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Can Themba by Siphiwo Mahala

The Making and Breaking of the Intellectual Tsotsi, a Biography

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An engaging read, well-researched and accessible. It offers new insights not only on Can
Themba – the subject of the book – but on his era, his peers, and the movement that later
became known as the Sophiatown Renaissance. Mahala captures the period and its politics
so vividly that he makes the reader critically aware of how it felt to be in those events, rather
than merely chronicling them.
— Professor Zakes Mda, novelist, poet and playwright, Professor Emeritus of English, Ohio University and Creative Writing Lecturer, Johns Hopkins University.

A satisfying chemistry radiates from every page of Siphiwo Mahala’s biography of Can
Themba. Mahala’s clarity, vivid narration, and fi rm touch do full justice to the life and work of
Themba, a brilliant artist who was mercurial and troubled in equal measure. The result is an
affectionate and astute biography that reaches across the generations.
— Professor David Attwell, author and Professor of English, University of York and Extraordinary Professor, University of the Western Cape.

This rich and absorbing biography of Can Themba, iconic Drum-era journalist and writer, is the definitive history of a larger-than-life man who died too young. Siphiwo Mahala’s intensive and often fresh research features unprecedented archival access and interviews with Themba’s surviving colleagues and family.

Mahala’s biography takes a critical historical approach to Themba’s life and writing, giving a picture of the whole man, from his early beginnings in Marabastad to his sombre end in exile in Swaziland. The better-known elements of his life – his political views, passion for teaching and mentoring, and family life – are woven together with an examination of his literary influences and the impact of his own writing (especially his famous short story ‘The Suit’) on modern African writers in turn. Mahala, a master storyteller, deftly follows the threads of Themba’s dynamic life, showcasing his intellectual acumen, scholarly aptitude and wit, along with his flaws, contradictions and heartbreaks, against a backdrop of the sparkle and pathos of Sophiatown of the 1950s.

Can Themba’s successes and failures as well as his triumphs and tribulations reverberate on the pages of this long-awaited biography. The result is an authoritative and entertaining account of an often misunderstood figure in South Africa’s literary canon.