Lewis Nkosi

Lewis Nkosi (5 December 1936 – 5 September 2010) was a South African writer and essayist. He was a multifaceted personality, and attempted every literary genre, literary criticism, poetry, drama, and novels.


Early life

Nkosi was born in a traditional Zulu family in a place called Embo.

Later life

Nkosi in his early twenties came to Johannesburg and joined a news paper. He worked for many years in Durban for the magazine Ilanga lase Natal and in Johannesburg for Drum.

Literary career in South Africa

He contributed essays to many magazines and news papers. His essays criticised apartheid and the racist state, as a result the South African Government banned his works.

Life as an exile

Nkosi's works were banned under Suppression of Communism Act and he faced severe restrictions as a writer. At the sametime he received a Neiman scholarship from Harvard university United States to pursue his studies. When applied for permission to go to United States, he was granted a one-way exit permit to leave South Africa, thus barred from returning. Nkosi faced severe restrictions on his writing due to the publishing regulations found in the Suppression of Communism Act and the Publications and Entertainment Act passed in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1961, he received a scholarship to study at Harvard, and he began his life in exile. He was an editor for The New African in London, and the NET in the United States. He became a Professor of Literature and held positions at the University of Wyoming and the University of California-Irvine, as well as at universities in Zambia and Warsaw, Poland.

Return to South Africa

Lewis Nkosi returned to South Africa in 2001 after a gap of nearly four decades.

Final years



Though Nkosi started his literary career in 1960's, he entered the realm of fiction much later than his Drum colleagues. His first novel 'Mating Birds' was published in 1983. His next novel in 2002 and his third and recent novel in 2006.

Mating Birds

'Mating Birds' is the narration of a South African Black educated native called Ndi Sibiya. He narrates the story from prison awaiting death sentence. As a jobless youth Sibiya wanders the city of Durban and reaches the segregated beach. There he finds a White girl on the other side of the fence (on the White side of the beach). They silently exchange looks and enter into a muted affair. They were well aware that race laws in South Africa would sentence them to imprisonment if caught. The White girl intentionally allows her naked body to be seen by Sibiya. He takes the entire episode as a love affair between the White girl and himself. The girl with her regular appearances on the beach and seeming interest dupes Sibiya into believing her.

After several silent meetings on the beach, Sibiya follows her to her bungalow, finds her lonely and willing, and enters into sexual copulation. But they are discovered by neighbours and the White girl accuses Sibiya of rape. A trail by White Judges begins. In the court the White girl Veronica denies any knowledge of Sibiya and reiterates the charge of rape against him. The court finds Sibiya guilty and sentences him to death.

The novel generated a controversy and received critical attention. The novel was awarded Macmillan Silver pen Prize in 1986 and New York Times declared it as one of the best hundred books in 1986.

Underground People

Nkosi’s second novel 'Underground People' is a political thriller. In this novel he moved away from the theme of inter racial sexual relations and centered the story on the armed struggle in South Africa.

Cornelius Molapo is a language teacher and a member of the National Liberation Movement, an organization waging armed war against the racist White minority government. He is a poet, a great orator, hungry reader of many books, and even plays cricket. He often criticizes the policy of the Central Committee and irks its members. To counter him, the Central Committee draws a strategy.The Central Committee of the Organization advises Cornelius to go to a remote part of the country called Tabanyane and to participate in peasants’ uprisings. The Central Committee plans to make use of his absence from mainstream life into an act of abduction by the Government. At first he hesitates, but reluctantly agrees. After reaching Tabanyane, Cornelius organizes the poor illiterate jobless country men into revolutionary men and leads them. In this task, he enlists the support of Princess Madi, who is a daughter of the deposed chief of Tabanyane. During the clandestine operations, he takes two White hostages into his custody; however he is unwilling to execute the unarmed civilians.

Meanwhile the Central Committee starts a big propaganda about the disappearance of Cornelius from duties and blames it on the South African police, who deny any knowledge of him. National Liberation Movement brings the matter to international organizations like United Nations and Human Rights International, and the latter sends its official Anthony Ferguson, who was born in South Africa and immigrated to England, to investigate the matter. Anthony’s sister and mother are still living in South Africa. After some rest he undertakes to search for Cornelius unsuccessfully.

The Central Committee members plagued by jealousy for his success as a revolutionary want to use the issue of White hostages for the release of their leader from prison, engage in talks with the Government and to observe ceasefire. But contrary to the expectations of the Central Committee, Cornelius defies and conducts attacks on the police stations and other locations. To escape police persecution, Cornelius leaves his hideout, and allows the White hostages to go unharmed. The White hostages reach police and recognize Cornelius’s photo and confirm his active presence in the fight.

Naturally police suspect the intentions of Anthony Ferguson and ask him to go to Tabanyane, to convince Cornelius for the surrender. He takes the help of a member of Central Committee and reaches Tabanyane. But Cornelius refuses to surrender and ditch the people for whom he had been fighting. Eventually police firing follows and he dies.

Mandela's Ego

Nkosi’s most recent and third novel ‘Mandela’s Ego’ (2006) has a strange story to tell. Dumisani Gumede is teenaged boy who has come of age in a Zulu village and runs after every girl and woman to satiate his newly acquired power. His uncle Simon tells him many stories about Nelson Mandela and makes him a follower of the great leader. In the story telling, Uncle Simon invents stories with lies and half-truths. He also tells Dumisani that Madela is a great pursuer of women. Taking cue from the real life of Mandela Dumisa goes unstopped in his conquests. In his village every girl falls to his charms except Nobuhle, a beautiful orphaned girl. His admiration for Mandela goes to the extent of starting a football club, with Dumisa as its chairman. He even goes to the city of Pietermartizburg to see Mandela, who comes there to address a convention demanding equal rights for all races and a dialogue among all the races.

