Herbert Isaac Ernest Dhlomo was born in Edendale, Natal on February 26th, 1903. He was the second son to Ezra and Sardinia Dhlomo. Ezra came from a line of ancestors connected to a royal Zulu family from the Makabaleni area, north of Kranskop. Sardinia came from an aristocratic family who emphasized their Christian and Victorian values, claiming to be amongst the first converts of Rev. James Allison, whose followers founded Edendale in 1851. Ezra and Sardinia had four children together – three boys and a girl. Herbert was the younger brother of Rofles Robert Reginald Dhlomo (R.R.R.), a prominent Zulu writer among Black South Africans in the early twentieth century. Together, R.R.R and Dhlomo and served as editors of Ilanga Lase Natal in the 1940s.

From a very early age, Herbert was exposed to the sharp class and racial differences. Most of Dhlomo’s childhood was spent in Johannesburg, where his father earned a modest income working in the mines and his mother worked as a laundry woman. While his family did not struggle to make an income, Herbert lived in close proximity to poverty which he alluded to later on in his writing. During his formative years, Dhlomo grew up in a house of music and literature. He was a keen reader, and developed a fascination for Shakespearean literature. He also was an accomplished piano and violin player (Couzens, 1985).

During the 1920s, Dhlomo began publishing articles and editorials under various pseudonyms, such as ‘Rollie Reggie the Randite’ in Ilanga and Bantu World. His first published writing was a letter in Ilanga on 18 October 1924 entitled Hardship and Progress. Like many of his contemporaries, Dhlomo expressed great concerned over how Natives fit into the paradigm of European modernity. He believed Natives were on a slow, but inevitable path towards ‘progress’ which included a gradual break away from indigenous culture.

The notion that Dhlomo’s early work was calling on Africans to ‘assimilate’ with Europeans, which has been the assertion of many critiques of Dhlomo’s work, is at best, overstated. Dhlomo himself writes that “Natives prize their Black skin”. Instead what is needed is equality, or what he calls, a policy of ‘fusion’, in which “all South Africans, irrespective of color or creed will enjoy the same privileges and live side by side” (Dhlomo, 1925). Many of his articles were simultaneously critical of European discrimination and African passivity. He condemned discriminatory laws, including the 1913 Land Act, and called for African unity, through the spread of Christianity, hard work, self-help and cooperation. Unlike his brother, Dhlomo published all his writing in the English language. Some of his early writings included a forty page novel entitled ‘An African Tragedy’ in 1928 and a series of short stories published in Stephen Black’s satirical magazine Sjambok in 1929-31.

The contributions Dhlomo made to these newspapers were significant to the development of Black politics at the time. Black newspapers served as a platform for the development of black literature and politics. However, the twenties and thirties saw unprecedented structural changes in black newspapers. By 1932, most Black newspapers were taken over by a group of White liberals whose ideas about progress and development had a profound impact in the content newspapers like Ilanga and Bantu World published. Thus, the content of Dhlomo’s work was perceived as part of a “Black elite”. Couzens and Visser note:

‘In the African Yearly Register, a Who’s Who of Black folks in Africa produced in 1932 by TD Mweli Skota, Dhlomo was described as a young man of fine personality, very progressive in his ideas”¦Mr. Dhlomo has an able pen and his many articles to press prove that he is a capable interpreter of the desires and ambitions of his people.’ (Couzens & Vissar, 1985)

The heavy emphasis on ‘progressivism’ encompassed a broader belief in “Western style education, ‘civilisation’, moderation, anti-tribalism, and equality for the best-sections of white and black society” (Couzens and Visser, 1985). These writers also saw themselves in the context of a larger movement which encompassed the larger African diaspora. They were heavily inspired by the Harlem renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. The work of many African American writers, such as DuBois, Marcus Garvey, and Alain Locke were well circulated among South African intellectuals at the time.

