Tyranny of place, tyranny of time: Remembering Es’kia Mphahlele in his centenary year, by Mmatshilo Motsei

Mmatshilo Motsei pays tribute to Es’kia Mphahlele, one hundred years after his birth.

I first encountered Es’kia Mphahlele when, in the early nineteen-nineties, I was selected as a Research Fellow at the Council for Black Education and Research, which he founded at Funda Centre, Soweto. The objective of the council was to create space for Black scholars, who had historically functioned as interpreters and translators for white academics, to engage in research, write and publish outside of formal graduate studies.  

When he left Johannesburg to settle in Lebowakgomo in Limpopo, I had already adopted him as my father and a grandfather to my children. In my regular visits to Lebowakgomo, I got to know his wife better. 

The first time he saw the young woman who was to be his wife, she was reciting a portion of Wordsworth. Without wasting any time, he made an arrangement to visit her in Sophiatown. After courting for some time, they married on 29 August 1945. 

Years later in Lebowakgomo, Rebecca Mphahlele told me with a chuckle that the reason she accepted her future husband’s proposition was because of his love for books. In her words, ‘there were far too many idiots who thought they had a right to be with any girl they fancied without reading a single sentence in a book’. 

The last time I saw her was when I accompanied him to hospital days before her passing. I remember her big eyes; she looked at me sharply and tried to move her lips to say something. The voice would not come. As Es’kia and I walked away from the hospital, we both knew: Mama does not belong with us anymore. 

On our way back home, I tried to ease his heavy heart by telling him jokes about student riots at Turfloop. He laughed loudly—especially when I remarked that he laughed with his mouth so wide open that I could see his pancreas. 

On December 4, 2004, Rebecca Mphahlele, a remarkable African woman, bade us farewell. When I received a call in Pretoria in the middle of the night, I knew. All he said was, ‘Ngwanaka, mama o re tlogetse’. 

He was now alone. His best friend was gone. To help him carry his loss, I increased the number of hours and days I spent in Lebowakgomo. He often joked that he should have listened to her when she warned him against jogging. ‘Now I am old, healthy, and death is not about to come soon.’

To express his pain and loss, he dedicated his book Es’kia Continued (2005) to her: 

We stood by each other through the years when the noose of apartheid round the African communities in South Africa was beginning to tighten. We stood by each other during the years of exile in African countries, some of them resistant to foreigners, others extremely welcoming. We stood by each other during the years when we were studying to improve our academic standing at the University of Denver, US, at the same time raising the family and increasing it by two. Our academic achievements strengthened the bond between us rather than alienate us …

Having lived through his later years as his adopted literary daughter, I received an invitation to write this essay as a celebration of Es’kia’s life. It deserves the highest honouring. 

It is not every day that we celebrate one hundred years of an African in South Africa who has written two autobiographies, two edited anthologies, three novels, more than twenty-five short stories, plays, poems and essay collections, and hundreds of public addresses; who received the Ordre des Palmes from France for his cultural activism and the Order of the Southern Cross, awarded by Nelson Mandela; and who was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. 

In writing about the enormity of the man and his life in his essay, ‘Do not let him die: Celebrating the legacy of Es’kia Mphahlele’, Phil Ndlela describes Mphahlele as one of the twentieth century’s foremost intellectuals, humanists, writers and teachers.  

Born in Marabastad in 1919, Es’kia Mphahlele first published as Ezekiel, which he later changed to Es’kia. This change of names, a reaffirmation of African identity, was witnessed with other writers: Ghanaian George Awonoor Williams changed to Kofi Awonoor, Kenyan James Ngugi became Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Nigerian Albert Chinualumogu changed to Chinua Achebe. To quote from Achebe:

Ï was baptised Albert Chinualumogu. I dropped the tribute to Victorian England when I went to the university although you might find some early acquaintances still calling me by it. The earliest of them all—my mother—certainly stuck to it to the bitter end. So, if anyone asks you what Her Britannic Majesty Queen Victoria had in common with Chinua Achebe, the answer is: they both lost their Albert!  

