Gladys Thomas (1944 - )
The Order of Ikhamanga in
Profile of Gladys Thomas
The irony of apartheid on the literary scene was the number of gifted writers who emerged from the system that had sought to oppress them. One such writer is Gladys Thomas. Thomas is a poet, a short-story writer, a playwright and author of several children’s stories.
Thomas’s literary career started in 1967 when she began penning her debut anthology, Cry Rage, co-authored with another antiapartheid South African poet, James Matthews. It was eventually published in 1971. This publication holds the distinction of being the first book of poetry to be banned in South Africa.
Undeterred, Thomas continued to write and present her poetry at meetings of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) until 1976. At the time, BCM had emerged as a stirring philosophical front from which oppressed South Africans of all sorts drew nourishing sustenance.
She was not untouched by the current sweeping across the political and social landscape of South Africa. It also served to bring out the best in her imaginative creativity. During the time of the Soweto uprisings, Thomas submitted a play to the World Literary Competition and won first prize.
This award increased her recognition and standing as a writer, and in 1980 she was included in the first American Kwanzaa Awards in recognition of her role in writing against apartheid. At the time, she had moved the African-American community with the sheer splendour of her work. Her increasing recognition as a writer attracted the attention of her apartheid tormentors, who grew more zealous in their pursuit of people deemed opponents of the system.
The 1980s saw Thomas’s career taking her overseas to various conferences across the globe, while simultaneously publishing a number of books. At all these conferences, she related the harrowing effect of apartheid on the majority of South Africans, disregarding the consequences that would be visited on her once back home. Most noteworthy of this time was her publication, Spotty Dog and other Township Children’s Stories, which was the first publication to explore the effects of apartheid on young children.
Dogged by security police, Thomas chose not to publish any of her work during the State of Emergency, although she continued to write plays and stories. Harassment at the hands of the unrelenting security police did not deter her from her literary calling, neither did it dissuade her from insisting to reflect South Africa’s odious social conditions in her remarkable work. In 1990, she won the African Literary Award for her full-length play, Avalon Court.
Gladys Thomas’s poems, short stories and plays reflected not just the political injustices of the previous regime; they also highlighted the human suffering and emotional trauma for people living under such an oppressive regime. Her collection of work is an important record of the emotional and political history of our country.
Her poetry has brought her international acclaim. It also fed growing international condemnation of apartheid during the 1970s and 1980s as she gave a voice to the disenfranchised majority on the global stage.
In 1993, Thomas and her husband began a theatre group, Getwize Players, for whom she wrote her plays. Their debut production, The Time is Now, toured the Cape Peninsula and featured at the Grahamstown Arts Festival, always to excellent reviews.