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Leaving the forefront of African lit

Es’kia Mphahlele, in many ways the father of modern black South African writing, lived out a career that was emblematic of a whole generation of writers, and his death this week marks the closing of a particular bracket in the life of South African letters.

Mphahlele, with Lewis Nkosi, was a leading figure in the Drum generation of writers who came to prominence in the 1950s.

As fiction editor of Drum, Mphahlele was the most serious of this group and he survived both as a writer and a public intellectual while Nat Nakasa and Can Themba set the opposite trend by rapid or protracted self-destruction.

Mphahlele, on the contrary, stood for a resilient determination to hold fast, in line with his belief in what he styled as “African Humanism”, now part of his intellectual legacy to new generations of South Africans.

Always a literary pioneer and a man of great seriousness, his first passion was teaching. He outstripped the constraints of poverty and gained an education against the odds. This epic story is narrated in absorbing detail in his most famous work, Down Second Avenue (Faber, 1959; US edition, Doubleday, 1971).

In 1956 Mphahlele made a significant mark by becoming the first black South African to graduate from the Unisa department of English with a master’s (cum laude) for his dissertation, The Non-European Character in South African English Fiction, in which he takes a view of the various literary stereotypes adopted in (white) South African English writing to characterise black subjects.

This thesis became a landmark work in South African and African literary aesthetics, The African Image, published in 1962 by Faber & Faber, and again in 1974 by Praeger in New York in a revised edition.

With many of his fellow Drum writers, Mphahlele escaped apartheid South Africa, fleeing from what he called the “tyranny of place”. Down Second Avenue, with Peter Abrahams’s Tell Freedom(Faber, 1954), is probably the most famous autobiographical testimony to the outer world of exactly how the tyranny of place in South Africa felt and looked.

The imperative to “tell freedom” to the outside world, at that point, became a defining thrust in the life of black oppositional literature, and Mphahlele was at its forefront.

Down Second Avenue is justly regarded as a classic South African work because it is both vividly realised — a classic of the life-writing form, South Africa’s greatest literary genre — and because it charts a historical destiny, a representative trajectory for an entire generation: rural upbringing, migration to a “location” in the apartheid city (for Mphahlele, Marabastad near Pretoria), encounters with internalised and externalised forms of apartheid brutality, education against the odds, political disaffection and escape into a diaspora of South African exiles across Europe and the United States.

This journey is completed, and the pains of exile healed, in the second volume of Mphahlele’s autobiography, Afrika My Music: An Autobiography 1957-1983 (Ravan, 1984), which charts his return to the homeland and his symbolic reclaiming of ancestral ground, now as a revered figurehead, a leading intellectual and writer, teacher and exemplary human being. His life, rendered into writing, embodies a mythos of triumphant African regeneration.

In exile, after leaving South Africa in 1957, Mphahlele’s first stop was Nigeria, followed by stays in Kenya, Zambia and eventually the US, where he earned a PhD from the University of Denver and settled down to a teaching life at the University of Pennsylvania.

He returned to South Africa in 1977 and founded the department of African literature at Wits University in 1983, a significant event in the evolution of literature teaching in South Africa at the time.

Mphahlele’s other books include Man Must Live (1947, short stories), The Wanderers (1971, an autobiographical novel about exile), Chirundu (novel, 1979), Father Come Home (novel, 1984) and Voices in the Whirlwind and Other Essays (1972). A collection of his letters, Bury Me at the Marketplace, was published in 1984. There is much research due now on his aesthetic and fictional legacy.

A few years ago I witnessed an octogenarian Mphahlele deliver a talk to a small group of English department academics at Unisa. On the day he combined a commanding but quiet authority with chastening humility, exemplifying a dedication to literature and its teaching with the gentle force of a major figurehead in a way that left me feeling humbled and educated. He was a great South African in every possible sense of the word. — Leon de Kock

Es’kia [Ezekiel] Mphahlele, writer, was born on December 17 1919 in Marabastad, Pretoria, and died on October 27 2008 in Lebowakgomo, Limpopo

Leon de Kock is professor and head of the school of literature and language studies at the University of the Witwatersrand

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