were very splendid indeed, surpassing anything white Johannesburg could offer. It is true that Can Themba’s romanticism drove him in the end to admire more and more the ingenious methods of that survival – the illicit shebeens and illicit traffic, the lawlessness, the everyday street drama in which violence was enacted as a supreme test that one was willing to gamble one’s life away for one moment of truth. Such moments of intensity and extreme self-awareness in the face of danger are what the white suburb will never know in its dull bourgeois regularity. In this respect he echoed Ernest Hemingway’s romanticism of violence.
Nevertheless, irony is a personal stance; in South Africa it is defensive. Irony cannot defeat a brutal and oppressive regime; it can only assist for a while in concealing the pain and the wounds until the anguish is too deep and unbearable‘ to be contained within a perpetual self-contemplating irony. Nat Nakasa ﬁnally committed suicide in New York and no testimony yet offered about his conduct in the last days before his death will give us any clue as to the actual spiritual dilemmas, the immensity in which they presented themselves to him, just before he reached the ultimate of his exile — suicide.
A Prodigious Reliance On Alcohol
Can Themba, on the other hand, had always disguised his own pain behind a devil-may-take-the-hindlegs kind of attitude and a prodigious reliance on alcohol as a drug. His drinking was phenomenal. The only time I’ve seen Can Themba’s nerve nearly snap was when he was in love with a beautiful young English woman at a time when she was about to leave the country. He himself was trapped —- and it seemed forever — in the land of apartheid. At that time I had a glimpse into someone’s suffering and I don’t care to see it again. Nadine Gordimer’s novel, Occasion for Loving, may or may not be based on that period in Can Themba’s life, but it offers a striking parallel.
His death is not such a mystery to me though it seems again one of the most wasteful deaths we’ve had over that period. The South African actor who passed the news on to me said simply: ‘His heart just stopped!’ His wife was later quoted as saying she would not mourn him because Can Themba and she had made a vow not to mourn each other when either of them died. He was living in Swaziland at the time, just across the border from South Africa. Like many of our writers, he was already banned from publishing or being quoted in any South African newspaper or publication. This in itself must have been a considerable blow to a writer who considered himself the
poet laureate of the urban township of South Africa or its new vital, literate proletariat.
Somewhat taller than average, slender, with an impish grin which hovered between self-deprecation and the mockery of others, he gave the impression of a nimble delighted observer, always on the look-out for drama, excitement and fun. He was also a fast talker, a very deft, quick thinker with an equal facility for the apt, if outrageous, phrase. His excitement about ideas, his delight in throwing them up himself or sharing the company of those whose primary interest was ideas, showed him to be first and foremost an intellectual in the original sense of that word. For him the pursuit of ideas was not just an abstract humourless activity: it was a form of play. Intellectual activity was nothing if not fun, which led some to regard him as flippant, reckless and irresponsible. For though he had studied English and philosophy, he eschewed the turgid, the solemn and the pretentiously weighty language of those who merely wish to sound obtuse. He lent to his thoughts the same vivid imagery, sharp staccato rhythm of the township language of the urban tsotsi, because he himself was the supreme intellectual tsotsi of them all, always, in the words of the blues singer, ‘raising hell in the neighbourhood’. The neighbourhood in which he raised hell was that sombre, fearful community of the intellect so hideously terrorised by the political regime in South Africa.
Nakasa A Breakfast Table Columnist
Yet in scrutinizing, first, Nat Nakasa’s writings one finds in it nothing powerful or astonishing; indeed, one is largely disappointed. There are niggling flashes of brilliance but it is all rather of the order of the breakfast-table columnist, deft, witty, ironical, but nothing more; his reading is minimal. But then he was young and might have developed as he matured.
Can Themba’s actual achievements are more disappointing because his learning and reading were more substantial and his talent proven; but he chose to confine his brilliance to journalism of an insubstantial kind. It is almost certain that had Can Themba chosen to write a book on South Africa, it would not only have been an interesting and to use an American word ‘insightful’ book, but it might have revealed a complex and refined talent for verbalizing the African mood. And no doubt, such a book would have been a valuable addition to the literature of South Africa. As it is, we mourn a talent largely misused or neglected; we mourn what might have been. But to have known Themba, to have heard him speak, is to have known a mind both vigorous and informed, shaped by the city as few other minds are in the rest