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The Literary Bon Viveur Who Drank, Fought and Wrote Furiously

It’s 50 years since the death of Can Themba; writer, family man, frustrated teacher and defiant journalist who shunned Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu. A new play tells the untold story of his remarkable and tempestuous life.

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African literature cannot be completely told without a mention of one Can Themba. This was the kind of journalist he was. In defiance of racist laws, Themba attended white church services; he was yanked out of church, beaten and arrested for trespassing.

Canodoise ‘Can’ Themba was born in 1924 in Marabastad, a township outside Pretoria, the capital city of South Africa. Themba wrote for the South African black magazine called Drum, in Johannesburg, in the 50s, a publication that spawned a generation of talented young black journalists. Because of his man-about-town manner Themba was popular among thugs and educated alike in Sophiatown, the now defunct suburb where both black and white lived. Themba called his abode, at 111 Ray Street, the House of Truth where his friends gathered to carouse and debate. They called him the ‘shebeen intellectual’.

Essop Patel, the late South African judge and poet, wrote about Themba’s house of truth and drink in a book he edited, The World of Nat Nakasa. Nakasa, a Harvard graduate who later died in exile in America, was Themba’s colleague from Durban; Themba welcomed him to Johannesburg.

“For those with the Karamazovian lifestyle led by Can Themba and his ‘pards’ in a room called the ‘House of Truth’ in Sophiatown, Nat’s initiation must have looked like leading a lamb to the slaughter-block. The curious and interesting thing is that while Nat conducted himself as something of a dilettante from the word go, there was plainly nothing bogus about him. He cheerfully sank into the Bohemian life with Can Themba and his crew in Sophiatown and later drifted into the twilight world of ‘mixed gatherings’ and ‘mixed parties’ in Hillbrow,” writes Patel.

Siphiwo Mahala, who has never touched a drink, is a scholar of Themba’s work and African literature. He wrote a new play about Themba, along with veteran actor Sello Maake kaNcube. He of all people knows that Themba would have chuckled at the thought of a teetotaller writing play about his life half a century after his death.

Last winter, Mahala premiered the bio-play The House of Truth at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. Maake kaNcube depicts the little known story of talks Themba had with Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu while they were students at the University of Fort Hare – a cauldron of African nationalism, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province. The politicians asked him to rally his journalism colleagues behind their movement, the African National Congress, but Themba made it clear he would choose alcohol over politics.

“I am a student of African literature. I remember distinctly when I first encountered Can Themba it was obviously his most popular short story – The Suit. I read it from an anthology by different South Africans called To Kill A Man’s Pride. What struck me about the book, until that moment I had not read a book that depicts a township life like I know it. In the same book I read The Music of the Violin by Njabulo Ndebele. I was probably in standard eight or thereabout, around about 1992. Ultimately, when I finished school I wanted to study literature, because when we grew up most of these writers’ work wasn’t available in our school syllabus,” says Mahala.

Mahala’s interest and devotion to the work of Themba was by chance when he was a master’s student in creative writing at the University of the Witwatersrand, in 2002.

“I presented my short story called Mpumi’s Assignment in the creative writing course. During feedback people kept on saying it reminded them of Can Themba’s The Suit. At that point, I wasn’t sure whether to take it as an offense or take credit. Somewhere it felt like they thought I have plagiarized. There’s a scene there where a woman finds an earring that is not hers in their bedroom. So, she asked her husband whose earring this is, he says it’s his and he is trying to be hip. So, she says okay put it on. And this guy happens to be a teacher and is forced to wear the earring to school. So, they took that and associated it with The Suit.”

Mahala reread The Suit to examine the similarities. In the process of reading, he thought the story needed a conclusion.

“We last heard of the adulterous man when he ran away clad only in underwear. That’s where I thought of writing The Suit Continued, which was published in 2002,” says Mahala.

