/ 31 August 2018

​Discovering the world of Can Themba

Telling tales: Siphiwo Mahala’s world collided with that of Can Themba after Mahala presented a short story that people thought had been inspired by Themba’s play The Suit. Photo: Oupa Nkosi
Telling tales: Siphiwo Mahala’s world collided with that of Can Themba after Mahala presented a short story that people thought had been inspired by Themba’s play The Suit. Photo: Oupa Nkosi

Author and playwright Siphiwo Mahala asserts that many South Africans know of 1950s Drum generation writer Can Themba only as a journalist. With the exception of the play The Suit, the appreciation of his craft is usually limited to the selection of his writings The World of Can Themba.

Since pursuing his master’s in creative writing at Wits University, Mahala and Themba’s orbits have narrowed in on each other, culminating in research that led to Mahala’s play, The House of Truth, and his documentary, A Teacher in the Newsroom. A symposium on Themba’s multifaceted life will take place in September.

Mahala talks about discovering the untold stories about Themba.

What drew you to Can Themba, especially as there were a lot of big hitters in the Drum generation?

I can take it from 2002, doing my masters at Wits on creative writing. I presented a short story that everybody thought had invocations of Can Themba’s The Suit. I read
it several times and realised that there is a story that can be told about The Suit. The man who jumps out the window, the last you hear is that he is seen running down the street. So I told it from his perspective.

After that, there was literary critique comparing my work and that of Can Themba’s, and other stories in response, like Zukiswa Wanner and Makhosi Xaba. Zukiswa wrote from the perspective of Matilda [the wife in the play].

So there were many responses triggered by my interaction with Can Themba’s work.

He was what Lewis Nkosi called the liveliest of the writers from the Fifties. Themba appears in every study on journalism in South Africa but he always appears as a footnote. I decided to do more research.

After the passing of Lewis Nkosi, I realised he was the last of that Fifties generation who was alive. He had shared many stories in casual chat but nothing recorded. So I collaborated with filmmakers and recorded the likes of Bra Willie Kgositsile, Njabulo Ndebele, Don Mattera, Peter Magubane, Nadine Gordimer, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who studied with him at Fort Hare,and [journalist] Parks Mangena who received him in Swaziland.

By that time I had registered for my PhD on Can Themba on the advice of Mbulelo Mzamane, who was the VC (vice-chancellor) of Fort Hare when I was a student there.

What did you discover about him as a man?

The House of Truth [as his home in Sophiatown was known] is focused on the kind of troubles that he encountered, particularly in his efforts to go back to the classroom to teach. I came across over 30 letters he wrote to Fort Hare, to the Transvaal education department, where he was pleading for them to issue his certificate and recognise him as a fully fledged teacher. The documentary touches on different aspects of him but what comes out is that he replicated himself through his product.

The phrase “a teacher in the newsroom” comes from Joe Thloloe, who speaks of how Themba gavehim his first break in the newsroom.

There are others. I also spoke to Juby Mayet, who speaks of how he mentored her, Muxe Mkondo, former VC at Univen, one of the most respected policymakers and intellectuals. He tells the story of how Can Themba came to their class and taught them poetry, a poem about winter. He talks about how he was so vivid in his description that one girl started feeling cold in the classroom. That clip is available on YouTube.

He continued being a teacher by mentoring. When he was editing [the short-lived magazine] Africa, Drum and the Golden City Post, he brought in the likes of Casey Motsisi, whom he had taught at Madibane High School. He also taught Desmond Tutu and Stan Motjuwadi.

What form will the symposium take?

There will be two main elements. The first is a day of panel discussions, beginning with an opening lecture by Muxe Nkondo, panels with the likes of Joe Thloloe, Yvonne Themba [his daughter] and Parks Mangena, who was close friends with Can. In the evening, there will be a musical tribute and then a screening of the documentary.

In one scene, Pitika Ntuli tells the story of visiting Can Themba, knocking on his door and getting no response. He looked through the keyhole but Themba seemed not to hear him, but he could see his feet on his bed.

The following day he hitchhiked back to Manzini and that’s when he found the police there. The body had been discovered.

The cause of Can Themba’s death was listed as coronary thrombosis.

The symposium will include performances by Sipho Hotstix Mabuse, Kabomo and Sello Maake ka Ncube, who stars in The House of Truth.

The symposium will be at the Market Theatre on September 13. RSVP to [email protected]