Mail & Guardian

Tne bard of township culture

30 Jun 1995 00:00 | Staff Reporter

Author Modikwe Dikobe, in The Mark Gevisser Profile

There was something both surreal and appropriate about=20 the fact that octogenarian author Modikwe Dikobe was to=20 give a walking tour of his old Doornfontein haunts on=20 the morning of the Rugby World Cup final. He had been=20 brought down from his home in the Northern Transvaal=20 for the weekend by the cast of Malcolm Purkey's Marabi,=20 which is based on Dikobe's celebrated novel, The Marabi=20 Dance, about life in the Doornfontein slumyards of the=20

Dressed in a threadbare old suit and armed only with a=20 hand-carved walking-stick and a world of memories with=20 which he is still clearly besotted, he alighted at the=20 corner of Angle and Staib streets. Pointing, with the=20 stick, to a monolithic concrete slab of factory, he=20 pronounced, "Molefe Yard!", and then set off, at one of=20 those clipping paces only old men can muster, in search=20 of Goldberg's Waterworks.=20

In his wake he gathered, obliviously, the carnivalesque=20 fervour of hawkers peddling the paraphernalia of=20 patriotism, of black folk taunting "Viva Amabokoboko!"=20 and "Skei vir Lomu!" at any whites who passed, of=20 already-inebriated adolescents whose face paint,=20 prematurely applied, would surely melt by kickoff.=20

"There are some old houses around the corner I'm sure=20 you'll recognise," panted Purkey behind the spry old=20 man. We turned the corner. They had been demolished.=20 "But I saw them here last week!" Johannesburg the=20 amnesiac: blink in this city and you'll miss the=20 passing of history.=20

A group of occupants in one of the few remaining=20 cottages sat in the sun smoking dagga, contemptuous of=20 the army of cops setting up preparatory barricades all=20 around them. A gang of taxi drivers, irritated by the=20 intrusion, seemed to think we were rivals: "Why are you=20 following us wherever we go? Why can't you just leave=20 us alone?" one demanded, belligerently.=20

It felt, at times, on that day of the South Africa vs=20 New Zealand clash, like the film set of a local Once=20 Were Warriors after the shoot -- the slag-heap of an=20 inner-city, both ravaged and serene. And it seemed=20 fitting to be there, in the shadow of the stadium, on=20 the day South Africa attempted to reinvent itself=20 through all that "One Team, One Nation" hype, with an=20 old man who had come to Johannesburg in 1923; who not=20 only had participated in the making of the city, but=20 who has immortalised, in his novel, the "Marabi" scene=20 that was the very beginning of township culture.=20

The Marabi Dance is picaresque, filled with charlatan=20 preachers, sexually-active fourteen-year-olds, and=20 tough female gangsters called Bitch-Never-Die who break=20 up genteel middle-class soirees at the Bantu Men's=20 Social Centre. It is an unblinkered and matter-of-fact=20 testimony to squalor that is filled, nonetheless, with=20 the romance and expectation that defines the urbanising=20

Dikobe distilled an earlier moment of transition. As=20 South Africa lurches, disoriented but hopeful, into a=20 future that is building an Olympics fantasy over the=20 ruins of the slumyards, but that is also returning=20 black people to the inner city in a way that hasn't=20 been seen since Marabi times, Dikobe's novel takes us=20 back to the disorientation and hope of country people=20 in town only sixty years ago.=20

Back in the country himself, Dikobe now lives out his=20 years impoverished and alienated. He moved back to=20 Seabe, one of the more obscure bites of the former=20 Bophuthatswana, twenty years ago. His trip to visit the=20 cast of Marabi was the first to Johannesburg in five=20 years. How did he find the city?

"No, it's too glamorous, man. There's too much=20 excitement. And so many blacks going to Ellis Park. You=20 didn't only see white faces. I like that, the mixing up=20 of people, black and white unifying." That, precisely,=20 is what he found so seductive about the Marabi culture=20 of 1930s: the fact that people came together from their=20 different ethnic backgrounds, and fashioned from these=20 backgrounds one hybrid language, one dance and music=20

Now he spends his days sitting beneath two enormous=20 jacaranda trees, at a rough-hewn table weighted down by=20 a huge dictionary, poring over a Reader's Digest=20 compilation of contemporary non-fiction. In an=20 existence with no electricity or telephones, Reader's=20 Digest --the saviour of isolated people with=20 intellectual aspirations all over the world-- has=20 become his window: "I am their best customer."=20

One is struck, immediately, by the aesthetic beauty of=20 Dikobe's homestead: impoverished though it is, it is=20 shady and green in contrast to the arid peri-urban=20 landscape around it. It announces the difference of its=20 occupant; a well that can tap sensibilities. We arrive=20 after paying our respects to the local royalty, who are=20 clearly irritated that white journalists are showering=20 attention on such a peculiar old man. One senses that=20 this was precisely the mischievous old man's intention.=20

He has nothing but derision for the traditional leaders=20 of his area -- calls them "hopeless"-- and says, as we=20 drive away from the Royal Kraal, "No, my friend, I do=20 not fit in to this country world. I'm sort of a strange=20 man among country people. Look at how we had to sit=20 around and talk. I prefer to just get up and go."=20

As we approach his homestead, I joke that it is so much=20 nicer than the chief's. "Yes," he replies, "I'm a=20 bourgeois." He chuckles. "A petty bourgeois."