The Suit Continued didn’t only become the introduction of the introverted Mahala in Johannesburg’s literary scene, he made it his academic project, uncovering Can Themba’s oeuvre. It bothered Mahala that the story of Themba was largely told from the time he worked for Drum.

“Now we have established this connection between Siphiwo Mahala and Can Themba. There are so many academic papers and reviews linking us. So, I felt obliged to know better about Can Themba, the person. I spent a lot time with ‘Bra Willie’ Kgositsile who used to regale me with stories of his own upbringing and life in Sophiatown and encounters with Can Themba,” he says.

Mahala, the author of a novel When A Man Cries (2007) and a collection of short stories African Delights (2011), said the late professor and vice chancellor at the University of Fort Hare, Mbulelo Mzamane, challenged him to immerse himself in Themba’s work.

Above: Siphiwo Mahala with actor, Sello Maake kaNcube

“He had been pushing me to go back to school to study towards a PhD on Can Themba. In 2013, he said to me: ‘You already know so much about Can Themba, and chances are, your supervisors wouldn’t know as much you know about Can Themba’,” he recalls.

In 2014, Mahala enrolled for a PhD at the University of South Africa. His research sent him back to where it all started, at the University of Fort Hare, and Grahamstown, where he was born, in the Eastern Cape. From the university Mahala retrieved Themba’s correspondence with the Transvaal Department of Education. Themba, who studied English but wanted to teach, had a long and miserable run-in with the education department. He was refused promotion because he lacked a teacher’s qualification. There’s a rich archive on Themba’s life at The National English Literary Museum in Grahamstown, lying just 20 kilometers from Mahala’s home in Joza township.

“Fortunately, I didn’t struggle so much. Now I am depicting a real character as opposed to crafting a fictional character. I had to reflect on Can Themba’s life as much as possible, this including the kind of music he listened to, his behavior in general. The play goes beyond the carbon character that has been created about Sophiatown. You see Can Themba in love, you see Can Themba as a family man, you see Can Themba frustrated. The issues of his troubles with the education department were never written about. I didn’t have to be creative that much, the creativity was demanded mostly in packaging the story,” says Mahala.

The idea to have the story of Themba in film was hatched in those interactions with the poet and professor of English, Kgositsile. The film A Teacher in the Newsroom features the scholars and writers; Kgositsile, Pitika Ntuli, Don Mattera, Nadine Gordimer, Joe Thloloe, Muxe Nkondo, wife Anne and daughters Morongwa and Yvonne Themba.

Mahala thought it would be unfair to compare Themba to his privileged contemporaries like the prolific Nadine Gordimer, a friend of Themba.

“Nadine in many was ways was privileged as a white person despite identifying herself with the struggles of the black people. The major distinction here is that fact she lived until her nineties, Can Themba died at 43, she had over 30 years to write after Can Themba had died. She could establish herself even further. I think for a man of his talent, his capabilities, his potential wasn’t fully explored.”

The Suit was published in 1963 in the inaugural issue of The Classic, a literary journal founded by Nakasa and Gordimer. Three years later the politically-charged story was banned after the apartheid government declared he was a “statutory communist”.

The following year, Themba died in exile in Swaziland without a book to his name. Thanks to his friendship with Italian catholic priest, Angelo Ciccone, Themba was the first non-priest to be buried at St Joseph’s cemetery in Swaziland.

Playwrights Barney Simon and Mothobi Mutloatse adapted The Suit to theater production which Maake kaNcube performed at Johannesburg Market Theatre at the dawn of democracy. A French adaptation followed in 1999, and the play toured the world between 1999 and 2014. Former President Thabo Mbeki posthumously bestowed Can Themba with the Order of Ikhamanga, in 2006.

The 50th anniversary of Themba’s death will be celebrated with his stage work The Suit, Crepuscule, and The House of Truth, around South Africa.

“I think from 1993, during the South African transitional period, more and more people started knowing about Can Themba. During that period, many of the exile people were coming back and many of them knew Can Themba,” says Mahala.

