HIE Dhlomo: 1903 – 1956

“Libraries are the people’s universities”

HIE Dhlomo was a militant and prolific writer and poet during the first few decades of the 20th century, and also tried his hand at playwriting. He came from an influential South African family.

Herbert Isaac Ernest (H.I.E) Dhlomo, who came from an influential family, was an Edendale born poet, journalist, academic, playwright and political activist.

He was the younger brother of the esteemed media player Rofles Robert Reginald (R.R.R) Dhlomo.

The younger Dhlomo plied his trade in multiple careers that eventually shaped his worldview.

Born on 26 February 1903 in Pietermaritzburg, Natal (now KwazuluNatal), he was the second born son of Ezra and Sardinia Dhlomo. His father came from a royal Zulu family lineage from Makabaleni, near Kranskop, while his mother came from an upper-class family that embodied Victorian and Christian values.

Trevor Dan Mweli Skota described him “as a young man of fine personality, very progressive in his ideas” and added that “[he] has an able pen and his many articles to prove that he is a capable interpreter of the desires and ambitions of his people”, in Who’s Who African Yearly Register published in 1932.


When Dhlomo turned 19, in 1922 he went on to study at Amanzimtoti Training Institute also known as Adams College. During his schooling days he performed plays and was very musical. He would enjoy these art forms until considerable success came as an acknowledgement for his Zulu literary abilities, and would be considered a giant of the pre-apartheid South Africa. As an educator, Dhlomo started off at Uzembe School in Natal, as a principal when he was aged 22 in 1925. Three years later, he moved to Doornfontein in Johannesburg to teach at the American Board Mission where he met his wife, Ethene Kunene, who he married six years later.


Dhlomo was considered an intellectual who worked as a writer and librarian, among other things. In 1937, aged 34, he had the following to say about how libraries can help develop African intellectualism.

“[l]ibrarians are the roots and fruits of civilisations. They should promote the use of good material and make it available. They are the people’s university. The part they play in the life of a country was beyond estimate. Many men with little formal education had become great minds through the use of libraries…to solve the problems of the world requires the dissemination of knowledge. As President Roosevelt has said, libraries are the tools of scholarship, repositories of culture, symbols of the freedom of the mind, education of the world”.

He said this when he was Librarian-Organiser for the Carnegie Non-European Library. After leaving his post, he moved to Natal to join his brother RRR Dhlomo at Ilanga lase Natal. Throughout his life he wrote more than 140 poems, 14 plays, essays in literary criticism and thousands of journalistic articles in Ilanga lase Natal and producing an epic poem, The Valley of a Thousand Hills in 1941, at age of 38.

He was a militant writer and one of his poems, The Great Question, reflects that,

“Would you have me as a brother
Or a revengeful beast?
Would you have us help each other,
Or have our hates increased?
Would you have us live despairing?
Starve, kill, revolt and die?
Or free men co-operating;
wing helping wings to fly?”

This poem was published in Ilanga lase Natal, 15 January 1949, p.16.

As a journalist he also supported and contributed in Umteteli wa Bantu and Bantu World. He also penned for the South African Outlook, Transvaal Native Education Quarterly, Natal Native Teachers’ Journal, South African Libraries, African Yearly Register and Bantu Studies.

An illness cut short his life when he died on 7 October 1956, aged 53.


Dhlomo, HIE. 1929. Notes and Comments from Ilanga lase Natal, 8 March. Available at: http://pzacad.pitzer.edu/nam/newafrre/writers/zir.shtml].

HIE Dhlomo. Available at: www.sahistory.org.za/people/herbert-ernest-dhlomo.