Between 1922 and 1924, Dhlomo studied to become a teacher at the Amanzimtoti Training Institute, also known as Adams College. During his time at the Institute, Dhlomo performed plays, became an accomplished musician, and sportsman. Adams College was one of the leading institutions of education among Black South Africans. The 1920s saw the flourishing of many Natal intellectuals including Albert Luthuli, and ZK Mathews.

In 1925, Dholmo began he career in education as principal of Uzembe School in Natal.

Dhlomo moved to Johannesburg in 1928 to teach at the American Board Mission School in Doornfontein, Johannesburg. It was in Johannesburg where he he met his future wife Ethene Kuene, whom he married 1931.

Rise of Dube and Champion

The mid-late 1920s marked the early beginnings of Black political mobilization in Natal. The creation of the Natal African Congress, by AWG Champion and Gumbede in direct competition with John Dube’s Natal Native Congress marked a deep split between Natal’s political ideologues. Champion, leader of the ICU, called for the mobilization of labour unions and strike action alongside his ally Gumede, whose close affiliations with the Communist Party made him a controversial figure in Natal politics. In contrast, Dube, an intellectual, believed in pursuing consolidation and negotiation with the Natal government for Black South African rights. The political divide was first evident during the boycott of Durban municipal beer halls in 1929. Champion’s organisation was relatively successful over Dube: not only did it draw a much higher following among the masses, it was also eventually recognised as the official branch of the ANC in Durban.

Dhlomo remained extremely suspicious of Champion and Gumbede, publishing several articles in the late 1920s expressing deep cynic beliefs about Socialism:

‘Many adherents of the ICU are staunch supporters of Socialism. Socialism we are told aims at co-operation in labour”¦for the welfare and the good of the people. But socialists may turn out to be anything but socialists.’

Citing the examples of Socialism in France and Communism in Russia, Dhlomo warned against the import of Communism into South Africa, which in his words encompassed the “revolt against civilization and social order” (Dhlomo, 1929).


During the 1930s, Dhlomo became closely associated with the Johannesburg Bantu Men’s Social Centre, where he was appointed Librarian of the Carnegie Library Service for Non-Europeans. The Bantu Men’s Social Centre, founded in 1924, was part of a series of multi-racial institutions set up by a group of White liberals, notably Howard Pim, who was also responsible for founding the Institute of Race Relations. The Centre was attended by the likes of Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu and became a venue for many socio-political events for activists and intellectuals. In 1944, the ANC Youth League was set up on its premise.

In 1932, Dhlomo and his brother, R.R.R, set up the Bantu Dramatic Society. Dhlomo was extremely critical of African indifference and passiveness. Instead, they should be heeding to, what he described as, “Africa’s Call”:

‘Natives are an easy-going, lighthearted people. This spirit gives birth to many evils – discontentment, poverty, stagnation. A person who aspires to higher and nobler things in life is looked at askance and given no encouragement by his fellowmen”¦Owing to this frivolity and ignorance Natives have hitherto accepted the white man’s doings with carelessness and satisfaction”¦

Africa is calling. She needs lawmakers who can appreciate and understand our aspirations, interests and psychology”¦Africa needs men and women who esteem the value of hard, useful work because it is necessary for the maintenance of the strength of the body, the standard of our morals and the rectitude of our souls.’ (Dhlomo, 1929)

Thus, Dhlomo’s contributions to the Johannesburg Bantu Men’s Social Centre indicate an active attempt at converting the club into a political platform for men in Johannesburg, in effort to contest European political power. For Dhlomo, the contributions of African drama, deriving from the Bantu Dramatic Society, were significant and highly political:

‘Modern drama is not a mere emotional entertainment. it is a source of ideas, a cultural and educational factor, an agency for political propaganda, a social institution, and above all it is a literature. What part will the new African play in modern drama? On its physical side [it] can contribute strong fast rhythm speedy action, expressive vigorous gesture and movement.... We want dramatic representation of African Serfdom, Oppression, Exploitation, and Metamorphosis...The African dramatist has an important part to fill. He can say and portray things that African politicians and demagogues dare not touch upon: he can expose evil and corruption, and not suffer libel as newspaper men may -- and do: he can guide and preach to his people as preachers cannot. To do this he must be an artist before a propagandist: a philosopher before a reformer, a psychologist before a patriot: be true to his African “Self”’ (Dhlomo, 1933)

