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WHEN Herbert Isaac Ernest Dhlomo, commonly known as H. I. E. Dhlomo, died during a heart operation on October 23, 1956, the South African literary firmament lost one of its brightest stars. He was only 53 and seemed to have the whole world at his feet.
A true man of letters, Dhlomo was one of the foremost dramatists of his day. He also wrote poetry, short stories and essays. He was a teacher, librarian, journalist, politician, actor, and violinist.
Dhlomo was born on February 26, 1903, at Siyamu, Edendale. From 1922 to 1924, he studied at the Amanzimtoti Training Institute (renamed Adams College) in southern KwaZulu-Natal. A product of the American Board Mission School, he excelled at English, both spoken and written.
Dhlomo is buried at the Chesterville cemetery in Durban.
He crafted several stage productions that communicated important messages about South African historical icons and issues. He wrote biographical plays about Nongqawuse (The Girl Who Killed to Save), Prophet Ntsikana, King Shaka, King Dingane, King Cetshwayo and King Moshoeshoe, while his plays on issues included The Pass: Arrested and Discharged, The Workers and Malaria.
Popular among his poems is the epic poem The Valley of a Thousand Hills, a precursor to Mazisi Kunene’s poems Emperor Shaka the Great and Anthem of the Decades. Among the many people Dhlomo wrote poems about was John Langalibalele Dube, founder of Ohlange Institute and Ilanga lase Natal, and first president of the African National Congress.
Most of Dhlomo’s articles and essays were published in Ilanga Lase Natal, Umteteli wa Bantu, The Bantu World and Inkundla ya Bantu. While he published articles under his own name he also used pseudonyms such as “Busy Bee”, “X” and “Peregrino of the Crossroads”.
According to Nick Visser and Tim Couzens, editors of H. I. E Dhlomo: Collected Works, Dhlomo wrote “some 24 plays, 10 short stories, over 140 poems, several essays in literary theory and criticism, an unpublished anthropological work titled Zulu Life and Thought and journalistic articles numbering in the thousands”. When his older brother Reginald R. Dhlomo (author of the first novel in English by a Zulu writer: An African Tragedy (1928)) became the editor of Ilanga in 1943, Dhlomo became the assistant editor. Reginald was a brilliant author in his own right whose work deserves greater recognition.
According to Couzens in his biography of Dhlomo, The New African: A Study of the Life and Work of H. I. E Dhlomo, from 1932 Dhlomo was closely associated with the Johannesburg Bantu Men’s Social Centre, and was appointed librarian — organiser under the Transvaal Committee of the Carnegie Library Service for Non-Europeans. In 1941 Dhlomo moved to Durban to become the librarian of the Ndongeni Bantu Library at the Durban Bantu Social Centre.
The move to Durban also served to bring Dhlomo in reach of another library. Until the late 1920s there were no public libraries that black South Africans could 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 titled The Campbells and African Culture Dhlomo wrote: “Miss Campbell … 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.
For Dhlomo the Ndongeni Bantu Social Centre Library represented an opportunity to disseminate thoughts and ideas. Like its counterpart in Johannesburg, the Durban Bantu Social Centre was, as far as the authorities were concerned, meant to be a social, educational and recreational venue for black people. There was a perception at the time that black people, men in particular, had too much time on their hands. The Durban city fathers felt that black urban labour needed to be monitored and controlled in order to avoid political and social unrest. This concern gave birth to the establishment of the Durban Bantu Social Centre.
But the plan of using such centres for social control backfired as leading intellectuals of the era turned them into hubs of political activity and resistance against oppression. At the Durban Bantu Social Centre, Dhlomo was known for organising lectures delivered by other prominent intellectuals of the era such as Don Mthimkhulu, Jordan Ngubane and W. Mseleku. And, of course, Dhlomo gave lectures himself.
In terms of his life 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.”
Dhlomo was an active member of the ANC and part of its think-tank. In 1939, Dhlomo, along with Ngubane, Manasseh Tebatso Moerane, Ashby Peter Mda and others established the National Union of African Youth (NUAY). The union’s stated goal was to galvanise the youth to participate in politics in order to achieving freedom in the future. The NUAY is a forerunner to the ANC Youth League.
Dhlomo was also one of the brains behind the election of Albert Luthuli to the position of the ANC president in Natal in 1951 and nationally in 1952. In this effort he worked closely with Ngubane, Masabalala Yengwa and others.
Although Dhlomo may have lived many decades ago, writer and academic Ntongela Masilela strongly believes that he is still relevant today and merits being celebrated 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.
“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.
“I think his belief that a truly democratic civil society is achievable through ideas and ethics is what makes H.I.E. Dhlomo relevant today, in fact our contemporary, be it in South Africa or beyond our borders.”
• Mwelela Cele is the reading-room librarian at the Campbell Collection, University of KwaZulu-Natal.
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While Dhlomo was proud of his Zulu culture and heri- tage, 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 …’