‘Isaid he’s my boy,” scolds the “red-head missus” whom Peter Abrahams recounts in his 1954 memoir, Tell Freedom, as saving him from the policeman about to arrest him for working as a market carrier without a permit. As a young, coloured man, Abrahams literally had no place in a space “reserved for Europeans only” as “a boy” pleading, “Carry your bags, missus?” or “Penny, please, baas.”
In the words of Nigerian scholar K Ogungbesan, apartheid “South Africa is not the place for a black boy to dream”.
“A world of activity opened to me,” writes Abrahams after his first encounter with the famed Bantu Men’s Social Centre. Located at 1 Eloff Street at the edge of Johannesburg’s city centre, the centre was a cultural and political hub for educated Africans working on the Witwatersrand that saw, for example, the 1944 formation of the ANC’s Youth League and the staging, in 1958, of Athol Fugard’s No-Good Friday.
It is here that Abrahams leaves, even if temporarily, the world of African “boys” and “girls” and encounters new African men and women who partook in Gamma Sigma debating, music tuition, dramatic society, film viewings, sports, educational and first aid classes and more.
Abrahams’ discovery of the iconic daily newspaper The Bantu World, edited by the centre’s Richard Victor Selope Thema, is what led him to 1 Eloff Street. Despite having sold Johannesburg newspapers, The Bantu World was a revelation. “The pictures on the front page were of black people. All the papers I sold had only pictures of white folk.”
While it is true that he finds his “first awakening” through English poetry and sustains this aspiration to a more humanist desire for self-actualisation, it is significant that Abrahams, who throughout his formative