In the span of eight years, the Society, through its impressive range of productions which included musical comedies and operas, became a space for developing an African cultural modernity that was, in part, inspired by the civil rights movement in the United States. Play productions such as the Abraham Lincoln commemorated the American civil war as the emancipation of Black slaves. Dhlomo also took part in the Order of Elks and the Eisteddoff Music Festival, two initiatives that sought to encourage the development and modernisation of African music and drama. The Dramatic Society was mostly supported by White liberals and Black elite. This seemed to have reduced the scope of its audience, which was mostly limited to Europeans. Consequently, the Society became inactive over time.

During the 1930s, Dhlomo continued his career as a journalist. In 1935, Dhlomo officially left his teaching profession to become a staff member of Bantu World, and later became assistant editor of the Zulu-English newspaper, Ilanga Lase Natal, to his R.R.R, the editor. His published writing included series of short stories and plays which covered political and cultural issues calling for the ‘restoration of dignity of Black South Africans’. His first play entitled The Girl who Killed to Save about the 1857 Cattle-Killing of the Xhosa. In it, he argues that although it caused great suffering, it was essential in getting rid of “tribal society” and modernising the black population. While he was clearly uneasy with European colonial presence, and the social violence that ensued from it, he believed that there was much to be learned from the intellectual premise of Western modernity, which included the promotion of Christian values, capitalism, and liberal individual rights. He was highly critical of racialised laws which had facilitated the dire and poverty-stricken conditions of Black South Africans, including low wages, limited business opportunities, and the restricted mobility and exploitation of African workers.

‘Black Bulls’

In 1936-1937, Dhlomo published a series of essays collectively known as The Black Bulls, which collectively called for a ‘Bantu revolt against civilisation and order.’ The most famous among these plays was Cetshwayo. Cetshwayo depicted most of the frustrations among Black South African intellectuals by the mid-1930s of White liberals, whose ‘support’ was now perceived more as an instrument for Black subordination, than a means for their reprisal. In the play, Dhlomo goes back to what he saw as the origin of the segregationist policies and indicates his resistance to them, a complete reversal of his story in The Girl who Killed To Save. Cetshwayo is a historical, literary drama in which a tribal warrior, Cetshwayo fights a Christian king, Shepstone. The play starts in the 1950s, where Cetshwayo defeats his rival brother Mbuyazi for the crown their father, Mpande holds. The battle that decides who will succeed Mpande boiled down to Cetshwayo, who appealed to the 'tribal bard', and Mbuyazi's followers, who was supported by the Whites, including Shepstone. Cetshwayo was eventually tricked into conceding to Shepstone, who succeeded Mbuyazi in his place. In the next scene, two warriors, one on behalf of Cetshwayo and the other on behalf of Zibhebhu fight to the death. Cetshwayo's follower prevails, but nearly kills a passing Christian convert in the process.

Mpande's sudden death causes Cetshwayo to pursue the crown more aggressively, and Shepstone to reassess his policies. In one of the most phenomenal passages of the play, Shepstone asks his assistant, Park, to comment on his administrative policies of Black people in Natal. This scene, more importantly, reflects Dhlomo's own thoughts on the Hertzog Acts:

PARK: It seems to me, Sir, your policy seeks to create two different civilisations and two conflicting states in one country at one and the same time. It seems impossible to me, Sir...You cannot have two parallel lines that do not meet in human affairs where life is relative. Human influences, feelings, thoughts and actions seep and penetrate through the strongest walls...there is no western and eastern, white or black, civilisation...If you want Natives to develop along their own lines, you will be forced to dictate what those lines must be, sooner or later. Else how can it be done?

