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
BOTSWANA COME TO JHB: Bessie Head as young woman. Photo: Katleho Sekhotho
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
TLALI ON MY WALL: Miriam Tlali is the first black woman in South Africa to publish a novel. Photo: Katleho Sekhotho
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
Prof Njabulo Ndebele reflects on his achievements during his inauguration as the new Chancellor – Sanlam Auditorium on Kingsway Campus on Friday, 16 November 2012.
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
THE CONSCIOUS MAN: Steve Biko on the cover of Drum magazine.
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.”
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.
CHIMAMANDA: The Thing Around Your Neck Photo: Katleho Sekhotho
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
Gcina Mhlophe: Never fails to entertain and never fails to get her message across. Photo: Katleho Sekhotho
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.
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.
KOPANO MATLWA Photo: Provided
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.
Es’kia Mphahlele Photo: Katleho Sekhotho
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.
A LONG WALK: Mandela’s legacy will undoubtedly live for generations to come. Photo: Katleho Sekhotho
11. Nelson Mandela
Perhaps Africa’s biggest icon, Mandela name is synonymous with the liberation themes that vibrate
MANDELA BRIDGE: The Nelson Mandela bridge in the night time. This photo was taken by renowned cinematographer Ofentse Mwase
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
FIERCE POETRY: Poet Lebo Mashile spoke out against Israeli apartheid at the IAW concert on this year during Israeli Apartheid Week. Photo: Michelle Gumede
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
“Thank you Tseliso Monaheng for your amazing photographer’s eye.” – 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.
NARRATIVES OF A YOUNG BLACK WOMAN: Editor and founder of Vanguard Magazine and Ruth First Fellow, Panashe Chigumadzi is shaping the African women’s narrative one step at a time. The Zimbabwean born recently explored the concept of ‘Coconuts, Consciousness & Cecil John Rhodes’. Photo: Reuven Blignault
A young visionary from Zimbabwe, Panashe Chigumadzi is the founder and editor of Vanguard Magazine, a platform that aims to speak life to young black women. Chigumadzi is shaping the African women’s narrative one step at a time. The Ruth First fellow recently reflected on the dialogue around the theme: “Race: Lived Experiences and Contemporary Conversations” by exploring the concept of ‘coconuts’ in post-apartheid South Africa.
Vanguard has become a critical voice for many young black women. What was the inspiration behind it?
The inspiration was to not seeing myself represented in media, on the covers, on the mastheads, and on the way stories were told. If they were stories about black women they were often anthropological in the way in which we talk about things, the full nuance was never there. And if you find a black women represented it was either Lupita, Beyoncé or Bonang, so for us it was really to say we want a space where we can celebrate black womanhood in all of its manifestations. So we wanted to have a space where we can have our joy, our tears, fears and our anger everything there in a way where we don’t have to censor, italicise or explain ourselves.
You are part of the Feminist Stokvel. Why is the subject of hair important?
The subject of hair for me is a gateway to a whole range of issues within Black Consciousness, Womanisms and Intersectional Feminism because it speaks to the way which the black female body is ‘humanised/institutionalised’. In the way in which it is meant to conform to a very white supremacist and patriarchal view and the way we have an idea of straight shiny long hair and not hair in the way it grows out of our heads. That’s not just purely a self-esteem issue for black people, it’s specifically because the structures of the South African economy, the fact that we still don’t own spaces that we inhabit. It’s the institutions that we’re in, the schools that are still predominantly white run that will say ‘no Afro’s for example, no dreadlocks, and those are the schools code of conduct.
In the work space where you’ll see some women are forced to have a specific hairstyle because that is what is seen as presentable in those spaces so it’s not specifically I speak about hair, but as a way of making a commentary about just the way blackness is coerced in South Africa because we’re still so very white dominated in many of our institutions and that’s why I don’t like to victim blame and critique people who wear weaves. I am more interested in critiquing the structures that say women cannot have natural hair, that’s a very important part of the discussion that we have to be having, as opposed to having the silly Afro versus weave conversation.
What are some of the issues your radical approach to being a pro-black young woman brought you?
The first thing people say is by being ‘pro-black’ it automatically means being racist and people shy away from that, people will say that being pro-black is anti-white. I’m not interested in trying to make white people feel better about my politics because whiteness is premised on the expense of black people, it is built on the backs of black people and obviously you make a whole lot of people uncomfortable by saying that I want to have a full life as a black person and I don’t want to be apologetic. It makes a lot of people feel uncomfortable.
There are many people that will want to silence you, it’s important to continue to work on creating these spaces that we do. One of the spaces that we support the amazing initiative by ‘The Black Love Sessions’ which is done by an amazing young woman by the name of Sivu Siwisa. They have and event called For Black Girls Only and that’s specifically because they want to have a space where black women can find support and find creative ways to heal and create a movement around themselves but they get a lot of slack because you’re not allowed- in a very white society- to have black only spaces, we’re not allowed to have spaces where we are allowed to speak about our pain outside the gaze of whiteness. And if so people will continue to have problems with that it means that we are doing the right things if people are angry or upset with what we are doing. It means we are really challenging the structures within- a way it hasn’t been challenged before.
Do you think radical feminists or radical feminism is celebrated in Africa?
I don’t want to make statements for the continent but what I can say is that there are many amazing African feminists that aren’t celebrated enough and there are so many just beyond individual feminisms, because there are different ways which people express and define their feminisms. But you have a lot of these great movements, for example the African Feminist Forum that is really great and we’ve also got HOLAA Africa, they are a great feminist organisation and. There are so many incredible feminist organisations there but we do not hear nearly enough but definitely there are women who are doing great things whether its writing, activism, sex workers drives, campaigns against female genital mutilation and speak about the experiences of black women. It’s just a matter of they don’t get enough praise and spotlight they should be getting.
Do you see a danger in the glorification and fetishism of black feminists?
There is a danger in individuals being celebrated. I think it’s important to highlight peoples work because I think people take a lot of risks, it’s difficult to put themselves out there but at the same time I think we have an individualistic culture, that’s also as a result of what we would call Neoliberalism, a sort of economic order. Making it to the top of the corporate ladder by yourself as opposed to speaking about how we create movements.
It is important for us to bring a movement otherwise we can decide that we praise Panashe today and we don’t like what she says we simply put her down but if we have an entire movement it doesn’t stop because of one person, the message continues and I think that’s really important. To create a movement as opposed to a culture of glorifying individuals. We need to find ways of creating a solidarity and that’s why I’m interested in Vanguard as being a space where we can create a movement of black writers and new black voices. We want to develop new voices within this space because there is a culture of wanting to individualise as opposed to creating a movement.
Mainstream media views black women as bodies of subjects of fetishism opposed to white women being paragons of virtue and desire. What are your thoughts about this?
I almost don’t have anything to say because it’s tiring. That is why I am interested in how do we create spaces and reclaim spaces such that we can have agency to create ourselves in our image and see ourselves in our image, that’s where I am. I just get tired of talking about it because we all know it’s a problem. I am interested in saying how do we create the new spaces and create those new images of black women because we are not a homogeneous body of people, there are so many different sexualities and body types. There are so many different ways of being as black people that’s why we want to create more spaces.
What would you say to young black women who are constantly told they are not enough?
I would want them to know that they are enough, they don’t need to embellish their story, you don’t need all kinds of things to make your story valid or your perspective valid and that’s the important lesson. It’s difficult in an anti-black, anti-woman, anti-poor world where your wounds are constantly needing to be legitimised all the time and constantly being silenced but I think that’s what we are trying to do. We want to let young black women know that they are enough and we are going to fight to create the spaces that are going to continue to affirm you.
A race conversation is the order of the day at the 14th annual Ruth First Memorial Lecture at the Wits University Great Hall on Monday evening.
The lecture will feature commentators Eusebius McKaiser and Sisonke Msimang, and Vanguard Magazine founder Panashe Chigumadzi. Themed as “Race: Lived Experiences and Contemporary Conversations”, this year’s lecture will also feature a performance by poet Lebo Mashile.
“The wave of transformation that has taken place is an important issue relevant to young people, the Wits student body. It’s going to cut deep,” said McKaiser.
Chigumadzi, the 2015 Ruth First Fellow, will deliver a talk on her research about what it means to be a “coconut” and the experiences of young black South Africans.
“The conversation is important because it hasn’t been had before. [People] are not willing to wait anymore, we need to deal with the legacy of apartheid in a very frank way,” said Chigumadzi.
“This year in particular [we] are looking for young black people. The emphasis on lived experiences and a clearer commitment to centring black people and black spaces.”
Msimang, who is also a Ruth First fellow, will be partnering with Mashile to perform Msimang’s text based research into the possibility of authentic interracial friendships.
“[My work] looks at friendship, directly engaging with middle class concerns in order to tease out race as an independent variable from class. I wanted to do this because too often we focus on race and class as intertwined – which is important – but sometimes it makes it hard to talk about race and racism – especially with well-intentioned whites,” said Msimang.
Ruth First was a journalist and anti-apartheid activist who was killed in exile by a parcel bomb on the August, 17 1982. First, a Wits graduate, was a member of the Communist Party who was imprisoned and held in isolation before going into exile in Mozambique, where she was assassinated by the apartheid government. First was a prolific writer whose probing investigative journalism exposed many of the harsh conditions under which the majority of South Africans lived. During her time, she was the editor-in-chief of the radical newspaper The Guardian –a paper which was subsequently banned by the state.
McKaiser said the Ruth First lecture was an important part of remembering and discussing South Africa’s history. First, herself, was an interesting historical figure whose work should not be forgotten.
“She, a white Jewish woman, understood what happened within the black community,” McKaiser said.
“We need to do more to commemorate women in this country.”
This year’s talks will feature a stream of discussions that will allow attendees to attend various topics and discussions.