From the Archive | HIE Dhlomo: dramatist, poet and politician 

As a writer and political activist, HIE Dhlomo gave the world back to South Africans at a time when they sorely needed to see themselves in print. 

This is a lightly edited version of an article first published in Wordsetc’s First Quarter (2009) and the Journal of Natal and Zulu History, Volume 28 (2010). 

When Herbert Isaac Ernest Dhlomo, commonly known as HIE Dhlomo, died during a heart operation on 23 October 1956, the South African literary firmament lost one of its brightest stars. He was only 53 and seemed to have had the whole world at his feet. A true man of letters, Dhlomo was one of the foremost dramatists of his era. He also wrote poetry, short stories and essays. He was an educator, librarian, journalist, politician, actor and violinist. His way with words was legendary. On Dhlomo’s death, Martin L Khumalo, a columnist for Ilanga Lase Natal (The Natal Sun), said Dhlomo had been a writer whose “magic pen could transform ordinary phenomena like the rain into some mysterious occurrence that would hold you gaping for a long while, wondering why you did not appreciate this treatise any earlier”.  

Body of work 

Dhlomo crafted stage productions that communicated important messages about South African historical icons and issues. He wrote plays about Nongqawuse (The Girl who Killed to Save), Prophet Ntsikana, King Shaka, King Dingane, King Cetshwayo and King Moshoeshoe. His plays on political issues included The Pass: Arrested and Discharged, The Workers and Malaria. All the aforementioned plays were published in 1985 in a book titled Collected Works: Dhlomo, HIE edited by Nick Visser and Tim Couzens. Popular among his poems is the epic poem The Valley of a Thousand Hills, a precursor to Mazisi Kunene’s epic poems Emperor Shaka the Great and Anthem of the Decades. Through poetry he paid homage to and significantly acknowledged his intellectual sparring partner, the immensely gifted Zulu poet and author BW Vilakazi, whose works include Inkondlo ka Zulu (Zulu Poetry, 1935), Amal’ E’zulu (Zulu Horizons, 1945), a Zulu-English dictionary (with Professor CM Doke), as well as three novels. Dhlomo often described Vilakazi as the “cultural Bhambatha of his people who waged great battles for their cultural glory”. The real Bhambatha kaManciza was a warrior chief of the Zondi, of the Mvoti division of the Colony of Natal who led the Zulu rebellion of 1906 against the imposition of the poll tax. Dhlomo was thus paying his intellectual rival the ultimate accolade. 

Among the many people he wrote poems about was revered John Langalibalele Dube (Mafukuzela), the founder of Ohlange Institute, and Ilanga Lase Natal, first president of the African National Congress (ANC). About Dube he writes: “Dr JL Dube Great son of streams and valleys African! Mafukuzela! Thou of warrior frame; Whose rare achievements proved the Black Man can! You thought and taught and wrought us into fame. No scars of war alone adorn your brow; For Beauty, Song and Fire of vale and hill, Of our rich idiom – how the gods endow! – The pages of your story wondrous fill. Blest leader, thou, to fight and midst the glist Of battles fierce – great scholar, author, sage – Find time the Muses fair to serve. Our mist Of ignorance you raised, Light of our age! In pangs of birth we stood when he began; ’Twas dark! God spoke! And there arose this man!”

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Dhlomo’s articles and essays were mostly about political and cultural matters, and they inspired and restored the dignity of black South Africans. He wrote his articles using his own name, but he also used pseudonyms such as “Busy Bee”, “X” and “Peregrino of the Crossroads”. According to Visser and Couzens, Dhlomo wrote about “24 plays, 10 short stories, over 140 poems, several essays in literary theory and criticism, an unpublished anthropological work entitled Zulu Life and Thought and journalistic articles numbering in the thousands.” 