After his schooling Dumisani joins a tourist company as a guide. Dumisani’s friend Sofa Sonke, driver of the tourist bus brings every day a newspaper from Durban for him. After many attempts to win Nobuhle, Dumisani finally succeeds and gets accepted by her. She invites him to meet her on the river bank. On the same day Dumisani receives the news of Mandela’s arrest. The news shocks him and takes his nerve away. When Dumisani tries to unite with Nobuhle his body fails. He tries again but fails. His sexual energy deserts him. Nobuhle leaves in tears.

Dumisani consults many, witch doctors, tribal doctors and conventional doctors in hospitals. But nothing fails to cure him. He leaves his home, wanders the country aimlessly. He reaches the middle age, one day he hears the news of Mandela’s release. He attends the first public address of Mandela after the release. He rejoices. In his joy he huddles a woman next to him and his lost sexual urge returns. His life is restored.

As opposed to apartheid, Nkosi's work explores themes of politics, relationships, and sexuality. His works, possessing great depth, received less recognition than they had actually deserved. In the post-apartheid era, his works are gaining critical attention across the third world. Interestingly, Nkosi joined forces with African powerhouse authors Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka in an interview in the third chapter of Bernth Lindfors' Conversations With Chinua Achebe. In 1978, Nkosi and composer Stanley Glasser wrote a collection of six Zulu-style songs called "Lalela Zulu" for The King's Singers, a group of six white British, male a cappella singers.


His dramas were 'The Black Psychiatrist' and some other radio plays.

Short stories

Nkosi wrote a good number of short stories

Literary critcism

He wrote critical essyas on many issues including politics, history, culture African Affairs American culture and civilization. No other critic touches upon such diversified themes. His critical works include Home and Exile(1965) The Transplanted Heart(1975) and The Tasks and Masks (1981). His essays and other works were published over four decades in America, England and Africa.

Works about Lewis Nkosi

First comprehensive and critical review on Nkosi appeared in 2006 edited by Profeesor Lindy Steibel and Professor Liz Gunner entitled 'Still Beating the Drum' published by Wits University Press.

Important Quotations of Lewis Nkosi

On the situation in South Africa during apartheid

Africans have learned that if they are remaining sane at all it is pointless to try to live within the law. In a country where the Government has legislated against sex, drinks, employment, free movement and many other things, which are taken for granted in the Western world, it would take a monumental kind of patience to keep up with the demands of the law. A man’s sanity may even be in question by the time he reaches the ripe age of twenty-five ( Nkosi: Home and Exile 22)

On black writers and their literature

black South Africans did not produce on elite which was alienated form the black masses or even from the conditions of everyday life under which our people laboured. In South Africa we were saved from the emergence of Black Bourgeoisie by the leveling effect of apartheid ( Nkosi: Home and Exile 32)

On his Exile

A writer needs his roots; he needs his people perhaps more than they need him in order that they should corroborate the vision he has of them, or at least, to dispute the statements he may make about their lives ( Nkosi: Home and Exile 93)

On the writers and commitment

…whether we consider ourselves revolutionaries or not, are playing a marginal role. We may be good for propaganda; we may raise some money and build up contacts for the people of South Africa-but there is no such thing as a revolution fought in exile, without a base among the oppressed masses of the country for which the change is desired ( Nkosi: On South Africa 286-292)

His observation of the history on the post apartheid South Africa far surpasses the meticulous historian:

“Ambushed by history, deprived of the moral and material support of the socialist camp by the fall of the Soviet Union and its satellite states, a negotiated peace, between a lame government and weary liberation movements was probably the next best thing… The negotiated peace enacted what Doris Somer, writing about the South Africa, described as a “premature end of a history. ( The Republic of Letters: Mandela’s Republic)


Collections of essays

  • Home and Exile, Longman, 1965
  • Home and exile and other selections, Longman, 1983, ISBN 0-58-264406-2
  • The Transplanted Heart: Essays on South Africa 1975
  • Tasks and Masks: Themes and Styles of African Literature, Longman, 1981, ISBN 0-58-264145-4


  • The Rhythm of Violence (1964)
  • The Black Psychiatrist (2001)


Short Stories

  • The Hold up


  • He shared the writing credits on Come Back, Africa, a film filmed mainly in Sophiatown.


  • Conversations With Chinua Achebe Edited by Bernth Lindfors. University Press of Mississippi (October, 1997)
  • Southern African Writing: Voyages and Explorations edited by Geoffrey V. Davis. Rodopi (January, 1994)
  • Still Beating the Drum: Critical perpespectives on Lewis Nkosi, edited by Lindy Steibel and Liz Gunner (KwaZuluNatal university Press, 2006) ISBN 1-86814-435-6
  • Litzi Lombardozzi completed Ph.D from University of Kwa-Zulu Natal University on the works of Lewis Nkosi.
  • The Journey Beyond Embo: the construction of place and identity in the writings of Lewis Nkosi written by Litzi Lombardozzi –University of Kwa-Zulu Natal http://www.literarytourism.co.za/ -papers/litzilombardozzi

  • somanchi saikumar is the first person to register for Ph.D on the works of Lewis Nkosi in India. He is preparing his thesis in Andhra University, Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, India, under the guidance of Profeessor V C Sudheer. He is actively contributing to various journals and other scholarly magazines on the novels and criticism of Lewis Nkosi. https://sites.google.com/site/somanchisaikumar

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