Staffrider magazine (1978-1993)

Staffrider was a South African literary and arts magazine published by Ravan Press in Johannesburg from 1978 to 1993. It took its name and identity from township slang referring to black youth who travelled   either sitting on the roof or hanging onto the outside of overcrowded, racially segregated commuter trains.[1] It published in paperback to keep costs low in order to make it accessible to as many readers as possible.[2] According to the founding editor, Mike Kirkwood, the name was chosen because of the way it evoked

[a] mobile, disreputable bearer of tidings. The idea had a certain flavour that made it right for the magazine. [Staffriding] was definitely outside the bounds of institutional life in South Africa; it focused on an area of experience- travelling to work and back-that is central to most black lives in this country; it incorporated the notion of a daredevil, somebody who would go a little bit further than most. I suppose we drew a comparison between the liberties the staffrider took with the law and the liberties we wanted the magazine to take with the censorship system.[3]

This significant literary and cultural magazine enabled the expression of culture, history and protest in the form of poetry, short stories, graphics and photography from southern Africa.[4] Works by well known South Africans were featured alongside previously unpublished authors and artists. This provided a valuable publishing platform for aspiring writers, artists, photographers and community projects and offered a forum to challenge racial and cultural oppression. Staffrider’s editorial policy was based on an anti-apartheid ethos. To this end Staffrider was nonracial, populist and chose English as its language of publication rather than Afrikaans.

Many submissions were made in person, or were submitted handwritten.[5] Although  Mike Kirkwood was the founding editor, many others were involved in founding and forming the magazine, including writers such as Mafika Gwala, Nkathazo Mnyhayiza and Mothobi Mutloatse.[6]

Editorial Policy

Originally the magazine adopted a self-editing policy, in which accepted submissions were minimally edited by the publishers. Instead, writing groups worked together to edit and select pieces they wanted published, so that much of the editing process was done at the community level.[7] At Ravan Press, a group of four to five people worked to put together each issue, which included selecting which submissions to accept.[8]

The writing groups were pivotal to the formation of Staffrider. The magazine developed during the Durban moment, which also saw the emergence of the Black Consciousness Movement.[9] The beginning of this period was marked by grassroots cultural organizing as writers across the country, particularly in the townships, formed writing groups. These groups were significant not only for the way they acted as a community of authors for those who were involved, but also for the way they brought together writers who were living in the same area. These writing groups were significant in part because they were deeply entrenched in their locations.[10] Different writing groups would sometimes meet for readings. The Creative Youth Association, for example, met with the Bayajula writing group. The Soweto writers similarly visited a group in Gugulethu in Cape Town for a writers’ get-together.[11]

These writers groups were the main source of material for Staffrider for at least the first two years of publication. The magazine was also distributed mainly through these groups rather than through commercial distributors, as they brought Staffrider directly to their communities.[12]

According to Ivan Vladislavic, “The most striking thing about the magazine, even today, is its sense of place.”[13] Each magazine contributor was identified not only by name, but also by their location or by a writing or cultural group with whom they were associated. Individual authors and their work were tied to larger communities and the magazine strove to be a repository of cultural movement from those communities rather than a place for individual authors to make a name for themselves only. This ethos was rooted in the student action of 1976. The magazine worked to link cultural creation to community mobilization as well as broader political movements.

These two features – the self-editing policy and the emphasis on a multiplicity of people and communities involved – were part of original conversations around what the magazine should be. Mike Kirkwood had discussions with members of what is now called the Mpumulanga Arts Group in the Hammarsdale Township in 1977, where they discussed the need for a “magazine that was generated at the point of writing and functioned as a vehicle for a great number of writers.”[14]

As writers began to work increasingly individually, and as the groups came under attack from South African security police, these groups began to dissipate. Volume 3 Number 3 in 1980 was the last issue with group contributions.[15]


About half the magazine’s readership was located in Johannesburg and Pretoria, with the rest being in  Cape Town and Durban, where literacy rates were higher than the rest of the country.[16] The magazine was also distributed in significant numbers in Bloemfontein and Kroonstad as well as internationally in Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, England, Australia, Canada, Germany and Holland.

