The origins of Black South African literature in English lie in the Eastern Cape. The Glasgow Missionary Society founded the school of Lovedale at Alice in the Tyume valley in 1824 and here, and at similar mission schools subsequently established at places like Healdtown, Grahamstown and Umtata, English became the primary medium of instruction. The Society imported a printing press and began to produce their first publications, initially in Xhosa, such as an elementary spelling book, some hymns, and a small catechism. Their main literary task was the translation of the Bible into Xhosa – an event that had an important influence on subsequent writers whether they wrote in English or Xhosa.
Increasingly, because of the necessary literacy skills, the focus of literary activity moved to the cities – city issues handled by city-bred writers. The first western-style drama developed in the 1930s, most notably with the plays of Herbert Dhlomo. Most literary activity still centred at newspapers, such as Bantu World (founded in 1932). R R R Dhlomo published a short novel, An African Tragedy, in 1928, and Plaatje’s Mhudi was finally published in 1930. The novel form, however, was taken up after World War II, mainly by Peter Abrahams, whose book Mine Boy was published in 1946. Abrahams was also one of the first into a growing field of writing – that of the autobiography. While the diaries of Soga and Plaatje were pioneering predecessors in this area, Abrahams’s Tell Freedom (1954) was the first full-length published work of this kind. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was followed by several other autobiographies such as Todd Matshikiza’s Chocolates for my Wife (1961), Ezekiel Mphahlele’s Down Second Avenue (1959) and William ‘Bloke’ Modisane’s Blame Me on History (1963). Abrahams drew for his inspiration in his early poetry and prose on a combination of socialism and the ideas of the Black American writers of the Harlem Renaissance.
Through film and magazines there was a growing American influence on black writing after World War II. The war had also brought about conditions that led to changes in the black reading public – literacy had become widespread enough to support more popular, racy photo-magazines. The first in the field was Zonk, followed by the more political Drum. Most of the best-known writers of the 1950s, such as Can Temba, Matshikiza, Mphahlele and Sinxo, were associated with the magazine that became extremely popular. They changed the style of Black South African writing – from formal Standard English, often somewhat stilted, to vibrant, exciting, of-the-moment journalese. Because of the nature of the magazine, the short-story form became dominant. The editor, Henry Nxumalo, produced a series of expose articles on farm and prison conditions, which made the name of the magazine a by-word of committed journalism. His subsequent murder, while engaged in further expose research, confirmed the legend. The decade was a period of intense political activity brought to an end – or at least forced to change direction – with the banning of the ANC and PAC in 1960. Alex la Guma, Dennis Brutus, Cosmo Pieterse, Themba, Matshikiza, Mphahlele, Nat Nakasa, Jordan Ngubane, Mazisi Kunene and many other writers went into exile. Consequently, large amounts of writing, published in a diversity of sources outside South Africa, through banning and relative obscurity, remained almost totally inaccessible within the country itself. It would be wrong to believe, however, that all writers went into exile at this period or that writing inside South Africa ended. Albert Luthuli’s Let My People Go (1962), for instance, continued the tradition of autobiography and Modikwe Dikobe began the writing of his novel The Marabi Dance (published in 1973), a superbly authentic recreation of the Johannesburg of the 1930s.
The early 1970s saw the rise of the Black Consciousness movement, articulated through such journals as Black Review, in which Steve Biko played a prominent part. With it, emphasis within literature changed to two forms of expression – poetry and drama. Oswald Mtshali’s Sounds of a Cowhide Drum (1971), the first full book of poetry in English for many years, was immensely popular and fine books followed it from Serote, Sepamla, Gwala and others. Easily associated with music, poetry had the ability to communicate political expression with immediate force and, transmitted orally, was difficult to ban. Workshop drama, too, allowed direct communication between artist and audience and has developed into a strong tradition. Unique voices continued to add to the richness of South African literature as well – in Botswana, Bessie Head has written powerful novels of struggle, adaptation and survival. The 1976 Soweto uprising unleashed an immense flood of writing. The magazine Staffrider has been a great innovator in the field, encouraging community writing, widening its effect through innovative distribution methods, and developing poetic and short story forms integrated with photographs and drawings. With the passage of time, with the established writers beginning to reflect over a long period, novels have begun to appear – from Mphahlele, Serote, Miriam Tlali and Sepamla. Local publishing houses have begun to publish local works in the kind of numbers that earlier writers such as Plaatje can only have dreamed of.