Lewis Nkosi (1936-2010):  An Appreciation


If Johannesburg became the “classical location” for “an African form of metropolitan modernity,” as Achille Mbembe argues in a recent essay, then the passing of Lewis Nkosi, who died of a stroke on September 5th at the age of seventy-three, marks the end of a classical period in South African literature.[1]   Of all the major figures associated with this classical era in urban literature—with the advent of Drum magazine and the exhilarating promise of the Sophiatown literary renaissance (named after the Sophiatown district of Johannesburg, where many of the Drum writers lived)—Nkosi remained, until just recently, the last man standing.  Others associated with the so-called “Drum Generation”—including Henry Nxumalo (1917-1957), Can Themba (1924-1968), Nat Nakasa (1937-1965), Bloke Modisane (1923-1986), and Todd Matshikiza (1921-1968)—have long since vanished.  Tragically, only Es’kia (Ezekiel) Mphahlele (1914-2008), who, like Nkosi, spent much of his adult life in exile, survived long enough celebrate the end of apartheid and the dawn of a “New South Africa.”[2]


Like all classical periods, the period associated with Drum magazine, which Nkosi joined in 1953, was also a period of transition.  Bookended, on the one hand, by an older generation of black Victorians who chronicled the colonial usurpation of the land; and, on the other, by a younger, more radical generation emerging after the Sharpeville Massacre (1960), which fashioned a literature of resistance around the townships southwest of Johannesburg—the Drum Generation carved out its classical heritage by straddling a delicate transition between retreat and advance, usurpation and resistance.   During the generation’s heyday in the 1950s (what Nkosi once called the “fabulous decade”), Drum contributors often seemed just as concerned about the indignities of white minority rule as with a new version of American automobile or a new variation of township slang.[3]   Indeed, caught up within the exciting dynamics of the post-War period—at a time when independence movements began to sprout up across the continent; at a moment when black South Africans increasingly turned away from the cultural legacy of Victorian Britain towards products of America and Hollywood—contradictions were sure to surface.   Some critics “have assailed Sophiatown as a literary renaissance that failed, principally on the grounds of elitism, naïveté, political disengagement, and misplaced cultural idealism.”[4]  The contents of Drum–which included sensationalist “pulp” fiction, quasi-anthropological notices about the rise of the tsotsi (gangster), pin-up girls, muckraking accounts of apartheid’s devastation on everyday life, and a variety of “on the town” pieces about Johannesburg’s street culture–may have effectively challenged the idea, propagated by apartheid ideologues, that “tribal” black subjects, provincial by nature, could never feel fully at home in a cosmopolitan setting.  Yet the magazine’s penchant for commodity fetishism (in particular, gangster outfits based on Hollywood archetypes) and occasional treatment of women as objects (pin-up girls) also complicated this mission of uplift.  As Bessie Head once wrote:  “Gangsters,” masculine tsotsi types often at the center of Drum writing, “were the heroes of the day in their environment and they were the children of rape and all forms of uncurbed brutality.”[5]   Any sustained feeling of classical equipoise, surrounded by this heroic type, remained extremely fragile.   In fact, this classical moment in South African literature was almost over before it started.   Two years after Nkosi joined Drum as a photographer-in-training and part-time writer, authorities began dismantling Sophiatown, his place of residence, with bulldozers.  As Rob Nixon notes, Sophiatown was “one of the last areas where city blacks could legitimately own property.”[6]   Since the apartheid regime, which depended on migrant labor, “insisted that blacks would only be tolerated in the city as renters and temporary sojourners with no permanent claim on urban residence,” the neighborhood “had to be destroyed.”[7]   In the wake this destruction, just after having collaborated with Lionel Rogosin on Come Back, Africa (1960), a film about the increasingly oppressive conditions in Johannesburg, Nkosi chose a path of exile—a period lasting thirty years.  “Forced removals reduced Sophiatown to rubble in all but memory, and its writers were strewn across the globe.”[8]   Yet, as John Matshikiza, the son of a Drum writer, recently noted:  “Exile was a double-edged sword.  For some it was a prelude to a slow and calculated suicide, cut off from the very lifeblood of home”—as evidenced by Nat Nakasa’s death, by his own hands, in New York City or Can Themba’s miserable end, by alcohol poisoning, in Swaziland.[9]   “Time, frustration and despair, with their attendant corrosive drugs—alcohol and suicide—are taking a toll on South African writers,” Nkosi wrote in Themba’s obituary.[10]   “For others,” exile “was the dawning of the discovery of a new world,” however complicated and trying this new world might be.[11]   Thus it was during a time of frustration, in exile, that Nkosi emerged as a first-rate literary talent.  