Mahala had merely expected Maake kaNcube to lend his theater expertise.

“But the wonderful surprise was that he didn’t only like the play but wanted to perform it. So, the full-cast play had to be changed to one-man play per his advice.

“So, when I wrote this, I knew Sello is the real person that feels and knows Can Themba. I have dealt with so many academics and people who are related to Can Themba, but they don’t feel him as much as Sello does,” says Mahala.

“Can Themba, if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be the actor I am now,” says Maake kaNcube.

You can be sure the man himself is raising a glass to Mahala and sees the irony in the playwright teetotal chronicler – wherever he is.

Focus

Climate Explained: How Much Of Climate Change Is Natural? How Much Is Man-made?

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How much climate change is natural? How much is man made?

As someone who has been working on climate change detection and its causes for over 20 years I was both surprised and not surprised that I was asked to write on this topic by The Conversation. For nearly all climate scientists, the case is proven that humans are the overwhelming cause of the long-term changes in the climate that we are observing. And that this case should be closed.

Despite this, climate denialists continue to receive prominence in some media which can lead people into thinking that man-made climate change is still in question. So it’s worth going back over the science to remind ourselves just how much has already been established.

Successive reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – mandated by the United Nations to assess scientific evidence on climate change – have evaluated the causes of climate change. The most recent special report on global warming of 1.5 degrees confirms that the observed changes in global and regional climate over the last 50 or so years are almost entirely due to human influence on the climate system and not due to natural causes.

What is climate change?

First we should perhaps ask what we mean by climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defines climate change as:

a change in the state of the climate that can be identified by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer.

The causes of climate change can be any combination of:

  • Internal variability in the climate system, when various components of the climate system – like the atmosphere and ocean – vary on their own to cause fluctuations in climatic conditions, such as temperature or rainfall. These internally-driven changes generally happen over decades or longer; shorter variations such as those related to El Niño fall in the bracket of climate variability, not climate change.
  • Natural external causes such as increases or decreases in volcanic activity or solar radiation. For example, every 11 years or so, the Sun’s magnetic field completely flips and this can cause small fluctuations in global temperature, up to about 0.2 degrees. On longer time scales – tens to hundreds of millions of years – geological processes can drive changes in the climate, due to shifting continents and mountain building.
  • Human influence through greenhouse gases (gases that trap heat in the atmosphere such as carbon dioxide and methane), other particles released into the air (which absorb or reflect sunlight such as soot and aerosols) and land-use change (which affects how much sunlight is absorbed on land surfaces and also how much carbon dioxide and methane is absorbed and released by vegetation and soils).

What changes have been detected?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent report showed that, on average, the global surface air temperature has risen by 1°C since the beginning of significant industrialisation (which roughly started in the 1850s). And it is increasing at ever faster rates, currently 0.2°C per decade, because the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have themselves been increasing ever faster.

The oceans are warming as well. In fact, about 90% of the extra heat trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gases is being absorbed by the oceans.

A warmer atmosphere and oceans are causing dramatic changes, including steep decreases in Arctic summer sea ice which is profoundly impacting arctic marine ecosystems, increasing sea level rise which is inundating low lying coastal areas such as Pacific island atolls, and an increasing frequency of many climate extremes such as drought and heavy rain, as well as disasters where climate is an important driver, such as wildfire, flooding and landslides.

Multiple lines of evidence, using different methods, show that human influence is the only plausible explanation for the patterns and magnitude of changes that have been detected.

This human influence is largely due to our activities that release greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, as well sunlight absorbing soot. The main sources of these warming gases and particles are fossil fuel burning, cement production, land cover change (especially deforestation) and agriculture.

Weather attribution

Most of us will struggle to pick up slow changes in the climate. We feel climate change largely through how it affects weather from day-to-day, season-to-season and year-to-year.

The weather we experience arises from dynamic processes in the atmosphere, and interactions between the atmosphere, the oceans and the land surface. Human influence on the broader climate system acts on these processes so that the weather today is different in many ways from how it would have been.