Ravan Press printed 2500 copies of the first issue and 3000 copies of the second. By 1980, the print run was 7000. The publishers estimated that up to six people read every one copy sold and that about 90% of the South African readership was black.[17]


Established writers were initially hesitant to submit their work to Staffrider and sometimes complained that their work was “lost” in the magazine.[18]  Once the success of the magazine was apparent, they began to submit in greater numbers.

The uneven quality of the work drew criticism from literary reviewers as well as black readers, who felt it did not represent black writing at its best. In this way, Staffrider was entrenched in timely debates about how writing aesthetics and ideology shapes and should shape the value of written work, especially the work of black writers.[19]

One of the most infamous contributions to this debate came from Njabulo Ndebele in Volume 6, Number 1 (1984), where he published Turkish Tales and Some Thoughts on SA Fiction. In his essay, Ndebele criticized certain strands of South African writing, saying that in an attempt to write politically, some authors wrote superficially about the lives of South Africans by turning characters and contexts into caricatures. He wrote:

All this is because moral ideology tends to ossify complex social problems into symbols which are perceived as finished forms of good or evil, instead of leading us towards important and necessary insights into social processes leading to those finished forms. Thus, showing no more than surfaces, writings influenced by such an ideology tend to inform without involving readers in a truly transforming experience.[20]

Ndebele argued that the problem was largely rooted in the divorce of “the African resistance movement” from knowledge production.[21] He did not argue that writing should be depoliticized. Quite the opposite, Ndebele called for a richer engagement with South African life in which the politics would be more complex and more rooted in the full human experience. This article sparked strong reaction.

Others criticized the magazine for being too heavily biased to Johannesburg.  Mafika Gwala, in particular, expressed concern that the large number of writers from Soweto were being published at the expense of marginalized groups in other regions.[22] Indeed, Staffrider is considered to be an expression of “new Soweto poetry”.[23] In Turkish Tales…, Njabulo Ndebele also criticized what he saw as a gaping hole in South African literature, reflected in the content of Staffrider. He stated: “What seems to be lacking then is an attempt at a sincere imaginative perception that sees South African peasant life as having a certain human validity, albeit a problematic one.”[24] According to him, the lives of rural South Africans only received scholarly attention from white liberal academics, in a way that was divorced from the immediacy of the struggle for liberation.

As Staffrider became successful, editorial policies began to shift. Even by 1980, only two years after the publication was established, the huge volume of submissions was causing a dilemma for the staff of Ravan Press. Much of the work was of such high quality that it needed to be included, though it began to push out work of emerging writers whose work was interesting, but of lesser skill.[25] Under the editorial leadership of Chris van Wyk, the self-editing policy shifted.[26]


A number of Staffrider issues, as well as titles under the Staffrider Series, were banned. The first issue was banned due to its "undesirable" content.[27] Volume 2 Issue 1 was also banned (1979).[28]

The magazine would not publish the work of banned writers, nor would they publish any content that advocated the violent overthrow of government, for to do so would open them up to prosecution. Some editing of the submissions themselves did occur in order to elide censors, “…as long as the absence of the word wouldn't actually weaken the force of the story.”[29]

The tense atmosphere and heightened security situation may have contributed to the way the magazine operated as an open publication.[30] Without a hierarchy or clear editors to credit, it would be more difficult to target any individual associated with the magazine. Circulating through nonofficial township distributors similarly helped evade the government’s capacity to hold any one person accountable for the creation or distribution of the magazine. This also meant that the magazine passed through many hands quickly.


Staffrider magazine spawned Staffrider Series, low cost (maximum R3) stand-alone books meant for the same readership as Staffrider magazine.[31] The texts included anthologies, novels, short stories and poetry. As with the magazine, Staffrider Series featured the work of established writers such as James Matthews, Can Themba and Nat Nasaka, as well as the work of emerging writers such as Mbulelo Mzamane and Achmat Dangor.

