Mphahlele was born on 17 December 1919 in Marabastad near Pretoria. He spent his early childhood with his paternal grandmother in Maupeneng in today’s Limpopo Province. When he was 12 he, his brother and sister went to live with their parents in Pretoria. After Mphahlele’s father was arrested and convicted for domestic abuse, and abandoned the family, the children returned to Marabastad to live in their maternal grandmother’s household. This was the Second Avenue address immortalised in his autobiography, Down Second Avenue.
Mphahlele married Rebecca Mochedibane, a teacher and social worker in August 1941. They had four sons, Anthony, Patrick, Robert and Puso, and a daughter, Teresa.
Quotations from family
My father came from an unhappy family background. I guess in an effort to shield us from the sort of pain he went through, he created a very warm family atmosphere for us. He has instilled in me a desire to acquire knowledge and to become a complete person. I love him dearly.
I found him very reserved but highly intelligent. ... I am an extrovert and over the years I have succeeded of pulling him out of himself and getting him to relax and open up. Anyhow in 1945, I prepared myself to learn how to find common ground between my characteristics and his. This in turn taught me patience.
Mphahlele went to St Peter’s Secondary School, an Anglican private school in Rosettenville, Johannesburg. Many well-known black South Africans attended the school, including former president of the ANC Oliver Tambo, the novelist Peter Abrahams, and the musician Hugh Masekela.
Mphahlele trained as a teacher at Adams College in 1939-1940 and would spend most of his life as a teacher or lecturer. He worked at the Ezenzeleni School for the Blind and studied part-time to obtain his Senior Certificate in 1942. In 1945 he began teaching at Orlando High School, while he studied through UNISA, and obtained a BA in 1949. Still studying part-time, he was awarded Honours in 1955, an MA with distinction in 1956, and a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Denver in 1968.
In 1952 Mphahlele joined a protest against the imposition of segregated schooling. He was arrested, and barred from teaching in government schools. After a series of clerical posts, in 1954 he taught in Basotholand (now Lesotho). In 1955 he returned to teach at St Peter’s but, a victim of the Group Areas Act, the school shut down the next year. Mphahlele then joined Drum magazine as a fiction editor and journalist.
In 1957 Mphahlele’s desire to teach helped him make the difficult decision to leave South Africa. Unable to settle, he lived in Nigeria, France, Kenya, the USA, and Zambia. He taught, and worked in the cultural sector, while he continued to write and study. His positions included teaching at the Church Missionary Society Grammar School and the University of Ibadan; Director of the African Program of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, Paris-based but which enabled him to regularly travel to Africa; co-founder of the Mbari Writers and Artists Club in Ibadan; editor of Black Orpheus, a journal of African creative writing; Director of the then Chemchemi Cultural Institute in Nairobi; and teaching posts at the Universities of Denver and Pennsylvania. The family was often apart, and the theme of exile permeates Mphahlele’s later work.
Banning under Apartheid
Mphahlele was banned from 1966 to 1978, under laws introduced by the apartheid-era South African government to silence its critics. The 1950 Suppression of Communism Act (renamed the Internal Security Act in 1976) allowed the government to close organisations and silence people that supported or promoted communism or protested against apartheid. Both St Peter’s School and Adams College closed rather than submit to the requirements of Bantu Education.
In 1977 Mphahlele decided to return to South Africa permanently. In doing so he surprised many fellow exiles as he would be certain to face censure.
He was offered a post at the University of the North in the homeland of Lebowa. The South African government, however, pressurised the university to rescind the offer. He instead became a school inspector in Lebowa. In 1979, once he was unbanned, he was appointed as a senior research fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). In 1983 he became the first black professor to be appointed at Wits, and was instrumental in the establishment of the university’s Department of African Literature. He retired in 1987.
After his retirement Mphahlele accepted short academic teaching appointments at universities in South Africa and the United States. He continued to write columns for journals and newspapers, including Tribute, mostly on education and giving advice for aspiring writers. He also devoted time to educational and community development projects and writers’ workshops. This included the Funda Centre in Soweto which provided arts training and resources for the youth.
Mphahlele died on 29 October 2008 in Lebowakgomo. He had a small funeral at the local civic centre, attended by family and dignitaries.
Living abroad for twenty years helped us grow closer to each other. How lucky, how blessed we have been, when you consider that exile has broken up many a family.
Wherever African students are to be found, and I am allowed to teach them, I will do it. ... There was nothing that said a person cannot or should not work in a system he abhors.
Exile had become for me a ghetto of the mind. My return to Africa was a way of dealing with the concrete reality of blackness in South Africa rather than with the phantoms and echoes that attend exile.
Mphahlele advanced what he called African Humanism. Humanism is a western philosophy, according to which humans should control their destiny through rational thinking, and make moral choices ungoverned by religion or the supernatural. African Humanism includes a belief in a supreme being and reverence of one’s ancestors, and also advocates a human-centred world in which one respects nature, other people, particularly the elderly, and also the power of human interaction and mediation.
Mphahlele wrote extensively about the conflict between traditional African and western culture and values. He acknowledged that colonialism and the introduction of Christianity caused the breakdown of the building blocks of traditional society.I am a confirmed African Humanist. My religion is a poet’s religion. ...… The image of God is, in the first place, a poetic creation, a state of mind. Those who create a god who justifies for them the desire and will to shut other people out of their lives in order to establish an exclusive enclave for themselves must be utterly poor in spirit. ... African Humanism is inclusive, not exclusive.