SHEPSTONE: By preserving the best in Native social and political institutions and maintaining their race integrity

PARK: It seems your policy seeks to distinguish races and not to recognise individuals. Yet it appears to me, Sir, that the genius, the soul, the aspirations and progress of a race depend largely and find the best outlet and the highest expression in the individual – in the most talented sons and daughters...

SHEPSTONE: But I have made provision for educated, progressive Natives. They will be exempted from the operation of Native Law.

PARK: Still I see difficulties...Your policy might defeat its own ends, unless it is so amended in the future, as to be repressive. As time goes on and more Natives become educated and civilised, the Europeans will either be ungulfed by the flood of educated Natives, or devise means to keep back the bulk of cultured and exempted Native. You want Natives to develop along their own lines. Yet even now you are compelled to dictate the lines. For the truth is that they are developed along their own lines at present. But you are against it...You intend making the Governor the Supreme Guardian of the Natives. At once you strike at and undermine the very foundations of Native law and custom.

The scene ends with Shepstone rejecting Park's criticisms, calling for Cetshwayo's destruction, and the control of the Native populace through taxation, labour, and military victories which would once and for all settle the disputes between black and white.

In the last portion of the play, Dhlomo illustrates what he perceived as two warring factions: the white, Christian ‘progressivists’, versus the black, tribalists. Whereas the White ruler is portrayed as conspicuous in trying to solidify his power through black oppression, Cetshwayo and his allies seek justice, and freedom through a form of African unity that is cemented by indigenous culture. Although Cetshwayo’s army is eventually destroyed, the play ends on a high note, with Cetshwayo’s last words:



‘This only for a time!

What was will be!

We shall be free!

Each race its lord and clime

And Africa for Africans remains;

Black Kings shall watch over vast domains.

Black Bulls!

Black Bulls!

No power their rush can stem!

No Force can conquer them!
(Dhlomo, 1936; Couzens, 1985)

This play is significant as it illustrates a major turning point from Dhlomo’s work in the 1920s and early 1930s. The changes in Dhlomo’s life in the late 1930s and early 1940s also reflected in Dhlomo’s writing and illustrate a new trend among Black South African writers at the time. Yearning for progress in South Africa was no longer attributed with “Western” civilisation and modernisation as it was in the 1920s. Rather, it was attributed with African self-rule and the removal of White liberals from power.

In 1937, Dhlomo became Librarian-Organiser for the Carnegie Non-European Library. For Dhlomo, Libraries were a space for the development of African intellectualism. He wrote:

Librarians are the roots and the fruits of civilisation. They should promote the use of good material and make it available. They are the people’s university. The part they plan in the life of a country was beyond estimate. Many men with little formal education had become great minds through the use of libraries...to solve the problems of the world requires the dissemination of knowledge. As President Roosevelt has said, libraries are the tools of scholarship, repositories of culture, symbols of the freedom of the mind, education of the world. (Dhlomo, 1944)

Dhlomo-Vilakazi Debate

From June 1938 to July 1939, Dhlomo engaged in a dispute with B.W. Vilakazi which took place in a series of essays published in Bantu Studies and The South African Outlook. The dispute started about the rhyming of Zulu poetry, but, over time, became a dispute over the fact that Dhlomo wrote in English and not in Zulu. This debate is reflective of the dilemmas faced by many New African Intelligentsia during this time: that is, how to form a genesis between tradition and modernity or as Atwell puts it, the choice to either “modernise tradition, or to traditionalise modernity.” Dhlomo and Vilakazi came from roughly the same background, and yet, what divided them was how to negotiate between two polarising spheres. For Vilakazi, English was a White-man’s language where there was no space for African modernity to coexist. For Dhlomo, however, the English language was the language of the universe and of power. Dhlomo interpreted it as a duty among the Black bilingual intelligentsia to traditionalise modernity and to create a space for African cultural nationalism within this universal sphere. The African ‘nation’ would have to employ the use of English to create a mixture between tradition and modernity.

