Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

In Memoriam: Es’kia Mphahlele

October 29th, 2008 by Ajuan Mance

If Nelson Mandela is our political star, Mphahlele was his literary equivalent.

–Barney Mthombothi, “Paying Tribute to the Icon of African Letters,” IOL

(Source: BBC America)

IOL, South Africa’s largest online news source reported today that author and scholar Es’kia Mphahlele has died. He was 88 years old.

Mphahlele, best known for his 1959 autobiography, Down Second Avenue, was the first Black professor to serve on the faculty of Johannesburg’s University of the Witswatersrand (Wits). He was also the founder of the University’s African literature department.

Born in 1919, Mphahlele worked as a cattleherd in the Northern Transvaal region of South Africa when he was a boy. He was educated at Adams Teaching Training College, but was eventually banned from teaching due to his opposition to the Bantu Education Act of 1953.

The Bantu Education Act effectively segregated the school curriculum in South Africa, so that students attending Black schools were subject to a revised curriculum designed to prepare them for the subservient role that they were forced into under apartheid. Dr. Hendrik F. Verwoerd was the Minister of Native Affairs at the time that the Bantu Schools were established. The justification for Bantu Education can be summed up in his now infamous words:

There is no space for him [the "Native"] in the European Community above certain forms of labor. For this reason it is of no avail for him to receive training which has its aim in the absorption of the European Community, where he cannot be absorbed. Until now he has been subjected to a school system which drew him away from his community and misled him by showing him the greener pastures of European Society where he is not allowed to graze.

IOL details his Mphahlele’s life after the Bantu Education Act:

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

Mphahlele went into exile from South Africa in 1957.

He subsequently lived in Nigeria, where he was an editor for the periodical Black Orpheus.

He lived in Kenya, Zambia and later went to the United States, where he attended the University of Denver and obtained a PhD. He left and taught as professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

He returned to South Africa in 1977, later became the first black professor at the University of Witwatersrand and founded its African literature department.

Mphahlele’s books include:

  • Man Must Live, and Other Stories, 1946
  • Down Second Avenue, 1959
  • The Living and Dead, and Other Stories, Nigerian Ministry of, 1961.
  • In Corner B,1967.
  • The Wanderers, 1971.
  • Chirundu, Ravan, 1979
  • Afrika My Music, 1984.
  • Renewal Time, 1988.
  • Mandela: Echoes of an Era, 1990.

Posted by Ajuan Mance

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Posted in Black Students, Current Events, Es'kia Mphahlele, Higher Education, race, Uncategorized, University of the Witswatersrand

4 Responses

  1. clnmike

    I’ll have to check up on his work.

  2. Black on Campus

    For whatever reason, he is not among that handful of African writers who are widely published in the U.S.

    Hopefully, this will change.

    And stay tuned for a Quotable Black Scholar featuring some of his words.

  3. Munyori Buku

    I read Mphalele’s Down Second Avenue in 1981 when I was a Form Two student. The following year, I quoted it in Literature class discussion. The teacher had not read it and she borrowed it. we have been friends since

  4. Ajuan Mance

    I love this story. It’s a great example of the student teaching the teacher, which is one of my favorite things about being a professor.

    PS: Can I ask what the quote was that you used in class discussion? I don’t know if you still remember it, but I’d love to hear it.

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