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Es'kia Mphahlele: 1919 – 2008

Tribute to Es'kia

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South Africa’s preeminent man of letters and philosophy, Es’kia Mphahlele, born Ezekiel Mphahlele in Marabastad (the “Sophiatown of Pretoria”) in 1919, has died. He passed away last night in Polokwane, Limpopo Province, just over a month before his 89th birthday.

The author, most famously, of the seminal memoir Down Second Avenue – first published in 1959, it has never, to my knowledge, gone out of print – his influence on latter-day African thinking and literature, and his reach across the oceans to centres of learning in the Americas, Europe, and Asia, is comparable to that of other giants of the continent like Ngugi, Soyinka and Achebe.

In a conversation with BOOK SA this morning, one person very close to Mphahlele described him as a “gentle man of iron”, who, though taking happiness in South Africa’s transition to freedom, found much amiss with contemporary society. “He offered an alternative model of masculinity,” the person said. Looking at the violence and misgovernance that plagues South Africa, “he mourned our inability to learn”.

In 1945, Mphahlele married Rebecca Mochadibane, a social worker; they had five children. He published his first book, Man Must Live and Other Stories in 1947, and was fiction editor of Drum magazine in the mid-1950s. From 1957 to 1987, Mphahlele lived in exile, having first become a member of the ANC, but later disassociating himself from the organisation. He lived in Kenya, Zambia, France and the USA, and, like several other illustrious black South Africans – including Njabulo Ndebele – studied at the University of Denver, where he received a PhD.

In 1998 former President Nelson Mandela awarded Mphahlele the Order of the Southern Cross, then the highest recognition granted by the South African Government. (Today it would be the Order of Mapungubwe.)

From Down Second Avenue


Saturday night. Darkness. Sounds of snoring from my uncle at the corner. Like the muted lowing of a cow. Tomorrow the other uncle sleeping with him on the floor will complain that he had been roused from his sleep by the snoring. My younger brother doesn’t stir beside me. Nor the youngest uncle the other side of him under the same blanket as we. They say I’m a bad sleeper and when sleep descends on me there is going to be tugging and tossing and rolling among the three of us. I know the cold air coming through the hole in the flooring boards will whip us out of sleep as it plays upon bare flesh, else one’s leg will rest on my neck and then I shall dream that some fiend is slitting my throat and I shall jump up with a scream… Tins of beer dug into the floor behind the stack and the strong smell of fermenting malt and grey spots on the floor around the holes. No policeman will find it easily. Policeman? Saturday night. The men in uniform may even now be sniffing about in the yard. Far to the west end of Marabastad a police whistle, the barking of dogs – no it must be in Fourth Avenue maybe because I hear heavy booted footsteps, it’s sure to be a person running away from the law, the police cells, the court and jail. Saturday night and it’s ten to ten. I can hear the big curfew bell at the police station peal “ten to ten, ten to ten, ten to ten” for the Black man to be out of the streets to be at home to be out of the policeman’s reach… The Saturday night buzz has now been muffled. Siki is walking down the street playing his guitar the one he carries about on him, the guitar he plays while he coughs on and on, for he has been coughing ever since I knew him, a long long time. Siki’s music comes and goes and comes and goes… the music fades and is gone fused with the night. “The white man is strong”, funny this comes to me as I seem to hear my mother say it: the white man’s strong I don’t know you mustn’t stand in his way or he’ll hurt you, maybe when you’re big I don’t know you will open your mouth and say what is in your heart but remember now the white man has a strong arm. Saturday night and I’m thinking of school and my classmates. I feel so weak, inferior, ignorant, self-conscious. Saturday night and I’m still thinking and feeling… Mathebula is asleep maybe but I think through his herbs he can see me wide awake. He put a stick into the fire when he went to bed as he always does to keep away other people’s baboons but he cannot tell us how to keep the police away. I wonder what the matter is with Mathebula’s herbs…

Es’kia Mphahele links

Memorial services for Es’kia Mphahlele have yet to be announced. Anyone with further information please post a comment below. BOOK SA wishes the Mphahlele family strength in this time of grief.

