The exilic geographies of the South
Dugmore Boetie was part of a wave of South African writers who fled Apartheid. His exile and future literary notoriety, however, took a different path to some of the more classic refugee peregrinations.
In August 1960, Dugmore Boetie fled South Africa and entered Bechuanaland (present day Botswana) on foot. He was part of a flow of “discontented young men” that included the otherwise unfamiliar Johannes Moeng, Jacob Lesabeer, Spencer Tlhole, and Victor Vuysine Vinjike, observed by colonial intelligence agents. Security reports at the time portrayed them as mostly “obscure” and rather “bewildered.” British colonial security agents routinely monitored the thousands of men and women who entered the High Commission Territory because of the risk of reprisals and retaliatory actions by South Africa’s Special Branch police. South African Special Branch spies and agents were known to mix with refugees, making it “extremely difficult” to tell one from the other.
The relatively unknown Boetie was part of a wave of refugees moving north in late 1960, the peak period of an exilic migration that began immediately after the Sharpeville Massacre. It was a wave that swept beyond South Africa’s borders some of its greatest literary talents, many of whom were never to return. To be sure, the massacre was but the accelerator of an exilic movement that had begun in earnest in the mid 1950s. The future Nobel laureate, Nadine Gordimer, interviewed in the early 1980s, explained that persecution “all began, really with the  Defiance Campaign. People were arrested and the whole political scene got tougher . . . [but] people left South Africa out of intense frustration rather than danger.”
Many celebrated and lesser-known artists, writers, and musicians fled so-called “banning orders,” whereby they were completely prohibited from writing and stripped of primary income. Banned from teaching, Es’kia Mphahlele went into exile and published Down Second Avenue in London 1959. The formidable list of censorship provisions on the “creative black writer” were only some of the many impediments on expression, according to Zimbabwean poet Toby Tafirenyika Moyana: “all repressive legislation” impeded artistic work. Others fled because they were targeted by non-state agents, likely acting as proxies. Arthur Maimane detailed his flight to Ghana in 1958 after publishing a series of gripping gang-life stories in Drum magazine that resulted in him garnering a “contract.” He published the controversial Victims in London in 1976. According to the British editor of Drum, Antony Sampson, William “Bloke” Modisane left his beloved Sophiatown backyard for the UK in 1959 after constant harassment and threats. He published his powerful autobiography, Blame Me on History in London in 1963.
Born in a country that was politically and economically subjugated by European imperialism and apartheid, Douglas Buti, the author of Familiarity Is the Kingdom of the Lost—published posthumously under the nom de plume Dugmore Boetie—was part of a wave of South African writers who fled apartheid in the 1960s. Like his contemporaries, largely the Drum generation, Boetie’s flee emanated from the rich tradition of protest writing that helped international audiences to understand the brutality of apartheid in the 1950s onwards. These authors were black urbanites; they shared common experiences of racial oppression.
More than telling a story, however, these writers were concerned with what was happening in their communities. They represented black voices through poems, short stories, plays, and novels. Their work was thus a part of the anti-apartheid struggle. With the intensification of the apartheid government repression after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960. Censorship became the factor by which government intruded directly into literature. As a means of control censorship was applied more thoroughly and resolutely than before. Eventually, black and white creative writers were forced to submit their works to foreign publishers in Britain and the US. As a result, not a single book of creative literature written in English by a black author was published by a local South African publishing house during the 1950s and 1960s. Moreover, many publications and music were banned and silenced by government decree.
The richness of black literature captivated white liberal interest in the 1950s and the 1960s. Exposure to misery and suffering of black authors, their talent, and their creative work led many white liberals to be compassionate. They facilitated publication while promoting black writers. This was evident in the development of Boetie’s profile, who was supported financially by a writer, theater director, and a co-creator, Barney Simon leading to the publication of the Familiarity.
