Remembering Can Themba

By Drum Digital
13 June 2013

Fate brought them together but deep respect and mutual admiration ensured a friendship that lasted a lifetime. The one was  a young, enthusiastic Catholic priest from Napoli, Italy, and the other a young, black Catholic writer from vibrant but troubled multi-racial Sophiatown in apartheid South Africa.

The friendship between Father Angelo Ciccone and writer and crusading journalist Can Themba was sealed on their first encounter in the early 1960s.

“It was late one night when I was woken by a knock at the door,” recalls Father Ciccone as we stroll through the grounds of St Joseph’s missionary school in Mzimpofu, Swaziland.

“When I opened the door there stood this dashing, handsome young man,” he continues. The caller introduced himself as Can Themba, a journalist and writer escaping the unjust apartheid system in South Africa. Father Ciccone pauses before saying with deep admiration, “That was my first encounter with this great writer, friend and hero.”

With only the clothes on his back, Themba had crossed into Swaziland, escaping the brutal system of oppression, sacrificing much because he had to leave his young wife and two daughters Yvonne and Morongwa back in Sophiatown.

“You must remember that Themba escaped to Swaziland within days of  the apartheid police arresting Nelson Mandela in 1961,” Father Ciccone says. Themba and Father Ciccone soon became influential voices, speaking from Swaziland on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised victims of the ruthless apartheid system across its borders.

DRUM went to Swaziland to retrace Themba’s steps in exile and to inform Father Ciccone that this magazine, in

association with the Department of Arts and Culture, will be hosting the first Daniel Canodoce “Can” Themba Memorial Lecture on 21 June at the State Theatre in Pretoria.  The lecture will be limited to 500 guests including approximately 100 invited dignitaries.

The  guest speakers are Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, academic Mbulelo Mzamane and veteran journalist Joe Thloloe.

“We are hosting this auspicious occasion as our special tribute to Themba’s legacy and also to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his short story The Suit, published by Nat Nakasa’s literary journal The Classic,” DRUM editor Makhosazana Zwane-Siguqa says.

Father Ciccone’s boyish face beams as he recalls how he frequently had to hide Themba from South African police. On one memorable occasion he hid the activist in the mission’s maize silo.

“The South African secret police were hellbent on making his stay here unbearable as they snooped around trying to catch him,” Father Ciccone says.

“It couldn’t have been much fun for Can as he had neither friends nor family in Swaziland. He spent most of his days in the library, teaching, in church or in his room. Yes, he was a lonely man and I was his only friend here.”

Today the mission, which was founded in 1914, has more than 500 children attending its primary and high school.Back in the early ’60s, a day after Themba’s arrival at the mission, Father Ciccone offered him a post teaching English.

“Themba had this superlative, rich English vocabulary,” the Father says. “He was also extremely logical in his thinking and had a deep love for humankind.”

Before going into exile Themba was a major player at DRUM, where his investigative journalism often highlighted the realities and inequalities of the apartheid system. On one memorable assignment Themba decided to see how white churches would react to his presence.

“The Presbyterian church in Noord Street allowed me in, yet the one in Orange Grove refused to let me attend their service,” he wrote at the time. In 1966 he was declared a “statutory communist” and his works were banned in South Africa.

In his stories he described the frustrations of university-educated urban black people who were unable to realise their true potential due to the racial restrictions of apartheid.

Father Ciccone, who is now frail, relies on a wheelchair to get around but his lively, quick mind is undimmed. “We played our part in showing our solidarity with many, many victims of the struggle for the liberation of South Africa until Mandela was released from prison,” Father Ciccone says, his Italian accent heavy with a dose of isiSwati influence.

“I wish the ANC would recognise our role in the struggle and that of Themba in the emancipation of South Africans.” Father Ciccone, who has lived in Manzini, Swaziland, since 1958, has devoted his life to helping Swazis with disabilities, and people with HIV/Aids and has also started a new programme to help lepers in the Xai-Xai region of Mozambique.

“I can talk about my friend Can Themba until sunset,” he says with a wistful look. “I know he is waiting for me in heaven.”

He says Themba’s loneliness took its toll and he took to drinking heavily. “Don’t forget, he was away from his family, friends and country, all of which he loved deeply. But what a gentleman we lost – and what a brilliant teacher.”

Can Themba died in September 1969 at the age of 43, a year after Swaziland’s independence, and was the first non-priest to be buried at St Joseph’s cemetery.

Join us for the Can Themba Memorial Lecture. For more info click here

This article appeared in DRUM - 13 June 2013

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