The legacies of this dispute resonated again in the 1950s, with the emergence of Drum writers, a group of South African writers who used the English language to depict ‘African consciousnesses.’ Like Dhlomo, these authors sought to create a space within English literature that negated Western hegemonic discourse of Black South Africans. The idea was to use the English language, which was also the language of the oppressor, as a communicative tool to “dislodge colonial discourse from the English language in which they wrote.”1 While the Vilakazi-Dhlomo dispute is often interpreted as a dispute about African literature, this dispute was far more politicised than that. It marks the formative years of African anti-colonial nationalism which encompassed not only the attempt at uniting the Black intelligentsia, but creating a discourse that effectively refuted English colonialism on the premises of which they were based. To Dhlomo, European colonists had stalled the progress of African intelligentsia by reducing their access to libraries, archives and state institutions. The English language was a gateway in creating a new history for Africans, a prelude to the pending political and economic emancipation.

Dhlomo’s Return to Natal

The years between 1939 and 1944 were a turning point in Dhlomo’s life. Not only do they mark Dhlomo’s formal entry into the political sphere, they also mark significant changes in his personal life (reword). In the late 1930s, Dhlomo’s marriage troubles culminated in a divorce in 1940. At the same time, he was suffering great financial problems, a huge debt and a bitter dispute with the board of the Carnegie Library. Dhlomo officially resigned from his post at the library, and moved to Durban in 1940. He joined as a radio broadcaster for the South African Broadcasting Corporation, and was hired as a librarian at the Durban branch of the Bantu Men’s Social Centre. In 1944, Dhlomo became assistant editor for Illanga where he often published editorials, poetry and weekly commentaries, usually under the pseudonym ‘Busy Bee’.

The changes in Dhlomo’s life in the late 1930s and early 1940s were strongly reflected in his writing. In 1941, he published a forty-one page autobiographical poem, Valley of a Thousand Hills using Bantu mythology to express his plight, which he attributed as not a ‘personal problem’, but reflective of the struggles and suffering of the Bantu race in general.

The poem starts out describing the beauty and innocence of the Gods, chronicles the failures of his marriage, his affection towards his late mother, and the pending triumph of the Black warrior against the ‘false gods who rule’. Dhlomo then imagines a classless society based on Africanism inspired by the past before the arrival of Europeans in South Africa. He highlights the grim situation in which “we find mountains of strife”, “where joy of life drips hot with pain” and a “fog of tribulation spreads”¦In phatom-like weird Orders crude; in shames and wrongs veiled fair by law.” In the last section, Dhlomo prophesises a ‘new birth’ of a world in which Africans are free (Dhlomo, 1941).

What is striking about Dhlomo’s poetic writing style is that while he maintains his criticism of Western civilisation, he continued to maintain the Victorian, Shakespearean-like tone in his writing.

ANC in Natal

The onset of the 1940s saw the emergence of the ANC in Natal. Whereas the 1930s was characterised by heightened tensions between two ideological fronts (Dube and Champion), the 1940s marked a decade of reconciliation of the ANC in Natal. Throughout the 1930s, several attempts had been made to pacify these tensions, notably the Bloemfontein National Congress in April 1930, and Moerane and Ngubane’s launch of the National Union of African Youth in 1939. These leaders sought to “challenge Championship and Dubeism and ultimately bring together the like-minded young men and women in the other provinces” (Ngubane). The Union drew very little popular support among the masses, and Moreane and Ngubane faced administrative difficulties running the organization.

