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Mphahlele, Es’kia (Ezekiel) 1919–

Eskia (Ezekiel) Mphahlele 1919


Teachers Disparaged Abilities

Went Into Exile

Feared Growing Old in United States

Selected works


The great fictional chronicler of South African life in the apartheid era is Eskia Mphahlele, whose career has spanned South African beginngs, two decades of exile, and finally a return home. Though his was rarely a literature of overt protest, his writings were all the more effective in bringing home the wounds of racial segregation because of their realistic and sympathetic treatment of South Africans of all backgrounds. Mphahlele has drawn heavily on his own experiences in his novels, short stories, poems, and autobiographical works. In so doing, however, he has told the story of an entire people.

Ezekiel Mphahlele was born in Pretoria, South Africa, on December 17, 1919. He Africanized his name to Eskia after his return to South Africa in 1979 but is still known by the nickname Zeke. Mphahleles upbringing was a mix of the African and the Western. He grew up speaking a dialect of the Sotho language (first learning English in school), and until he was a young teenager he lived with his paternal grandmother in the village of Maupaneng. He herded goats and remembered the mountainous landscape of his childhood nostalgically, although his grandmother ruled him with an iron hand.

Teachers Disparaged Abilities

When he was 13 Mphahlele moved in with his parents in Pretoria. The family lived in one of the citys black townships, Marabastad, which was a jumble of crowded tenement housing and violent streets. Mphahleles father was arrested after attacking his mother with a pot of boiling stew, and his parents divorced. His mother, Eva, worked as a maid and financed the best education she could for her son, even though teachers told the often-terrorized youngster that he was backward, as Mphahlele recalled in his 1959 autobiography, Down Second Avenue. Mphahlele graduated from St. Peters, a top high school in what is now Lesotho, and went on to earn a teaching certificate from a religious institution, the Adams Teachers Training College, in the state of Natal.

From 1941 to 1945 Mphahlele worked as a clerk in a school for the blind, and in 1947 he took a job teaching English and Afrikaans (the language of South Africas Dutch-descended white colonizers) at Orlando High School in the South African capital of Johannesburg. He married an education student, Rebecca Mochadibane, in 1945, and the couple had five children. By the

At a Glance

Born Ezekiet Mphahlele on December 17, 1919, in Pretoria, South Africa: son of Moses (a messenger) and Eva Mogale (a domestic worker) Mphahlele; married Rebecca Mochadibane (a social worker), 1945; five children. Education: Graduated from Adams Teachers Training College, South Africa, 1940; University of South Africa, BA, 1949, MA, 1956; University of Denver, PhD, 1968.

Career: Clerk at school for the blind, 1941-45; taught high school in South Africa, 1945-52; Drum magazine, Johannesburg, writer and fiction editor, 1955-57; International Association for Cultural Freedom, Paris, director of African programs, 1961-63; taught and lectured in Nigeria, Kenya, Zambia, and U.S.A., 1957-77; University of the Witwatersrand, professor, 1978-87, professor emeritus, 1987-.

Selected awards; Carnegie Foundation grant, 1980; honorary doctorate, University of Pennsylvania, 1982.

Address: Office African Studies Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg 2001, South Africa.

time he started teaching, Mphahlele had already begun to write. His short story collection Man Must Live and Other Stories, containing vivid tales of the Pretoria ghetto where he grew up, was published in 1947 and came close to selling out its entire initial print run, even though Mphahlele was completely unknown as an author.

Mphahlele earned, entirely by mail, a bachelor of arts degree from the University of South Africa in 1949 and a masters degree in 1956. At that time the segregation laws obliged the university to organize a graduation ceremony for him alone. By that time he had been fired from his teaching job for protesting the governments Bantu Education Act, which had the effect of institutionalizing segregation in South Africas public schools. For a time Mphahlele worked as a journalist on the staff of a newspaper called Drum, which was aimed at black South Africans. Though he disliked the journalistic atmosphere and was increasingly enraged by the worsening situation of South African blacks, Mphahlele wrote short stories for Drum about a family named Lesane, alternately funny and grim, which are considered among his best early works.

