Prof Tinyiko Maluleke, Vice-Chancellor and Principal at the Tshwane University of Technology.
“I have never known why we — my brother, sister and I — were taken to the country when I was five.”
Thus begins one of the best African autobiographies — Down Second Avenue — a book whose shadow is cast over several subsequent African works of fiction and non-fiction. The opening line is a literary device designed both to grab the reader’s attention and to abduct the reader into the life story of one of the doyens of African literature — Es’kia Mphahlele.
On the face of it, this first sentence is also a “grievance” on behalf of three little kids, who in the autumn of 1924, were inexplicably uprooted from Marabastad in Pretoria, where their parents lived and worked, to the village of Maupaneng outside Pietersburg, where their paternal grandmother lived.
In this very first line, Mphahlele is already flagging a central and recurring theme in his writing, namely, the tyranny and the alienation imposed by apartheid on all black people — sending them into psychological and actual exile both within and beyond their own country.
The ‘tyranny of place’ and ‘tyranny of time’
The Mphahlele “grievance” is in the same order as the line with which Sol Plaatje begins his classical biography of land dispossession, titled, Native Life in South Africa: “Awaking on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, the South African Native found himself, not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth.”
Both Mphahlele and Plaatje’s opening lines speak to the problem of black alienation from self, home, land and country.
Similarly, in a turn of phrase disguised as a show of deference to his father, Nelson Mandela opens his Long Walk to Freedom with a sentence which, upon closer scrutiny, is akin to the “grievances” of Mphahlele and Plaatje: “Apart from life, a strong constitution and an abiding connection to the Thembu royal house, the only thing my father bestowed upon me at birth was a name, Rolihlahla.”
As if to say, having been rendered “a pariah in the land of his birth”, Mandela’s father had nothing to bequeath his son than his genes, the Thembu royal traditions and a name.
Mphahlele’s eight-year stay in the village of Maupaneng was only the first of several Exiles and Homecomings — that being the title of Chabani Manganyi’s 1983 biography of Es’kia Mphahlele — which were to recur with monotonous regularity in Mphahlele’s 88 years and 10 months of life on earth.
As a shorthand for describing the disorientation that comes with politically imposed exiles and homecomings, Mphahlele coined the twin notions of “tyranny of place” and “tyranny of time”. It all starts with being born as a black person in the South Africa of 1919, where and when blacks were considered less than human.
The tyranny consists of finding one’s body in Maupaneng when one’s soul is in Pretoria; finding one’s body in Lagos, when one’s heart is in Orlando, Soweto where Mphahlele worked as a teacher; working and residing in Denver, Colorado, USA, when one’s spirit hovers daily over a South African slum called Marabastad.
The tyranny of which Mphahlele writes is about the physical and the psychological search for home and place in one’s country and in the world.
Memories of Marabastad
In his non-fictional writings, at least, Mphahlele clings — for dear life — to his memories of Maupaneng and Marabastad. He uses these as the anchor, rudder and lens through which he makes sense of his itinerant life across the country, the continent and the world. If Don Mattera (Memory of the Weapon) and Bloke Modisane (Blame Me on History) held tenaciously to their memories of Sophiatown, Mphahlele held as steadfastly to his memories of Maupaneng and Marabastad.
Around 1954 when Mphahlele went searching for a teaching job in Lesotho, he was also “in search of something. What it was I didn’t know. But it was there, where it wasn’t, inside me.”
During his sojourn in Lesotho, Mphahlele thought he had found what he had been searching for — “a fatally beautiful lady called bitterness” whom he wished to tame. Much of Mphahlele’s writing is born out of his righteous anger and his self-acknowledged sense of bitterness against the apartheid government and its devastating policies.
Switching effortlessly between a short story, novel and autobiography, Mphahlele’s prose is sublime in its beauty and devastating in its ferocity.
But what makes Mphahlele’s narratives particularly impactful is his brutal honesty, reinforced with a dry sense of humour. Once when a white typist called him a “boy”, Mphahlele retorted with a rhetorical question, “What makes you think I’m a boy and not a girl?” Mphahlele’s maternal aunt (Dora) and grandmother (Hibila) brought him up with a strong sense of justice and fairness.
Though mortified at the time, Mphahlele seems to have secretly enjoyed the physical fight between his aunt Dora and Abdool the trader who had tried to shortchange her. Mphahlele recalls how Abdool cried out: “Dolla-Dolla, mosadi why for you maker so much makulu troble-troble… why for”. But Aunt Dora wrestled Abdool to the ground, from where he rose with a bloody nose.
Mphahlele was bitter against the “churchianity” that was after “church shillings”, a “churchianity” masquerading as Christianity when it was in fact part of a system that infantilised black people. He was bitter about an education system designed to eliminate black initiative and black creativity. But deep down he knew that if you “give people a poor education, the mind will soon find out”.
Into the human jungle
One of the characteristic distinguishers of Mpahlele’s work — fiction and non-fiction — is his relentless and tenacious focus on the human or what he called the “human jungle” of relationships and interactions. It would be next to impossible to list the members of the Mphahlele dramatis personae for Down Second Avenue, if only because the book is literally an attempt to make sense of a vast “human jungle”, caught up in the tyranny of space and time.
Mphahlele is in his element when he writes short stories. No one can read The Suitcase, Man Must Live, Mrs Plum or Dinner at Eight and be left unmoved. However, he often cautioned against over-estimations of the capacity of literature to spark or sustain revolutions. For him it was important and enough that he taught, he read, and he wrote.
Mphahlele’s work stands as a stark reminder for us to stay focussed on the human in all their “bitternesses”, their possibilities, their “powerlessnesses” and equally in their ability to wound Earth, animal and fellow humans alike — even in the 21st century.
In an introduction to the 20th-anniversary edition of Down Second Avenue, Mphahlele quipped: “What does a book about my life mean in the South African context? Maybe nothing beyond the fact that it is the autobiography of most Africans in that chamber of horrors. It reminds me, for my own edification, of the fortitude of my people. It is so far, I think, the best thing I have ever written.”
When we assume this Mphahlelian posture, we may realise how our individual stories are only a small part of the larger story of the societies and countries that produce us. This posture will also help us realise how, as human beings, we are connected one to another, us and fellow creatures, us and the mountains, and the rivers.
After a lecture which Mphahlele gave at a summer school at the University of Cape Town in 1982, a member of his audience asked him about bitterness: “Have you tamed the lady now, which you were pursuing when you went to teach in Lesotho in 1954”?
Mphahlele’s answer was instructive: “Yes, I have. … I can contain the bitterness now. It does not immobilise me anymore. I feel I have more resources to deal with it, to harness it to reinforce my creative energy. When I was younger, I was constantly warning myself against bitterness, because I was choking on its poison.”
Please click here to access the full speech delivered at the 14th E’skia Mphahlele Lecture hosted at UNISA – Polokwane on 17 October 2023.
Please Click here to view the livestream.