A search for inner peace

Bessie took up a teaching post in Durban after finishing her training. But the teaching life was not for her. At the age of 21, she decided to leave Durban and move to Cape Town. Cadmore was opposed to this decision and told Bessie that she was being foolhardy. Bessie nonetheless moved to Cape Town and established herself a reporter. She lived in District Six, a vibrant mixed-race community that was later destroyed by the apartheid government under the pretext tha it was in an area set aside for whites. Bessie was the only female writer hired to work for the Golden City Post newspaper. It was an eye-opening experience. She came into contact with politically active people for the first time in her life. She also reflected on her identity, hoping that Cape Town would  be an "ideal place for my mixed-race soul". But she was disappointed and her search for inner peace continued as this extract from a letter to Margaret Cadmore, written and published in a book on Bessie in 1958, shows:

"I detest snobbery but maybe I'm a mental snob...I search avidly for anyone really intelligent. With intelligent people one forgets such shameful matters as the colour of one's skin and facial features which seem to matter so much in South Africa. Heavens! I will not ape anybody. I am an individual. No one shall make me ashamed of what I am!"

After a year in Cape Town, Head moved to Johannesburg where she began writing for the hugely influential Drum magazine. This was one of the few magazines that wrote about the lives and stories of black people. Here she became one of Drum's most popular reporters.


Whilst in Johannesburg, Head became politically active. She met Robert Sobukwe, leader of the Pan African Congress (PAC), just before the Sharpeville massacre. In the political turmoil after the shootings, she was arrested on suspicion of being a PAC operative. The police tortured a confession out of her, despite the fact that she knew very little about the organisation. Her testimony did not result in any arrests but she was shattered and tried to commit suicide. After spending time in hospital, Bessie Head returned to Cape Town.

back to the Bessie Head memorial page

"I'm an individual. Nobody shall make me ashamed of who I am!"
Bessie Head


In this lesson plan, learners will get a small taste of the power of Bessie Head's writing. They will also be exposed to the great personal suffering she endured, partly as a result of the hurtful ideas about coloured people that were encouraged during apartheid. Head's letters tell us a great deal about the loneliness caused by prejudice.

Lesson plan
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Artwork photo gallery
More images of Bessie's memorial artwork erected at Werda Hoerskool in Hillary, Durban.
Archive photo gallery
'Life in pictures' - these images range from when she was a young journalist to when she was at Serowe, Botswana.