World-renowned academic laid to rest

HEARTBROKEN: Puso Mphahlele mourns the death of his father Es'kia Mphahlele. 01/11/08. Pic. Elijar Mushiana. © Sowetan.
HEARTBROKEN: Puso Mphahlele mourns the death of his father Es'kia Mphahlele. 01/11/08. Pic. Elijar Mushiana. © Sowetan.

Frank Maponya

Despite his popularity and stature in society, world famous academic, author and journalist Professor Es'kia Mphahlele's funeral at the weekend in Lebowakgomo, Limpopo, was not as big an event as expected.

The service, which was held at the local civic centre, only attracted a handful of people.

Among those who attended were Limpopo premier Sello Moloto, ANC provincial chairman Cassel Mathale, Azapo president Mosibudi Mangena, PAC president Letlapa Mphahlele, University of Cape Town vice-chancellor Gesler Nkondo, MECs Seaparo Sekoati and Aaron Motsoaledi and executive mayor of the Capricorn district municipality Motalane Monakedi.

But in his home town it looked as if nothing was happening as locals continued with their business as usual.

Residents Sowetan spoke to attributed the disappointing reaction to the attitude the Mphahleles had towards fellow residents and neighbours.

They said the Mphahleles never bothered to attend funerals in the area, creating the impression that they could do without the support of fellow residents in their time of need.

Speakers described Mphahlele as an inspiration to the youth, calling on them to "take a leaf" from the 89-year-old retired professor who defied all odds from his impoverished background to study his way to the top and became one of the most respected academics.

Mphahlele died on Monday shortly after being admitted to the Lebowakgomo Hospital. He had complained of feeling "unwell".

Among some of his achievements was a nomination for the 1969 Nobel Prize for Literature and receiving the Les Palmes Academiques award from the French government for his contribution to the French language and culture.

He was also a recipient of the Order of the Southern Cross, bestowed on him by former president Nelson Mandela.

He was fiction editor of Drum magazine in 1955 before he was banned by the apartheid regime. He was a lecturer at several institutions in West Africa and in the US.

He returned to the country and made his mark as the first black professor at Wits University in 1977.

Mphahlele wrote several books and poems. A centre has been established at the University of Venda to preserve his work.

He is survived by his wife, Rebecca, 87, four sons and six grandchildren.