The 1940s marked a new era of reconciliation and unity among the Black political elite in Natal. Dhlomo, along with other African intellectual elite began to establish, what would end up becoming the ANC Youth League in Natal. For Dhlomo, it was crucial that intellectuals actively work on connecting with the South African masses. He criticised them for being too “submissive and polite” with white rulers:

‘When the Natal African Congress held its annual meeting recently we were led to believe from the glowing reports emanating therefrom that a new spirit of a bold and far-seeing nature was being born. When we read that our intellectuals had been moved by the stirring appeal of the president of the Congress to come forward and join the congress and that these young men had responded with zeal and enthusiasm we were made to feel that indeed a new dawn had come into our political life”¦Last month the African Education Conference was held in Johannesburg. The voices that rose in a crescendo of appeals on behalf of our people were the voices of Europeans. ..The intellectuals were too polite and submissive.’ (Dhlomo, 1943)

He called on intellectuals to “get into the sufferings of their people; and weave themselves into their unvoiced fears and anxieties.” Interestingly, as Dhlomo evolved as an intellectual he maintained a distance between himself and other mainstream intellectuals. He perceived himself as more of a ‘middle man’ between the masses and the Black elite. It is no wonder that Jordan Ngubane chose to describe Dhlomo as the ‘spirit of the Youth League’.

Before the ANC Youth League in Johannesburg was launched, the early 1940s saw the formation of a number of youth organisations in Natal that eventually merged with the ANC Youth League in 1945. These organisations included the Congress Youth League by Ngubane and Lembede, the Natal Youth League by Moreane and Dhlomo, both of which eventually joined forces when the ANC Youth League in Natal was formed in 1945.

ANC Youth League

In 1943, Ngubane and Lembede formed the Congress Youth League (CYL). Using his influence through the Youth League and his editorial position in Inkundla, Ngubane sought to “promote the downfall” of the conservatives of the previous decade, especially Champion who was ascribed with the fractionalization of Black politics in the 1930s. However, Ngubane’s organization was weakened by its internal challenges, in large part because Lembede was far more radical than Ngubane.

In a similar vein, in April 1944, Moreane launched the Natal Youth League (NYL) with a mandate of unity and cooperation. In several articles of Inkundla, Moreane called for the “Old Guard” to relinquish their leadership positions, and allow a new generation of African elite intellectuals to take over. However, Moreane was soon forced to resign, on the grounds that holding office for a political organisation was incompatible with his professional status as a teacher and government employee. Consequently, Moreane stepped down, and was succeeded by Dhlomo. Like Moreane’s predecessor organisation, the National Union of African Youth, the organisation failed to gain the traction it needed to survive and was eventually disbanded.

In 1945, Dhlomo teamed up with Champion in order to officially establish the Durban branch of the ANC Youth League (Couzens, 1985). Upon its formation, the organisation was almost immediately endorsed by Xuma, effectively placing it in direct competition with Ngubane’s organisation which was recognised as an official branch of the ANC only a few months later. In effort to foster unity between the two organisations, Ngubane agreed to officially join the Durban branch of the ANC Youth League.

Dhlomo is considered as one of the main ideologues of the Youth League, and became its convenor shortly after its founding. He often expressed the need for African youth to be involved in politics:

‘We must create and then educate African Public Opinion. At present we don’t even have it. It can be created by a literary campaign among people, or by National Organisations organising and uniting the people, or by smaller influential circles and bodies giving the lead. It would help us in many ways -- South Africa would not only know what we think and want, but listen to us. It would help create and throw up the best type of leadership...I see that Europeans are organising still more clubs and camp meetings for their youth. It is high time we did something ourselves. Why, not even our adult population has a club or circle where progressive race lovers, men of ideas, artists and other thinkers can meet, exchange ideas and find inspiration. How lonely -- mortally lonely-- is an African man of ideas today! And youth requires these club facilities even more.’ (Dhlomo, 1944)

By the 1940s, Dhlomo’s writing had gained a lot of traction among Natal politicians.

In April 1945, Champion was elected president of the Natal African Congress. Ngubane, Dhlomo and Lutuli were among those elected to the executive committee of the organisation. In a matter of two years, the membership of the Natal Congress grew from 250 to 1,500.

