Obituary: Es’kia Mphahlele 1919 – 2008
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, fleeingfrom 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.