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By Shola Adenekan


Saturday/Sunday, November 8-9, 2008.


Ezekiel Es’kia Mphahlele who has died aged 88, was a giant of modern African literature. Mphahlele’s journey from childhood in the slums of Pretoria to a literary icon was an odyssey of struggle both intellectually and politically. As a writer, he drew on his real-life experience in and outside South Africa to bear on his short stories, autobiography and history, developing the concept of African Humanism in the process.


While he was a good short stories writer, it was in the genre of autobiography that he was widely praised by critics.  In Down Second Avenue (1959), he was extoiled for his skilful evocation of the black experience under apartheid. The book detailed the adversities he overcame in order to get an education and then outlined the setbacks he experienced in his teaching career.


Mphahlele was born on December 17, 1919, in Marabastad, a ghetto in Pretoria that was mainly populated by blacks alongside some poor Indians and people of mixed blood. His father Moses was an alcoholic who abused his own mother and wife. Mphahlele’s mother was Eva Mogale, the daughter of a cobbler cum minister of the Lutheran Church.


Since his father took no interest in their education, it fell on his mother and grandparents to raise the young Mphahlele and his siblings. Working several jobs, they found the money to send Mphahlele to a good local school. The pressure of expectation led to a nervous breakdown just before his final high school examinations.


He passed easily however, and after working as a messenger for a year enrolled at Adams College, a teacher training college in Natal. It was during this period that he discovered his creative streak, managing to start work on a collection of short stories while studying and doing odd jobs at the same time. 


After several rejections, the book, Man Must Live, was published in 1946 by African Bookman, the only black publishers at the time. The book not only brought Mphahlele to the limelight with mixed reviews from major newspapers, it was also the first published collection of short stories by a black South African.


These were tumultuous times in South Africa, Mphahlele had just completed a correspondence degree from the University of South Africa and the architect of apartheid D.F. Malan, had just being elected Prime Minister.


In 1952, just when he was settling to life as a secondary school teacher at Orlando, a Johannesburg Township, the government introduced the segregationist Bantu Education Act. Mphahlele, now one of the senior members of the local teaching union joined the protest against the law, he was arrested, jailed and on released was banned from teaching at government-controlled schools.


Initially,  he was unable to find stable means of income, until he joined Drum magazine, South Africa’s most prominent radical publication at the time, as a reporter and sub-editor. Drum published some of Mphahlele’s short stories and his activism and literary bent at this period also brought him into contact with other up-and-coming South African artists and writers, including the young Nadine Gordimer.


Mphahlele’s banning and his disillusionment with political developments in South Africa made him decided to leave South Africa for Nigeria in 1957. He taught briefly at C.M.S Grammar School in Lagos, before joining the University of Ibadan, where he not only made friends with such rising literary talent as Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and Christopher Okigbo, but he helped launched two literary magazines.


From 1957 to 1977, Mphahlele was a restless man in self-imposed exile. The present, he told his biographer N. Chabani Mangayi, was an ephemeral place to be. He renounced his South African passport for a British passport and he often referred to the “itch to move”. He was a teacher at the University of Denver, Colorado, where he earned his PhD in 1968, and later at the University of Pennsylvania.  He also worked in several universities in Africa and served as an artistic director in Paris.


While Mphahlele went to several African countries to assert his Africanness, the independent Africa he saw was being led by “a grotesque mixture of tyrant and clown” and “mere caretakers of European governments.”


As a lecturer at American universities, lambasted the blatant racism amidst American Puritanism.


It was in Paris, where he lived from 1961-63, that he became acquainted with the two leading proponents of Negritude, Leopold Senghor and Aime Cesaire. But Mphahlele rejected the exoticness of Negritude. Mphahlele’s answer to Negritude The African Image (1962) was the first major work to deal with the question of an African aesthetic and was also the first major work of literary criticism written by any South African writer, black or white.


After criss-crossing three continents, nostalgia soon set in and Mphahlele began making move to regain his South African citizenship, Aged 57, he returned to South Africa in 1977, dropping the European sounding Ezekiel for the African-sounding Es’Kia.


"I want to be part of the renaissance that is happening in the thinking of my people," he commented. "I see education as playing a vital role in personal growth and in institutionalizing a way of life that a people chooses as its highest ideal.”


His return to South Africa led to other critically-acclaimed work such as Chirundu (1979), Father Come Home (1984) and the second volume of  Afrika My Music (1984).

The decision to return, in the wake of the Soweto Revolt of 1976, surprised his fellow exiles, but Mphahlele felt that being in South Africa was essential to his life and work.  “I want to be part of the renaissance that is happening in the thinking of my people,” he commented.  “I see education as playing a vital role in personal growth and in institutionalizing a way of life that a people chooses as its highest ideal.”

His return to
South Africa led to other critically-acclaimed work such as Chirundu (1979), based on experiences during a brief appointment in Lusaka, Zambia, and more autobiography, notably Afrika My Music (1984). He spent his remaining years writing and teaching at the University of the Witwatersrand. In 1994, he was given

South Africa’s highest honour, The Order of the Southern Cross by then President Nelson Mandela. Despite his talent and fame, Mphahlele or “Uncle Zeke” as he was fondly called, lived a life of simple means.  He adored music, classical as well as jazz, European and African, and was often seen in faded denim.


His wife, Rebecca Mochedibane, whom he married in 1945, predeceased him, as did several children.  He is survived by a son.   


Ezekiel Mphahlele (Es'kia Mphahlele), writer and teacher: born Marabastad, South Africa 17 December 1919. He died on October 27, 2008 in  Lebowakgomo, South Africa.  


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