BOOK REVIEW: Could Themba Spare Change?

The African city is worded in a popular discourse far and above the reaches of the towns and former homeland people who animate the ‘rural’[1] and feed the ‘urban’ ethos. Much of the ‘rural’ part of society struggles to articulate their desolate conditions[2] in a valued language other than that of violence[3]: protest, prostitution, false consciousness and apathy. These fists, batons and tires burnt do not only strike the chords of public sector’s engagement with the marginalised, but define the tone and urgency of voice stuttered by shaken agencies representing mainly financial resources. I could talk at length about the notion of equal share of public resource allocations compared to equitable sharing relative to development needs. I could also argue that the diminishing returns of agglomeration are becoming more and more obvious in the rusting outskirts highly urbanized areas in Southern Africa and probably much of our continent I’m yet to visit. My concern of late is the narratives used to inform and influence the political economy of service delivery, access and mobility. Perhaps complaining has fatigued me into deliberate action, especially where the likes of Canadoce Themba and Sol Plaatje motivate intentionality in writing and serving as mutually dependent contributions—–far removed from complaining.

The constant juggle between African moral, human survival, urban prosperity and “township” justice navigate the reader in a profound collection of D’Orsay Canadoce ‘Can’ Themba’s (1924- 1967) work titled “Requiem for Sophiatown”, published as a Penguin Classic. In this review I focus on Can Themba’s conceptions of the African\Afrikan in (a) passion (b) in war and (c) in the living “city” the Afrikan seems to create.


“Mob Passion” sets the tone and form of the book’s emotional chiaroscuro, before the drape hits the frame. The masculine and the feminine polity dictate the read and splash across the canvas militantly with two key voices echoing the male and female in the book: Linga and Mapula.

“Where is the courage to wield these suicidal factions into a nation?…Our true history is before us, for we yet have to build, to create, to achieve. Our very oppression is the flower of opportunity. If not for History’s Grand Finale, why, then, does God hold us back? Hell! And here we are, feuding in God’s dressing room even before the curtain rises. Oh!”—pg. 10 Linga as a representation of the function of an Afrikan male’s discourse with his partner.

“Linga, no!..It is not so long before you and I can marry. I dream about the home that we are going to have… I want that home, Linga. You taught me that the woman’s greatest contribution to civilisation so far has been to furnish homes where great men and great ideas have developed.”—Mapula’s response as a feminine force.

These voices not only place the pace of passion in the text, but exalt the skin colour sown throughout a fabric sworn to pride, progress and justice. Brown passion takes a set of forms in this book. Themba presents it as a paradox to the suspicions of betrayal and danger that suspended society at the time. These suspicions substituted traditional “superstitions” at the cost of loved lives—in contradistinction healers could for see, but mobs lead blindly and hung out of train stations, slithering through “townships” and swallowed passions from ambitious women and men[4]. Of note is the position of these feminine and masculine voices in the book: women are in positions of intimated power and influence, men are influenced profoundly by the women in their lives[5]. Although this stands in contrast with the masculine doctrine in young South Afrikans today, suspicion in society, economic class and race still run the show of affection–without truly digging into the causes because that’s much harder than printing bruises and suicide.

The paradox, suspicion, and gender roles of race are battered throughout the tales of passion[6]. For example in Crepuscule pg. 65, gangsters defend their position on Can Themba’s relations with white women argue that “…these white boys come out here for our girls, but when we meet them in town they treat us like turds.” And Themba vengefully responds “…these whites take advantage of our girls and we don’t like the way our girls act as if they are special. But all you’ve done about it is just to sit and sizzle here at them. No one among you has tried to take revenge. Only I have gone to get a white girl and avenged with her what the whites do to our sisters.”

There are complex dynamics in the passions of Afrikans in Themba’s work. Well documented and weaved through “The Suit” pg. 115 to “Forbidden Love” pg. 23 and “Marta” pg. 33. The feminine utterances linger loud and clear as a potent ingredient in manhood and identities of afropolitan Themba impressively describes.


The concept of violence and war tends to reflect the emotional and socio-cultural turbulences that cause, express and animate its agitations. An activist-writer, Henry Nxumalo, who (still) speaks for the margins is cut to death by that which his life is committed to—that is a form of violence beyond the bloodshed[7]. “Will to Die” pg 88 and “Ten to Ten” pg 93 present internal conflicts embedded conflict some loose to inebriation (i.e. “Marta” her initial position in poison), others win against the odds of fate’s blade (i.e. Ten to Ten, Marta’s musical awakening).

‘War’ is also reiterated in the discourses of passions. “The Suit” is an example of transcendent war that seems to be an endless battle, even after the disloyal partner pleads for forgiveness and then commits to suicide, rather than compassion. The male character here becomes unresponsive to the feud in the external but takes it internally and transfers the agony symbolically by ridiculing her with the suit. Themba seems to place circumstances that challenge the emotional state of the status quo in order to manifest murderous battle-grounds of intentions from the start, even if it is self-imposed (i.e. suicide in ‘The Suit’; ‘Ten to Ten’s generous sense of servitude to the white police force and Afrikan public).

To reflect once more, this war is placed and juxtuposed in many forms throughout the reading: i) tribalism vs christianity; ii) urban vs “township” vs homeland migrant; iii) Afrikan vs Western culture; vi) “township” (management and mob leadership) vs the people, especially in “Kwashiorkor” pg 75. These are issues that are potent in contemporary South Africa, marginalised from the headlines and told in the loud whispers of button-hungry clickers, in fear of the starving world outside. Drowning in doubt, hope and silver-lakes live-streaming their homes to your desk. In this obscure sense, Themba navigates the reader through genuinely difficult corners of dense shantytowns and crowded trains–everything felt deeply cluttered when reading this book.