Until the late 1920s there were no public libraries that black South Africans were permitted to visit. However, the private library of Killie Campbell in Durban was open to all races. Campbell had a passionate love for South African history and its people and zealously collected works and manuscripts of extreme rarity and historical value about the Natal region in particular and Southern Africa in general. For someone with a keen mind like Dhlomo, the library was a godsend. In a 1944 article entitled The Campbells and African Culture, Dhlomo wrote the following: “Miss Campbell has one of the finest – perhaps the finest – private libraries of Africana. Unlike some collectors, Miss Campbell’s effort is a work of love. She takes a living practical interest in her work and is never so happy as when she helps visitors and scholars in her library. The library is a paradise for all lovers of culture and literature. It contains many rare items. Books, periodicals, cuttings, letters, pictures which it would be difficult if not impossible to get today, make the mouths of scholars and writers water when they visit the library.” 

Today, the library, which is in Berea, Durban, is called the Killie Campbell Africana Library and is part of Campbell Collections at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban. According to historian Tim Couzens in his excellent biography of Dhlomo entitled The New African: A Study of the Life and Work of HIE Dhlomo, from 1932 Dhlomo was closely associated with the Johannesburg Bantu Men’s Social Centre, and he was “appointed librarian-organiser under the Transvaal Committee of the Carnegie Library Service for non-Europeans”. The Bantu Men’s Social Centre Library was a receiving depot of the Carnegie Non-European Library. As a librarian-organiser Dhlomo was in charge of the centre’s library. In 1941, leaving behind his family in Johannesburg, Dhlomo moved to Durban to become the librarian of the Ndongeni Bantu Library at the Durban Bantu Social Centre. Like its counterpart in Johannesburg, the Durban Bantu Social Centre was meant to be a social, educational and recreational venue for blacks, a place where according to its official founding aims, “worthy character may be encouraged and developed. Bantu men may spend leisure time instead of roaming the streets.” 

No place for social activities 

On the surface these centres were benign creations with noble goals, but a closer look reveals that they were a means of social control in a society that limited black freedom. The Durban Municipality established a structure to control black people in Durban. This structure was built on the revenue generated from the municipal beer monopoly, which criminalised all small producers of liquor and turned them into ‘“unlawful” liquor traders. The beer monopoly generated for the municipality significant revenue, which, in turn, was used to finance the development of the local state apparatus of control. Profits from beer halls made possible the founding in 1916 of a Municipal Native Affairs Department. With the exception of the Lutheran Church (Emaplangweni) in Milne Street, the American Board Congregational Church (Ezihlabathini) in Beatrice Street, hostels, beer halls, the Industrial Commercial Workers Union (ICU) Club, the International Club and the Catholic Thrift Club in Durban, before 1933 there was no place for social activities for black people in the city of Durban. This raised a concern among city fathers with regard to how black urban labour was going to be kept occupied and under control even when not at work. The perception at the time was that black people, men in particular, had too much time on their hands, making them idly roam the streets. 

According to Paul Maylam, there was serious anxiety about the developing proletarian consciousness and organisation that seemed to be embodied by the ICU. The city fathers felt that black urban labour needed to be monitored and controlled in order to avoid political and social unrest. The concern was serious to the extent that it gave birth to the idea of the establishment of the Durban Bantu Social Centre. The City Council also appointed a Welfare Officer whose responsibility included investigating complaints, grievances and organising social entertainment, sports and recreation, the last of which became the main part of the strategy for diffusing unrest. 

But the plan to use these centres for social control backfired as leading intellectuals of that era turned them into a hub of political activity and resistance against oppression. The centres became powerful platforms that launched political and intellectual activism. At the Durban Bantu Social Centre, Dhlomo was known for organising lectures delivered by other prominent intellectuals of the era. Don Mthimkhulu, headmaster of Adams College, delivered a lecture on George Bernard Shaw. Jordan Ngubane, editor of Inkundla Ya Bantu and assistant editor of Ilanga Lase Natal, delivered a lecture on African youth and intellectual awakening. W Mseleku delivered a lecture on delinquency. For Dhlomo, Ndongeni was the symbol of allegiance and courage that was betrayed, and a symbol of unity that the Ndongeni Bantu Social Centre Library hoped to cultivate. Dhlomo himself was one of the intellectuals who delivered lectures at the Bantu Social Centre. 