One way we can more clearly see climate change is by looking at severe weather events. A branch of climate science, called extreme event or weather attribution, looks at memorable weather events and estimates the extent of human influence on the severity of these events. It uses weather models run with and without measured greenhouse gases to estimate how individual weather events would have been different in a world without climate change.

As of early 2019, nearly 70% of weather events that have been assessed in this way were shown to have had their likelihood and/or magnitude increased by human influence on climate. In a world without global warming, these events would have been less severe. Some 10% of the studies showed a reduction in likelihood, while for the remaining 20% global warming has not had a discernible effect. For example, one study showed that human influence on climate had increased the likelihood of the 2015-2018 drought that afflicted Cape Town in South Africa by a factor of three.

Adapting to a changing climate

Weather extremes underlie many of the hazards that damage society and the natural environment we depend upon. As global warming has progressed, so have the frequency and intensity of these hazards, and the damage they cause.

Minimising the impacts of these hazards, and having mechanisms in place to recover quickly from the impacts, is the aim of climate adaptation, as recently reported by the Global Commission on Adaptation.

As the Commission explains, investing in adaptation makes sense from economic, social and ethical perspectives. And as we know that climate change is caused by humans, society cannot use “lack of evidence” on its cause as an excuse for inaction any more.

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Current Affairs

The Rage And Tears That Tore A Nation

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Snapshots of the outrage against foreign nationals and protests against sexual offenders in South Africa in recent weeks, captured by FORBES AFRICA photojournalist Motlabana Monnakgotla.


As the continent’s second-biggest economy, South Africa attracts migrants from the rest of Africa. But mired in its own problems of unemployment and political instability, September saw a serious outbreak of attacks by South Africans on foreign nationals and foreign-owned businesses. And they have been ugly.    

The spark that fueled the raging fire was in Pretoria, the country’s capital, when a taxi driver was shot dead by a foreign national who was selling drugs to a youngster in the central business district (CBD).

The altercation caused a riot and the taxi industry brought the CBD to a standstill, blocking intersections. It did not stop there; a week later, about 60 kilometers from the capital in Malvern, a suburb east of the Johannesburg CBD, a hijacked building caught fire, leaving three dead. As emergency services were putting out the fire, the residents took advantage and looted foreign-owned shops and burned car dealerships overnight on Jules Street.

The lootings extended to the CBD and other parts of Johannesburg.

To capture this embarrassing moment in South African history, I visited Katlehong, a township 35 kilometers east of Johannesburg, where the residents blocked roads leading to Sontonga Mall on a mission to loot the mall and the foreign-owned shops therein overnight.

Shop-owners and workers were shocked to wake up to no business.

Mfundo Maljingolo, a worker at Fish And Chips, was among the distressed.

“This thing started last night, people started looting and broke into the mall and did what they wanted to do. I couldn’t go to work today because there’s nothing to do; now, we are not going to get paid. The shop will be losing close to R10,000 ($677) today. It’s messed up,” said Maljingolo.

But South African businesses were affected too.

Among the shops at the mall is Webbers, a clothing and footwear store. Looters could not enter the shop and it was one of the few that escaped the vandalism.

Dineo Nyembe, the store’s manager, said she was in disbelief when she saw people could not enter the mall.

“We got here this morning and the ceiling was wrecked but there was no sign that the shop was entered, everything was just as we left it. Now, we are packing stock back to the warehouse, because we don’t know if they are coming back tonight,” lamented Nyembe, unsure if they would make their daily target or if they would be trading again.

 Across the now-wrecked mall are small businesses that were not as fortunate as Webbers, and it was not only the shop-owners that were affected. 

Emmanuel Nhlane’s home was robbed even as attackers were looting the shop outside.

“They broke into my house, I was threatened with a petrol bomb and I had to stand outside to give them a chance; they took my fridge, bed, cash and my VHS,” said Nhlane.

