Dimitri Tsafendas and Bessie Head shared the weight of being of mixed-race parentage in a country governed by a clique obsessed with race, racial categories and perverse fantasies of racial purity.
Tsafendas worked through the noxious effects of racism by being first a left-wing thinker and working-class hero, and then striking at the head of the apartheid state, killing its leader Hendrik Verwoerd in the very place that had enacted so many racist evils, the South African Parliament. Head was less lucky, battling poverty, political betrayal, depression, attempted suicide, a failed marriage and a sickly child, and, finally, hepatitis brought on by prolonged heavy drinking.
In her beginnings lay so many of Head’s later traumas. Born on July 6 1937 in the Fort Napier Mental Institution in Pietermaritzburg to a white mother and a black father, she was given her Scottish mother’s name, Bessie Amelia Emery, but was taken away at birth and brought up in a foster home until she turned 13.
Head joined the Pan Africanist Congress only a few weeks before Sharpeville, but then she was betrayed by internecine factionalism among PAC members. She was arrested and although subsequent charges were dropped, her involvement with politics was over.
Head went to Cape Town, forsaking her column in and salary from Home Post, in the same stable as the groundbreaking Drum magazine. It was while at Home Post that she had formative encounters, meeting Can Themba, Lewis Nkosi and the poet Dennis Brutus, and becoming acquainted with the work of Pan-Africanist theorists such as Robert Sobukwe, the leader of the PAC, and author George Padmore.
In Cape Town, Head took up smoking and drinking. A whirlwind romance and swift marriage to Harold Head followed; the two met in July 1961 and wed six weeks later. Their child, Howard Rex, came into the world on May 15 1962, suffering from what later medical research was to identify as foetal alcohol syndrome, a direct legacy of Head’s drinking.
His affliction and his parents’ continuing poverty strained the marriage so much that Bessie and son went north, to live with her mother-in-law in Pretoria. When that arrangement failed too, Head decided to leave South Africa, taking up a teaching post in Bechuanaland.
Bureaucracy, or the fates, obstructed her wish: she was denied a passport. But there was a solution — a one-way exit visa. In March 1964 she and her son crossed the border.
Life and its blows had not finished with Head. Her teaching job did not last. She was forced to work on a farm, and then in construction.
Eventually, she settled in Serowe, a place of significance to the Batswana. It was the centre of power for the Bamangwato people, whose deposed leader, Seretse Khama, led the British protectorate of Bechuanaland to independence and became the first president of Botswana.
Here, she found her environment congenial and all around her were subjects and tales for her writing. The journalist’s keen eye and ear combined with the teacher’s didactic impulse to produce novels, short stories, essays and an autobiography.
In 1979, she finally acquired Botswanan citizenship.
Head is best known for her novels When Rain Clouds Gather (1968), Maru (1971) and A Question of Power (1973), all set in Serowe. Her journalism is unjustly neglected, especially given her much-quoted notion that “literature must be a reflection of daily encounters with undistinguished people”.
There is one excellent examination of Head as a journalist — Colette Guldimann’s 1997 master’s thesis titled Bessie Head: Re-writing the Romance: Journalism, Fiction (and Gender). The first lines of its abstract read: “This thesis examines the relationship between Bessie Head’s work as a journalist during the late 1950s and two of her novels: the first written just after she had left formal journalism and the second a decade later. I claim … that early journalistic writing by Head, which has been critically ignored, and even dismissed, not only merits critical attention but, furthermore, that knowledge [of] this work will yield new insights into Head’s fictional writing for which she is famous.”
Here are some quotes from Head: “People with really weak characters cause an immense amount of suffering in the world. They destroy whole civilisations” (from A Gesture of Belonging: Letters from Bessie Head, 1965-1979 edited by Randolph Vigne and published by Heinemann in 1991). “I am building a stairway to the stars. I have the authority to take the whole of mankind up there with me. That is why I write” (from When Rain Clouds Gather).
This article was first published by New Frame