Today I met a wonderful woman, 75 year old Gladys Thomas of Ocean View. Award winning poet, author of short stories for adults and children and playwright, Gladys first started writing after she her family and friends were evicted from their homes in Simon’s Town as a result of the infamous Group Areas Act of the Apartheid era.
Moved from the harmonious, vibrant and multiracial neighbourhood she had settled into after marrying her husband Albert to the “raw”, unfinished township of Ocean View she, like many others was angry. “I wrote not beautiful poetry but angry words. How could you explain to your teenage children why their lives had changed so radically?” At first Ocean View was not a happy place, with people traumatized from having been moved there from Simon’s Town, Noordhoek, Sun Valley and other areas, with a lack of facilities and much unemployment as a result of being so far from any industry. “But we women got stuck in and with the help of brave ladies from Fish Hoek and Kalk Bay set up clubs and activities in our community which helped to make Ocean View a happier place.” Gladys sent her poems to author, poet and publisher James Matthews and together they produced their anthology “Cry Rage”, which was banned two weeks after its launch, the first book of poetry to be banned in South Africa. She relentlessly continued to write and present her poetry at meetings of the Black Consciousness Movement.
Soon after, Gladys started writing short stories which were grounded in her experience, as were her plays. Her book, “Spotty Dog and other Township Children’s Stories”, explored the effect of apartheid on children. In the 1980s she was invited to Iowa with 34 writers from countries around the world where she presented a paper on the “hardships of our people under the apartheid system”. Despite the hardships here she was very glad to come home. During the years of the Struggle, Gladys took part in marches to parliament, which she admits she enjoyed! “I felt safe hiding under Bishop Tutu’s cloak” she says, her eyes twinkling.
When Crossroads was burning, she spent two weeks there with a friend, interviewing the children who were so badly affected by the violence taking place in their midst. Her book was launched from a private house and sold out of hand. The following year she wrote “The Wynberg Seven” based on interviews she conducted with the parents of the seven Wynberg teenagers arrested on charges of public violence and thrown into Pollsmoor prison, an experience that deeply saddened her. ‘They were innocent,” she says, “Just protesting in the streets against the government.” Passionate about drama and acting, she later spent time each week helping a friend produce the play “Waiting for Godot” at Pollsmoor. “The boys wrote such beautiful poetry for me when I left. It was a great experience for me but it made me very sad.”
Gladys and her husband ran a drama group in Wynberg called the Getwize Players. Their debut production, “The Time is Now”, was presented at the Grahamstown Arts Festival, with excellent reviews. She also ran a drama group for the children in Ocean View. In 2005 her play “Sex can wait, Aids can’t”, a family drama with music and songs, was the first production of the Ocean View Players.
A few of her awards adorn a wall of her home, along with her photographs. Among them are the Bertram’s VO African Literary Award for her play, “Avalon Court”, the Kwanzaa Award for her protest writing, the Molteno Medal for her contribution to literature in the Western Cape (2000), the Western Cape Dept of Arts and Culture Award for Literature (2004) and the State President’s Award in 2007 for her outstanding contribution to South African literature. She was also honoured with the SALA Literary Lifetime Achievement Award. To cap it all, in 2008 she was a finalist in the Shoprite Checkers Women of the Year Competition.
International recognition meant a fair amount of travelling to conferences overseas, which Gladys thoroughly enjoyed. “I love the feeling of being in an aeroplane seat, my blanket drawn up over me!” Her last visit abroad was to Switzerland where she wrote a novel set in Salt River in the 1930’s. It is edited, but like some of her other stories and poems, as yet unpublished.
Gladys and her husband had two sons and a daughter. One son is working in Azerbaijan, and his two siblings live in Ocean View. In her spare time Gladys loves gardening and reading. Although she particularly enjoys autobiographies, Doris Lessing is one of her favourite authors. Since her husband passed away after a brief illness four years ago, Gladys has been grateful for the companionship of her two dogs and two cats, with two strays enjoying her hospitality at meal times!
I came away feeling that there is so much more to know and appreciate about this remarkable woman in our midst and I look forward to featuring more of her work on our website.
Read Gladys’s poem YOU ARE WOMAN, written for her friend Ragmat on her 80th birthday