/ 28 October 2008

Mphahlele, first black professor at Wits, dead at 88

Ezekiel Es’kia Mphahlele, author and African literature professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, died on Monday. He was 88.

Mphahlele died of natural causes at the Lebowakgomo hospital in Limpopo, said his son-in-law Shibe Maruatona.

Mphahlele was born in 1919 in Marabastad. As a boy he herded cattle in the Northern Transvaal and then was educated at Adams Teaching Training College.

He qualified as a teacher but was banned from classroom in the early 1950s because of his opposition to the Bantu Education Act of 1953.

In the mid 1950s he worked as an editor for Drum, and in 1956 obtained a master’s degree from the University of South Africa.

Mphahlele went into exile in 1957 and subsequently lived in Nigeria, where he was an editor of the Black Orpheus periodical.

He also lived in Kenya and Zambia and later attended the University of Denver and obtained his PhD. He then taught at the University of Pennsylvania.

He returned to South Africa in 1977 and later became the first black professor at Wits and founded its African Literature Department.

He was a best known for his novel Down Second Avenue (1959), which portrays his early life as a black South African.

The Azanian People’s Organisation on Tuesday offered its condolences to Mphahlele’s family. Azapo secretary general Strike Thokoane said his death was a great loss.

Referring to the 2006 Steve Biko Colloquium which Mphahlele addressed, Thokoane said: ”Among some of the concerns raised by Ntate Mphahlele was the deterioration of African cultural norms in our society, which has led to the disrespect shown to the elderly people of our country.”

Thokoane added: ”You [Mphahlele’s family] are not the only ones who have lost, but the entire nation of South Africa. Azania will miss this gifted son of the soil.” – Sapa