South African writer, academic, arts activist and African Humanist
Extract from media statement on the passing of Dr. Es’kia Mphahlele (1919 - 2008): By Minister of culture & society, Dr Z. Pallo Jordan
Es'kia [Ezekiel] Mphahlele, doyen of African letters, passed away in Lebowakgomo, Limpopo, on the evening of 27th October, 2008 at the ripe age of eighty-eight.
Mphahlele was the illustrious author of two autobiographies, more than thirty short stories, two verse plays and a fair number of poems.
“Add to these, two anthologies edited, essay collections, innumerable single essays, addresses, awards and a Nobel Prize nomination for literature and what emerges is to many the Dean of African Letters,” writes Peter Thuynsma, a leading Mphahlele scholar, in Perspectives on South African English Literature (1992: 221).
A self-made man, Mphahlele received a BA degree in 1949, followed in 1956 by a BA Honours degree and in 1957 by an MA degree (with distinction). He studied for his three degrees by correspondence with the University of South Africa. In 1968, he received his doctorate from the University of Denver in the USA.
Mphahlele was born in Marabastad, Pretoria, on December 17th 1919. His parents sent him to Maupaneng, near Polokwane, to go and live with his paternal grandmother. He came back to Marabastad to start school and received his high school education at St. Peter’s College, Rossetenville. It was there that he encountered personalities whose lives would run a close parallel to his.
From St. Peters Mphahlele went on to study at Adams College in Natal, where he qualified as a teacher in 1940. He completed his matric, studying by correspondence while he held down two jobs as a teacher and short-hand typist at Ezenzeleni Institute for the Blind in Roodepoort, in 1942.
The 1940s were a decade of momentous change throughout the world. On the Rand, where Mphahlele was, a group of youthful members of the ANC came together to form the ANC Youth League. Dr A.B. Xuma at about the same time called together a group of African opinion leaders and thinkers to draft an African response to the Atlantic Charter, authored by Roosevelt and Churhill. With all these events swirling around him Mphahlele’s passion remained education rather than politics, however, and his talents were better suited to the classroom than the soapbox or newsroom.
He took up the post of English and Afrikaans teacher at Orlando High School. There, in the company of many freshly-minted from Fort Hare young teachers he became active in the Transvaal African Teachers Associaion (TATA). The 1949 Eislen Commission on Native Education, inspired by Dr. H.F. Verwoerd, the recently elected National Party’s Minister of Native Affairs, had recommended a radically new system of Education for Africans. TATA, together with other teachers’ organisations in the Cape, the Free State and Natal, took up the cudgels to oppose it. For his participation in that agitation, in December 1952 Eskia Mphahlele, Isaac Matlare and Zephaniah Mothopeng were dismissed from their posts and permanently banned from teaching.
Mphahlele returned briefly to Ezenzeleni as a secretary. In 1954 he left on his to teach at Basutoland (later, Lesotho) High School in Maseru.
Returning to South Africa a year later, he found work with Drum magazine, where at various stages he held the posts of political reporter, sub-editor and fiction editor. Mphahlele was something of a misfit there and, yearning to teach, he sought other outlets for his talent.
Responding to an appeal for teachers from Nigeria, Mphahlele left South Africa in 1957 together with a number of other African teachers whom the apartheid regime considered unemployable. The ANC requested him to represent it at the first Pan-African conference to be held on African soil and hosted by Ghana in 1959.
It was in West Africa that he began to blossom as a literary figure. Having broken out of the constraints of apartheid racism he was able to rub shoulders with other African writers and intellectuals. He had a brief association with Ulli Beier, a German Africanist whose literary journal, Black Orpheus, made a huge impact amongst African writers in the English language.
Mphahlele launched his literary career with the publication of Man Must Live in 1946. It was the second collection of short stories in English by an African writer after Dark Testament by Peter Abrahams, who had been Mphahlele’s classmate at St Peter’s.
In the 1950’s, Mphahlele wrote a series of stories published in Drum. The Lesane stories helped consolidate the short story tradition in South African literature that stands among the best in the world. The Drum era produced, in quick succession, Bessie Head, Arthur Maimane, Todd Matshikiza, James Matthews, Bloke Modisane, Casey Motsisi, Lewis Nkosi, Richard Rive, and Can Themba.
The autobiographical Down Second Avenue (1957), Mphahlele’s crowning achievement, has been translated into several foreign languages but not a single African language indigenous to South Africa. It became the second in a distinguished line of autobiographies by African authors from South Africa after Abrahams’ Tell Freedom (1954) that included Road to Ghana by Alfred Hutchinson, Chocolates for My Wife by Todd Matshikiza, Blame Me on History by Bloke Modisane and Autobiography of an Unknown South African by Naboth Mokgatle.
Mphahlele’s literary and academic career took off in exile. Two collections of short stories followed Man Must Live. The Living and the Dead appeared from West Africa in 1961. Six years later, he issued In Corner B from East Africa. The contents of both collections of short stories are included in The Unbroken Song (1986), which also contains some of Mphahlele’s poems.
Turning to scholarship, in 1962 he published The African Image, based on his MA thesis in which he provides a history of African literature in South Africa, which he juxtaposes with an examination of the African character in literature by writers of European ancestry. A second and revised edition appeared twelve years later.
His engagement with literary and cultural production in the African Diaspora finds expression in Voices in the Whirlwind and Other Essays (1972), which examines African and African-American literature in relation to the Western tradition.
His career as a novelist produced The Wanderers, a novel of exile originally submitted as a dissertation for his PhD in creative writing.
The Wanderers was followed in 1979 by Chirundu, resulting from his abortive attempt to establish residence in Zambia in 1968 and illustrating “the tyranny of place” and how exile defeated him.
A second volume of his autobiography appeared in 1984 as Afrika My Music, written in the convention of the memoir and depicting various people who have been part of the author’s life. Written after his return from exile, it also seems to rationalise his decision to return to South Africa at the height of apartheid repression.
For a while Mphahlele worked with the Paris based Congress for Cultural Freedom, organising conferences and workshops on education, literature, arts and culture. He was instrumental in establishing the Chemchemi Creative Centre in Kenya and the Mbari Club in Nigeria that became the hub of activity in African arts and culture. During the mid 1960s the Congress for Cultural Freedom was exposed as a CIA front organisation, employed to sow dissent amongst artists in the Soviet Union and other east European countries. Its activities on the African continent were probably as suspect. The journal, Encounter, published by this body, swiftly lost credibility and has since disappeared.
In a career spawning sixty years, Mphahlele received many international awards, among them: several honorary doctoral degrees and the Les Palmes Academiques medal from the French government recognising his contribution to French language and culture. In 1968, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature. In 1998 President Nelson Mandela awarded him the Order
In 1957, Thuynsma writes, “he resolved to leave for a life in exile which led him through residence in Nigeria, France, Kenya, Zambia, and a double sojourn in the USA.”
Twenty years later, amidst much controversy, he returned to South Africa, feeling defeated by exile and yearning for home. His return to South Africa coincides with the last decade of the system that had sought so hard to destroy him. He devoted himself to literature and cultural work, eschewing hard politics.
Soft-spoken, humble, urbane, cosmopolitan, erudite and exuding ubuntu, Es’kia Mphahlele embodied in his person and in his work what he described as “the personification of the African paradox – detribalised, westernised but still African”.
Mokgaga oa Makubela, Es'kia Mphahlele, has left us. May he go well.
• De Kock, L. (2008). Leaving the forefront of African lit. Mail and Guardian [Online] 1 November. Available at: mg.co.za/ [Accessed 08 June 2010]