Message of condolences on the passing of three prominent South African writers

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15 Jan 2007

Dr Z. Pallo Jordan

We enter this year in a devastatingly painful state after the passing of three prominent South African writers in a space of four days. Toek Blignaut, Doc Bikitsha and Sydney Sipho Sepamla, passed away on 5, 6 and 9 January 2007 respectively. Through journalistic writing, poetry and fiction, these writers established themselves as chroniclers of our history and remained a substantial part of South African writing over several decades.

In the past year all the three writers were recognised and honoured by both the government and the writing community in South Africa for their sterling contribution to the development and preservation of our cultural heritage.  Toek Blignaut, author of 82 books in a career that spans over five decades, received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the South African Literary Awards held in Bloemfontein on 8 December 2006. Blignaut was honoured for her selfless dedication to the development of South African literature and languages in an event organised by the wRite Associates in collaboration with the Department of Arts and Culture.

Blignaut’s most popular work is her first book, Donker op Nebo, which was written in Afrikaans and first published in 1970. Blignaut started writing stories for magazines on a freelance basis. After winning two competitions run by the then Afrikaanse Pers, she was invited to join Rooi Rose magazine as a journalist. In this position Blignaut wrote short stories, serial stories and articles. Her first short story in the magazine appeared in 1957. During her 12-years at Rooi Rose, she covered the first world heart transplant by Dr Chris Barnard in the mid-sixties. Some of Blignaut’s remarkable works include, Uit Hirdie Donker Nag and Pad na Monomotapa. Her last book Silwerkruik, was published in 2006 and at the time of her death she was writing her memoirs.

Blignaut’s passing was followed by the shocking news of the departure of Doc Bikitsha and Sipho Sepamla, both recipients of the Memory is our Heritage fellowship grants. The fellowships are an initiative of the Mutloatse Heritage Trust in collaboration with the Department of Arts and Culture. These fellowships are offered to outstanding South African writers and journalists to document our cultural heritage through the contributions of our major artists. Bikitsha was born on 19 November 1930 at the Bridgman Memorial Hospital in Mayfair, Johannesburg. Although trained as a teacher, Bikitsha could not restrict his influence to the classroom walls, instead he expanded his horizons and taught the entire nation through his journalistic writings.

Doc Bikitsha emerged among a galaxy of journalists who remain a significant part of our history and at the height of intense socio-political upheavals that brought about a new consciousness among South Africans and subsequently resonated across the international landscape. Bikitsha worked with legendary writers such as Henry Nxumalo, Lewis Nkosi, Nat Nakasa, Can Themba, Sophie Thema, Anthony Sampson, Casey Motsisi, Todd Matshikiza and Ezekiel Mphahlele.  Bikitsha  worked for the Golden City Post, Bantu World, the Rand Daily Mail, and the Sunday Times, among others. Bikitsha commanded a great deal of respect among journalists and readers alike and has inspired many journalists who remain the household names in South African journalism.

While still wiping our tears after the passing of Bikitsha, we opened our eyes to devastating news: we learned that Sipho Sepamla, one of our most outstanding and prolific poets had also passed away.  Sepamla was born in 1932 in West Rand, outside Krugersdorp. He was trained as a teacher at Pretoria Normal College but is better known as a poet and novelist. He published six collections of poetry, including with Selected Works (1984) and From Gorée to Soweto (1988), and several novels, as well as The Root Is One (1979), A Ride on the Whirlwind (1981) and Rainbow Journey (1996). He received the Thomas Pringle Award in 1976 and in 1985 was recognised in France with the Order of Arts and Literature.

After the Soweto Uprisings in 1976, Sepamla released a deeply moving and politically charged collection of poetry, The Soweto I Love (1977), which was banned by the apartheid government shortly after its release. What distinguished Sepamla’s poetic flair was his ability to deploy the urban patois, better known as Tsotsi-taal, in his writing without compromising fundamental literary aesthetics. Sepamla left us shortly after completing his biography of Victor Ndlazilwane, a legendary jazz musician from Daveyton and leader of the Jazz Ministers.  

The loss of these outstanding writers is a horrific blow to the arts fraternity, the South African society at large and the writing community across the globe. We can only derive solace in the realisation that in their lifetime they served the nation diligently and left their mark in the annals of our cultural history.   

I would like to convey my deepest condolences to the families and friends of the departed writers. I hope that we will all derive solace from the realisation that these great writers have served the nation with distinction and that their contribution was recognised while they were still alive.