“Mokgaga oa makubela, Es’kia Mphahlele, the Afrikan literary giant, has joined his beloved, Rebecca, in the land of the ancestors.”

Book Details

  • Es’kia: Es’kia Mphahlele on Education, African Humanism and Culture, Social Consciousness, Literary Appreciation by Es’kia Mphahlele
    EAN: 9780795701511
    Find this book with BOOK Finder!

Photo courtesy Victor Dlamini


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    October 28th, 2008 @11:17 #

    What a sad loss to literature. He was a great man and a great writer.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    October 28th, 2008 @13:48 #

    Another elder becomes an ancestor. I really feel a pang. He and I collaborated on a poetry textbook for university students, Seasons Come to Pass, and it's still going from strength to strength. Anything I know about continental African and African-American poetry is directly due to him, and I was tickled and deeply honoured to introduce him to a few local poets -- I still remember him calling me to say "Who is this Tatamkulu Afrika?" Sala hantle, ntate.

  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    October 28th, 2008 @14:26 #

    That's a wonderful vignette, Helen.

  • mashudu
    October 29th, 2008 @09:54 #

    When I heard from the goat of the road about the passing on of Mokgaga , I came close to tears and I immediatly said:Mokgapa o mogolo o wele dithaba tsa sala dilla matlorotloro.This is how I can humbly desrcibe Mokgaga the sage.I , like others who knew him feel the pang.I wonder if the people of Zone A in Lebowakgomo knew that they had a Shakespear of Africa in their mist.I doubt so as they would have honored him somehow.It is so sad that the educational system that our generation went through deprived us studying his work at Univeristies and Schools.When I stayed in Lebowakgomo, I had suggested to the Mayor to name a newly built Library in Zone A after him and to my disappointment this fell into the deaf ear as it were.Mokgaga left us a huge legacy in our shelves and as such we must therefore celebrate his life.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    October 29th, 2008 @14:08 #

    When I was a student at Wits in the early 80s, Ezekiel Mphalele, Zekes (as he was called affectionately by his students - although not to his face - in those days) taught African Literature at Wits. He was one of those figures that you would catch sight of in the corridors of Senate House and it made me feel like I was in a better world, a richer, more fascinating, realler world than the one I came from. He used to wear short sleeve loosely fitting African print shirts. Sadly I didn't take Afridcan literature as a subject.

    Philip Dixie used "Down Second Avenue" and "Kes" by Barry Hines as central texts for his Sociology of Education course. When I did English Honours I wrote a long essay on autobiography using "Down Second Avenue" as my primary text. I love that book, as a student teacher and a teacher it always gave me a frame of reference that wasn't immediately apparent in the world I inhabited. My first teaching post was at Edenvale High where some of the kids said things like "they burn down their schools, why should we build them new ones?"

    I did my H Dip Ed at UCT and about 20 of us were fortunate enough to go to what was then unfortunately Bophutatswana to do our teaching prac. We stayed in the Pilanesberg Nature Reserve next door to Sun City and taught at schools in the area. The rural school at the village of Gaopotlake reminded me of the school described so beautifully in "Down Second Avenue".

    What I am trying to say is that "Down Second Avenue" is a book that shaped my consciousness for the better as I was becoming a young adult in a country that was in bad shape in the mid 80s.

  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    October 29th, 2008 @21:01 #

    Another fine vignette. Thanks, Colleen.

  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    October 29th, 2008 @21:02 #

    Just got this memorial service info by sms:

    "In memory and honour of sage and scholar Prof Es'kia Mphahlele, please join us on Friday 31 Oct, 3pm Windybrow Theatre, cnr Nugget and Pietersen Sts, Hillbrow."


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