Biographies of Famous South Africans
Special South Africans

 

Those who have inspired us. Those who have defined us.
Those who have shown us our common humanity.

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Herman Charles Bosman
Journalist/Author
11 January 1905 - 14 October 1951

Herman Charles BosmanHerman Charles Bosman was a South African writer and journalist who became famous for capturing the rhythms of backveld Afrikaans speech even though he wrote in English. He is widely regarded as the greatest short-story writer to come out of South Africa. His books are unsurpassed in the field of South-African literature. Shortly after his birth, his family moved from Kuilsrivier to Johannesburg where he was educated. He was deeply absorbed in literature, excelled in languages, was repelled by Science and Mathematics and in his matriculation examination he answered the paper on Algebra with a beautifully phrased essay, explaining that he felt he might dispense with the knowledge of this subject since his ability in English was exceptional.

Apart from contributing to the school magazine, he was, at the age of 16, writing a series of amusing short stories for the Sunday Times. He preferred the school library to the playing fields. At the University of the Witwatersrand, on winning the third prize for his entry in a student's poetry competition, he revealed that the piece had actually been written by Shelley.

On receiving his degree, Bosman was appointed to a teaching post in the Groot Marico district. A most fruitful year, for the place and the people enthralled him - they provided him with the background for his best-known works, the "Oom Schalk Lourens" and "Voorkamer" sketches. On his return to Johannesburg for the June holidays, his visit ended in catastrophy in the house of his mother and stepfather when he fired a hunting rifle at his stepbrother and killed him.

Bosman was sentenced to death, but later a reprieve was granted and at the age of 21 he was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment with hard labour. He was, however, released after four and a half years. His prison experiences provided the background for the moving and wryly humorous stories in "Cold Stone Jug" and it was while he was in prison that he wrote his first "Oom Schalk Lourens" stories. Released on parole in 1930, he plunged into writing stories and poetry, using the nom-de-plume "Herman Malan". He started his own printing press and associated with a colourful group of journalists and authors in Johannesburg. He also edited a number of transient magazines, but his often incautious style involved him in several libel suits. He divorced his first wife and married Ella Manson, and the couple became known for their bohemian lifestyle and wild parties.

At this time he translated the "Rubayat of Omar Khayam" into Afrikaans. In 1947, after "Mafeking Road" was published, the stories were broadcast on the B.B.C. under the auspices of the South African poet, Roy Campbell, who considered them to be the best stories ever to come out of South Africa. These stories were ingrained with an acute irony, interspersed with caustic humour. He describes the deep rural world Afrikaner from the beginning of the 20th century, using very South African English flavoured with the occasional Afrikaans word. The force of the style of Bosman lies in the unexpected outcome of the story, which thwarts the expectations of the reader. Sometimes this reversal takes place in the last line.

Johannesburg's bars feature prominently in several of Bosman's short stories. In "Underworld", the bar is in Fordsburg. The bar counter is described as "an oval island afloat on a vast sea of thirst". Bosman's city bars have all but vanished. The journalist would drink Chateau Libertas with the artist Gordon Vorster at the old Langham Hotel, also gone. Vorster lived a stone's throw away from the "Sydney", at the East London Hotel, and the pair would often drink in the ladies bar.

Bosman and Vorster were a couple of hell-raisers. One of the pair's most outrageous stunts was the abortive compilation of an anthology of English South African poetry. The selection criteria, made in various city bars over many beers, were idiosyncratic to say the least. A contribution titled "Pissed in Gaza" would be accepted on its title alone, while more conventionally titled work would be rejected out of hand.

Uys Krige, a giant of local literature, got the full Bosman treatment by letter:
 
"Liewe Uys, Ek het baie siek gewees met die griep. Hoe gaan dit met jou? Hierdie gedig is sommer 'n klomp kak. Jou vriend, Herman." (Dear Uys, I have been very sick with 'flu. How are you? Your poem is a load of shit. Your friend, Herman.)

Bosman was a great party-giver and his parties were famous for the brilliant and witty conversation which went on far into the night. Two days after a housewarming party he was taken ill with severe chest pains. His wife took him to Edenvale Hospital. On arrival he was asked, "Place of birth?" Herman replied, "Born Kuilsrivier - Died Edenvale Hospital."

A few minutes after he entered the examination room, the doctor could be heard laughing. Bosman came out of the room and told his wife he had indigestion. A few hours later he collapsed at home. He died as he was being wheeled back into Edenvale Hospital. The date was the 14th of October, 1951.

South African poet and author, Lionel Abrahams, observes that:

"Bosman had invoked in me, along with attitudes to the country as a whole, a special local patriotism."

Film maker and author Johnny Masilela said:

"It will be a tragedy for the creative process if we parents, both black and white deny our children the opportunity to read Bosman with his very wry sense of humour."

'Hey, you!' says the sunflower to the sun
Just like that,
In tones of mockery,
'Hey, you!
Where's your stem?'

Gallery:

Contact the Herman Charles Bosman Society:

Email: hcb@rsa.org.za

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