Examining the greatness of South African literature through the vista of Can Themba’s The Will to Die

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This entry is part 10 of 12 in the series Reviews season two

Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy argues that Can Themba’s The Will to Die further buttresses the fact that South African literature reached its peak during the apartheid regime and that contemporary works are just playing catch up

I have once said it somewhere that the greatness of South African literature is still tied down to works produced during the apartheid regime. Post-apartheid South Africa has ceased to impress me with their literary output. Hmmm, perhaps I should admit that Steve Jacobs’ An Enemy Within is a great post-apartheid novel dealing with the immediate racial fear that came with the crumbling of the apartheid regime and the release of Nelson Mandela from Robbin Island and his emergence as president. I should also point out that Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, is also a great work chronicling the apartheid era and Mandela’s life (which many would agree is the history of South Africa). So, many would agree that the autobiography can still be clasped under works related to the apartheid regime. Indeed, the bulk of the biography had been conceived and written while Mandela trudged through his years on Robbin Island where he was incarcerated.

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Well, I ate Can Themba’s collection of short stories, The Will to Die, at the early hours of yesterday’s morning and it has left my stand (that the greatness of South African Literature is still tied down to the apartheid regime) unshakeable still! Writing was one area that had no colour cum racial barrier during the apartheid regime. Can Themba’s collection of short stories, The Will to Die, tells of both the psychological and physical hardships experienced by the black Africans during the apartheid regime ranging from laws disallowing people of different racial origin to intermarry, using brute force on the blacks, black not being allowed to go about without permits, declaring curfew thereby restricting free movement, abject poverty, unjust banishment, and of course blacks being denied the freedom of speech and expression which is a fundamental human right. All the short stories have their major setting in Sophiatown, a South African ghetto populated by the blacks.

Can Themba, who was frustrated by this Apartheid regime for he was slammed with banishment and a law was decreed that no one was to mention his name or quote him in any written document, tells his stories with such admirable deftness using a journalistic style which he had mastered from years of practising as a journalist and he tells his stories sometimes with such biting irony and profundity. Some of his stories, I fear, are actually based on true life experiences rather than fiction. He puts such life into the stories that one is catapulted back to the apartheid epoch and made to have a feel of what life felt like back then for the black race of South Africa.

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Can Themba’s endeavour is in the area of short story telling yet we wonder what more he would have given to posterity had the apartheid regime left him alone, and alive.

Works such as that of Can Themba’s are classified under protest literature for their aim is to draw attention to the plight of the black race in a racially divided South Africa.

It is often true that great literature is produced under extreme circumstances and oppression and the South African scenario agrees with such. However, one wonders if one would ever find writers with great skills as Nadine Gordimer, Eziekiel Mphalele, Peter Abraham, Bessie Head, Alex La Guma or playwrights as Athol Fugard or maybe even poets as Mazisi Kunene, Arthur Njoroge, Dennis Brutus, and Oswald Mtshali Mbyiseni. I doubt so but if you know any writer in South Africa who has met their worth in these contemporary times, show me and let us lock horns to see how valid your assertions are.

Happy weekend and eid-el-fitr folks!

© Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy

Read Eazy’s reviews on Memorila every Saturday!

Series Navigation<< Okinba Launko’s Cordelia: When the dramatist tells a storyChinua Achebe’s There was a Country: A tripartite story in four parts >>

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Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy

Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy holds a degree in English language and literary studies. He is a short story writer, copy editor, book reviewer, literary critic, poet, and essayist. He teaches English as a Foreign Language in Hargeisa, Somaliland.

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