Johannesburg has often been a place of conundrums; apartheid acts as a beginning and an end. And literature which is often an art that connects the unsaid with the truth, acts like a mirror which reveals a society to itself. We look at 15 Black authors who have left their imprint on the city.
Many authors in South Africa often express the things people are afraid to say, taking to writing books, poetry and plays in the midst of the political confusion and social instability. Some of these authors have given way to the hip, misunderstood, radical and frustrated authors of today.
As a microcosm of South African society, Johannesburg is a city which typifies the contradictions of the country; on one hand we have the Houghtons and the Gautrains, and on the other, Soweto and Alexandra.
We even have streets named after Miriam Makeba and Louis Botha. Sometimes Justin Bieber comes to visit, on other days Jill Scott.
We take a look at 15 important black writers to influence the city of Johannesburg.
Some are alive and some long gone, some are newly controversial and some are long standing celebrities, but each one has left an imprint on the metropolitan hub of social transformation and the beating heart of South Africa, 20 years still in transition.
1. Bessie Head
Bessie Amelia Head was born on the 6th of July 1937 in Pietermaritzburg, although she is is usually considered Botswana’s most influential writer.
According to Remembered, Head’s mother was white and her father was black. She was raised by foster parents after her mother gave birth to her in an asylum, and then taken in by the Anglican mission orphanage.
In later years she trained as a primary school teacher, but in 1959 Head decided to pursue a career in journalism.
She wrote short stories for the Johannesburg Golden City Post, which was a weekly supplement and sister publication to the then famous Drum magazine.
When she moved to Johannesburg to write from Drum, her work began to precede her as reputable writer.
2. Miriam Tlali
The first black woman in South Africa to publish a novel was Miriam Tlali.
She was also one of the first authors to write about Soweto. Tlali studied at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg until it was subsequently closed to Black people during apartheid.
Tlali then left to study in Lesotho but was unable to continue with her studies because of a lack of funds.
She then became an office clerk and wrote her first novel Muriel at Metropolitan in 1979. Her subsequent books include Amandla(1980), Mihloti (1984), and Footprints in the Quag (1989).
She was honoured in this year’s 21 Icons. Here is her story: Miriam Tlali
3. Njabulo S Ndebele
Ndebele is currently the Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and a member of the English Academy of South Africa.
Author of The Cry of Winnie Mandela, in 2004 it received critical acclaim, and his earlier publication Fools and Other Stories won Ndebele the Noma Award, which is Africa’s highest literary award for the best book published in Africa in 1984.
Ndebele has also written a number of highly influential essays on South African literature and culture, these were published in the collection Rediscovery of the Ordinary.
IMAGE: Taken during his inauguration at the University of Johannesburg.
4. Steve Biko
This man writes what he likes. Very little introduction is necessary when discussing the father of the Black Consciousness Movement.
The movement was an instrument pivotal to the empowerment and mobilization of much of the urban black population in South Africa during in apartheid.
Much of his letters, essays and teachings have stood the test of time and newly formed parties such as the Economic Freedom Front have aligned themselves quite obviously with Biko’s words.
In Johannesburg CBD, the Steve Biko Foundation can be located at the Braamfontein Centre on Jorrisen Street. The Foundation aims to “…strengthen democracy by championing dialogue, scholarship and programmes on the relationship between identity, agency, citizenship and social action.”
5. Don Mattera
“Sorry is not just a word, it’s a deed.”
The renowned larger-than-life poet says, “Contrition is not bless me Father for I have sinned, contrition is I have taken from thee therefore I give thee back.”
These are Mattera’s words on addressing the issues surrounding the collective responsibility that white people have but have ignored in the new and democratic South Africa.
He says, “They suffer from forgetfulness.”
Mattera was born in the Western Native Township, now known as Westbury in Johannesburg. He grew up in Sophiatown, and according to an interview with Lucille Davie Don Mattera: poet of compassion,Mattera was during his high school years a gangster, the leader of the Vultures which was one of the most powerful gangs in Sophiatown.
He has worked as a journalist at the Sunday Times, The Weekly Mail (now the Mail & Guardian) and The Sowetan. He has trained over 260 journalists. Mattera also has a doctorate in literature.
6. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Although reading this list one might find Adichie irrelevant to the theme, she has become by far an African novelist who has transformed the way in which young black readers in Africa have become attuned to literature.
A Nigerian author, one might argue she has entered into the sacred realms of Achebe and Okri.
Her books include Half of a Yellow Sun, Purple Hibiscus and The Thing Around Your Neck, the latter being a collection of short stories.
