Remembering Juby Mayet: A prickly rose among thorns

The cover work for the book. Picture: Supplied

The cover work for the book. Picture: Supplied

Published Dec 2, 2022


Johannesburg - As a greenhorn in the 1990s, there was something magical about walking into the Drum newsroom and eventually seeing one’s name in the celebrated magazine.

Though it was no longer owned by the penny-pinching Jim Bailey and was now in the hands of an Afrikaner media conglomerate with deep pockets, it was still Drum, the only publication that made – and was made – by mercurial black journalists.

Their spick-and-span offices were now in posh Sandton, not the down-in-the-dumps Eloff Street address in downtown Johannesburg of crime and grime that the magazine shared with its sister publication, the Golden City Post.

One nonetheless felt like he was walking into a realm of greatness, a heaven on earth – if ever there was one for a journalist. It does not matter who owns it, Drum will always be the home of Can Themba, Cassey Motsisi, Nat Nakasa, Peter Magubane, Bloke Modisane, Lewis Nkosi, E’skia Mphahlele, Arthur Maimane, Bob Gosani and the rest of that galaxy of scribes.

It is a travesty that the women who wrote their names in ink alongside these men – the roses among the thorns – are only glibly mentioned whenever the Drum generation of writers gets to be the topic.

Who remembers Dolly Hassim? Let’s see some show of hands! None? Touche! People remember Bessie Head, another excellent writer who went on to make a name for herself as an author writing out of Botswana. But she was only fleetingly at Drum.

It is therefore a good thing that before she passed away in April 2019, the grand old dame of the Drum 1950s generation of writers, Juby Mayet, had started work on her autobiography. Born Zubeida Sallee in Fietas in 1937, Juby, as she was widely known, was fated to be a Drum scribe. Young, gutsy, a dyed-in-the-wool free spirit, she had the makings of a Jim Bailey staffer, where she joined as a virtual child – a schoolgirl in uniform when she first entered the Drum newsroom.

Did it help that she smoked like a chimney and guzzled hooch like the rest of the illustrious team? The Drum mantra, after all, was “live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse”. She had won a short story competition when she attracted the attention of the talent scouts at Drum, writing under the pseudonym Sharon Davis. The music of her generation was jazz. Davis comes from Miles!

She shared a few things in common with the man whose home was called The House of Truth. Just like Can Themba, who also joined Drum after winning a short story competition, Juby also trained as a teacher. She fit the Drum lifestyle like a hand in a glove. A rebel at heart, she had a child out of wedlock, something unheard of in her Malay culture, a taboo. She would go on to have eight children in her lifetime, surviving a few of them in later life.

A lot had been said about the flamboyant hard-drinking Drum writers, but Juby’s story is a word-of-mouth account. Until this book came, that is.

She dazzled with the pen, like her male contemporaries. She was a thorn in the side of the apartheid apparatchiks. For her troubles, she was jailed with other prominent women political activists at the infamous Fort Prison, also known as Number 4.

She was denied a passport to travel. So too her kids, one of whom was denied the chance to go study at the prestigious Waterford kaMhlaba in Swaziland. Maybe that was a blessing in disguise because those who left, like Nakasa, did so on a one-way ticket, never to return. They died lonely deaths in faraway places.

Juby wrote tributes to many of them, Themba, Nakasa and her old buddy and drinking partner Stan Motjuwadi. (One of the best pieces of writing in black journalism is by Motjuwadi trussed up in a hospital, after an operation necessitated by drinking). She was served with banning orders between 1978 and 1983, making her already difficult life dreadful. She gave testimonies at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) about life under apartheid oppression.

She cocked a snook at apartheid, many times. She laughed even more derisively when she was re-classified as Indian, from Malay.

This is Juby’s book, though it was brought to life by Susanne Klausen, who finished it.

On the coverline, Ferial Haffajee says “What a woman“.

Indeed; what a woman, what a character, what a scribe!

Freedom Writer, My Life & Times, is published by Jacana. It is available at all good bookstores.