He was born in Marabastad, near Pretoria, but wrote most of his work in Sophiatown, Johannesburg, South Africa, before it was destroyed under the provisions of the apartheid Group Areas Act. He was a student at Fort Hare University College where he received an English degree (first-class) and a teacher’s diploma.
After moving to Sophiatown, he tried his hand at short story writing and entered Drum magazine's (Drum was a magazine for urban black people concentrating mainly on investigative journalism) first short story contest, which he won.
He subsequently worked for Drum, where he became one of the "Drum Boys", together with Henry Nxumalo, Bloke Modisane, Todd Matshikiza and Casey Motsisi. They were later joined by Lewis Nkosi and Nat Nakasa. This group lived by the dictum: "Live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse."
Part of Drum's ethos was investigative journalism. One of the aims was to show the realities and inequities of apartheid. Themba decided to see how white churches would react to his presence among them.
- "The Presbyterian Church in Noord Street allowed me in, yet the one in Orange Grove refused me admittance. They explained that the hall was rented from some boys' club whose policy did not allow Non-whites into the hall. They also said something about the laws of the country."
- "At the Kensington DRC (Dutch Reform Church), an aged church official was just about to close the doors when he saw me. He bellowed in Afrikaans: 'What soek jy?' (What do you want?). 'I've come to church', I said. He shoved me violently, shouting for me to get away. I walked off dejected."
- "A few doors away was the Baptist Church, and as I walked towards it I began to think that people didn't want me to share their church. As I walked through the Baptist door I was tense, waiting for that tap on the shoulder…but instead I was given a hymn book and welcomed into the church. I sat through the service…This up and down treatment wasn't doing my nerves much good."
— Can Themba, The Will to Die
Migration to Swaziland
Growing frustrations with the restrictions of apartheid, caused him to move to Swaziland where he worked as a teacher. In 1966, he was declared a "statutory communist", as a result of which his works were banned in South Africa. His literary output was only readily available in the 1980s with the publication of two collections The Will to Die (1972) and The World of Can Themba (1985).
In his stories, he described the frustrations of the university-educated urban black people; unavailable to realise their true potential because of the racial restrictions of apartheid and trying to balance their modern urban culture with the historical rural tribal one.
His most famous story The Suit tells the story of Philemon, a middle-class lawyer, and his wife, Matilda, who live in Sophiatown. One day, Philemon hears that his wife is having an affair, so he goes home in the middle of the day and catches her in flagrante. Her lover jumps out of the window but leaves behind his suit. Philemon then dreams up a strange and bizarre punishment. Matilda has to treat the suit as an honoured guest, feed it, entertain it and take it out for walks. This serves as a constant reminder of her adultery. A remorseful Matilda eventually dies of humiliation. Philemon then regrets his actions but it is all too late. (A stage version of The Suit was created by Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg in the early 1990s, and was subsequently translated into French (Le Costume) by Barney Simon and Jean-Claude Carrière for a production by Peter Brook in Paris in 1994, and London in 2012.) Themba's increasing dependency on alcohol led to darker, introspective pieces such as Crepuscle, The Will to Die, and The Bottom of the Bottle.
He died in 1967 in Swaziland.
- Deep Cuts: graphic adaptations of stories by Can Themba, Alex la Guma & Bessie Head / project co-ordinator: Neil Napper; editor: Peter Esterhuysen, Maskew Miller, Longman, 1993, ISBN 0-636-01896-2
- The Suit / by Can Themba; adapted by Chris van Wyk; illustrated by Renée Koch. Viva Books, 1994. ISBN 1-874932-14-X
- The Will To Die / Can Themba; selected by Donald Stuart and Roy Holland, Heinemann, 1972. ISBN 0-435-90104-4
- The World of Can Themba: selected writings of the late Can Themba, edited by Essop Patel, Ravan Press, 1985. ISBN 0-86975-145-X
- Requiem for Sophiatown. London: Penguin, 2006. ISBN 9780143185482
- South African The Order of Ikhamanga in Silver for "Excellent achievement in literature, contributing to the field of journalism and striving for a just and democratic society in South Africa." (Posthumous) 
- Good-looking Corpse: World of Drum - Jazz and Gangsters, Hope and Defiance in the Townships of South Africa, Mike Nicol, Secker & Warburg, 1991, ISBN 0-436-30986-6
- Writing from South Africa, edited by Anthony Adams & Ken Durham, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-43572-2 contains "Mob Passion" by D. Can Themba.
- Can Themba’s profile for National Orders
- 'Simplicity is not a style' - video interview about The Suit with Peter Brook and Andrew Dickson, The Guardian, 25 May 2012.
References and notes