Up until this point, the ANC in Natal was a fractured organisation and Champion’s election marked the ousting of Dube. From 1944, Dube’s position in politics fell on a path of decline due to his illness and deteriorating health. Without Dube, his allies struggled to keep the Natal Congress running under Dube’s platform of moderation. After Dube died in 1946, Ngubane and Lutuli became Champion’s new opposition front. (Walshe, 1971)

Once in power, Champion made serious changes to the structure of the organisation. He had difficulty getting along with Xuma, by asserting his independence from the ANC. By 1947, the ANC in Natal had stopped reporting to its main branch. Not only was Champion a conservative of the previous generation of Natal activists, he was also too close the Old Guard to win the popular support of the progressives in the Youth League (Couzens, 1985). These tensions stayed at a deadlock until 1951, when Lutuli contested Champion’s power and replaced him as president of the Congress. Behind the scenes, Dhlomo and Ngubane actively denounced Champion and his allies (Walshe, 1971).

Durban Riots

In January, 1949, a bitter, racial conflict broke out in Durban between Africans and Indians, triggered when an Indian youth killed an African shop-keeper. Gangs of Africans looted and destroyed Indian shops, factories, houses and buildings and raped Indian women and girls. After street battles persisted for two days, the South African police and Navy suppressed the riots by opening fire on streets, killing dozens. The conflicted came to an end with the deaths of 142 people, the injury of over a thousand, and buildings either damaged or destroyed (Soske, 2009).

The conflict deeply polarised Africans in Natal. A great many were sympathetic with the rioters, but appalled by their tactics.

Dhlomo was extremely suspicious of the Indian merchants in South Africa. Although he was an open supporter of the Indian Passive Resistance campaign in 1946, After the riots he published an article in Ilanga, essentially arguing that the Durban Riots were long in the making:

‘The inevitable has happened. The flood has burst out. Much damage has been done. Many places lie waste and desolate. Some people mourn and will not be comforted. There is fear, shock and confusion. There is hate, the nursing of wounds and a fatal desire for revenge. Although the main current of the storm has passed, there are rumblings of discontent, uncertainty and a savage desire to hurt. People continue to be assaulted and killed indiscriminately.

If what has taken place is tragic, sudden and regrettable, it is not surprising nor was it unexpected by unprejudiced, honest and well informed observers of our racially corrupted society. The whole grim business was logical, simple, and inevitable’. (Dhlomo, 1949)

Still, he goes on to criticise Indian presence in Africa, which he believed had rationally culminated with violence:

‘The action was not planned and had no ring leaders at all. It was sudden and spontaneous. It was the result of naked facts and known factors. The assault of the lad George Madonda was but a spark that lit the keg of pent up emotion that many of us knew existed. The surprising thing is that it did not take place before this, and that, tragic as it was, it was not worse.’

Throughout the course of the article, Dhlomo criticises Indians for their “unfair and immoral business methods”, their treatment of African women, and the discriminatory laws which they benefited from. Although Dhlomo condemned the loss of life, he noted Africans were the real victims of the riot, having lost more lives in number than Indians.

The Riot caused great friction within the ANC in Natal. In effort to bring an end to the unrest, the Natal ANC and the NIC released a joint statement condemning the violence. AWG Champion and GM Naicker toured Durban using loudspeakers calling for calm and cooperation. But this only provoked more disenchantment with the Congress by many Africans. Many Durban Africans were unwilling to cooperate with the Indian cadre, whom they perceived had been responsible for much of their plight through their positions as landowners and businessmen. Ngubane also condemned the riots and called for a reassessment of Youth League Nationalism (Soske, 2009).

Defiance Campaign

The events of 1949 paved the way for closer cooperation between the NIC and ANC in Natal. Together the two organisations backed the Defiance Campaign, a six month nation-wide, multi-racial protest of civil disobedience against apartheid laws. Major figureheads of the ANC participated in the campaign, including Water Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, and Yusuf Dadoo who were among the programme’s first volunteers.

Under the leadership of Lutuli, the ANC in Natal sought to reconcile Indians and Africans in the province. The ANC made sure ANC activities would not threaten Indians in the province in any way.

