Text Messages | Cold trail of the mystery author

After months of trying to uncover the identity of an obscure South African writer from the 1940s, the intrepid literary detective is no closer.

“And the learned judge had said: THIS THING HAS GOT TO STOP.”

So ends a 13-page short story by John JB Khafula, published by The African Bookman in 1946. Trying to identify the author of This Thing Has Got to Stop has taken many months, at the end of which I am no nearer finding out who Khafula was – or is, if he (or she) still lives.

This literary mini-mystery began with an email from Amsterdam, from Guus Balkema. It began:

“Seventy [sic] years ago in 1946 The African Bookman in Cape Town published a short story by John Khafula. I was eight then, the Second World War had ended a year before and two years later the Nationalist Party came into power. The story gives a poignant description of Joburg seen through the eyes of a man wrongly accused of murder. The title consists of the words of the judge who sends him to the gallows: ‘This thing has got to stop.’ Not many people will have read this work of fiction. It has been out of print for many years … Corinne Sandwith in a recent paper in Safundi lists Khafula’s book together with [Ezekiel] Mphahlele’s Man Must Live (1946) and Alan Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country (1948) as examples of early writing in South Africa which addressed social issues.

“What about the author? He seems to have disappeared into thin air. It is not even known whether Khafula was his real name or a pseudonym. If he is alive he will be 90 or older. If he has passed away there may be friends and family, perhaps children or colleagues or pupils aware of his existence and his writing who may not realise the significance of his work. Perhaps it is still possible to create a network in which memories of this author may be caught, and perhaps even a photograph, saving John Khafula from oblivion.”

Balkema has reason to be interested. His father was the famed publisher AA Balkema, who came to South Africa from the Netherlands after World War II. AA bought the stock of the African Bookman publishing house, including the Khafula booklet, from its founder and owner, Julian Rollnick, in 1948 or 1949. Rollnick was part of the Cape Town Left active in the years after the war, and in the run-up to the watershed year 1948.

The email from Balkema continued: “As a student I read Kafka. Then in 1961 I came back to Holland and turned to mathematics. I am retired now but feel a certain responsibility to this unknown author. He is perhaps 10 years my senior. What has happened to him?”

That simple, poignant question set me on a paper chase that included emails and phone calls and lunches with eminent South African literary scholars (thank you all; you know who you are!); a very fruitful collaboration with Mariss Stevens of the National English Literary Museum, which yielded a copy of the short story and information about its linocut illustrator, Joyce Wallis; and searches through several archives.

The lure was irresistible. Here was a story that predated Cry, The Beloved Country, with a similar story arc, made a pointed argument against the death penalty, and insistently and ironically undercut the legal system then in place. But despite much seeking and speculating, the identity, real or assumed, of Khafula refuses to be revealed. Here’s a summary of findings: 

Bertha Meyer, in an article on African literature in Trek (vol 11, issue 15, 24 January 1947), admires Mphahlele’s short stories but is critical of Khafula’s style: “Once again we find a very creditable degree of certainty in the handling of the story, though it is marred by crudity, by a note of adolescent sarcasm.”

Stevens found a critical article by Stanley Ridge, which mentions Khafula: ‘The African Bookman: A progressive South African publisher before 1948’ (in Die Blaue Eule, 2000).

She also found a review of the story in Common Sense (March 1947, page 132): “ … a bitter attack upon the administration of justice and upon society in general in South Africa, in the form of a story. The episodes are disjointed, yet the effect is impressive. The things described are the things that are happening, some of them daily.”

There is a reference to Khafula and the story in Ursula A Barnett’s A Vision of Order.

Khafula is an isiZulu surname, but its use in older forms of isiXhosa means to eat something bitter that one wants to spit out.

Among theories, increasingly speculative, are that JB might stand for “Joburg Boy”, and that Khafula might have been Rollnick himself.

Khafula is like the Russia of Winston Churchill’s phrase, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”.

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