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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.

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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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How LinkedIn Is Looking To Help Close The Ever-Growing Skills Gap

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As the job market has evolved, so too have the skills required of seekers. But when 75% of human resources professionals say a skills shortage has made recruiting particularly challenging in recent months, it would appear as though the workforce hasn’t quite kept pace. Now LinkedIn is stepping in to help close the gap.

On Tuesday, the professional social network announced the launch of a “Skills Assessments” tool, through which users can put their knowledge to the test. Those who pass are given the opportunity to display a badge that reads “passed” next to the skill on their profile pages, a validation of sorts that LinkedIn hopes will encourage skills development among its users and help better match potential employees with the right employers.  

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“We see an evolving labor market and much more sophistication in how recruiters and hiring managers look for skills. … We also see a changing learning market,” says Hari Srinivasan, senior director of product management at LinkedIn Learning. “The combination of those two made us excited about changing our opportunity marketplace to make the hiring side and the learning side work better together.”

So how exactly does it work? Let’s say a user wants to showcase her proficiency in Microsoft Excel. Rather than simply listing “Excel” in the skills section of her profile, she can take a multiple-choice test to demonstrate the extent to which she is an expert.

If she aces the test, not only will a badge verifying her aptitude will appear on her profile, but she will be more likely to surface in searches by recruiters, who can search for candidates by skill in the same way they might do so by college or employer. If she fails, she can take the test again, but she’ll have to wait a few months—plenty of time to develop her skillset.   

The tool has been in beta mode since March, and while just 2 million people have used it—a mere fraction of LinkedIn’s 630 million members—early results seem promising. According to LinkedIn, members who’ve completed skills assessments have been nearly 30% more likely to land jobs than their counterparts who did not take the tests.

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“This has been a really good way for members to represent what they know, what they are good at,” says Emrecan Dogan, LinkedIn group product manager.

While new to LinkedIn, the practice of assessing candidates’ skills has been a standard among hiring managers for decades. But when research commissioned by LinkedIn revealed that 69% of employees feel that skills have become more important to recruiters than education, LinkedIn felt as though this was the time to give job seekers the opportunity to prove themselves from the get-go.

As important as the hard skills that members can put to the test through LinkedIn’s new tool may be, Dawn Fay, senior district president at recruiting firm Robert Half, encourages those on both side of the job search not to forget the importance of soft skills. “You wouldn’t want to rule somebody in or out just based on how they did on one particular skill assessment,” she says.

“Have another data point that you can use, question people about how they did on something and see if it’s something that can feed into the puzzle to find out if somebody is going to be a good fit.”

-Samantha Todd; Forbes

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Economy

Why The High Number Of Employees Quitting Reveals A Strong Job Market

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While recession fears may be looming in the minds of some, new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the economy and job market may actually be strengthening.

The quits rate—or the percentage of all employees who quit during a given month—rose to 2.4% in July, according to the BLS’s Jobs Openings and Labor Turnover report, released Tuesday. That translates to 3.6 million people who voluntarily left their jobs in July.

This is the highest the quits rate has been since April 2001, just five months after the Labor Department began tracking it. According to Nick Bunker, an economist at the Indeed Hiring Lab, the quits rate tends to be a reflection of the state of the economy.

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“The level of the quits rate really is a sign of how strong the labor market is,” he says. “If you look at the quits rate over time, it really drops quite a bit when the labor market gets weak. During the recession it was quite low, and now it’s picked up.”

The monthly jobs report, released last week, revealed that the economy gained 130,000 jobs in August, which is 20,000 less than expected, and just a few weeks earlier, the BLS issued a correction stating that it had overestimated by 501,000 how many jobs had been added to the market in 2018 and the first quarter of 2019. Yet despite all that, employees still seem to have confidence in the job market.Today In: Leadership

The quits level, according to the BLS, increased in the private sector by 127,000 for July but was little changed in government. Healthcare and social assistance saw an uptick in departures to the tune of 54,000 workers, while the federal government saw a rise of 3,000.

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The July quits rate in construction was 2.4%, while the number in trade, professional and business services, and leisure and hospitality were 2.6%, 3.1% and 4.8%, respectively. Bunker of Indeed says that the industries that tend to see the highest rate of departuresare those where pay is relatively low, such as leisure and hospitality. An unknown is whether employees are quitting these jobs to go to a new industry or whether they’re leaving for another job in the same industry. Either could be the case, says Bunker.

In a recently published article on the industries seeing the most worker departures, Bunker attributes the uptick to two factors—the strong labor market and faster wage growth in the industries concerned: “A stronger labor market means employers must fill more openings from the ranks of the already employed, who have to quit their jobs, instead of hiring jobless workers. Similarly, faster wage growth in an industry signals workers that opportunities abound and they might get higher pay by taking a new job.”

Even so, recession fears still dominate headlines. According to Bunker, the data shows that when a recession hits, employers pull back on hiring and workers don’t have the opportunity to find new jobs. Thus, workers feel less confident and are less likely to quit.

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“As the labor market gets stronger, there’s more opportunities for workers who already have jobs. So they quit to go to new jobs or they quit in the hopes of getting new jobs again,” Bunker says. He also notes that recession fears may have little to do with the job market, instead stemming from what is happening in the financial markets, international relations or Washington, D.C.

So what does the BLS report say about the job market? “Taking this report as a whole, it’s indicating that the labor market is still quite strong, but then we lost momentum,” Bunker says. While workers are quitting their jobs, he says that employers are pulling back on the pace at which they’re adding jobs. “While things are quite good right now and workers are taking advantage of that,” he notes, “those opportunities moving forward might be fewer and fewer if the trend keeps up.”

-Samantha Todd; Forbes

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