As an ideologue of the ANC in Natal, Dhlomo published an article announcing his support for the movement. In an article in Ilanga, he addressed some of the major critiques of the Campaign, particularly those who felt the campaign did not represent Africans:

‘A significant and (to some) disconcerting fact is that the leaders and offices of Congress who are directing the campaign are ordinary, moderate, law-abiding Africans who cannot be said to be hotheads, agitators, communists or under “foreign influence” – businessmen, doctors, workers, journalists, lawyers, ministers of religion. Combined with this is equally important fact that Congress and the campaign are led NOT by a few sinister mysterious men behind scenes whose discovery, persecution and arrest would shatter the movement. The officers and leaders are ordinary Africans scattered all over the country and whose place can be filled by many others of equal ability and determination in case present officials get in trouble.’ (Dhlomo, 1952)

Although he never backtracked on his criticisms of the Indian merchants, he certainly saw strategic benefit in forming an alliance with them. In a lengthy article in Ilanga published in 1953, for example, Dhlomo called the disunity between Indians and Africans as part of a “divide and rule” strategy employed by the state. He called on his readers to consider the similarities in the interests of Africans and Indians in South Africa and proceed accordingly.

Final Years and Legacy

In the last two years of his life, Dhlomo’s activism was limited by his illness. He continued writing editorials for Ilanga and also maintained a sports column. He died on October 7th 1956 at the age of 53.

In the course of his life, he wrote twenty-four poems, ten short stories, over a hundred and forty poems, essays in literary criticism, and thousands of journalistic articles (Couzens).

His obituaries in Ilanga, which appeared on the front and inside pages of the newspaper, drew much praise for his writing and contributions both in the literary form and political realm:

‘ Sir Herbert I.E. Dhlomo was a vital mind among us. He entered into the world with the militant ardour of Youth, and endured the headlong pace without losing his mind and zest.

Even when sickness had gripped him he could still wield his pen. For the short spell of life, no one could ignore him. He knew how to extort assent from alien temperaments which he had first to shock into listening.’ – Walter N.B. Nhlapo

Dhlomo’s influence and legacy cannot to be understated. The multiple genres of his writing, the scope of his topics, and the emphasis he placed on African cultural motifs truly distinguished him as a writer. There were many writers that followed in his footsteps throughout the 1950s, including the aforementioned Drum writers. Drum was a magazine that emerged during the 1950s, that reacted to the social, political and cultural movements in South Africa at the time.

Lewis Nkosi (1936-2010) is one such Drum writer who worked closely with Dhlomo, who undoubtedly had a significant impact on his own writing. In 1955, Nkosi wrote a poem to Dhlomo, who by then only had one year left to live:

H. I. E., H. I. E.,

Me and all my brothers dark,

Those that mumble in the dust,

Without a hope, without a joy,

Streaked with tears for ra-raged Africa

Have, with thy silence,

ceased to live.

In vain we seek the lost

dream to regain,

In vain the vision yet to capture:

The Destiny of a Thousand,

million dark folk

Who seek, who yearn---

Alas! A fruitless toil.

H. I. E., H. I. E.,

Speak to us again;

Whisper thoughts yet to impower us

To live the Dream, to live the Vision

Of a free Africa over again.

(Ilanga lase Natal, October 22, 1955)

When Dhlomo’s weekly commentaries ceased publication in 1953, they were replaced with Nkosi’s column ‘The Way I see It’. Throughout his writing career, Noksi paid homage to Dhlomo, referencing him in many of his articles, alluding to Dhlomo’s thoughts on modernity which surfaced in his writing even as late as the 1980s. Whereas Dhlomo can be perceived as part of a renaissance of writers in Natal, Nkosi in many ways transported those ideas to Sophiatown where wrote extensively, as Dhlomo had in Durban, about the resistance struggle against apartheid.

This article was written by Sumaiya Virji and forms part of the SAHO Public History Internship.

This article was written by Sumaiya Virji and forms part of the SAHO Public History Internship


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