In a wonderful new book compiling the articles, essays and reviews of the celebrated author and critic writes about his first day of work at Drum magazine in the 1950s. Before the brutal massacre at Sharpeville in 1960, he writes, urban Africans optimisti
Writing Home: Lewis Nkosi on South African Writing Edited by Lindy Stiebel and Michael Chapman University of KwaZulu-Natal Press 288 pages R345
In those days when I went to join the paper, was a curious institution. It wasn’t so much a magazine as it was a symbol of the new African cut adrift from the tribal reserve – urbanised, eager, fast-talking and brash. Anthony Sampson, a young Englishman who had come out to edit in the beginning of the fifties, had gathered around him an exciting bunch of young writers who considered it, or at least gave the impression of considering it, a mark of great honour to get into trouble with the authorities as often as possible while in pursuit of fact and photograph. In their work they were alive, go-getting, full of nervous energy, very wry, ironic, and they brought to South African journalism a new vitality which none of the white writers had seemed capable of achieving. Naturally, in their eagerness to record the event, writers were frequently in trouble with the police; their heads were clubbed more often than any group of people I know. Back in the office they wrote up these grim stories of farm labour brutalities, police torture and township riots in a cool sober prose in which they permitted themselves the luxury of a laugh.
For instance in 1955 had detailed its reporters to attend white churches in order to test the white Christians’ adherence to the principle of ‘brotherhood in Christ’ – an interesting, if extremely hazardous idea to execute. Predictably several things happened to reporters, including a hot chase of a photographer down a street by a group of irate churchmen. Simultaneously, the Johannesburg Security Police were called out to defend besieged Christendom. They rounded up Can Themba, wiliest, most mischievous reporter, bundled him into a police car and drove him to the nearest police station where he was charged with ‘vagrancy and trespassing’. In the following issue of Can Themba compiled a report which was as remarkable for the facts it revealed as for its detached unemotional tone of recounting them. In one unforgettable paragraph Themba complained that he had been manhandled, sworn at, prosecuted, reviled: ‘all because an African wanted to
Drum Publications, which had begun putting out a Sunday newspaper, as well as the magazine itself, had an interesting gallery of personalities those days: from Jim Bailey, its rather eccentric proprietor, down to the teaboys, who whiled away time by hunting for interesting subjects to photograph. There was Casey Motsisi, a small, bright young African who wrote the most satirical paragraphs in the paper. He called monthly salary a ‘monthly mockery’. There was Bloke Modisane, dark-suited, bow-tied, the dandiest writer on the paper; to the delight of other members of the staff he signed his articles Bloke ‘Debonair’ Modisane. Then there was Arthur Maimane, unable gladly to suffer any fools and slightly autocratic as News Editor for the Sunday newspaper. Ezekiel Mphahlele, the Fiction Editor, magisterial and ‘concerned’ – more with the profounder issues of life and literature than with
sleazier prose, one imagined. Henry Nxumalo – ‘Mr – who could go down to hell to bring back a story. Todd Matshikiza, small, breezy and musical, turning language into metaphors for the jazz figures about which he delighted writing. Finally, Can Themba, the romantic nihilist of the house.
My first day with the paper became an occasion for some form of initiation rites. It soon became apparent that being a man did not consist merely in fulfilling one’s obligation to the paper professionally, but carried other extra responsibilities. For instance, even in one’s personal life one was supposed to exhibit a unique intellectual style; usually urbane, ironic, morally tough and detached: one’s dedication was to be to a pure form of realism which would eliminate the thinnest traces of self-pity, especially in reporting the uncertainties of urban African life in the face of rigorous apartheid laws, as well as in reporting the wanton gaiety, lust and bravery of this life. Above all, in it was generally assumed that one couldn’t deal professionally with urban African life unless one had descended to its very depths as well as climbed to its heights. A man took sex and alcohol in his stride, or was supposed to, and stayed in the front line of danger so long as there was danger to be endured. Of course, the
style was more implicit than prescribed, but no less paramount in one’s life for all that.
When I arrived at the newspaper offices that morning a group of writers were already assembled in a small room adjoining the editor’s equally small office, generally pretending to be hard at work though it was quite obvious that the greater part of the morning would be taken up by an exchange of gossip about Sunday events in the black townships. Every Sunday in Johannesburg someone was murdered, someone was arrested, someone robbed; friends got married, got divorced, committed adultery, went to gay parties, loved and fought; and there was nothing to do on Monday morning but catch up on the latest news and gossip.
If I remember correctly, that morning Ezekiel Mphahlele, the noted South African author, was working on a bus boycott story; fares had gone up in the Evaton buses and political organisations had used the issue to whip up agitation against the entire apartheid regime. Terrorism was rampant in the Johannesburg townships as political factions warred against one another, bringing us close to a state of civil war. In the middle of punching his typewriter Zeke Mphahlele could be heard solemnly muttering abuse at everyone connected with the story, including the editor who had just blue-pencilled some strong paragraphs out of the piece for fear of provoking prosecution under South Africa’s strict incitement laws.
Presently Zeke paused long enough to enquire with a deadpan face: ‘Has anyone ever thought what a wonderful idea it would be to call a conference of expecting mothers in which they could consider common problems of pregnancy?’ Zeke leaned back in his chair, considering it: ‘They could just sit back,’ he said, ‘and talk.’ A wild appreciative laughter greeted this idea. Work stopped altogether while everyone pondered the possibility for its execution.
Just then a lanky young man with a round, closely shaven head walked into the office, moving in quick, darting footsteps, thumbs stuck inside the waistline of his pants, cowboy style, chewing a pin between his broken lips. His green tweed suit was covered with mud, and on top of this suit he wore a dark overcoat, which gave him the conspiratorial air of a thug. He seemed charged with a rare inordinate enthusiasm which affected everyone in the office. ‘Tell us about it, Can!’ they all yelled.
From the conversation I gathered that Can Themba, then associate editor, had recently come back from the interior of the country where he had investigated the plight of political leaders restricted to security camps by the South African government on the grounds that they constituted a threat to peace and security. During the writing of the story, Can Themba, being in his most melodramatic mood, dubbed the restriction areas ‘South Africa’s concentration camps’. From then on what had seemed a mildly interesting story assumed a scandal of international proportions. Top-notch Fleet Street correspondents flew into the country in search of what they supposed were Nazi-type ‘concentration camps’ and it can only be imagined how embarrassed and angry the South African government became. There were stern official statements repudiating the story and rebuking for distortions, fabrication and sensationalism. Can Themba, as I recall, was unrepentant.
Can and I were introduced that morning: ‘Jim’s new find from Durban,’ Casey said sardonically, the sharp edge of his satire barely concealed beneath his smoother manner. While we shook hands
associate editor looked me up and down doubtfully, then enquired from those present: ‘Does he drink?’