Mphahlele and his siblings—a brother named Solomon, who died in 1965, and a sister named Tabitha—lived with their stoic mother Eva and a violent father who was abusive to his wife. Later, they were taken to their paternal grandmother’s home in Maupaneng village outside of Polokwane. 

In his first autobiography, Down Second Avenue, which was first published in 1959, Mphahlele writes about how he disliked school and preferred to take care of goats or till the land instead of having to face his treacherous teachers, who were swift with the sting of a tongue or a rod.  

Everyone around him seemed to heap him in with the intellectual losers. There was a time when he obtained position seventy-seven in a class of eighty, and his uncles thought it was a miracle that he got any position at all. 

The class teacher said I was backward. The principal said I was backward. My aunt said I was backward. So said everybody … So, when I was placed in Standard Three instead of continuing from Standard Four, it didn’t occur to me that they might be wrong.

At fourteen he returned to Marabastad, where he witnessed the atrocities of apartheid, police brutality and the impact of poverty and segregation on Black people. He passed his matric by correspondence while working as a shorthand typist and teacher at the Ezenzeleni Institute for the Blind in Roodepoort, west of Johannesburg. Afterwards, he studied for a Teacher’s Certificate at Adams College in Natal. In the second year of his stay at the college, the Natal Provincial Education Department granted him a scholarship to cover his fees for two years. This, he writes, was done on the strength of his first class pass in the Junior Certificate examinations. The money that his mother had saved was paid back to her and she used $15 to sue for a divorce, nine years after her abusive husband had left home.

Mphahlele went on to teach at Orlando High School, Soweto, until he was banned for being part of a protest campaign against Bantu Education. In 1952 he returned to Ezenzeleni for two years before he left for his first stint in exile: a sojourn as a teacher in Maseru. From Lesotho he went to Botswana and from there back to South Africa, to take up a post as a journalist at Drum Magazine in Johannesburg. After distinguishing himself as a writer, he was promoted to sub-editor and fiction editor. He went to exile again in 1957 and lived in Nigeria, Kenya, Zambia, France and the USA.  

All the while, he studied via correspondence: he obtained his BA degree in 1949, his Honours in 1955 and his MA in Literature in 1957. The MA was the first to be awarded (cum laude) to a Black South African at the University of South Africa, and a separate graduation had to be organised. 

He obtained his PhD from the University of Denver, followed by numerous honorary degrees. The Universities of Pennsylvania and Colorado conferred honorary Doctorates of Humane Letters, while the University of Natal and Rhodes conferred honorary Doctorates of Literature.  

Many years before Rhodes Must Fall, Mphahlele wrote about the inferiority of Black education and its impact on the day-to-day realities and identities of Black people: 

The matter of self-discovery and being has never been a feature of the present system. Nothing in it has to do with our condition as Black people, it says nothing about the world the child returns to after school: poor living conditions, poor transport, low wages, dwelling houses that are matchboxes, steaming with body heat on hot or rainy days, cheerless in white time; lack of social amenities and so on … We want an education that is so rooted in African soil that our children will be better equipped to comprehend and therefore master their external environment in relation to a society like South Africa battling to realise itself.

But, in writing about the Africanisation of South African education, Mphahlele cautioned against cosmetic transformation:

Much as the white man talks of being African and no longer European, he has refused to assimilate our traditional values. He is still taming and controlling. His textbooks and movies lean towards his self-image of superiority. He feeds Blacks on the same stuff, and has controlled things in a way that we should not be able to produce research and textbooks that might counter the image he wants us to have of him and upset it.  

