Sunday, 2 November 2008


When I registered to study at Wits, there was no African Literature Department, and there were no black professors. It was only two years later, after the Soweto riots had changed the political and educational landscape in South Africa forever, that writer and academic Professor Es'kia Mphahlele joined the university to finally establish an African literature department at an African university.
One of the continent's most prolific and respected writers, Mphahlele was born in Marabastad outside Pretoria in 1919. He became a high school teacher, and started his writing career with Drum magazine after the Second World War. He was banned in 1952 for his stance against the introduction of Bantu Education, and went into exile.
While in exile, he published his famous autobiographical work, Down Second Avenue: Growing Up in a South African Ghetto, which has never been out of print. He also received a PhD from the University of Denver in 1968, and he left a full professorship at the University of Pennsylvania to return to South Africa in 1977.
His work includes The Wanderers, which was banned for many years in South Africa, Chirundu, In Corner B, Renewal Time, Afrika My Music: An Autobiography 1957 - 1983, and Mandela: Echoes of an Era.
Mphahlele was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969, and in 1984 he was awarded the Les Palmes Academiques by the French Government for his contribution to French Language and Culture. In 1998 former President Nelson Mandela awarded him the Order of the Southern Cross, the highest recognition granted by the South African government, and in 2000 he was named Writer Of The Century by Tribute Magazine.
In 2002, he was honoured by the foundation of the Es'kia Institute, which "nurtures, supports and develops community initiatives in Arts, Culture, Education and Literature in an effort to advance and preserve our Afrikan (sic) Heritage".
Mphahlele, the great pioneer of contemporary African literature, died on Monday night, shortly before his 89th birthday.

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