Nhlane had rented out his yard to foreign nationals to operate a shop. He does not comprehend why his belongings were taken because he doesn’t own a shop. Now, it means that the unemployed Nhlane will not be getting his monthly rental fee of R3,700 ($250).

Far away, the coastal KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, was also affected as trucks burned and a driver was killed because of his nationality. This was part of a logistics and transport industry national strike.

Back in Johannesburg, I visited the car dealerships that were a part of the burning spree on Jules Street.

The streets were still ashy and the air still smoky, two days after the unfortunate turn of events.

Muhamed Haffejee, one of the distraught businessmen there, said: “Currently, we are still not trading.” 

Cape Town, in the Western Cape province of South Africa, which hosted the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa from September 4 to 6, was also witness to protests by women and girls from all walks of life outside the Cape Town International Convention Centre, demanding that the leadership take action to end the spate of gender-based violence (GBV) in the country.

There were protests also outside Parliament. What set off the nationwide outcry was the shocking rape and murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana, a 19-year-old film and media student at the University of Cape Town, inside a post office by a 42-year-old employee at the post office.

There was anger against the ghastly crimes and wave of GBV in the country that continues unabated. According to Stats SA, there has been a drastic increase of women-based violence in South Africa; sexual offences are up by 4.6%, from 50,108 in 2018 to 52,420 in 2019.

A week later, on a Friday, Sandton, Africa’s richest square mile and one of the biggest economic hubs, was shut down by hundreds of angry women and members of advocacy groups from across Johannesburg. They congregated by the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE), the cynosure of business, singing and chanting, to demand “a 2% levy on profits of all listed entities to help fund the fight against GBV and femicide”.   

Among the protesters was Cebi Ngqinanbi, holding a placard that read: “I’m not your punching bag.”

“We came here to disrupt Sandton as the heart of Johannesburg’s economic hub. We want to make everyone aware that women and children are being killed every day in South Africa and they [Sandton] continue with business as usual, sitting in their offices with air-conditioners and the stock exchange whilst people on the ground making them rich are dying. That is why we are here, to speak to those that have economic power,” said Ngqinanbi.

She added that if women can be given economic power, they will be able to fend for themselves and won’t fall prey to abusive men, since most women stay in abusive relationships because men are more financially stable.

Amid the chanting and singing of struggle songs, Nobuhle Ajiti addressed the crowd and shared her own haunting experience as a migrant in South Africa and survivor of GBV. She spoke in isiZulu, a South African language.

“I survived a gang rape; I was thrown out of a moving car and stabbed several times. I survived it, but am I going to survive xenophobia that is looming around in South Africa? Will I able to share my xenophobia story like I can share my GBV story?” questioned Ajiti.

She said as migrants, they did not wake up in the morning and decide to come to South Africa, but because of the hardships faced in their home countries, they were forced to come to what they perceived as the city of opportunities. And as a foreign national, she had to deal with both xenophobia and GBV.

“We experience institutionalized xenophobia in hospitals; we are forced to pay huge amounts for consultation. I am raped and I need medical attention and I am told I need to pay R5,000 ($250).

“As a mere migrant, where am I going to get R5,000? I get abused at home and the police officer would ask me where I’m from because of my accent, I sound Zimbabwean. What does my nationality have to do with my husband beating me at home or with the man that just raped me?” she asked.

Women stop traffic while they hold up placards stating their grievences against GBV. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

Addressing the resolute women outside was the JSE CEO Nicky Newton-King who received the memorandum demanding business take their plight seriously, from a civil society group representing over 70 civil society organizations and individuals.

The list of demands include that at all JSE-listed companies contribute to a fund to resource the National Strategy Plan on GBV and femicide, to be launched in November; transport for employees who work night shifts or work after hours; establish workplace mechanisms to provide support to GBV survivors as part of employee wellness, and prevention programs that help make workplaces safe spaces for all women.

