Bessie Amelia Head

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Biographical information


Teacher, author and journalist

First name: 
Last name: 
Date of birth: 
6 July 1937
Location of birth: 
Pietermaritzburg, KZN, South Africa
Date of death: 
17 April 1986

Lives of Courage

Head was the daughter of a white woman and black man. After her mother’s parents found she was pregnant she was sent to a mental asylum, where Head was born on 6 July 1937. She was brought up by foster parents and then by the Anglican mission orphanage. Head trained as a primary school teacher and taught for a few years but in 1959 she began a career as a journalist. She wrote short stories for Johannesburg’s Golden City Post a weekly supplement that was related to the more famous Drum magazine. Her work for Drum magazine won her a reputation as writer.

In 1960 Head moved to Cape Town where she became part of a group of anti-apartheid activists and married fellow activist Harold Head in 1962. Together they lived in District Six and Head worked for a monthly magazine, The New African where she found general support for her Africanist politics. During this period in District Six, Head wrote her first novel, The Cardinals but this was only published after her death. In 1963, she moved to Port Elizabeth with her husband, where he was to work as the first Black reporter for the Evening Post. In 1964 her husband, Harold, fled to England and Head was given a one-way exit to Botswana. By this time their marriage had fallen apart.

In Botswana, Head taught for a while and then started to work on the Swaneng Hill project dealing with community farming education in Serowe, but had a difficult time as she experienced rejection from the Africans of Botswana. After losing her job as a teacher she worked on a farm and then for a construction company. She turned to writing, and in her writing draws from her experiences in South Africa. She talks about her vision for the future and the problems she experienced with identity. In Botswana, Head wrote a short novel, When Rain Clouds Gather followed by Maru, a novel that dealt with the oppression against the Masarwa people. After Maru, Head wrote A Question of Power which is a reflection of her experience of a mental breakdown that she suffered as a result of living in fear and poverty as a refugee.

In 1977 she published the first collection of short stories (The Collector of Treasures) to be published by a black South African woman. The Botswana government finally granted Head citizenship in 1979, which allowed her to travel overseas. Her reputation as a writer grew and she often met academics and students who wished to make her work the subject of their thesis and even South African publishers eventually published her work.

Head died of hepatitis at the age of 49 in 1986 while still working on some books.

• Verwey, E.J. (ed), 1995. New dictionary of South African biography. Pretoria: Vista University. pp. 93-94
• Bessie Head. A biography. Britannica Concise Encyclopedia [Online]. Available at: [accessed 16 April 2010]
• Timeline of Bessie\'s life [Online].available at: [accessed 16 April 2010]

Last updated : 08-Apr-2014

This article was produced for South African History Online on 17-Feb-2011