Boetie romanticizes delinquency and the hardships of urban street life by depicting apartheid’s socioeconomic pressures as factors that pushed him (as an eponymous fictionalized character Duggie) and other characters in his book toward crime. This notion was echoed by Father Trevor Huddleston who wrote:
tsotsi [criminal] is symbolic of something other than a simple social evil common to all countries…Like then he is aggressively anti-social; but unlike them he has a profound reason, as a rule for being so. He is a symbol of the society which does not care.
This normative conceptualization is characteristic of the writings of the Drum protest movement stalwarts, among them Can Themba and Casey Motsisi, who glamorized the tsotsi as the superior villain. As a naturally gifted writer, Boetie expressed what Lewis Nkosi called “an extreme cultural ‘underworldism’ of the African township.” Nkosi’s assertion was gleaned from his own reality. In the ghetto-like slum at the center of Johannesburg, Sophiatown’s writers reflected on black marginalization and socioeconomic inequality. It was a space with a vibrant street life, where the spirit of the community revealed itself through, music, dance, overpopulation, crime, gangsters, gambling, informal trade, shebeens, brothels, children playing in the streets, and of course, stabbings and street fights where people fought and sometimes died on the streets.
In many respects, the improvisational jazz world of Boetie’s Familiarity is reminiscent of the classic African trickster. And from interviews we conducted in Soweto and Brakpan in the East Rand, with Boetie’s family and friends, evidence suggest that Boetie himself was also trickster in real life. These interviews corroborate archival records, and Simon’s own testimony, presented in the afterword of Familiarity. At times it seems that Boetie may have been fabricating stories to extort money from Simon and other patrons. He told Simon that “he had no family, just dead sisters’ children who were being looked after by an old woman he had to give money to.” Yet family testimonies show that when Boetie’s sister, Millicent died, she left her four children with their grandmother Regina.
It was only after Simon met Boetie’s mother, Regina, in hospital that he discovered that Boetie had also lied about her passing when he was a young child. After Simon met Regina, Simon began to describe Boetie to others as “essentially a con man, so that attempts I have made to establish the facts of his life have led only to chaos and contradiction.” Perhaps Boetie’s fabrication emerged from the belief that every white person—no matter how sympathetic he may to particular black individuals—benefited from the South African apartheid set-up, and enjoyed privileges based only on color. His own writing suggests as much: “The white man of South Africa suffers from a defect which can be easily termed limited intelligence. […] I say this because no man, no matter how dense, will allow himself to be taken in twice by the same trick.”
Boetie’s writing was inextricably bound up with his sensibilities about white supremacy. It was clear to Boetie and other black South Africans that it was hard to fight apartheid system, its racial discrimination and inequality laws. Besides, black people attributed their misery and suffering to apartheid and white imperialism. All these factors suggest that Boetie opted for an alternative way to struggle against apartheid. He used his intelligence and became a con artist.
When Boetie fled, he may or may not have already been at work on his only full-length book, Familiarity is the Kingdom of the Lost. We know little about his creative life during this period and he was on the intellectual periphery of the vibrant Sophiatown arts scene. Boetie’s flight in 1960 was soon followed by that of more distinguished artists, writers, journalists, and musicians. Jazz musician, and composer of King Kong, Todd Matshikiza, successfully relocated to London with his family in 1961, where he published the remarkable memoir Chocolates for My Wife. Lewis Nkosi exited with the support of a scholarship, a result of his collaborations with filmmaker Lionel Rogosin, and soon published Home and Exile in 1965 in New York.
Others not yet famous, but with good connections or clear political allegiances, left South Africa around the same time. The New Age journalist, ANC activist, and future poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile went to Dar in 1961. He published Spirits Unchained in Detroit in 1969. Photographer Joseph (Joe) Louw fled in 1962 after being convicted and sentenced for race crimes. He later famously captured the instant Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. Novelist Richard Rive left in 1963, and published Emergency, a fictionalization of the immediate post-Sharpeville chaos enveloping the country, in London. Photographer Ernest Cole fled by first offering to be an informant after he was arrested while photographing arrests for pass violations, and used a group of Lourdes pilgrims as his cover!
