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.