Writing lives

Apart from the fact that they both wrote “things” for mass reading, Doc Bikitsha, the journalist, and Sipho Sepamla, the poet, journalist, author, teacher and political activist, could not have led more divergent lives.

It must have been a twist of fate that they both died around the same time and were both buried last weekend.

Another convergence was that they both articulated an urban black experience, albeit from totally different points of view.

From the obituaries that have been written about them, Bikitsha, while undoubtedly bohemian, witty, articulate and opinionated, did not use his talents to advance the socio-political course of the black life he wrote about.

Sepamla, on the other hand, never shied away from the politics that shaped the urban black experience he so faithfully chronicled in his verse and prose. If Mzwakhe Mbuli was the people’s poet for the mass democratic movement of the 1980s, Sepamla came close to being the poet laureate of the black-consciousness movement a decade earlier.

Bikitsha was the last of the Drum generation of writers who lived fast, and most of whom died young, such as Casey Motsisi and Can Themba. Sepamla carried the torch for the more sober and cerebral part of the same newsroom, personified in E’skia Mphahlele.

As journalists, Bikitsha and Sepamla represented two strains of a profession that are still at odds today. Bikitsha’s style was that of the racy tabloids and Sepamla batted for the committed school who believed that having access to newspaper column space meant a serious obligation.

While Bikitsha’s grasp and use of English was peerless, a more rigorous study of his legacy reveals that he was accused, by some politically conscious black intellectuals, of irrelevance because he chose to dwell on the debauchery of his youth when there were more serious matters around him.

It could be said that, compared with Sepamla, he had ample space to articulate the plight of black life, but used it instead to dwell on the decadence personified by the life he and his contemporaries led.

Sepamla was a prolific writer and teacher who, in helping to found the Federated Union of Black Artists and other organisations such as the Arts and Culture Alliance, practised what he preached. His poems, such as The Blues and You in Me, and novels, such as Third Generation, evoked admiration for how English is open to influence from the African idiom. He wrote about characters that any urban African could relate to.

For Africans growing up on staple stories of tribal Africa or the English countryside, Sepamla’s writing was a breath of fresh air.

Bikitsha never created the impression that he was using the newsroom as a battleground in the war against apartheid. He even once wrote that a younger Nelson Mandela was never impressed by his happy-go-lucky attitude to life at a time when the country was going through political turmoil.

The kind of writers Bikitsha represented — such as Elliot Makhaya, who wrote the popular Monday Blues column for the Sowetan in the 1970s and early 1980s — would argue that black South Africa was not all about strife and desolation.

The counter-argument would be that writing about the hardships of African life under apartheid and about efforts to escape a dreary life did not need to be mutually exclusive. Even political types have social lives. African journalists needed to strike the balance.

Sepamla and those like him bored their audiences by repeating dreary stories of African lives instead of providing much-needed comic relief.

In the end, the deaths of the two do not represent the end of an era of African journalism or writing. It has just been repackaged.

To each their own. Bikitsha and Sepamla have left a legacy that makes it difficult, but not impossible, to accept both as chroniclers of the true urban-African experience. Whether either qualifies as a doyen of their respective craft is not as obvious as the obituary writers would like to suggest.

Doc Bikitsha was born on November 19 1930 and died on January 6 2007. Sipho Sepamla was born on September 22 1932 and died on January 9 2007

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