Themba, Can 1924–1968(?)

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Themba, Can 1924–1968(?)

(Daniel Canadoise Dorsay von Themba)

PERSONAL: Born 1924, in Pretoria, Transvaal, South Africa; died 1968 (one source says 1969), in Manzini, Swaziland, from complications from alcoholism. Education: University of Fort Hare, B.A. (with distinction), 1947.

CAREER: Journalist, short-story writer, editor, and teacher. Drum, Johannesburg, South Africa, editor and contributor; Golden City Post, Johannesburg, South Africa, editor.


The Will to Die (short stories), selected by Donald Stuart and Roy Holland, Heinemann (London, England), 1972.

The World of Can Themba: Selected Writings of the Late Can Themba, edited by Essop Patel, Ravan Press (Braamfontein, South Africa), 1985.

(With Alex La Guma and Bessie Head) Deep Cuts: Graphic Adaptations of Stories, Maskew MillerLongman (Cape Town, South Africa), 1993.

The Suit (short story), adapted by Chris van Wyk, ViVa Books (Johannesburg, South Africa), 1994.

Contributor to varied publications, including Drum, Classic, and Africa South.

SIDELIGHTS: Can Themba was born in Pretoria, South Africa, but lived most of his life in Sophiatown, near Johannesburg, until that area was destroyed as a result of the Group Areas Act. A journalist, short story writer, and teacher, Themba was linked to a group of bright young South African writers during the 1950s that included Moses Motsisi, Arthur Maimane, Ezekiel Mphahlele, and Lewis Nkosi. Themba's writing was considered politically volatile during apartheid, and he was eventually sent into exile in Swaziland. Even there his political stand worked against him, and in1966 he was declared a "statutory communist." His writings were banned from South Africa and could not be found there until the 1980s.

Themba got his start as a writer when he won the first short-story contest run by Drum; he later served as an editor for that magazine and contributed articles as a journalist and black activist. Among his articles was "Requiem for Sophiatown," written after his hometown was demolished for political reasons. His stories also appeared in such periodicals as Classic and Africa South. Themba's writings reflected the contradictions of living as an educated black man in South Africa, where the numerous racist laws made it impossible for him to fully realize his potential despite his university degree, and where he was trapped between a white culture that wanted no part of him and a more tribal black culture that felt foreign to him. Although his stories contain familiar themes, they manage to convey his protest against the ravages of apartheid.

Following Themba's death in 1968 from complications from alcoholism, his stories were published in collected volumes. The Will to Die combines seven short stories with journalistic articles and several accounts of death. In a review for Choice, a contributor remarked that "the stories show a control of the resources of the English language and a fine sensitivity to its qualities." Other of Themba's works were adapted for the stage, most notably The Suit. Peter Marks, reviewing the play's New York production for the New York Times, commented on the universality of the play's themes and referred to Themba's work as "a dark fable about power and humiliation that is as indigenous to Peoria as to Pretoria."

Themba has been criticized since his death for doing too little for the political causes of blacks in South Africa. His long-time friend Lewis Nkosi remarked in an obituary for Transition that "Themba's actual achievements are more disappointing because his learning and reading were more substantial and his talent proven; but he chose to confine his brilliance to journalism of an insubstantial kind." Nkosi concluded his homage to Themba's short life by writing: "We mourn a talent largely misused or neglected; we mourn what might have been. But to have known Themba, to have heard him speak, is to have known a mind both vigorous and informed, shaped by the city as few other minds are in the rest of Africa."



Herdeck, Donald E., African Authors: A Companion to Black African Writing, Volume 1: 1300-1973, Black Orpheus Press (Washington, DC), 1973.

Short Fiction in the New Literatures in English: Proceedings of the Nice Conference of the European Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies, edited by Jacqueline Bardolph, Faculté des Lettres & Sciences Humaines de Nice (Nice, France), 1989.

Tucker, Martin, editor, Literary Exile in the Twentieth Century: An Analysis and Biographical Dictionary, Greenwood Press (New York, NY), 1991.


Choice, January, 1973, review of The Will to Die, p. 1454.

Contrast, Volume 18, 1968, "At Can Themba's Grave," pp. 27-29.

New-Classic, Volume 2, 1968, "Can Remembered," pp. 7-15.

New Statesman and Society, July 22, 1988, Betty Caplan, "Beating the Drum," review of play based on a short story by Can Themba, p. 49.

New York Times, July 10, 1997, Peter Marks, "When Revenge Comes to Dinner in an Empty Suit," review of play based on The Suit, pp. C1, C15.

Spectator, June 24, 1995, Andrew Billen, "Is This Really Me?," review of play based on The Suit, p. 45.

Theatre Journal, December, 2000, Maria Dicenzo, review of stage adaptation of The Suit, pp. 572-573.


Librairie-Compagnie Web site, (September 25, 2005), "Can Themba."

New African Movement Web site, (September 25, 2005), "Can Themba."

People Africa Database, (September 25, 2005), "Can Themba."



Transition, Volume 34, 1968, p. 40.