Went Into Exile

In 1957 Mphahlele decided that he would have to leave South Africa in order to realize his dreams as a writer. He moved his family to Lagos, Nigeria, even though the only way a black South African could obtain an exit visa in those days was to promise that he would never return. In 1961 the government banned publication of his works in South Africa, charging Mphahlele with subversion. Some of the bans remained in effect even after Mphahlele returned later to South Africa.

Two of Mphahleles best-known works were published while he was in Nigeria, the autobiography Down Second Avenue in 1959 and the short-story collection The Living and Dead, and Other Stories in 1961. Down Second Avenue was a vivid document that described Mphahleles own experiences with the dehumanizing frustrations and sometimes outright violence of apartheid. The work also described the lives of black South Africans in general, and a spate of autobiographies by other black South African writers followed in the wake of Mphahleles book.

In Nigeria Mphahlele associated with a group of West African writers who were attempting to define the future direction of African literature. He moved on to Paris in 1961, to Nairobi, Kenya, in 1963, to Denver, Colorado, in 1966 (where Mphahlele earned a Ph.D. degree), and to Lusaka, Zambia, in 1968, where he taught English at the University of Zambia. In 1967 his short-story collection In Corner B was published in Nairobi; it contained Mrs. Plum, a widely admired story of a white South African woman who displays liberal attitudes but is nevertheless incapable of treating blacks as individuals.

Mphahleles first novel, The Wanderers, was published in 1971 while he was living in Zambia. It dealt with the troubles and eventual exile of a figure whose life paralleled Mphahleles own in many respects. The main character, Timi, edits a magazine Mphahlele calls Bongo, and, like Mphahlele, Timi must decide whether or not to leave his country. The Wanderers gained considerable attention in the United States, to which Mphahlele returned in 1970. He took teaching jobs at the University of Denver in 1970 and the University of Pennsylvania in 1974, and he could easily have remained in the United States for the rest of his life as an admired elder statesman of world literature.

Feared Growing Old in United States

But Mphahlele felt cut off from his cultural and creative roots. I couldnt grasp the cultural goals of the Americans, he was quoted as saying in the New York Times. I found them so fragmented. I asked myself, What am I contributing to American education? I had no answer. He also feared growing old in a country where he felt that senior citizens were ostracized, an attitude opposite from the veneration the elderly could expect in African cultures. Against the advice of friends, Mphahlele resolved to return to South Africa. Though the countrys cultural atmosphere had been liberalized somewhat in recent years, the enormous risks he took by returning were demonstrated when the government revoked a teaching job that he had been offered at the University of the North.

For a time Mphahlele was stranded in the township of Lebowa and supported his family as an education inspector, but in 1979 the University of the Witwatersrand, white South Africas leading English-speaking institution, offered him a teaching and research position. Residential segregation regulations at first made it impossible for Mphahlele to take the position, but the university exerted its influence and the authorities looked the other way. In the 1980s the government bans on Mphahleles earlier works were gradually lifted.

Mphahleles major post-exile work was a second volume of his autobiography, Afrika My Music, published in 1984 and covering his years of exile. In his later years, Mphalele has taught, lectured vigorously, collected and published oral poetry among South Africas tribal peoples, and actively involved himself in the cultural life of his rapidly changing country. In 1990 he wrote a biography of South African leader Nelson Mandela. After the official end of apartheid in 1994, Mphahlele became widely honored as one of the cultural pioneers who had laid the groundwork for the freedom of black South Africans. At a speech he gave upon receiving one award, he said, according to Africa News, We must reinvent ourselves because selfrenewal is important. You are always at the starting point in life. If you arent, then you die.

Selected works

Man Must Live, and Other Stories, African Bookman, 1946.

Down Second Avenue, Faber & Faber, 1959 (U.S. edition, Anchor/Doubleday, 1971).

