Frank Meintjies

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.