The first publication in the series was Ingoapele Madingoane’s Africa My Beginning, which was banned in May 1979. The second was Call Me Not A Man by Mtutuzeli Matshoba, which was banned in November 1979. Forced Landing, an anthology of writing, the third in the series, was banned for five months in 1980. Other books in the series included Mongane Serote’s To Every Birth its Blood in 1981 and Fools and Other Stories by Njabulo Ndebele. In all, seven of its 28 titles were banned. This took a heavy toll on the financial and logistical viability of the series, as banning effectively shut down distribution networks for the books. It was difficult to reintegrate these books into those networks once the bans were lifted and sales depended on elite education markets. One of the strategies Ravan Press used to counteract these crippling conditions was to hold high quality book launches. These events involved discussions among writers, critics and others that could provide the political and intellectual context of the book. Staffrider Series concluded in 1986.

In 1978, PEN was established in Johannesburg.[32] The initiative was an effort to bring together the township writing groups largely associated with Staffrider magazine with members of The Writers' and Artists' Guild of South Africa, a largely white and elite group. There were tensions in the organization as they faced questions about how they would function, especially in terms of rules around membership, and to what purpose. While many of PEN’s events were informed by a populist approach, the political pressures and tensions caused the group to dissolve in 1982. Many of the black writers associated with PEN went on to join the African Writers’ Association.


Below is a partial list of people who were involved in Staffrider magazine, either as contributors, editors or Ravan Press staff. 

Achmat Dangor (writer)

Andries Walter Oliphant (editor)

Ben Langa (poet)

Bheki Maseko (writer)

Chris van Wyk (editor)

David Mphuso

Es’kia Mphahlele (writer)

George Hallet (photographer)

Gerard Sekoto (visual artist)

Ingoapele Madingoane (poet)

Ivan Vladislavic (Ravan Press staff; joined in 1984 as social studies editor)

Jeeva Rajgopaul (photographer)

Joki Seroke (Ravan Press staff)

Kay Hassan (visual artist)

Kelwyn Sole (poet)

Lionel Abrahams (poet)

Mafika Gwala (poet)

Matsemela Manaka (staff)

Mike Kirkwood (founding editor)

Miriam Tlali (writer)

Mothobi Mutloatse (writer)

Mtutuzeli Matshoba (writer)

Mzwakhe Nhlabatsi

Nadine Gordimer (writer)

Njabulo Ndebele (writer)

Nkathazo Mnyayiza (poet)

Oswald Mtshali (poet)

Paul Weinberg (photographer)

Rose Zwi (writer)

Sam Nhlengetwa (visual artist)

Sipho Sepamla (writer)

Thami Mnyele (visual artist)

William Kentridge (visual artist)


The following is a partial list of writers groups whose work was featured in Staffrider magazine.

Community Arts Project of Cape Town

Creative Youth Association of Diepkloof, Soweto

GaRankuwa Art Association

Gartasso, the Ga-Rankuwa Writers' and Artists' Association (Chairman: David Mphuso)

Guyo Book Club of Sibasa

MADI (music, arts, drama and literature) in Kathlehong

Moakeng League of Painters and Authors (MALEPA) of Bloemfontein and Kroonstad

Mpumalanga Arts of Hammersdale

Peyarta (Port Elizabeth Young Artists Association)


[1] “Staffrider 1978-1993,” Digital archive, Digital Innovation South Africa, accessed June 15, 2016,

[2] Mike Kirkwood, “Staffrider: An Informal Discussion,” English in Africa 7, no. 2 (September 1980): 28.

[3] Kirkwood, “Staffrider: An Informal Discussion,” 23.

[4] “Staffrider 1978-1993.”

[5] Ivan Vladislavic, “Staffrider An Essay,” Digital library, Chimurenga Library, (March 2008), para. 8,

[6] Kirkwood, “Staffrider: An Informal Discussion,” 22–23.