Any appreciation of Nkosi career, apart from his association with Drum, must be calibrated according to this second act, in exile.  Here the key text is his controversial first novel, Mating Birds (1986).   Winner of the Macmillan / Pen prize, Mating Birds relates the story of a black man’s (Sibiya) obsession with, and apparent rape of, a white woman (Veronica) near a beach in Durban.   Narrated from behind bars, during apartheid, and from the perspective of Sibiya, the man on death row for violating a white woman, the novel self-consciously harkens back, in equal measure, to Camus’ L’Etranger (1942) and Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940).   While the psychological profile of the criminal, configured in pseudo-Oedipal terms by Camus, is reconfigured along pseudo-racial lines in Nkosi’s text, the apparent inevitability of Sibiya’s crime, and the crushing of personal agency within an oppressive system, draws more directly from Wright’s African-American context.   However, for many readers sympathetic to the anti-apartheid struggle, the novel’s premise was too hot to handle.  In the New Statesman, Sara Maitland recoiled at the “stock image of the pale evil seductress, the eternally corrupting female.”[12]   And in the Village Voice, Rob Nixon chimed in:  “Nkosi’s handling of the sexual themes complicates the distribution of our sympathies, which he means to be unequivocally with the accused man.  For in rebutting the prevalent white South African fantasy of the black male as a sex-crazed rapist, Nkosi edges unnecessarily close to reinforcing the myth of the raped woman as someone who deep down was asking for it.”[13]  Nkosi does indeed appear to toy, rather recklessly, with stereotypes that the faltering white minority regime hoped to disseminate in the 1980s, the decade of the novel’s publication.   Nevertheless, troubling a reader’s “sympathies” often seems the very task of the novelist—a risk that didactic literature of the anti-apartheid movement occasionally failed to satisfy.   In an odd way, narrative fiction oriented around amoral—even immoral–perspectives often produces stronger moral reckoning.  (Try to reckon with J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999), for example–a novel about rapes committed by white and black men that Mating Birds clearly anticipates.)  The logic of Mating Birds seems to imply that, despite apartheid’s notions of racial purity, human desire tends to be perverted, made violently impure under its laws.  As Nadine Gordimer noted:  “Nkosi’s novel enters the terrible territory where love and hate are no longer opposing forces.”[14]   Under the horrible conflation of these “forces,” much of the reader’s sympathy for a victim of apartheid—Sibiya, the accused, a black man on the receiving end of racism his whole life–is foreclosed.   And yet, curiously, we understand the facts of the case through his eyes, a rhetoric that plays on our sympathies.  But certain approaches to the novel—including that of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.—push this problem of sympathy one step further, questioning whether in fact a rape has even occurred (the narrator leaves the circumstances of the event eerily vague).   As Gates observes:  “Meeting on the beach almost daily, [Sibiya and Veronica] enter a dreamlike ritual replete with the subtle gestures of wordless flirtation and the silent exchanges of cues of desires.  First there is an explicit and erotic pantomime of sexual intercourse on the beach.  Then Sibiya follows Veronica home…enters the bungalow and consummates his passion, only to be discovered, beaten, arrested and sentenced to death for rape.”[15]  In Gates’ reading, guilt may lie not with Sibiya but with the reader, who automatically assumes the stock stereotypes.    Borrowing a page from Camus, in which the main incident—the killing of an Arab–takes place in a kind of daze, near a “little seaside bungalow just outside Algiers,”[16] Nkosi’s narrator confesses:  “Everything happened so quickly in that seaside bungalow that I could hardly reflect at the time how much of what happened was wholly of the girl’s bidding, how much the result of my own wayward impulse.”[17]   In this account of unaccountability before the law lies the necessary reckoning of the hero’s–and the reader’s–moral quest. 


At the memorial service for Lewis Nkosi, “his twin daughters, Louise and joy, 39, remembered ‘wild jazz records as bedtime lullabies,’” while others remembered his refusal to “toe a party line.”[18]  Although, in Mating Birds, his most important work, Nkosi, the last remaining member of the Drum Generation, may ruffle the “party line” of our sympathies, he employs an element of moral disorientation that may have been necessary for readers to recognize the deeper perversions of the age he endured.   This legacy, despite its discomfiting implications, will be missed.



[1] Achille Mbembe, “Aesthetics of Superfluity” (37-67), in Johannesburg:  The Elusive Metropolis, eds. Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe (Durham and London:  Duke UP, 2008), 37.

[2] Don Mattera (1935 –  ) also survives, though he is principally known as a musician.

[3] Michael Chapman, Preface (vii) of The Drum Decade:  Stories from the 1950s (Pietermaritzburg:  University of Natal Press, 2001), vii.

[4] Rob Nixon, Homelands, Harlem and Hollywood (New York and London:  Routledge, 1994), 19.

[5] Bessie Head, “Oranges and Lemons” (19-27), in Tales of Tenderness and Power (Oxford, England:  Heinemann, 1989), 20.

[6] Rob Nixon, Homelands, Harlem and Hollywood (New York and London:  Routledge, 1994), 36. 

[7] Ibid, 37.

[8] Ibid, 41.

[9] John Matshikiza, “Instant City,” in Johannesburg:  The Elusive Metropolis, eds. Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe (Durham and London:  Duke UP, 2008), 225.

[10] Lewis Nkosi, “Obituary” (vii-xi), in Can Themba’s The Will to Die (Cape Town and Johannesburg:  David Philip, 1972), vii.

[11] John Matshikiza, “Instant City,” in Johannesburg:  The Elusive Metropolis, eds. Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe (Durham and London:  Duke UP, 2008), 225.

[12] New Statesman, August 29, 1986, pp. 25-26.   Cross-referenced from Answers.com (http://www.answers.com/topic.lewis-nkosi).

[13] Village Voice, July 29, 1968, p. 46.   Cross-referenced from Answers.com (http://www.answers.com/topic.lewis-nkosi).

[14] Back flap blurb on Lewis Nkosi, Mating Birds (New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 1986).

[15] Ibid.

[16] Albert Camus, The Stranger (Trans. Stuart Gilbert; New York:  Knopf, 1970), 50.

[17] Lewis Nkosi, Mating Birds (New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 1986), 5.

[18] http://thisblksistaspage.wordpress.com/2010/09/10/the-ancestors-claim-south-african-writer-lewis-nkosi-73-author-of-mating-birds/