The Living and Dead, and Other Stories, Nigerian Ministry of Education, 1961.

In Corner B, East African Publishing House, 1967.

The Wanderers, Macmillan, 1971.

Chirundu, Ravan, 1979 (U.S. edition, Hill, 1981).

Afrika My Music, Ravan, 1984.

Renewal Time, Readers International, 1988.

Mandela: Echoes of an Era, Penguin, 1990.



Contemporary Novelists, 6th ed., St. James, 1996.

Cox, C. Brian, ed., African Writers, Scribners, 1997.

Lindfors, Bernth, and Reinhard Sander, eds., Twentieth-Century Caribbean and Black African Writers: Second Series (Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 125), Gale, 1993.

Tucker, Martin, ed., Literary Exile in the Twentieth Century, Greenwood, 1991.

Wordworks, Manitou, ed., Modern Black Writers, 2nd ed., St. James, 2000.

Zell, Hans M., and Helene Silver, A Readers Guide to African Literature, Africana Publishing, 1971.


Africa News, October 2, 2001.

New York Times, November 16, 1980, section 1, p. 3.

St. Petersburg Times, March 5, 1989, p. D7.


Ezekiel Mphahlele, Contemporary Authors Online, reproduced in Biography Resource Center, (March 25, 2003).

James M. Manheim

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Ezekiel Mphahlele

Ezekiel Mphahlele

Ezekiel Mphahlele (born 1919) is an acknowledged scholar on African literature. His works have been regarded as the most balanced of African literature.

"A writer who has been regarded as the most balanced literary critic of African literature," Ezekiel Mphahlele can also "be acknowledged as one of its most significant creators," writes Emile Snyder in the Saturday Review. Mphahlele's transition from life in the slums of South Africa to life as one of Africa's foremost writers was an odyssey of struggle both intellectually and politically. He trained as a teacher in South Africa but was banned from the classroom in 1952 as a result of his protest of the segregationist Bantu Education Act. Although he later returned to teaching, Mphahlele first turned to journalism, criticism, fiction, and essay writing. Mphahlele is acknowledged as one of the leading scholars on African literature.

During an exile that took him to France and the United States, Mphahlele was away from Africa from over a decade. Nevertheless, "no other author has ever earned the right to so much of Africa as has Ezekiel Mphahlele," says John Thompson in the New York Review of Books. "In the English language, he established the strength of African literature in our time." Some critics, however, feel that Mphahlele's absence from his homeland has harmed his work by separating him from its subject. Ursula A. Barnett, writing in the conclusion of her 1976 biography Ezekiel Mphahlele, asserts that Mphahlele's "creative talent can probably gain its full potential only if he returns to South Africa and resumes his function of teaching his discipline in his own setting, and of encouraging the different elements in South Africa to combine and interchange in producing a modern indigenous literature."

Mphahlele himself has agreed with this assessment, for after being officially silenced by the government of his homeland and living in self-imposed exile for twenty years, Mphahlele returned to South Africa in 1977. "I want to be part of the renaissance that is happening in the thinking of my people," he commented. "I see education as playing a vital role in personal growth and in institutionalizing a way of life that a people chooses as its highest ideal. For the older people, it is a way of reestablishing the values they had to suspend along the way because of the force of political conditions. Another reason for returning, connected with the first, is that this is my ancestral home. An African cares very much where he dies and is buried. But I have not come to die. I want to reconnect with my ancestors while I am still active. I am also a captive of place, of setting. As long as I was abroad I continued to write on the South African scene. There is a force I call the tyranny of place; the kind of unrelenting hold a place has on a person that gives him the motivation to write and a style. The American setting in which I lived for nine years was too fragmented to give me these. I could only identify emotionally and intellectually with the African-American segment, which was not enough. Here I can feel the ancestral Presence. I know now what Vinoba Bhave of India meant when he said: 'Though action rages without, the heart can be tuned to produce unbroken music,' at this very hour when pain is raging and throbbing everywhere in African communities living in this country."

