A Quest for Truth

Siphiwo Mahala

This book is dedicated to two individuals – Can Themba and Mbulelo Mzamane. These are the giants on whose shoulders I stand. A lot has been said about Can Themba this evening, so I shall not bore you with more accounts of how great a writer he was.

Suffice to say, I fully agree with Ursulla Barnett’s assertion that Can Themba was “the most interesting personality and perhaps the most talented of the writers of the late fifties and early sixties.” Lewis Nkosi, on the other hand, argues that Can Themba had the “liveliest mind and the best command of the English language,” a view with which I also agree. His former editor at Drum, Sylvester Stein, says that “Can was a natural chief by force of personality, and intellectually a giant. I put him down as a coming man of Africa.”

What I know about Can Themba is that he was a man very fond of candid debate and intellectual engagement. He used to engage in fierce debate with the likes of President Nelson Mandela. He was a man in search of truth, and even named his apartment at 111 Ray Street, The House of Truth. I believe that in order to fully understand Can Themba we need to enter his world. This is the title that I gave to my play, which is now available in book form. As we launch this book this evening, you shall hear nothing but the truth.

Perhaps, what is significant at this stage is that, as we all know, Can Themba died fifty years ago while exiled in Swaziland. It is quite significant that he passed away on this day, the 8th of September, which is celebrated globally as International Literacy Day. It is also reported that he died while reading a newspaper— also a remarkable exit for a man who lived for the word.

Many people would recall that I was involved with the reburial of his colleague and friend, Nat Nakasa, whose remains were repatriated from the United States in 2014. For this reason, I am often asked why we are not repatriating Can Themba’s mortal remains. I can now confirm that his mortal remains are back home, and that the Minister of Arts and Culture, who presided over Nakasa’s reburial, personally called and assured me that they will be hosting a ceremony in honour of Can Themba later this year.

I want to say a little more about Prof Mbulelo Mzamane, who is largely responsible for my admiration of Can Themba. Mzamane was himself mentored by Themba and he, in turn, mentored me in the mid-nineties when I was a literature student at the University of Fort Hare, where he was Principal and Vice Chancellor. I reunited with him in 2003, after I had finished my Masters degree at Wits University. He duly instructed me to register for PhD, an idea that I dismissed offhand. He persisted for the next ten years, and finally after the Can Themba Memorial Lecture in 2013, in which he was one of the guest speakers alongside Ntate Joe Thloloe and the late Nadine Gordimer, he instructed me to make Can Themba the focus of my doctoral studies. I submitted my application to UNISA shortly afterwards and registered for my doctoral studies. A few months later he was no more.

I have now completed the chapters of my thesis on the life and times of Can Themba, and I wish Prof Mzamane was here to bear witness to this milestone. Perhaps he would have been proud not only because I have finally finished, but also because Kgomotso Masemola, my supervisor and the man standing between me and my PhD, is one of the young academics he persuaded to do further studies in English Literature. Prof Masemola now holds a PhD from the University of Sheffield, Prof Mzamane’s alma mater.

In his autobiography, Sometimes There is a Void, my uncle, Zakes Mda, who is here with us this evening, shares anecdotes of how Mzamane assisted him and many other individuals in their careers. The last time I cried in public was when malume paid tribute to Mzamane during the South African Literary Awards held at the National Library in Pretoria in 2014. I hope that my thesis, which is dedicated to him, will fill part of this void.

During the Can Themba Memorial Lecture in 2013, Prof Mzamane asked one pertinent question that has troubled me ever since— “What is South African about South African education?” In an earlier piece, he had described our education system as “miseducation of crippling magnitudes.” Honourable MEC, I believe Prof Mzamane asked this simple yet profound question to illustrate the point that our education system is still dominated by literature from the West. The industry indicators show that of the 10 million books sold in South Africa annually, only 550, 000 are about South Africa. That’s a mere 5.5% of books sold in the country! One wonders where are the works by Sol Plaatje, Nontsizi Mgqwetho, Es’kia Mphahlele, Noni Jabavu, Can Themba, Sibusiso Nyembezi and many other South African writers.

Last week, I received an email from a young writer with the subject line: “The Struggle Continues.” The first line reads as follows: “the struggle is real out here...corporate always tries to find a way to squeeze the life out of artists...and they have the audacity to cheat them of their royalties...I can testify.” This is one of several missives that I receive about the difficulty of getting published or the exploitation of writers by publishers and other role players. The complaint here is about a writer who is not getting his dues in a contractual arrangement that already disadvantages writers.

The book value chain involves a number of role players, and the writer is at the bottom of the pile. In an average publishing contract, for instance, 30% of the retail price goes to the publisher, about 20% goes to the distributor for taking the books from the warehouse and to the bookstore, and 40% goes to the retail stores. The author gets the remaining 10%. In addition to this, the book industry remains one of the most untransformed sectors in the creative industries. We have ben mourning this state of affairs for years.

Now is the time to take action. I am inspired by Thando Mgqolozana who, after years of complaining about the white dominated literary scene, established the Abantu Book Festival in Soweto last year, the first of its kind in a township; I am also inspired by Fort Helepi who established African Flavour Books, a bookstore that has now opened a new branch in Braamfontein. These efforts may not change the architecture of the industry, but with more initiatives like these the tide is bound to turn eventually.

It is against this backdrop that I have decided that henceforth I will publish my own works. This is the idea behind Iconic Productions. The House of Truth is the first book published under this stable. We have a vision to open publishing opportunities for aspirant writers. All the work that you have seen here today, the book, the Can Themba documentary, and all the branding material, is produced under Iconic Productions. Our next project will be staging The House of Truth at Theatre on the Square, Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton, from 31 October to 18 November 2017. We count on your support for all these initiatives.

By launching this book today, by celebrating the life of Can Themba, by celebrating International Literacy Day, we are also celebrating the birth of Iconic Productions. Thank you for sharing this milestone with us. And thank you for supporting our dream.