H.I.E. Dhlomo

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H.I.E. Dhlomo (1903-1956) was a South African actor, writer, dramatist, director, musician, composer, animator, journalist and cultural theorist. He is considered a pioneer of black South African drama.


Born Herbert Isaac Ezra Dhlomo at Siyamu, Edenvale near Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal. He grew up in Johannesburg where his father worked. After completing his teacher training (under the guidance of Albert Luthuli), he taught for a while at Umzumbe on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast before relocating to Johannesburg in 1929 and become head teacher at the American Board Mission School in Doornfontein. He married his Amanzimtoti classmate, Ethel Cunene, in 1931.

Dhlomo appears to have been influenced a good deal by his older brother, Rolfes Dhlomo, who also trained as a teacher and became a prolific writer. He was also a relative of the well-known musician Reuben Caluza. From 1924, Dhlomo wrote several signed and anonymous articles for Ilanga lase Natal, and during the 1930s wrote for Bantu World and Umteteli wa Bantu.

He was one of the main organisers of the Transvaal African Eisteddfod, committee member of the Bantu Men's Social Centre in Johannesburg and - most significantly - in 1932, one of the founders of the Bantu Dramatic Society in Johannesburg, serving as its vice-president for a period.

In 1935, he published his first literary work (a short story titled An Experiment in Colour), and he then left teaching to join the staff of Bantu World.

In 1937, he became the first Librarian-Organiser for the Carnegie Non-European Libraries in the then Transvaal. He held the position for four years, but was forced to resign following a disagreement with the Secretary of the Library (in part because of Dhlomo's decision to leave his wife). He moved to Durban, taking up the role of librarian at the Ndongeni Library in the Bantu Social Centre in Durban and then became assistant editor of Ilanga lase Natal when his brother became editor in 1943.

Dhlomo was one of the founders of the Durban branch of the African National Congress Youth League in 1945, later becoming its convenor. Five years later, he was one of Albert Luthuli's main supporters in Luthuli's successful campaign for the ANC presidency in the then Natal.

Dhlomo died in Durban in 1956.


Qualified as a teacher at Amanzimtoti Training Institute (Adams College) in KwaZulu-Natal (1922-1924).

Contribution to SA theatre, film, media and/or performance

Dhlomo as actor

Dhlomo played "Young Marlow" in She Stoops to Conquer, presented by Bantu Dramatic Society in April 1933. He also appeared in their production of Lady Windermere's Fan in 1935.

Dhlomo as director

Directed his brother Rolfes’s “dramatic sketches” for the Emancipation Centenary Celebration at the Bantu Men's Social Centre in 1934.

He also directed the first production of his play, Moshoeshoe, at the Bantu Men's Social Centre in 1939.

Dhlomo as writer

Dhlomo was a prolific writer of articles, essays in literary theory, poetry (over 140 poems), drama (at least 23 plays), an unpublished anthropological work (Zulu Life and Thought) and short fiction (10 short stories). His early work reflected a trend towards "progressivism" - the pursuit of Western-style education and equality and was often written in a romantic style (he championed the writing of "literary" drama), but his later work demonstrated a growing resentment to the social controls exercised by white liberals and a stronger interest in African nationalism, focusing on racism, the exploitation of black workers, the pass system and prostitution.


Dhlomo wrote a number of plays, many of which allegorised black African history for his contemporaries. Only one play - Nonqause: The Girl who Killed to Save - was published in his lifetime (in 1936). It was also the first published English play by a black South African. The rest of the plays were published posthumously in 1985 in a collection entitled H.I.E. Dhlomo Collected Works. (Edited by Tim Couzens and Nick Visser)

Dhlomo wrote the following plays in English:

Historical plays:

Nonqause: The Girl who Killed to Save


Cetshwayo (1936)

Dingane (1937)

Moshoeshoe (written circa 1937)

Shaka (the text of this play is lost)

Mfolozi (the text of this play is lost)

Urban plays:

Ruby and Frank (a musical, 1939)

The Workers (1941)

The Pass (1943)

The Living Dead


Play fragments:

Microform copies of a collection of fragments of plays by Dhlomo are held by the Institute for the Study of English in Africa at Rhodes University. These play fragments include:

Men and Women (written in the style of an Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy)

The Bazaar

The Expert


Other works

He wrote a considerable body of dramatic theory & criticism, including articles on 'African Theatre', 'Masses and the Artist' and 'The African Artist and Society'.

The 1985 Collected Works includes collections of his poetry (including the autobiographical-political poem, Valley of a Thousand Hills, first published in 1941) and ten short stories (under the collective title When Evening Falls).

Awards, etc


In 1983 a group of artists, aware of the contribution made by Dhlomo, founded and named a theatre after him: The Dhlomo Theatre (situated a hundred yards from the Market Theatre). It opened on 21 March 1983 with Night of the Long Wake by Dukuza ka Macu.

His biography (The New African: A Study of the Life and Work of H.I.E. Dhlomo) was writtten by Tim Couzens and published in 1985. (See: Couzens, 1985, De Beer, 1995).


Tim Couzens. 1985. The New African: A Study of the Life and Work of H.I.E. Dhlomo. Johannesburg: Ravan Press.

Tim Couzens. 1993. 'Herbert Dhlomo'. https://disa.ukzn.ac.za/sites/default/files/DC%20Metadata%20Files/Centre%20for%20African%20Literary%20Studies/ALS%204_7_2_3_%28d%29/ALS%204_7_2_3_%28d%29.pdf

Visser and Couzens (eds). 1985. H.I.E. Dhlomo Collected Works. Johannesburg: Ravan Press.

Mona de Beer. 1995. Who Did What in South Africa. Johannesburg: Ad Donker.

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