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

CityPress - - Voices -

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?’

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