Mphahlele’s body of work includes novels, short stories, and autobiography, as well as articles and essays on subjects ranging from literary criticism and education to politics, humanism and the African Renaissance. His love of writing began in earnest while he was studying to become a teacher.
He was a prolific letter writer and his letters reveal his range of interests, his warmth, openness to others’ ideas, and sense of humour. He had several long correspondences with family, friends, fellow writers and academics. Mphahlele wrote about his need to make an effort when writing. Writing for him had to be something of value.A story well told: This became an obsession with me. I retold a folk tale for a school contest at Adams and took away the first prize of ten shillings. I would try to relax, seek refuge, in the workshop of the mind. I would listen to the stories milling around in the workshop, looking for words to give them form. Before I knew what I was doing I had embarked on the great adventure of storytelling. I must write, if only because one day I shall find something to say, and will need to have had some practice in the way to say it.
Man Must Live and Other Stories
One of the earliest published works of fiction by a black South Africa writer.
The Living and the Dead and Other Stories
Published in Nigeria, this collection features his best known short story, “The Suitcase”.
In Corner B
Published in Kenya, this collection includes the novella “Mrs Plum” which interrogates the dynamics between black and white in apartheid South Africa.
The Unbroken Song: Selected Writings
Short stories from earlier collections, and several poems. Extracts re-published as Renewal Time in 1988.
Down Second Avenue
Mphahlele on his early life and the people, places and events that shaped it. Down Second Avenue has been translated into many languages and adapted into a comic book for children.
Afrika My Music
Mphahlele on his 20 years of exile, and his return to South Africa.
Semi-autobiographical novel that reflects on living in exile in Africa. Written for PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Denver.
The story of the fall of a powerful government minister. The character Pitso, like Mphahlele, returns home to an uncertain future.
Father Come Home
A youth novel set at the time of the 1913 Land Act. A young boy goes in search of his father, who left their village to find work.
The African Image
Examines African identity and culture, and the portrayal of black Africans in literature. Revised and expanded in 1974.
Voices in the Whirlwind and Other Essays
Essays on black poetry, Pan-Africanism, censorship and African literature and culture.
Essays on education, African Humanism, culture, social consciousness and literary appreciation.
Further essays on education, African Humanism, culture, social consciousness and literary appreciation.
1984 Bury me at the Marketplace: Selected Letters of Es'kia Mphahlele 1943-1980.
Edited by N. Chabani Manganyi, a fascinating glimpse into Mphahlele’s life. Expanded and reissued in 2010.
Mphahlele’s famous novel Chirundu is set in a fictional, recently independent African country, steeped in pre-colonial histories, traditions and ethnic rivalries, but now industrialised and rapidly becoming urbanised, and with people fighting for political power in the government.
Mphahlele explains that Chirundu is premised on a true story about a government minister tried for bigamy in Zambia: ‘The story of the novel itself is a true story, apart from Chirundu, the main character’s married life and so on. One morning I woke up and got hold of the newspaper, and read that a cabinet minister was being prosecuted for bigamy; that is the bare story of the matter. … I tried to probe his character, his temperament, his beliefs.’
In creating the character of Chirundu, Mphahlele commented: ‘I’m pretty merciless with him – deliberately so. And I want to show how this kind of power that oozes out of a man affects other human beings around him.’ In Tirenje, Mphahlele creates a strong woman, willing to stand up to her husband in spite of his power and influence. Mphahlele was often praised for the authentic women characters he created.
Chimba Chirundu is a teacher and political activist turned government minister. He marries Tirenje, his girlfriend and mother to his children, under customary law and later by marriage licence. He then meets Monde, an educated, urbanised woman and also marries her under licence. The other main character, Chirundu’s nephew Moyo, moves to the city, where Chirundu finds him a job. When Tirenje finds out about Monde she objects to sharing her husband and charges Chirundu with bigamy. Moyo tries to mediate between Chirundu and Tirenje, but Chirundu is tried, found guilty and jailed.
Mphahlele uses an interesting technique in the novel: ‘I decided that I would have three people talking -- himself, his wife Tirenje and his nephew, so that each one of them might give us another dimension of Chirundu’s character.’
Mphahlele initially had difficulty getting Chirundu published. After his banning order was lifted in December 1978, Ravan Press published the novel, with Lionel Abrahams as editor.
Mphahlele’s humanism shows in this novel in the respect for traditions and communal values, and opposition to forces that break down social relationships.
Mphahlele was recognised as one of the elder statesmen of South African letters. He received many awards including nomination for the Nobel Prize in 1969; France’s Orders des Palmes Académiques for contributions to language and culture in 1986; the Order of the Southern Cross (silver) in 1998, presented by President Nelson Mandela; the Crystal Award for Distinguished Service in the Arts from the World Economic Forum in 1998; and a Lifetime Achievement Award at the South African Literary Awards in 2005.
Mphahlele’s contributions to literature and education remain relevant. He resisted the colonial bias in the South African education system, and disliked having to teach literature to which students could not relate, both culturally and metaphorically. His role in establishing African literature in the curriculum is testimony to his focus.
Mphahlele’s ideals can be associated with the vision of the African Renaissance, an economic and cultural rebirth of the African continent through the efforts of Africans, guided by Africanist philosophies, values, and notions of identity. A centre was established in his name at the University of Venda in 2001 and he is remembered in his home town of Pretoria in the name of the central library, and Es’kia Mphahlele Drive. In 2009, UNISA established the annual Es’kia Mphahlele Memorial Lecture, to keep Mphahlele’s humanistic ideals and memory alive.