7. Gcina Mhlophe
Easily one of the most celebrated poets in South Africa, Mhlophe has easily become synonymous with the music of liberation and the songs of freedom.
She is known as a South African freedom fighter, activist, actor, storyteller, poet, playwright, director and author.
Well-travelled and globally celebrated, she continues to hold African idiomatic expressions and metaphors at the helm of her artistry.
She writes children’s books and remains concerned with the advancement of literature in schools. (See: Time for book fairs to “break the class divide”)
Her play, Have you seen Zandile? Was first performed at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg in 1986, with Mhlophe as Zandile.
Here is Mhlophe talking about the importance of knowing you ancestral connections.
8. Dr Kopano Matlwa Mabaso
Perhaps one of the youngest writers to emerge in the literary sphere as a force to be reckoned with Matlwa’s Coconut, opened the lid on the realities of being a 21stcentury black girl living in South Africa.
Her debut Coconut was succeeded by her novel Spilt Milk, the former winning her the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literary in Africa in 2008, sharing the prize with “I Do Not Come To You By Chance” by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani and “Tenants of The House” by Wale Okediran.
Matlwa matriculated from St. Peters College in Johannesburg with distinctions in 2003.
9. Peter Abrahams
Once a sailor Abrahams was born to an Ethopian father and a Coloured mother, under the apartheid regime his mother was in South Africa considered a ‘Kleurling’. He was born in Vrededorp, a suburb in Johannesburg but later left South Africa in 1939.
His novel Mine Boy, published in 1946, remains relevant and timeless. Mine Boy was one of Abraham’s first works to bring him critical attention.
The novel was turned into a musical in 2014, in celebration of 20 years of democracy. The musical was showcased at the Wushwini Arts and heritage centre in the KwaZulu-Natal province.
10. Es’kia Mphahlele
Mphahlele was a South African writer, teacher, artist and activist. He was born Ezekiel Mphahlele but would later change his name to Es’kia in 1977.
He died at the age of 88 from natural causes. He was the first black professor at Wits and founded its African Literature Department.
This year Wits University will hold The Es’kia Mphahlele Postgraduate Colloquium and Arts Forum. It is a bi-annual event initiated in tribute to renowned writer and intellectual, Es’kia Mphahlele, who had a life-long interest in the training and mentoring of emerging artists and scholars.
11. Nelson Mandela
Perhaps Africa’s biggest icon, Mandela name is synonymous with the liberation themes that vibrate
throughout South Africa then and now.
While his many accolades precede him, he was also sometimes an author. One of his biggest autobiographies (also literally in the sense!) was his Long Walk to Freedom . The book profiles his early life, coming of age and 27 years in prison.
Here we see the Mandela Bridge in Johannesburg. The bridge is one of the many architectural structures throughout the country that honour Madiba’s legacy.
12. Lebo Mashile
She has no doubt become one of the most popular poets to date in contemporary South Africa.
A former Wits Law student, she was the daughter of exiled parents in the United States of America and returned in the mid 1990’s after the end of apartheid.
She has been actively involved in the plight against apartheid in Israel. She has performed numerously throughout the country, and recently partook in the Ruth First Memorial Lecture at Wits University, which was ablaze with political and social agenda that aimed to criticise racial dynamics within this democratic nation.
13. Panashe Chigumadzi
One of the newest voices to arise in recent years, she is a self proclaimed ‘Coconut’ and hers is the plight to transform the meaning of what it is to be a young black female in a democratic South Africa. She also spoke at the Ruth First Memorial Lecture to a crowd inspired by her words.
A Wits student, she will be releasing her debut novel Sweet Medicinelater this year. She is the founder and editor for the Vanguard Magazine, a platform for young black women coming of age in post apartheid South Africa.
She is currently completing a postgraduate degree in Development Studies at Wits.
14. Mamphele Ramphele
Although Ramphele has become in recent years a controversial figure, she is also a novelist.
Ramphele is a former anti-apartheid activist against, a medical doctor, an academic and a businesswoman.
She was one of several romantically involved partners linked to Steve Biko. Her latest book Passion for Freedom was published in 2013.
She was also leader of the Agang party; she has since withdrawn from politics from July 2014.
15. Zakes Mda
Zakes Mda was born in 1948 and has become a national signatory in the world of arts and literature.
He has written countless novels, poems and plays, many have been performed throughout the country on many stages, including the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, Newtown. He has won major South African and British literary awards for his novels and plays, and is currently a Patron of the Etisalat Prize for Literature.
He has also been awarded the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work.