Thapelo Mokoatsi

[intro]Contributor at the European Weekly – The Sjambok, assistant editor at Bantu World, editor at Ilanga lase Natal, novelist and Zulu historian all describe Dhlomo.[/intro]

Rolfes Robert Reginald Dhlomo also known as R.R.R. Dhlomo preferred to be referred to as a writer. He was excellent, period! Born into an aristocratic family in 1901 in the Maritzburg area to Ezra and Sardinia Dhlomo, he along with his three siblings was exposed to music and literature. Two of the Dhlomo sons would become writers and as a matter of fact it was R.R.R’s younger brother H.I.E. Dhlomo, in Jordan Ngubane’s Inkundla ya Bantu, who succinctly described his passion for writing.

H.I.E wrote about R.R.R’s role as an assistant editor to R. V. Selope Thema at the Bantu World in the 1930s demonstrating his maturity. Despite R.R.R and Thema having had diametrically opposed characters and different world outlooks, according to H.I.E they got on well together:

“Thema was a politician, Dhlomo was a pure writer; Thema was a public figure and a popular platform speaker; Dhlomo was a retiring man who did not like to go on public platforms. Thema did not believe in signed contributions and feature articles, Dhlomo did; Thema believed in dishing out the ordinary Reuter news culled from the White Daily press; Dhlomo wanted to see Africans supplying their own news. Even their habits were different; Dhlomo did not consider himself a scholar, an intellectual, a philosopher. He shunned the circle of great men and intellectuals.

He hardly appeared in public places (meetings, concerts, cinemas, etc.) except in cricket and Football meetings for he loved these games, and, here, no one embarrassed him by rigid formalities and discussions both of which he disliked. He spent his spare time like the proverbial busman reading and writing. A voracious reader, his normal reading was a novel each day.” Three Famous African Authors I Knew: R. R. R. Dhlomo”, August, Second Fortnight, 1946).

Early years

R.R.R. first studied at the American Board Mission School in Doornfontein, Johanneburg before attending three post primary schools – Ohlange Institute, based in Inanda, established in 1901 by the renowned pastor, politician, newspaperman John Langalibalele Dube. Around these years he also attended Adam’s College (later renamed Amanzimtoti Training College) in Isipingo, south of Durban and finished his schooling at Pholela Institution, near Richmond completing a certificate in teaching. It is however unknown whether he ever taught. What became clear was that he had developed an interest in writing.

Writer and journalist

Dhlomo made his debut in Ilanga lase Natal with a short article “Kaffir” on June 16, 1922. From that moment he became one of the major voices in the first half of the twentieth-century.

Dhlomo would migrate to Johannesburg with his family where he joined the staff of Bantu World as assistant editor to Richard Victor Selope Thema. Even with the family having migrated to Johannesburg, in spite of their stay in the city, the family adhered to its Zulu traditions and language.

This stood him in good stead when he became Assistant Editor of the Ilanga lase Natal founded by John Dube under the Editorship of Ngazana Luthuli. He then became assistant editor under Dube, whose death would propel him to the helm. The duration of his editorial leadership of the newspaper from 1943 to 1962 was arguably the longest. With intellectual assistance from his brother, R. R. R. Dhlomo made Ilanga lase Natal in the 1940s and in the 1950s one of the best in South Africa, if not the best. He steered Ilanga in the right direction considering the paper’s circulation grew exponentially and was well received as the trustworthy voice of Africans in Natal.

He distinguished himself and further made a name for himself as an African writer who caused a stir in the early 1950s with his satirical pieces which appeared in Stephen Black’s European weekly, The Sjambok.

His contribution to journalism and fiction writing did not go unnoticed when he was honoured with the Vilakazi Memorial Award for Nguni literature in 1952 when he was 51. It was in his 30s that he understood the essence of being a custodian of Zulu culture when he wrote a number of biographies paying homage to Zulu kings who were heroes of the day.

He penned Ushaka (1935) followed by uDingane (1936), indlela yaBabi (1936). Eleven years later he published uNomalanga ka Ndengezi (1947) then followed by uMpande (1949) two years later. He continued to write and further published eight years later, uCetswayo ka Mpande (1957) and uDinizulu ka Cetswayo (1968) 11 years later.

R. R. R. Dhlomo was indeed a principal shaper of modernistic sensibilities in South Africa in the twentieth-century, a young man who rose from obscurity through sheer force of character and talent, a true pioneer who would pass on in 1971 at his birthplace in Siyamu, Edendale.