The Godfather

LITERARY GIANT: Es'kia Mphahlele gave the world important books. Pic. Johannes Dreyer. Circa. June; 2005.
LITERARY GIANT: Es'kia Mphahlele gave the world important books. Pic. Johannes Dreyer. Circa. June; 2005.

s'kia Mphahlele, one of our country's greatest writers, died yesterday. He was 89. In his last major interview, he spoke to Madala Thepa.

s'kia Mphahlele, one of our country's greatest writers, died yesterday. He was 89. In his last major interview, he spoke to Madala Thepa.

It had always been my wish to get up close with the godfather of South African literature, the man who gave the world important books such as Down Second Avenue, Afrika My MusicandThe Wanderers.

So it was with great resolve that I called him up in December last year to set up a meeting. He was not all that enthusiastic at first.

His health has been poor of late. He's 88. He suggested I come a day earlier to find out where he lived and then do the interview the following day, a Saturday.

He is sitting on a flimsy chair attached to a table without much heft to it. His arms are resting on the table. He is wearing shorts and operation scars on both knees are visible.

On the table is a glass with red liquid in it, filled to the brim and placed between his hands. On the wall is a portrait of the author wearing a dashiki. The cabinet in the living room is set with sculptures and some other plastic arts.

The house looks like a retired school principal's house - neat, clean, bare. He is watching television with his grandchild.

"You finally found the place," he says in a low, grave voice. "So, tomorrow, let's meet at 10am then."

At 9.30am I am lurking outside Mphahlele's house with a photographer. Stephina answers the door. He is called. He plods in a circle when he walks, as if he has left something behind.

The interview is conducted in Sepedi, his language.

My hope really is to twist his arm gently and get out of him secrets of the trade without asking him to act.

This is an opportunity to lash together a summary of his adult life and to highlight his dedication to the written word.

When I start off by telling him that a literary journal on the Internet claims that the name Es'kia is Ndebele, he laughs.

"There is nothing like that. Es'kia is Sotho. Those people don't know what they are talking about," he says with slight irritation. "Let me write it for you."

He takes my notebook and marks out a print - as if producing a print block, a linocut.

"This is how you write it. A small comma at the top signifies that an E was left out. It's like when I say 'I can't'. I'm not pronouncing the second 'n'. I'm not pronouncing the word in full, which is 'I cannot'. It's similar with my name. I'm not saying it because of the comma at the top."

The teacher in him has exploded, he feels the need to explain to a poor journalist.

"Do you understand?" he asks me. I nod in agreement.

"We use it to leave out certain letters. So in Sesotho the short name or short cut to Ezekiel is Es'kia," he says. "The shortening of names is old. I think the Greeks did that too and they were not the first."

I keep asking him about his days as a teacher but nothing concrete comes out of it. Another worst fear of this assignment has been realised. Mphahlele is barely audible. I have to lean in quite close.

I ask him to tell me about his experience as a clerk and shorthand typist at Ezenzeleni Institute for the Blind in Roodepoort, west of Johannesburg, where he worked for four years in the early 1940s.

"I taught the blind, taking care of their needs, taking them to town and helping them in their hostels. I taught them to read alphabets - from A to Z - in Braille."

Mphahlele was fiction editor, sub-editor and political reporter at Drum magazine from 1955 to 1957. He gives the impression he had a bad time.

"People thought it was about killings, outlaws and ruffians," he says. "I must say, it was grossly exaggerated. There were borders and limits where we had to stop."

You feel from his grunt that he doesn't want to talk much about Drum. When the magazine discontinued short-story competitions, he was devastated. In his book, the selected letters (Bury Me At The Marketplace), he laments the publication's move.

"I notice that, after all, it was good riddance to Drum: no short story anymore and apparently no competition.

"Damn pity, because with the absence of a literary or semi-literary journal, what will happen to African creative writing?"

The apartheid regime kept tightening its noose around the talented writer-educationist's neck until all legitimate and possible escape chutes were out of reach for him.

He had been expelled from his first love, teaching, for his temerity to grumble aloud about Bantu education. And the decision to terminate the literary desk at Drum meant he could no longer indulge in his other love, writing and editing short stories.

In anguish, Mphahlele packed his belongings, small family and left his beloved motherland on an exit permit, for decades vagabonding across the world.

ut his patriotism and zest for life never left him. He was afraid to grow old in the US and that was one of the reasons he returned.

"Yes, I was tired of staying in America," he says. "It was bothering me for many years and I wanted to continue with my writing.

"There's no time, people in the US do a lot of stuff. It's hard for you to do what you want to do the way you want to do it."

In his interview with another American journal he goes into philosophical detail about his return to South Africa after spending 20 years out of the country.

Mphahlele writes that "another reason for returning is that this is my ancestral home. An African cares very much where he dies and is buried. But I have not come to die. I want to reconnect with my ancestors while I am still active. I am also a captive of place, of setting. As long as I was abroad I continued to write on the South African scene".

Mphahlele's return to South Africa in 1978 was marked by protestations against his heading the English department at the University of the North.

He ended up taking a post as inspector of education in Limpopo.

He says: "They knew that a rebel was coming and that he was coming to incite our people. So they had to stop me from getting the post."

He talks about the process of writing, but not in depth like he did in his essay My Experience As A Writer, which introduced his short story collection In Corner B, published first by East African Publishing House in 1967 and later revised as a South African Modern Classic by Penguin in 2006.

l This profile first appeared in Wordsetc in May. It was Es'kia Mphahlele's last major interview. For more information, visit .