Other than being critical of Bantu Education, and responding to what he perceived as academia’s myopic, Eurocentric view of Africanness, Mphahlele was also critical of the collusion of religion (mainly Christianity) in the subjugation of Black people: 

Keep away from those hebrew testaments about the
Love of an angry god we lavishly recite
to entertain each other
While the white man holds us hostage
Save me from your dead-end prayers,
Give me freedom songs
in many tongues
Give me drum and whistles
let me hear your body shuffle
to the song of Africa.

He concerned himself with the suppression of African creation stories from indigenous communities, such as the Fulani of Mali, the Kono of Guinea, the Lozi of Zambia, the Karanga of Zimbabwe, and the Khoi and San of South Africa:


The existence of such a variety of creation myths should teach us that no creation myth contains Ultimate Truth about the origins of humankind. Nor does the scientific theory about the origins of humans in East Africa necessarily make creation myths irrelevant. But then we must acknowledge that poetry and science hold different promises. Like all creation myths, the Adam and Eve story was invented by a poet who was trying to understand man’s weaknesses and failure—how they all began, whom is he accountable to, and what Almighty power can save humanity. Thus, the myth deserves no more or less credibility that an African or Indian or Persian or Inca myth as a poetic creation.  

He was an African humanist of note. According to Lesibana Rafapa (2005), his work embodies African humanism as a spiritual resource on which Africans could fall back, as a way of responding to the effects of apartheid. In The Unbroken Song (1981), and in poems such as ‘Exile in Nigeria’ (1960) and ‘Fathers and Sons’ (1977), Mphahlele writes about Black identity and the haunting realities of apartheid and exile. African humanism is the antidote—the resource for responding to what Mphahlele called the tyranny of place and tyranny of time. 

For me, one of the key areas to explore is how Mphahlele writes about women. It is well known that his writing is peopled with strong women characters, Aunt Dora in Down Second Avenue being the perfect example. While these characters cannot be said to go along with chauvinist depictions of women, they do reflect the inferior status of women in society. 

It is beyond the scope of this essay to examine Mphahlele’s work under the African feminist lens. For me, however, it serves to note that this constitutes a big gap in the analysis of his extensive body of work. In undertaking such analysis, the interface tween African Humanism and African Feminism will be brought to light.

Overall, Mphahlele’s life was one of hopping from one physical and metaphysical space to another. His wish was to ‘lay my shadow on ancestral soil’ outside of the confines of organised foreign religion. 

Whilst I’m on my deathbed
I want no Christian hymns
they come from abject hearts
drained of joy,
from soul-eroding guilt
and fear of death.
Save your hymns—
at best they devastate me
with their sadness
unredeemed;
they come from church
where singers only take
their wretched souls and miseries to God
and not their strength and beauty.

Sadly, his wish was not granted. His memorial service in Lebowakgomo was led by a Bible-clutching pastor accompanied by people singing the very hymns that had devastated him in life.  

And the neglect has carried on from there. In spite of his gigantic body of creative and scholarly work, South Africa has failed to accord Es’kia Mphahlele the recognition he deserves. His passing caused a mere murmur around the country. National silence around his centenary is a painful echo. 

To you, Es’kia, we will continue to drink from the sap of your knowledge and wisdom. We will not cease from being seekers searching for endless ways of honouring your legacy.  

In spite of spending your early life among ‘a heap of rusted shacks, smelly potholed streets flowing with filth and emaciated mongrels howling through the night’, your life will always be a canvas upon which we paint bold brushstrokes of African beauty and pride. 

Robala Mokgaga. Ge e le ditaola tsona, o re file. Re a di leboga. Re tla kopana kgorong ya Badimo.

2 thoughts on “Tyranny of place, tyranny of time: Remembering Es’kia Mphahlele in his centenary year, by Mmatshilo Motsei”

  1. I knew Zeke and his family well while I was a student in NYC during the 70s. A beautiful soul who introduced America to the world of African literature.

  2. Aaaaaah Aus wa ka, I had to read this tribute twice – how beautiful it is! Majestic Rremogolo Es’kia is super proud of you. Thank you for this writ. ❤️🙏🏽

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