Teacher, Academic & Author (1931 – 1989)

Richard Rive was an exceptional writer, teacher and academic. Raised by a single mother in District Six he became internationally recognised and acclaimed for his work. He was from a generation of exceptional working-class writers all who came from Camissa Communities, labelled “Coloured” by Apartheid. These communities lived in areas under assault from Apartheid forced removals in District Six, Cato Manor and Sophiatown. The writers in these places included James Matthews, Alex la Guma, Ronney Govender, and Don Mattera.

Richard Moore Rive was born on 1 March 1931 in Caledon Street, District Six to Nancy Rive and Richardson Moore, an African-American sailor who stopped over in Cape Town for five months. Richardson abandoned Nancy and disappeared across the sea never to be seen again. Richard Rive and his half-siblings grew up in an old building called Eaton Place in District Six where his older sister Georgina played the biggest role in raising him. It was here in District Six that Richard drew his inspiration from the many cameos of life that he observed and from the 20 year long forced removals by the Apartheid regime.

Excelled at School

Rive attended primary school at St. Mark’s. At age 12, his high marks earned him a municipal scholarship to Trafalgar High School. He excelled at school work and also at sport and won several prizes for athletics, holding the South African hurdles record for several years.

Richard completed High School in 1947 and for a while he worked as a clerk for a small company, Phil Morkel. In 1950, he enrolled at Hewat Training College and graduated a year later as a High School  English teacher. His first job was at Vasco High School but after just one year he took up a teaching post at South Peninsula High School where he remained for almost 20 years. In this time, he rose to became the head of the English Department. He was also the athletics coach, largely responsible for the SP’s sporting prowess in the 60s.

It was at school and teacher’s training college that Richard developed his political consciousness. Many of his colleagues and students suffered banning, house arrest, detention without trial, imprisonment and even assassination for their opposition to Apartheid. Richard’s pen and his sharp tongue became his weapon for liberation and it was for this that he was most well-known. In 1952 while working as a teacher, Richard Rive enrolled at the University of Cape Town for a BA majoring in English. Because of his first responsibility to teaching it took a decade before Richard Rive graduated in 1962.

Inspiration to Students

As a teacher Richard became well known for promoting reading among his students through passing out reading lists of literature that would raise consciousness. Often the books and articles he shared with his students had been banned by the state censors. He is remembered as a larger than life flamboyant bohemian gay character by the generations of students who passed through his classes. His own personality crossed all sorts of complex lines that defied the social norms of his day. While he championed the Queen’s English he could capture the patois and idiosyncrasies of the struggling working classes.

His ability to use humour to relate the saddest snatches of life was legendary. Most memorable were his characters in his work Buckingham Palace – District Six. This novel was adapted for the theatre and for many years was a prescribed work for high school students.

In 1964 he published his first novel, Emergency. The context for the novel was the Sharpeville massacre and the aftermath. It was almost immediately banned by the apartheid regime. At this time, he was publishing his stories in Drum Magazine and the left publication, Fighting Talk. In 1963 he published his book of short stories entitled African Songs. He also edited an anthology for Heinemann’s

African Writers Series – Quartet – containing stories by Alex La Guma, James Matthews, Alf Wannenburgh and himself. In 1964 he edited an anthology called Modern African Prose. In 1965, Richard Rive was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship on the recommendation of Es’kia Mphahlele, the editor of Drum magazine. This took him to the United States to study African and African-American literature at Columbia University where he attained his Master’s degree in 1966.

His proudest academic achievement was the Doctorate of Arts he obtained at Oxford University in the United Kingdom. His thesis focused on Olive Schreiner and her writing. This thesis was published posthumously in 1996. The pinnacle of his writing career was his autobiography Writing Black published in 1981.

In his illustrious career Richard Rive was a visiting professor and guest lecturer at over 50 universities around the world on four continents, including Harvard University in 1987.

Rive’s publications included Selected Writings (1977), Advance, Retreat (1983) and Emergency Continued (1990). The latter was completed only two weeks before his death on June 4, 1989. In an ironic twist at the end of his life he was due to attend the opening of his play at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town when he was murdered just days before. It was the first time his work — banned for many years but published and performed around the world — was honoured by a South African theatre.

Rive had invited young men into his home. A fight broke out and he was stabbed 22 times and robbed of a few possessions. Two young men were found guilty and sent to prison. The honours for Richard Rive continued long after his passing and he was recognised as being part of a special generation of writers. On 23 August 2013 when the Aziz Hassim Literary Awards were held in Durban, Richard Rive (District Six), Ronnie Govender (Cato Manor) and Don Mattera (Sophiatown), were honoured for their contributions to the fight against apartheid through literature.

Sylvia Vollenhoven and Basil Appollis have written a one-person play about his life called A Writer’s Last Word. It played on the West End in London at the Jermyn Street Theatre where it was renamed My Word – Redesigning Buckingham Palace. The prestigious Times newspaper gave the production four stars. It was part of a South African theatre festival alongside works from Reza de Wet and Athol Fugard. A Richard Rive poem called Where the Rainbow Ends (one of the few he wrote) has received worldwide recognition and has been put to music:

Where the Rainbow Ends

Where the rainbow ends
There’s going to be a place, brother,
Where the world can sing all sorts of songs,
And we’re going to sing together, brother,

You and I, though you’re white, and I’m not.
It’s going to be a sad song, brother,
Because we don’t know the tune,
And it’s a difficult tune to learn.
But we can learn, brother, you and I.
There’s no such tune as a black tune.
There’s no such tune as a white tune.
There’s only music, brother,
And it’s music we’re going to sing
Where the rainbow ends.

 

References:

Simon Gikandi, The Routledge Encyclopedia of African Literature (London: Routledge, 2009);

Bernth Lindfors and Reinhard Sander, Twentieth-Century Caribbean and Black African Writers (Detroit: Gale Research, 1993).

Geoffrey V. Davis, Voices of Justice and Reason, Editions Rodopi, 2003, pp. 95-100.

“Richard (Moore) Rive”, Dictionary of Literary Biography.

Paul Frailey, “Richard Rive”, Blackpast.org, retrieved 13 August 2014.

Stephen Gray, “Richard Rive biography: Where’s the roistering braggart?” (review of Richard Rive: A Partial Biography, by Shaun Viljoen; Wits University Press), Mail & Guardian, 4 October 2013.

“Literary awards for Struggle stalwarts”. Daily News. 21 August 2013. Retrieved 19 September 2013.

Shaun Viljoen, “Richard Rive: A Skewed Biography”, PhD thesis, University of the Witwatersrand, 2006