Birthday honours for passionate academic

Edward Tsumele

Edward Tsumele

Internationally renowned South African scholar of literature and philosopher Professor E'skia Mphahlele is celebrating his 88th birthday today.

The celebrations will take place at Xarra Books in Newtown, Johannesburg, where the country's prominent literary figures are expected to converge at 5pm.

This will be a fitting honour for a man of immense talent and a sharp mind who has shaped and reconfigured the country's literary course through books and other literary scholars he has produced over the years.

His peers are the Chinua Achebes, Wole Soyinkas, Nadine Gordimers and Ngugi Wa Thiongos of this world.

Mphahlele's rise from a poverty-stricken environment to literary and academic heights is reason enough for the nation to stop for a moment andcelebrate this life that has been lived so well.

He holds the distinction of being the first African to be nominated for a Nobel Prize for literature, this while he was teaching at Denver University in the US.

He was born in Marabastad in 1919, a former ghetto and a cultural melting pot in Pretoria, whose residents at the time were likened to the "clevers" of Sophiatown of the 1950s in Johannesburg.

It is from these humble beginnings that the professor, who has since come to epitomise the fighting spirit of South Africans in as far as breaking barriers is concerned, emerged as a leading scholar of literature and philosophy.

A passionate teacher, he was forced to leave his labour of love in 1952 when Bantu Education was introduced. He was imprisoned for his activism after leading a protest against the legislation that introduced apartheid in education in South Africa.

He went into self-exile in 1957 and lived abroad for 20 years, returning in 1977 to teach at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Mphahlele, who graduated with a doctorate from Denver University, also taught at the University of Pennsylvania, where he turned down a professorship to come back home in 1977. He has also taught at Nigerian universities and in Lesotho.

His most celebrated book is his autobiography, Down Second Avenue. He has written extensively, including short stories, novels, essays, social commentary and literary criticism.

Happy birthday Prof.