[7] “STAFFRIDER,” Digital library, Chimurenga Library, accessed July 5, 2016,; Kirkwood, “Staffrider: An Informal Discussion,” 24.

[8] Kirkwood, “Staffrider: An Informal Discussion,” 25.


[10] Anne McClintock, “‘Azikwelwa’ (We Will Not Ride): Politics and Value in Black South African Poetry,” Critical Inquiry 13, no. 3 (Spring 1987): 598.

[11] Kirkwood, “Staffrider: An Informal Discussion,” 25.

[12] Ibid., 26.

[13] Vladislavic, “Staffrider An Essay,” para. 6.

[14] Kirkwood, “Staffrider: An Informal Discussion,” 22.

[15] Njabulo S. Ndebele, “The Writers’ Movement in South Africa,” Research in African Literatures 20, no. 3 (Autumn 1989): 414.

[16] Kirkwood, “Staffrider: An Informal Discussion,” 26.

[17] Ibid., 27.

[18] Ibid., 28.

[19] McClintock, “‘Azikwelwa’ (We Will Not Ride): Politics and Value in Black South African Poetry,” 600.

[20] Njabulo S. Ndebele, “Turkish Tales and Some Thoughts on SA Fiction,” Staffrider, 1984, 44, South African History Online.

[21] Ibid., 45.

[22] Kirkwood, “Staffrider: An Informal Discussion,” 28.

[23] McClintock, “‘Azikwelwa’ (We Will Not Ride): Politics and Value in Black South African Poetry,” 598.

[24] Ndebele, “Turkish Tales and Some Thoughts on SA Fiction,” 43.

[25] Kirkwood, “Staffrider: An Informal Discussion,” 31.

[26] “Staffrider 1978-1993.”

[27] Ibid.

[28] Kirkwood, “Staffrider: An Informal Discussion,” 30.

[29] Ibid.

[30] McClintock, “‘Azikwelwa’ (We Will Not Ride): Politics and Value in Black South African Poetry,” 599.

[31] Peter D. McDonald, The Literature Police: Apartheid Censorship and Its Cultural Consequences (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), chap. 9,

[32] Ndebele, “The Writers’ Movement in South Africa,” 415.

[33] Mike Abraham, “Of ‘Brothers with Perfect Timing’ – An Essay by Mike Abraham | Chimurenga Library,” Digital library, Chimurenga Library, (2008), para. 13, Kirkwood, “Staffrider: An Informal Discussion,” 22–25, 29; Vladislavic, “Staffrider An Essay,” paras. 9, 10, 15, 17; Ndebele, “Turkish Tales and Some Thoughts on SA Fiction,” 47.

[34] Ndebele, “The Writers’ Movement in South Africa,” 413, 415.

• Abraham, Mike. “Of ‘Brothers with Perfect Timing’ – An Essay by Mike Abraham
•  Chimurenga Library.” Digital library. Chimurenga Library, 2008.
• Kirkwood, Mike. “Staffrider: An Informal Discussion.” English in Africa 7, no. 2 (September 1980): 22–31.
• McClintock, Anne. “‘Azikwelwa’ (We Will Not Ride): Politics and Value in Black South African Poetry.” Critical Inquiry 13, no. 3 (Spring 1987): 597–623.
• McDonald, Peter D. The Literature Police: Apartheid Censorship and Its Cultural Consequences. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
• Ndebele, Njabulo S. “The Writers’ Movement in South Africa.” Research in African Literatures 20, no. 3 (Autumn 1989): 412–21.
• . “Turkish Tales and Some Thoughts on SA Fiction.” Staffrider, 1984. South African History Online.
• “STAFFRIDER.” Digital library. Chimurenga Library. Accessed July 5, 2016.
• “Staffrider 1978-1993.” Digital archive. Digital Innovation South Africa. Accessed June 15, 2016.
• Vladislavić, Ivan. “Staffrider An Essay.” Digital library. Chimurenga Library, March 2008.

Last updated : 06-Jan-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 20-May-2016