- Can Themba: the life and work of a shebeen intellectual.
- Snyman, Mari
- Can Themba
- Can Themba, unlike most of the other Drum writers, e. g. Todd Matshikiza, Es’kia Mphahlele, Bloke Modisane and Lewis Nkosi, did not write an autobiography, probably because he died at the young age of forty-three after prolonged, acute alcohol abuse. The aim of this dissertation is to trace his life and career as a journalist and short story writer during the 1950s, popularly known as the ‘Drum decade’, through (sometimes autobiographical) interpretation of his work, through interviews with and information from the autobiographies of his contemporaries, as well as through a close examination of material on Sophiatown. The dominant genre in the 1950s for black writers was the short story. Environmental circumstances seemed to have created a kind of live-for-today attitude, which suited the immediate, concentrated form. Admittedly, Themba’s short stories seem escapist, even melodramatic and sensational, but they do have a distinctive South African flavour, mirroring the plight of the township black in the 1950s. There are also hard-hitting journalistic pieces, emphasizing the day-to-day struggle of blacks living in a world controlled by a minority group of whites. Themba’s realistic, mostly autobiographical, sketches, seemed to fill the need for politically relevant journalism, although his contemporaries did not necessarily agree with this view. By examining what he wrote about himself, directly as well as indirectly, as well as what others have to say about him, an attempt will be made to create a biography of this informal cult figure, popularly known as an intellectual tsotsi, a shebeen intellectual, of the 1950s. This study will show that he was a versatile writer of popular short stories and hard-hitting sketches, as well as an astute social witness of his world. Although lately there has been a revival of interest in the period, very few critical works have become available. In fact, the interest seems almost superficial, highlighting the romantic notion of the 1950s as a devil-may-care period, in which the live-for-today attitude of its people was characterized by gangsterism, swanky cars and the so-called nice-time girls. This dissertation will attempt to highlight the overwhelming ambience of sadness, of wasted time and lives, of what could have been. Can Themba may be the ultimate example of writer-intellectual trapped in the ambiguous reality that was Sophiatown. His life and work illustrate how the boundaries between fantasy and reality can fade in such a way that a new kind of reality, an inter-racial bohemia, comes into existence. He not only captures African speech and the rhythm of tsotsitaal, but also uses the sharp wit and intricate phrases which illustrate his affinity with writers like Oscar Wilde. In this way his African roots and European education are fused. This phenomenon, which seems to be a unique characteristic of the 1950s, will be explored. Ultimately, though, an attempt will be made to demonstrate Can Themba’s relevance as a writer to a contemporary audience by illustrating that through his unique style he manages to recreate his original context, and therefore speaks to us today.
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