Speech by Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile on the Behalf of the Minister Paul Mashatile at the Can Themba Memorial lecture.

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21 Jun 2013

The Can Themba Family, represented by the late Can Themba’s widow, Mrs Anne Themba, their children, grandchildren and relatives
Members of the Diplomatic corps here present
CEOs and Chairpersons of our institutions present here this evening
Writers, journalists, editors and publishers
Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is a great pleasure to welcome you to the inaugural Can Themba Memorial Lecture. This is a very important milestone in pursuit of our mandate of recognizing and celebrating individuals who have made exceptional contributions in the development of the South African arts, culture and heritage sectors.

The icon that we are celebrating this evening is remembered as an eloquent debater, an immensely talented writer and a daring journalist. Can Themba was born in Marabastad in 1923 and completed high school in Polokwane. He won the Mendi memorial scholarship and went on to study at Fort Hare University College where he graduated with a BA degree in English with a distinction, something legendary those days. You would recall that round about that time Fort Hare had produced the likes of O.R. Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Kenneth Kaunda and Robert Mugabe, among others.

It was during his student days in the Eastern Cape that Can Themba’s literary star first glimmered, with his first short story appearing in The Fort Harian and his early poems in Zonk. He went further to complete a teacher’s diploma at Rhodes University before going back to Gauteng where he taught at Madibane High School in Western Native Township and later moved to Central Indian High School in Fordsburg.

He made his major literary breakthrough in the inaugural Drum Magazine short story competition in 1953, when his story “Mob Passion”, won the first prize.  He was subsequently recruited to join Drum where, working with the likes of Henry Nxumalo, Bloke Modisane, and Casey Motsisi, among others, he distinguished himself as the legend whose genius we are celebrating tonight.    

This group of journalists, dubbed the “DRUM Boys” in the 1950s, became popular -- perhaps one could even say famous -- for their daring.  This is best demonstrated by their hardnosed investigative journalism, which remains unequaled to this day.  Henry Nxumalo, for instance, is known to have disguised himself to get a job as a farm labourer in order to investigate and expose the farmers’ barbaric abuse of farm labourers.  Nxumalo’s courageous work led to the historic Potato Boycott.

Can Themba is known not to have hesitated to expose himself to dangerous situations in pursuit of stories he was convinced his readers needed to know. One such remarkable risk was when he visited a number of churches around Johannesburg to do a story for DRUM Magazine. In this way he was able to assess the impact of racist attitudes prevalent even in places of worship. He gives testimony of his experience in The Will to Die as thus:

“At the Kensington DRC (Dutch Reformed Church), an aged church official was just about to close the doors when he saw me. He bellowed in Afrikaans: “Wat soek jy? (What do you want?). “I’ve come to church,” I said. He shoved me violently, shouting for me to get away. I walked off dejected.” 

While he was a respected and admired journalist, it was probably in prose fiction that Can Themba exercised his exceptional creative talent at its best.  He distinguished himself from most of his peers with his incisive intellect and a prose style deeply steeped in the nuances and rhythms of life in the township. It is clear that Can Themba died before his full creative potential could be realized. At the moment of his passing, he had not published a book of his own. His pieces were collected and published in The Will to Die only in 1972.

Decades after his passing, Can Themba’s work is still celebrated across the globe. His classic story, “The Suit,” is widely anthologized, adapted to the stage and performed locally and internationally. The unparalleled success of “The Suit” as one of the most endearing and resilient South African short stories places Can Themba among the most distinguished South African writers.
The occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of ”The Suit” offers us an opportunity to pay homage to Can Themba for his contribution to South African journalism and literary landscapes.

“The Suit” was first published in 1963, headlining the inaugural issue of Nat Nakasa’s literary journal, The Classic. At the time Nadine Gordimer was part of the advisory board of The Classic and worked closely with Nakasa to establish it. This first issue of The Classic also featured prominent writers and journalists including Es’kia Mphahlele, Lewis Nkosi and Casey Motsisi.

This generation of writers took it upon themselves to chronicle the anguish and the triumphs, the disillusionment and passionate hopes of the struggling masses. These writers were a force behind what Lewis Nkosi describes as “The Fabulous Decade,” which marked a turning point in the history of journalism and literature in South Africa.  With banning of writers and publications becoming a stark reality less than a decade later, the apartheid regime chose to suppress what by all accounts had been a literary renaissance ‘in the making’.

As the custodians of our national heritage, it is our duty and responsibility to recognize, promote and celebrate excellence in our literary landscape and, in so doing, make our contribution to the promotion of a culture of reading and the appreciation of literature.

In line with this mandate, the Department of Arts and Culture will this year pay a special tribute to three prominent writers from the 1950s. These writers include Nat Nakasa, Can Themba and Bloke Modisane.

But tonight is about Can Themba whose contribution to our national heritage cannot be celebrated enough. The Order of Ikhamanga, which was bestowed on him posthumously by President Thabo Mbeki in 2006, remains the highest honour that Themba has received to date.

It is perhaps as a teacher that Can Themba is least celebrated.

This is an indictment upon us because teaching is a vocation that Can Themba carried out with laudable excellence and for which he went beyond the call of duty. He taught families, groups of students and individuals beyond the walls of the classroom.

I am delighted that Prof Mbulelo Mzamane, himself a scholar and writer, is here today to give testimony of Can Themba as a teacher, among others.

There are other great minds like Nobel Laureate Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu and Prof Pitika Ntuli, who went through Can Themba’s hands.

The challenge that lies ahead of us is to chronicle Can Themba’s life story and ensure that it is read and accessible to future generations.

As we look forward to the anniversary of 20 years of freedom, we do so eager to bring to the fore the unsung heroes of our liberation and to collect the stories and accounts of those who paved the way for our liberation.

In conclusion, it is important to note that Can Themba was an ardent reader, and that this is the basis of his success as a writer.

In an earlier interview, Prof Kgositsile, our national Poet Laureate, spoke of Can Themba’s jackets that were always askew because of the books that he carried in his pocket all the time. This assertion is further corroborated by Mrs Themba’s message, in which she describes him as a great thinker who always carried a book with him.

This is the message that should go to all aspiring writers: that you cannot harbor ambitions of becoming a great writer if you are not a committed reader. The culture of reading is integral to developing a knowledgeable and skilled society where we are able to articulate our dreams and turn them into a living reality.

This evening’s function demonstrates that dialogue, discussion and literature are fully part of our national discourse.

Can Themba was the kind of intellectual who was capable of engaging in a discussion on any topic.

He is known to have hosted debates in his home, which was known as “The House of Truth.”

 It is against this backdrop that we are hosting this lecture in a form of a conversation. We believe that a dialogue, as opposed to the conventional form of a public lecture delivered by an individual, would be a fitting tribute to Can Themba.

Ladies and Gentleman, my responsibility tonight is to welcome you to this auspicious occasion. We have a panel of literary experts who will talk more about the literary genius that we are here to celebrate.

Let me invite you to take off your jackets and drink from the fountain of knowledge that will be flowing for the next two hours. 

Thank you.