The Suit: Can Themba’s Magnum Opus

By Katlego Mereko

In the early 1960s, amidst State panic due to the Positive-Action Campaign against Pass Laws - which brought apartheid to its knees - & bogged down by continental and international pressures of political decolonisation, a few friends and colleagues contrived to establish a literary magazine the first of its kind in South Africa, called The Classic. 

Led by a more prodigious figure of the famed Drum Boys in Nat Nakasa, the magazine would consist of poetry, short stories & pictures, and had its first print in June 1963, making this month its 56th anniversary. One of the short stories published in the first edition of this quarterly journal and the subject of this review is The Suit by Can Themba, a piece which would go on to become a canonical text in South Africa literary scene.

The Suit is a story set in Sophiatown, of a married couple, Philemon and Matilda, whose ostensibly pristine relationship is rocked by the latter’s extra-marital activities.

After Philemon is alerted of the terrible news by the garrulous old Maphikela that his picture-perfect “Tilly” is having an affair behind his back, he felt inside him breaking down which resembled the internal dismembering of a machine.

At Phil’s unexpected arrival back home, Tilly’s beaux fling himself outside of the window from where he is seen running down the street virtually naked having left his suit on the chair in the married couple’s bedroom.

Phil, with twisted malice, uses the suit to punish Matilda in the most humiliating fashion. This is exacerbated by public walks with the suit as well as meals at the dinner table. 

Can Themba uses ‘the suit’ as an object of humour as well as a source of tension in the story, with it being critical to the rising temperature of the plot up until its climax.

Beyond Can Themba’s mesmerising grasp of Queen’s language and his gift of organising and arranging words in an intellectually and emotionally rewarding way, The Suit is important in South African literature for its unique position of emerging from the near-mythical township of Sophiatown.

It is one of the few that describe the conditions of the area famous for its vibrant inhabitants who have left an indelible mark in the art and intellectual space in South Africa. In this endeavour, Can Themba is joined by the likes of Henry Nxumalo, Miriam Tladi, Todd Matshikiza, Casey Motsisi and Nat Nakasa to just name some writers who have penned their musings on Kofifi.

There are, however, other short stories wherein Can Themba gives more detail of conditions in Sophiatown than in The Suit. This one may find in short stories such as The Urchin and Requiem for Sophiatown to name two.

The Suit’s significance in South African literature is based around emergent feminist discourse which has seen rejoinders to the original attempt by Themba in the form of Makhosazana Xaba’s efforts Behind The Suit and The Suit Continued: The Other Side to mention one writer’s works. There are also popular theatre plays which dramatize the events of this increasingly important text.

The Suit, a third person narration effort, is written by an individual with a dextrous touch of the pen and a remarkable absorption of words. It is an important literary text more for its contribution in feminist discourse more than as a prototypical signifier of a bygone Sophiatown era as the likes of The Urchin would be.


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Can Themba


South African Arts and Performance

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