Writing in the US in an essay published in the mid 1970s, Moyana declared, “all the best-known African and coloured writers live in exile.” Indeed, many, such as Peter Abrahams, Bessie Head, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Alex La Guma, and Wole Soyinka, wrote some of their most memorable work abroad. Many South African performers found fame in exile, notably Miriam Makeba. Indeed, artistic production in exile is a rich African practice, as the poetry of Amadou Bamba demonstrates. But exile was professionally and psychologically counterproductive, as the suicides of writer Nat Nakasa and poet Arthur Nortje demonstrate. While some of the aforementioned lived long enough to return to South Africa after the defeat of the white supremacist regime, with the important exception of key periodicals, such as Staffrider and Purple Renoster, much of the most celebrated anti-apartheid literature was written abroad.
Dugmore Boetie’s exile and future literary notoriety took a different path however to some of the more classic refugee peregrinations. After walking to Dar es Salaam, he simply couldn’t get settled. He then tried and failed to get to London. And at some point, in 1961-62 he made the decision to return to Johannesburg. Ironically, by abandoning his refugee status and somehow finding his way back to the familiarity of Sophiatown he realized the earnest hope of so many exiles abroad. Precisely how he returned to South Africa is still unclear. Upon his return, however, he found kinsmen in Nakasa (editor of The Classic) and Casey Motsisi and promoters in Barney Simon, Nadine Gordimer, Ruth First, and Lionel Abrahams, and he produced his exquisite legacy.
If you’ve not had the opportunity to read Boetie’s picaresque roman à clef, avail yourself of the pleasure at your earliest convenience. Boetie’s only full-length work, published posthumously, ought to have appeared under the title Tshotsholoza, which many South Africans will immediately recognize as a traditional mining song and unofficial national anthem, immortalized in King Kong. But behind the scenes machinations between Simon and the publisher led to adopting the title of one of Boetie’s short stories. Familiarity is a loosely biographical work, but one that parallels the national story of South Africa’s transition from informal racial separatism in the 1920s to formalized statutory apartheid in the 1950s and 1960s through the eyes of a dispossessed child and destitute young man.
One way to reconcile the real Boetie with his fictionalized persona is to recognize that both Boetie and the fictionalized Duggie knew what it meant to be a “black survivor” in the harsh urban Johannesburg. A close friend of Simon whom we interviewed, the actor and director Vanessa Cooke, remembered Boetie as “a survivor, streetwise, and not scared.” One gets a similar sense from Es’kia Mphahlele, who described Boetie as “a representative of the vital, almost unbeatable youth who must survive the continual assaults of white rule as if some malignant fate would have it so.” Although this further suggests that the real Boetie was indeed a trickster, interviews reveal that he was raised among proudly observant Christians, and he was not uncontrollable. As a result, at least according to family and friends we interviewed, Boetie’s upbringing could not sustain the crimes or any of the other unlawful or violent acts ascribed to his fictional protagonist. Information gleaned from his only surviving friend, the musician Eddie Dlamini, indicates that Boetie mingled with the educated black middle class and he was much impressed by their success.
In the decades since Boetie’s death in a cancer ward in Nqutu in 1966, to the 1995 passing of his editor and collaborator, Simon, critics and scholars have struggled with how to make sense of the work, its contents, and its composition. Is it a co-production? Is it a collaboration? Or is it largely the result of Boetie’s fertile imagination recreating his own experiences and those told him by the tsotsis of Sophiatown? Familiarity is not an easy work to categorize. It certainly does not read like the unapologetic and damning indictments of South Africa authored by his contemporaries, such as Mphahlele and Modisane.
While Boetie did not live long enough to see it in print, he may have authored the only full-length book describing apartheid by a black writer residing within South Africa during the immediate post-Sharpeville period.