In this first of a two-part interview, the writer, educator and activist who would have celebrated his centenary this year shares how his childhood shaped his sense of place and people.
This is a lightly edited excerpt from Bury Me at the Marketplace: Es'kia Mphahlele and Company. Letters 1943-2006 edited by David Attwell and N Chabani Manganyi (2009, Wits University Press). A version of this interview was published in Looking Through the Keyhole: Dissenting Essays on the Black Experience (1981, Ravan Press).
Chabani Manganyi: One wonders how authentic the descriptions in Down Second Avenue are and whether important things have been omitted if they are authentic. Is there anything you could say about your childhood experiences?
Es'kia Mphahlele: Every so often when I drive down [to Maupaneng] I take a look around to see what I feel about things 47 years later ... I realise more and more how distant I was from my father. When he left us in Marabastad in 1932 and went back to the North we were children ... It didn't look traumatic at that time. And then, as you grow up, you realise you miss a father, you don't have a father like other boys have, right? And then later on you settle down to that kind of situation. When I look back to it now, I realise that perhaps things might have turned out differently if we had had a father that we could look up to and ... rely on. My life could probably have been eased a bit. But throughout, things kept ... coming onto me: living with my grandmother and aunt, my mother having to live out in the suburbs where she worked and seeing us on weekends, or we going up to see her. Whenever I drive around in the Pretoria suburbs my memories come back ... of the sort of life that was ... It was a pretty rough life and one was so exposed to so many hurts ... so many impacts ... pretty rough impacts, too. Whites ... and also just the need, the struggle, to survive. You know, you drive up to the suburbs to collect money from somebody whom they've been doing washing for at home, and then he is not there. Then you have to go back again and he is not there ... that kind of casual attitude they had towards my people who were doing their washing. And ... I remember now quite vividly how the people my mother worked for were just so impersonal when they looked at me ... I just didn't seem to exist. I was just her son and there was no interest whatever. In fact, I hardly saw their faces ... Their faces were always a blur and I never could recognise them as people myself. So the attitude was reciprocal. My mother, trying to hold down a job, had to behave in a certain way ... which was at once natural and unnatural. She wasn't the kind of grovelling woman who ... gets talked to rudely and then takes it. When I had gone to visit her I realised that I was in unnatural circumstances. I was always in her back room and never saw the inside of the house. Going back to Maupaneng ... I happened to meet my father's daughter, my half-sister. She was introduced to me by my aunt, who is still living in the house where we grew up. I would imagine she must be going on to 80 now. The house is still the same. It's a rondavel. It's still there and the fireplace is still there ... and I realise how small it was now. When I was small it looked big. Now that I am an adult, it looks so tiny. It used to be a terrifyingly big thing. Everything seems to have shrunk. The village itself is now being pressed against the mountain because of the corrosion, the erosion from the river. When my father went back to the North, he remarried ... and had three children ... I met only two, young women, and I just felt a certain kind of revulsion. Perhaps revulsion is too strong a word. It was just a kind of withdrawal inside myself. And I had no words for them at all, and ... they had no words for me either. Even my attitude towards my aunt is very distant. She was always a harsh, tough person. She and my father were two of a kind.
Manganyi: Paternal grandmother?
Mphahlele: Paternal grandmother ... the three of them seemed to have been from the same block. There was no word of kindness ... nothing ... no affectionate word at all for any of us, her three grandchildren. