15 Important Black writers to influence Johannesburg

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

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.

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.

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.”

5. Don Mattera

EMPOWERING POETS: Rehana Mosajee (from left) Portia Monama, Katleho Sekhotho, Don Mattera (right). Photo: Mrs Rice

EMPOWERING POETS: Rehana Mosajee (from left) Portia Monama, Katleho Sekhotho, Don Mattera (right). Photo: Mrs Rice

“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.

CHIMAMANDA: The Thing Around Your Neck Photo: Katleho Sekhotho

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

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.

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.

KOPANO MATLWA Photo: Provided

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

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

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

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

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

“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.

Time for book fairs to “break the class divide”

The evening came alive with song and music when renowned South African storyteller Gcina Mhlophe took to the stage at the annual Jozi Book Fair, while Wits vice chancellor Professor Adam Habib called for more accessible book fairs.  

LETS READ: Gcina Mhlope  poses with VC Adam Habib and Khanya College organizers at the Jozi Book Fair. Photo: Katleho Sekhotho

LET’S READ: From left, Dr Maria van Driel, one of the organisers, Gcina Mhlope, Prof Adam Habib and a guest at the Jozi Book Fair in Braamfontein on Thursday evening.                                                                                 Photo: Katleho Sekhotho


Wits University’s vice chancellor has said that book fairs need to “break the class divide.” Speaking at the 7th annual Jozi Book Fair in Braamfontein on Thursday night, an event hosted in partnership with Wits University and Khanya College, Habib spoke of the need to make book fairs more accessible.

Reflecting on the launch of one of his books two years ago at the Franschhoek Literature Festival, Habib said he realised that there were only about six black people in the audience out of the thousands present.

Habib said book fairs are an opportunity for the upper middle class to hang around and share interesting ideas, but made the call for a change, and said that the university’s partnership with Khanya College is part of this.

“We are starting this particular relationship with Khanya [College]… because it’s about deepening access to education, and that is something we are particularly increasingly getting committed to.”

Celebrated writer and poet Gcina Mhlophe was also present and captivated the audience with her signature mix of music and poetry, (click to listen).


Focusing on young people and reading, Mhlope spoke of what led her to write children’s books, “I started writing for children because I got jealous, when I got to those countries where they sell children’s books only – they dress them up so well – I wanted to make a contribution!” (click to listen).




A students’ guide: the top 10 must-read books

  The-Catcher-in-the-Rye-the-catcher-in-the-rye-6057181-264-4001Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951).

 Although not a recent novel, The Catcher in the Rye is a coming of age story which shares the experiences and challenges faced during a young boy’s transition from adolescence to adulthood.




9780349106533 2. Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela (1995)

 A truly inspirational and tear-jerking autobiography that tells the story of the life of the late former president, Nelson Mandela. Mandela narrates his struggles under Apartheid before, during and after his 27 years in  prison on Robben Island.




lotr3. Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R Tolkien (1937)

Famous today for its film portrayal, The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a timeless classic which explores the fantasy world of Middle Earth. It follows the journey of Frodo, a young hobbit who discovers a ring of great power that could destroy Middle Earth if it falls into the hands of the evil Sauron. 



the-help-stockett4. The Help by Kathryn Stockett (2009)

Set in the midst of segregation in the American South during the 1960’s, The Help tells the story of three different women living in Jackson, Mississippi. Two are black maids working for white families and the third an aspiring writer who takes it upon herself to tell the life stories of the black maids of Jackson.




gatsby_book_preview5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

An American classic which scrutinises the lifestyle, aspiration and wealth of the “roaring 20’s” in New York City. The story is narrated through the eyes of Nick Carraway who becomes entangled with the mysterious Jay Gatsby – a wealthy tycoon who throws elaborate parties in his mansion on Long Island


1360673-1681590371-l6. Ways of Dying by Zakes Mda (1996)

Ways of Dying can be described as an unconventional love story that takes place during South Africa’s transitional period from Apartheid to democracy. It has a magical-realist aspect and looks at the violence and dilemmas that blacks across South Africa faced during the transition. 



atonement7. Atonement by Ian McEwan (2001)

Atonement tells the story of how a simple error in judgement can have damaging repercussions for the present and future for oneself and ones loved ones. The story is set in three different time periods – pre, post and during World War Two – when two lovers are separated by a mistake that could cost them their future.




Hunger_games8. The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins (2008)

Set in a post-apocalyptic North America, The Hunger Games is a story of strength, endurance and eventual dissent against the autocratic regime of “The Capital”. The protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, is forced to battle it out against 11 other “tributes”–teenagers like herself–in the annual event of “The Hunger Games”.




HalfYellowSun9. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2006)

Set in Nigeria, the lives of four individuals are thrown into chaos as the  Nigerian-Biafran Civil War breaks out during 1967. The lives a young houseboy,  a British citizen, a professor and a political figure are deeply affected by the difficulties that befall them during and after this tragic period. 





14192900_12071222222410. The Perks of being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (1999)

The Perks of being a Wallflower  looks at the life of Charlie through  a series of letters that he writes to an unnamed friend. He describes his difficulties as a high school freshman, his life, love and his new found friends – all in their final year of high school.

Wits professor helps Limpopo learners to read

Wits University professors are conducting several research projects to help high potential youth from marginalised communities to succeed. Photo: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Like the learners at Badimong Primary School, Leketi Makalela experienced poverty as a child and went to a school where resources were scarce and teachers poorly trained.

He chanted or, as he calls it now, “barked” text he didn’t understand, moving his finger and his head as he followed the words on the page.

But despite ineffective teaching methods, he miraculously managed to learn. Now, with a doctorate in English, linguistics and education from Michigan State University, he teaches teachers.

Makalela, a professor of language and literacy at the Wits School of Education, is an example of the talented young people who were the subject of the university’s symposium on high potential youth from marginalised communities.

The symposium was organised by the Office of the Vice chancellor and the Faculty of Humanities. It featured current and future research projects which might provide solutions to some of the problems which prevent South Africa’s young people from fully realising their potential.

At the symposium, Makalela presented a report on the bilingual literacy project he recently concluded at Badimong.

A simple but effective intervention

Over the period of a year, Makalela and his three assistants helped 30 high potential grades 4-6 learners improve their reading comprehension scores from about 25% to about 75% in both Sepedi and English.

He did this through a simple intervention. He provided the learners with culturally-relevant Sepedi storybooks which he asked them to read to their parents for 15 minutes every day. For the first three months of the project, Makalela visited the families of the 30 children, a few every weekend, to monitor the learners’ progress.

Makalela also conducted interventions which benefited the other 300 children in grades 4 to 6.

Making reading less painful

He worked with them to change their reading techniques, which he said made reading “so painful a task”.

Makoma Makgoba, a grade 4 social science and grade 5 Sepedi teacher, told Wits Vuvuzela about the reading skills of the children before Makalela’s intervention.

“The sitting posture can hinder how they read. They move their head, as if they are conducting a choir.”

She said Makalela taught the learners to avoid following the words with their fingers and moving their heads and mouths as they read.

Enriching the classroom environment

Makalela conducted workshops with the teachers, encouraging them to enrich what he described as a “barren classroom environment with no visual support to provide opportunities for incidental reading”.

He solved the problem of a lack of money for posters by asking the children to read stories in Sepedi and then rewrite them in English or vice versa. The children then illustrated their versions and put them up in a colourful “literacy corner”.

This technique also achieved Makalela’s objective of encouraging learners to see their home language as valuable.

Makalela said he wanted to prevent the children from becoming “academic monolinguals”.

“It’s like driving on one wheel. You need both wheels to get to your destination.”

Makalela will expand his project to three more schools in Giyani, Polokwane and Thohoyandou (Limpopo) and one in Soweto.