His 1988 publication Renewal Time, contains stories he published previously as well as an autobiographical afterword on his return to South Africa and a section from Afrika My Music, his 1984 autobiography. Stories like "Mrs. Plum" and "The Living and the Dead" have received praise by critics reviewing Mphahlele's work. Charles R. Larson, reviewing the work in the Washington Post Book World, says that the stories in the book present "almost ironic images of racial tension under apartheid." He cites "Mrs. Plum" as "the gem of this volume." The story is a first-person narrative by a black South African servant girl, and through her words, says Larson, "Mphahlele creates the most devastating picture of a liberal South African white."

Chirundu, Mphahlele's first novel since his return to South Africa, "tells with quiet assurance this story of a man divided," says Rose Moss in a World Literature Today review. The novel "is clearly this writer's major work of fiction and, I suppose, in one sense, an oblique commentary on his own years of exile," observes Larson in an article for World Literature Today. Moss finds that in his story of a man torn between African tradition and English law, "the timbre of Mphahlele's own vision is not always clear"; nevertheless, the critic admits that "in the main his story presents the confused and wordless heart of his charcter with un-pretentious mastery." "Chirundu is that rare breed of fiction—a novel of ideas, and a moving one at that," says Larson. "It has the capacity to involve the reader both intellectually and emotionally." The critic concludes by calling the work "the most satisfying African novel of the past several years."

On the subject of writing, Mphahlele commented: "In Southern Africa, the black writer talks best about the ghetto life he knows; the white writer about his own ghetto life. We see each other, black and white, as it were through a keyhole. Race relations are a major experience and concern for the writer. They are his constant beat. It is unfortunate no one can ever think it is healthy both mentally and physically to keep hacking at the social structure in overcharged language. A language that burns and brands, scorches and scalds. Language that is a machete with a double edge—the one sharp, the other blunt, the one cutting, the other breaking. And yet there are levels of specifically black drama in the ghettoes that I cannot afford to ignore. I have got to stay with it. I bleed inside. My people bleed. But I must stay with it."

Further Reading

Two biographies on Mphahlele are available. They are Ursula A. Barnett, Ezekiel Mphahlele (1976) and N. Chabani Manganyi, Exiles and Homecomings: A Biography of Es'kia Mphahlele (1983). Gerald Moore also wrote two books of interest: South African Writers (1962) and The Chosen Tongue (1969). Books of relevance that the subject, himself, wrote include Afrika My Music: An Autobiography, 1957-1983 (1984) and Down Second Avenue (1959). See also Twentieth Century Caribbean and Black African Writers (1993); African Writers Talking (edited by Dennis Durden, 1972); Donald E. Herdeck, African Writers: A Companion to Black African Writing, 1300-1973 (1973); and South African Voices (edited by Bernth Lindfors, 1975). □

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Mphahlele, Es'kia

Es'kia Mphahlele (Ezekiel Es'kia Mphahlele) (ĕskē´ə əmfəlā´lā), 1919–2008, South African writer, grad. Univ. of South Africa (M.A., 1956). He began his career as a writer for Drum magazine after World War II and he published his first stories, Man Must Live, in 1947. He emigrated from South Africa in 1957, when the government banned him because of his stand against apartheid. He received a Ph.D. from the Univ. of Denver (1968) and left a full professorship at the Univ. of Pennsylvania to return to South Africa in 1977. In 1978 he became the first black professor at Witwatersrand Univ. and founded the African literature dept. there. His Down Second Avenue (1959) is a moving, vivid account of growing up in South Africa; it has become a classic of modern African literature. His novel The Wanderers (1969) was banned for many years in South Africa. Another novel, Chirundu (1980), takes place in an imaginary African country. He also published two volumes of essays.

See his later autobiography Afrika My Music (1984) and selected letters (1984); studies by U. A. Barnett (1976), T. Akosu (1995), and R. Obee (1999).

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