In his outstanding monograph, The Cultural Modernity of HIE Dhlomo, the writer and academic Ntongela Masilela talks about the Zulu renaissance of the 1930s and 1940s and highlights Dhlomo’s leading role in this reawakening. In an interview with Wordsetc, Masilela refers to Dhlomo as “a writer for all seasons”. “His prose or poetic form or dramatic structure is a synthesis of philosophical wisdom and sociological analysis. Given this, there is always a lucidity of imagination in his writings. While his writing is quintessentially poetic in nature, in many ways it is always in service of historical knowledge.” 

The new African philosophy 

Dhlomo belonged to a group of people who classified themselves as the new Africans. They embraced modernity. They believed that the contact between Africa and other parts of the world was not going to end but rather would advance. They felt very strongly that this contact had to be celebrated and its benefits amassed. According to historian Paul La Hausse, “New African was itself an innovative reading of an old idea first outlined in 1912 as the new bantu and further developed in the popular struggles of the late 1920s as the new African.” 

While Dhlomo was proud of his Zulu culture and heritage, he was not a Zulu nationalist but regarded himself as a new African. According to Dhlomo, “The new African knows where he belongs and what belongs to him; where he is going and how; what he wants and the methods to obtain it … What is this new African’s attitude? Put briefly and bluntly, he wants a social order where every South African will be free to express himself and his personality fully, live and breathe freely, and have a part in shaping the destiny of his country; a social order in which race, colour and creed will be a badge neither of privilege nor of discrimination … He is opposed to such well-entrenched traditional institutions as the Ministry of Native Affairs and the Native Affairs Department with their spawn of petty ignorant chiefs, Native Representative Council, the Bhunga System, separate systems of education, of revenue and taxation, etc, etc. He knows the evils and contradictions and waste brought about by this system. He knows that councils chosen undemocratically by government puppets cannot represent African thought, attitudes, progress; he knows how they prevent progressive Africans from leading their own people. He is determined to expose and battle against these contradictions and dangers.” 

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A political mind, Dhlomo was an active member of the ANC and part of its think tank. In 1939, Dhlomo, along with journalist Jordan K Ngubane, Manasseh Tebatso Moerane (former president of South Africa Thabo Mbeki’s maternal uncle and editor of The World), Ashby Peter Mda (author Zakes Mda’s father) and others established the National Union of African Youth (NUAY). The union’s stated goal was galvanising the youth to participate in politics, a means to achieving freedom someday. The NUAY is a forerunner to the ANC Youth League. Dhlomo was also one of the brains behind the election of Luthuli to the position of the ANC president in Natal in 1951 and nationally in 1952. In this effort, he worked closely with Jordan K Ngubane, Masabalala Yengwa (Luthuli’s right-hand man) and others. 

Masilela believes Dhlomo is still relevant today and merits being celebrated here in South Africa and beyond. “He took intellectual culture very seriously. For him, intellectual practice, be it by means of words, paint or through musical notes, was a commitment to ethics that would facilitate the possible transformation of the world into a better place to live in. His unyielding conviction in intellectual excellence stems from his beliefs that ideas do indeed matter. He believed that ideas are more important than politics or, for that matter, more than military strength. He wanted to build a strong civil society that would withstand political aberrations that now and then manifest themselves proving that human beings by nature are imperfect. 

Masilela discerns a common thread in Dhlomo’s newspaper columns: ideas and ethical principles. “I think his belief that a truly democratic civil society is achievable through ideas and ethics is what makes Dhlomo relevant today, in fact our contemporary, be it in South Africa or beyond our borders.”

Mwelela Cele has worked as a curator, education officer, researcher, librarian and events coordinator at UKZN’s Documentation Centre and Campbell Collections, Digital Innovation South Africa and the Luthuli Museum. He recently spent several years in Ginsberg, King William’s Town, working at the Steve Biko Foundation and Centre. He is currently based at The Forge.

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