Sharp Read | Colin Smuts: ‘unbung’ but not unsung

The poet, author and community worker was fearless – or ‘unbung’ – in his activism, using drama, art, literature and music to foster critical thinking and to fight for non-racialism.

Colin “Jiggs” Smuts, who has died aged 76, never shrugged off his signature 1960s jargon. When fundraising for many community projects, he was on the hunt for “dough” and “bread”; with the English academic Denise Newfield, he fixed “gigs”. In Smuts parlance, men were “cats”; women were “chicks”. He referred to his own writing genre as “rap-write”, meaning he wrote the way he “rapped”.  The critic Andries Oliphant said Smuts’ strategy of rap-writing in Nights of Immorality (1998), an autobiographical collection of loosely linked stories, pointed to South African literature’s future in its use of orality. 

A joker and raconteur, his stories centred on the struggle years, and his deep sense of betrayal by corrupt “comrade MPs”, who had forgotten the struggle for non-racialism. In 1999 Smuts wrote, “I have never felt so coloured in my life as under our new democratic government. We have retrogressed 40 years to the late 1950s and the early 1960s in our race relations.”  

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Smuts’ friend, the actor and playwright Rajesh Gopie, aptly dubbed him “unbung and unsung” (also the title of one of Gopie’s plays). Smuts used that title for an online conversation in April 2021, where he delivered an entertaining account of his life. “Bang”, explained Smuts, means “frightened” in Afrikaans [and is pronounced “bung”], therefore “unbung” means fearless. “Unsung” referred to those like himself, whose tireless commitment to the struggle remains unrecognised. 

Smuts, however, was remembered in tributes after his death as “a light”, “a torch” and “a force”, for his considerable legacy in arts and culture.

As director of the Open School from 1974 to 1998, Smuts sought to develop a new education model that would instil critical thinking in children through art, music, drama and literature. The Open School published 17 works of writing and artwork including Two Dogs and Freedom: Black Children of South Africa Speak Out (1987), which became an international bestseller.

From delinquent to head boy

Colin Ellis Smuts was born in Doornfontein, Johannesburg, on 2 November 1944. His father, Louis John Smuts, was the son of a Chinese man from Guangdong Province, China. Louis was classified white by the apartheid government as he passed “the pencil test” (his hair was straight enough for a pencil to pass through it). Under the race classifications of the time, Smuts’ mother, Eileen Elma Ellis, would have been classified coloured but was reclassified white according to her husband’s status.

Smuts was one of five siblings, four of whom chose to live dual lives as “play whites”. He was also known as Bra Jiggs after the American comic strip figure in Jiggs and Maggie because Smuts shared Jiggs’ shock of “stand-up” hair.

Doornfontein was Johannesburg’s first residential suburb. Smuts’ poem Doornfontein (1975) was a prescribed work at the University of the Witwatersrand for 21 years. It responds to the way the apartheid system shunted people out of their homes in the name of development: “they moving us all out / of town / making scars on our / lives and in Josie / but Doorie will / always be Doorie /ek sê.

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Although Smuts was “white on paper” he attended schools that the apartheid system had designated as “coloured schools”. The large sign announcing Newtown Coloured Primary School reminded him daily of race classification. He attended Coronation Coloured High School until 1960 when, after the Sharpeville massacre, he left for the United Kingdom with his mother and sister. His father and some siblings followed later. 

“From Coronation High delinquent to first house captain and head boy of Henry Compton Secondary School” is how Smuts describes his transformation in London. Having realised the Anglican Church’s complicity in apartheid, he ditched his role as boat boy and took up with new “brothers” from across the globe. Despite British xenophobia, he thrived at school, becoming enamoured of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. After graduating from City of Westminster College with O levels, he served as secretary to the West Indian Student Centre Soccer Team and Drama Club.

Exchanging politics for community work

Smuts was an underground operative of the then-banned ANC and Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) and during the 1960s joined “every struggle”, including against apartheid, the war in Vietnam and the invasion and occupation of Palestine. In what he described as “a career-limiting” move, at a 1963 recruitment drive for MK, he asked the ANC leadership, “Are you going to lead us into the bush?”

Having blown his chances of employment in the ANC, he returned to South Africa in the late 1960s, when he changed his classification from white to coloured. This roused the suspicions of the state Security Branch (SB). Why would he want to relinquish white privilege?  

In SBs, in Staffrider magazine in 1992, Smuts recounted his surveillance by agents of the state: “Are these bastards following me? They don’t even allow one to have a decent hangover!” Returning from a trip to Europe in 1977, he was interrogated by SB men with “eyes like glazed marbles”. Was the Open School a front for the ANC? Was Smuts recruiting soldiers for MK?  Why did he give the Black Power salute at the Mdali festival in 1972? 

Smuts: “Everybody gives the salute. Why shouldn’t I?” 
SB interrogator: “So you’re Black Power?”
Smuts: “I’m Black Consciousness like everybody else.” 

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They shouted at him, saying the connections between the Soweto student representative council and the Open School proved his involvement in the June 1976 uprisings in Soweto. “‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ I shouted back. ‘I’m a typical South African. I like brandy … and shit talk.’”

In the 1980s, he exchanged his allegiance to communism and other political “isms” of leftist politics for community work and organisation. He organised key conferences including the 1982 Culture and Resistance in Gaborone and Culture in Another South Africa in 1987. He served on the Southern African Arts Trust Fund, which became the United Democratic Front Cultural Desk, and became its secretary general. He was a co-founder of the Writers Forum, which became The Congress of South African Writers. 

As director of the Community-Based Development Programme from 1998 until his death, he initiated management training for non-governmental organisations in townships, among many other initiatives. As founding secretary and the driving force behind the Nadine Gordimer Foundation, he organised events such as the Nadine Gordimer Annual Lecture.

In 1977, with Newfield and Jonathan Paton, Smuts set up a poetry panel at Wits for students. Over 20 years he invited many star participants such as Mongane Serote, Sipho Sepamla, Chris van Wyk and Frank Meintjies.

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Smuts’ jargon was deceptive; though he sustained a mix of masculinist township gangster talk and 1960s UK lingo, he was in no way stuck in the past; he heeded the wisdom of young South Africans. He was, however, passionately interested in history across the globe, saying it was important to know where we come from. He co-edited Hidden Histories: The Impact of South African Community Art Centres in the 70s, 80s and 90s, to be published this year.

He married three times. His marriage to Dolphine Alexandra Holmes in 1968 yielded a son, Themba. A second brief marriage was succeeded by a third, to Drucilla Elizabeth Cresswell, for seven years. He described her as his “soulmate”. He never recovered from her sudden death in July 2010.  A passionate lover and a fighter, Smuts’ often self-deprecating stories reveal his awareness that, like all of us, he was a flawed being.

His stepdaughter, Rona Holmes, said he mellowed during his last years, owning his story, warts and all. We have lost to emphysema a great friend and mentor, a party animal, who was unafraid in creating change and opening doors for students for several decades. May he not remain unsung.

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