“Realism can be star-scattering, even if you have lived your whole unthinking life in reality. Especially in Sophiatown these days, where it can come with the sudden crash of a flying brick on the back of your head.”
Can Themba, Requiem for Sophiatown
Johannesburg in the 1950s. Against a backdrop of segregation, lawlessness, poverty, violence and racism stood Sophiatown. Surging with creativity, resourcefulness and crime, Sophiatown was a legendary black cultural hub that gave birth to some of South Africa’s most influential writers, musicians, politicians and artists – including Can Themba. It is the township in which Themba wrote his best work and in which The Suit is set.
The cultural renaissance of Sophiatown during the 1950s has been compared to that of Harlem in the 1920s. It was a place of contradiction; a heady mix of liquor and literature, drugs and journalism, music and murder, embodying both the best and the worst of South African culture. Themba was the product of a cultural renaissance and, at the same time, an atrocious abuse of human rights.
Born in 1928 near Pretoria, Can Themba gained an English degree and a teaching diploma. After moving to Sophiatown and winning a short story competition, Drum became Themba’s second family. The world-famous crusading black magazine of the fifties, Drum was a record of naivety, optimism, frustration, defiance, courage, dancing, drink, jazz, gangsters, exile and death. A way to vent frustrations and to celebrate successes, Drum changed the language with which black people were represented and ushered in a new era of South African literature.
Steeped in this culture Themba was dubbed ‘the shebeen intellectual’. The South African equivalent of an American speakeasy, the shebeens were central to Sophiatown’s existence – illegal drinking holes where the urban black community came to laugh, cry, swap stories, listen to music and drink. This, by all accounts, Can Themba did rather too well. Themba’s most frequented shebeen, where he was free to speak his mind about South African politics, became known as the House of Truth.
The government were fully aware of Sophiatown’s powerful influence. During the 1960s the township was destroyed and its inhabitants relocated. Themba fled to Swaziland and became increasingly isolated. The South African government claimed that his works were communist and they were outlawed. His alcohol-related death soon followed, likened by many friends to a slow suicide.
An alcoholic and an intellectual, Themba embodied the paradoxes of Sophiatown. He wrote at an intensely political time, but his work was rarely politically intense. As Themba wrote, the magic of Sophiatown was that: “It is different and itself. You don’t just find your place here, you make it and you find yourself.”
The Suit runs until 16 June. Tickets available at youngvic.org.
Jurgen Schadeberg, known as the father of South African photography, photographed Can Themba and the people of Sophiatown in the 1950s. He graciously allowed the Young Vic to use his images for The Suit programme. More of his work can be viewed at www.jurgenschadeberg.com.