Newton-King assured the protestors she would address their demands in seven days. But a lot can happen in seven days. Will there be more crimes in the meantime? How many more will be raped and killed in South Africa by then?

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Current Affairs

Quality Higher Education Means More Than Learning How To Work

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When people talk about quality education, they’re often referring to the kind of education that gives students the knowledge and skills they need for the job market. But there’s a view that quality education has wider benefits: it develops individuals in ways that help develop society more broadly.

In Zimbabwe, for example, the higher education policy emphasises student employability and the alleviation of labour shortages. But, as my research found, this isn’t happening in practice.

University education needs to do more than produce a graduate who can get a job. It should also give graduates a sense of right and wrong. And it should instil graduates with an appreciation for other people’s development.

Tertiary education should also give students opportunities, choices and a voice when it comes to work safety, job satisfaction, security, growth and dignity. Higher education is a space where they can learn to be critical. It must prepare them for participating in the economy and broader society.

This isn’t happening in Zimbabwe. Graduate unemployment is high and employers and policy makers are blaming this largely on the mismatch between graduate skills and market requirements.

Investigating Zimbabwe’s universities
My research sought to examine how a human development lens could add to what was valued as higher education, and the kind of graduate outcomes produced in Zimbabwe. I investigated 10 of the universities in Zimbabwe (there were 15 at the time of the research). Four were private and six public.

I reviewed policy documents, interviewed representatives of institutions and held discussions with students. Members of Zimbabwe’s higher education quality assurance body and university teaching staff were also included.

I found that in practice, higher education in Zimbabwe was influenced by the country’s socio-political and economic climate. Decisions and appointments of key university administrators in public universities and the minister of higher education were largely political.

In addition, resources were limited and staff turnover was high. Universities just couldn’t finance themselves through tuition fees.

Different players in the higher education system – employers, the government, academics, students and their families – have different ideas about what “quality” means in higher education. The Zimbabwe Council for Higher Education understands quality as meeting set standards and benchmarks that emphasise the graduates’ knowledge and skills.

To some extent, academics and university administrators see quality as teaching and learning that gives students a mixture of skills and values such as social responsibility.

But lecturers must comply with the largely top-down approach to quality. They tend to do whatever will enhance students’ prospects of getting employment in a particular market.

The educators and students I interviewed acknowledged that developing the ability to work and to think critically were both central to higher education. But they admitted that these goals were hard to attain. This was because of the country’s constrained socio-political and economic environment. Academics and students felt that they couldn’t express themselves freely and critical thinking was suppressed.

Stuck on a road to nowhere
The study illustrates how an over-emphasis on creating human capital – skilled and knowledgeable graduates – limits higher education’s potential to foster broader human and social development.

University education should do more, especially in developing countries such as Zimbabwe that face not just economic, but also socio-political challenges. Before building more universities and enrolling more students, authorities and citizens should consider what quality education means in relation to the kind of society they want.

It’s possible to take a broader view of development, quality and the role of higher education. This broader approach – one that appreciates social justice – can equip graduates to address the country’s problems.

The road ahead
Universities can’t change a society on their own. But their teaching and learning practices can make an important difference.

Because quality teaching and learning means different things to different people, people need to talk about it democratically. Institutional and national policies must be informed by broad consultations to identify the knowledge, skills and values they want graduates to have.

University teaching and learning should emphasise freedom of expression and participation so that students can think and act critically beyond university.

Also, academics don’t automatically know how to teach just because they have a PhD. Universities should therefore ensure that academics learn how to teach and communicate their knowledge. Curriculum design, student assessment and feedback, as well as training of lecturers should all support this goal of human development.

When universities see quality in terms of human development, their role becomes more than production of workers in an economy. It gives them a mandate to nurture ethically responsible graduates. These more rounded graduates are better equipped to imagine an alternative future in pursuit of a better society, economically, politically and socially.

Patience Mukwambo: Researcher, University of the Free State

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