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Literary world left poorer with Mphahlele's passing

By unknown | Oct 31, 2008 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

Pallo Jordan

Pallo Jordan

Es'kia Mphahlele was the illustrious author of two autobiographies, more than 30 short stories, two verse plays and a fair number of poems.

Mphahlele, pictured, was born on December 17 1919 in Marabastad, Pretoria. His parents sent him to live with his paternal grandmother in Maupaneng near Polokwane in Limpopo.

He came back to Marabastad to start school and attended St Peter's College in Rossetenville.

He went on to study at Adams College in Natal, where he qualified as a teacher in 1940.

He completed his matric by correspondence while holding down two jobs as a teacher and shorthand typist at the Ezenzeleni Institute for the Blind in Roodepoort in 1942.

A self-made man, Mphahlele received a BA degree in 1949, followed in 1956 by a BA Honours degree and by an MA degree (with distinction) in 1957. In 1968 he received his doctorate from the University of Denver in the US.

Mphahlele took up the post of English and Afrikaans teacher at Orlando High School. There, in the company of many freshly minted young teachers from Fort Hare he became active in the Transvaal African Teachers Association Tata).

The 1949 Eislen Commission on Native Education, inspired by HF Verwoerd, the National Party's minister of native affairs, had recommended a radically new system of education for Africans.

Tata, with other teacher organisations, took up the cudgels to oppose it. For his participation in that agitation in December 1952 Mphahlele, Isaac Matlare and Zephaniah Mothopeng were dismissed from their posts and permanently banned from teaching.

In 1954 he left to teach at the Basutoland 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, subeditor and fiction editor.

Responding to an appeal for teachers from Nigeria, Mphahlele left South Africa in 1957. The ANC asked him to represent it at the first Pan-African conference hosted by Ghana in 1959.

Mphahlele had launched his literary career with the publication of Man Must Live in 1946. In the 1950s Mphahlele wrote a series of stories published in Drum .

The Drum era was to produce, 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 South African language.

Mphahlele's literary and academic career took off in exile. Two collections of short stories followed Man Must Live.

TheLiving and the Dead appeared from West Africa in 1961. Six years later he issuedIn 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.

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,followed in 1979 byChirundu.

A second volume of his autobiography appeared in 1984 as Afrika My Music, written in the convention of the memoir.

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".


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