Literary historian Tim Couzens, who edited Dikobe's=20 brilliant volume of poetry, Dispossessed, disagrees. In=20 an essay, he wrote that "Dikobe is unique in South=20 African literature because he has been until recently=20 ... the only substantial writer who is, while writing,=20 fairly strongly working class."=20

Through the life and times of Modikwe Dikobe one can=20 track the vagaries and complexities of patronage. The=20 list of white intellectuals who have become involved=20 with his literary endeavours is impressive. It begins=20 with trade unionists Phyllis Altman and Norman Levy,=20 sweeps through great liberal benefactors like writer=20 Lionel Abrahams and academics Monica Wilson and Guy=20 Butler, includes the likes of Ruth First and Mary=20 Turok, and ends up, in the 1980s, with left-wing=20 academics like Couzens, Purkey, Luli Callinicos, Ari=20 Sitas and my own colleague Eddie Koch.

Perhaps what makes Dikobe so appealing to white lefties=20 is that he is an "authentic voice", an oracle, of the=20 working class. Indeed, forced to leave school in=20 Standard Six, he re-entered the world of ideas through=20 the Communist Party's Mayibuye night-schools in the=20 1930s: "I had always been anxious of writing," he=20 recalls. "I read books without finishing them, and I=20 realised I didn't have enough vocabulary, and one of=20 the things I could do was to attend night schools."

The Mayibuye schools remain one of the most abiding --=20 and laudable -- legacies of The Party. Here, along with=20 a healthy dollop of ideology, he learnt to read and=20 write. He became a communist and a trade-unionist,=20 editing a workers' newsletter. He was one of the=20 leaders of the Alexandra squatters' movement in 1946,=20 and he counts the late Moses Kotane and JB Marks as=20 "close friends."

He was banned, after a three-month detention, in the=20 early 1960s. It was then that he started writing The=20 Marabi Dance. Most of it was completed during night=20 shifts as a guard at the Johannesburg Market. A decade=20 later, it was published under a pseudonym (his real=20 name is Marks Rammitloa), because listed people were=20 not allowed to publish.

Lionel Abrahams, who allied himself most strongly to=20 the project of editing Dikobe's very rough manuscript,=20 rejects the notion that the work was "interfered" with:=20 "It was as though it was a dirty window we cleaned up a=20 bit. We might have replaced a pane or two, but we did=20 not ever interfere with the author's intention. Every=20 single idea in the book is his and his alone."

But something happened after the publication of the=20 book: Dikobe continued writing, but never again=20 published another word of fiction. Perhaps this was=20 because we had moved into a time when, as Abrahams puts=20 it, it was no longer "kosher" for whites to "interfere"=20 with the words of blacks; perhaps this was because the=20 people who now took Dikobe up were social scientists,=20 interested first and foremost in him as a primary=20 source, attracted by the credibility and lucidity of=20 his memory.

Richard Harvey became friendly with Dikobe in the late=20 1970s. He recalls that "when people asked Marks what he=20 did, and he would reply, 'I'm engaged in writing.' If=20 he had been recognized as a writer, as he longed to be,=20 there would have been no cause for alienation." As it=20 was, though, his literary pursuits took him out of his=20 own world, but did not place him, ever, in the world of=20

He remained marginal. In fact, one gets the impression=20 of someone who has spent his entire life hovering=20 around the central events and tensions of this century,=20 but never fully becoming involved. He was, he informed=20 me, "a scholar" in his native Seabe, but was not taken=20 seriously, and so he moved, aged ten, to the city.=20 There, he was fascinated by the swaggering Marabi=20 musicians, but was never one himself.=20

He nearly went to war, but didn't "because on my way to=20 the recruiting office I was stopped and asked rudely=20 for my pass, and I thought, why should I help these=20 people who are so cruel to me?" He was one of the many=20 tragic people who were banned without ever having even=20 achieved the notoriety to warrant it. And he was a=20 writer with middle-class aspirations whose very value=20 came, paradoxically, from the fact that he was=20 "authentically" working class.

Now he sits, in the countryside, a brilliant and lucid=20 thinker, a true humanist, permanently displaced. He is=20 a widower, and does not seem to have much contact with=20 his children. He complains repeatedly about being in=20 Seabe, and writes, in one of his most beautiful poems:=20 "I search in the marshes/ For my umbilical cord/ In the=20 marshes of the Mutshe river/ In vain." Nonetheless, in=20 both his writing and his life, he reconciles tradition=20 with urbanity in one of the most complete ways I have=20 ever encountered.

We leave as dusk falls. Shafts of gold illuminate the=20 motes between the Jacaranda branches; the shadows of=20 people walking home from church grow long. Everything=20 is rich and cool. As we get into the car, we vow,=20 volubly, to return: "This place is really beautiful."=20 He looks at us as if we are stark, raving mad.

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