Afropolitan Life

There is a potent sense of awe to be found in 1950 South Africa. The urban culture rebelled from all ends, brown and pink. Discourse took place in shebeens, tarvens, work areas, factories, mines, trains and streets after the curfew.

It seems however that these responses and configurations of new cultures did not suit the Afrikan, as they trans-mutated his spiritual feeling and social standing with herself. In “Qouth He”, pg. 127, Themba places a critical point of debate for the Afrikan intellectual, as if God posits that “having granted them [Afrikaaners] in the first thrones of creation Intelligence, Manhood, Discontent and an exuberant nature, they still come whimpering to me: ‘Give us this day’”. A de-religious position which Themba does not condone is that of Christiantity. He intimates this position in one character in “Raquem for Sophia Town” who intersects a political groan with religion and violence: “… Christianity is now an anemic religion. It cannot rouse the ancient in me—especially the Shaka instinct I still have. Now, you and I are educated guys. We don’t go for that witchcraft stuff. And we don’t want to go for the jukebox stuff. But much as we deny it, we still want the thrill of the wild blood of our forefathers. The whites call it savagery. Ineradicable barbarism. But in different degrees we want the colour and vigour and vibrant appeal of it all. So the tsotsi seeks in the cowboy the way to strut across the streets with swaying hips and a dangerous weapon in each hand. So the zionist thumps his drum and gyrates his holy fervour up the streets. So you and I and these guys here discuss politics, teasingly dancing around the idea of violence.

It is not a response to the breathless diaframe captivating social mobilities from exploding into progressive and multi-dimensional discourses, but a response to the lack thereof.

This is an intersection political society faces in handy hopes of loud-last-minute campaigns. It is not a response to the breathless diaframe captivating social mobilities from exploding into progressive and multi-dimensional discourses, but a response to the lack thereof. At this point I would like to note that religion was not a major proponent of the economic politic in South Africa as it is today. Social systems seemed to respond to the political upheaval, at this stage, the upheaval is social and the politics have lacked that competent creativity to respond adequately. Further, as the apathetic stronghold crumbles it seems to rely heavily on class related dispositions, but the marginalised’s voices are only heard in violin screeching violence and self-social mutilation (urban ‘cannibalism’). This violence is a transmutated animation of a traditional notion for conflict, riot, war and passion as a plinth for justice. The core iteration we’ve not departed is treating our assets as if they aren’t ours; thinking there’s a “baas” lurking in the background waiting to instruct you.

In “Qouth He” Themba later expands the divination of justice from the above: “Oddly, though, he does not seriously inject his colour into the affairs of his time, drop by drop, to make a venomous crucible. Everywhere he seeks brotherhood. There too, where he meets ingratitude’s stench or the evil hand that smites him, his protest is the outcry for outraged humanity. Not, not as yet to call vengeance. Strue’s God, he has cause to want to strike down hemispheres. He has enough piled up rage in some hidden bile of his to poison a score of centuries, yet all the child asks for is justice. Astounding!”

This is the most direct and prolific account of the Afrikan condition in the ‘modern’ world throughout the book. Where justice should prevail, it fails. When violence is collective it is unarticulated and lingers along vaguely without contingency, constitution and thus, a frail constituency who are susceptible to bribery—emotionally, financially, socially and, or politically. The intellectual is warned of this position, and is reminded of its value, in brotherhood, and its weakness in ingratitude. But a poisonous response seems to be intimated, “drop by drop” as the colonial system did.

Can Themba


Can Themba’s positions and arguments reiterate the social norms that define the afropolitan responses sketching contemporary urban and “township” cultures. The sentiment throughout his work is a living process of reidentification with time, place, value and passion within and oppressive doctrine and saturated liberation movements. Both of which, face the urbanite, tribalite in negotiations that articulate future motions, emotions and alienations.

This book is a valuable archive of afropolitan issues, perspectives and intellectual positions swallowed in the stadia of sport, leisure and class politics.

He further orchestrates the chants and dances of internal and external violence, voice and passion as poisonous themes to be faced in the gift of divine exuberance that the Afrikan embodied pre-colonially right into urban life—even with its many fold segregations. This book is a valuable archive of afropolitan issues, perspectives and intellectual positions swallowed in the stadia of sport, leisure and class politics. To me this book defines the genres and genders of the Haute Boureoisie; Petit Bourgeoisie, the Professions and the Proletariat found in the swaying rhythm of South Afrikan times of alienation, rather than brotherhood.


The reading, I propose, has had two main functions: (1) it articulates the hegemonic repressives and ideologics in the afropolitan, its “townships” and migrations; (2) it places the intellectual between the jazz cats and the tsotsis to speak at the door of white power in capitalism (out the window).

The book does not, however, present an agenda, only a set of issues which may vary from reader to reader, from township to township, from city to city. It is a pivotal read on the functional form of urban and township reactive recreations of the apparatuses, norms, traditions and feelings of escape, desperation and love–the mores. I recommend it to any Afrikan who is keen on realising the formation of brown identity under urban circumstances, aspirations and inspirations. From this, I add Can Themba to Sol Plaatjie’s frame of society—both did wonders with what they could; although not much has changed since. I’ll definitely share more about this later this month.

[1] See “The Bottom of the Bottle” p.g. 56, where Mr Themba juxtaposes the African urbanite and the Tribalite populace’s practices values and cultures.

[2] See “Kwashiorkor” p.g. 75 which examines the toxic paradoxes in the slum-township of Alexandra.

[3] See “Mob Passion” p.g. 7.

[4] See “Passionate Stranger” P.g. 1; and “Mob Passion” pg 7

[5] See “Will to Die” pg 88

[6] See “Crepuscule” pg. 65.

[7] See “Henry Nxumalo” pg. 39

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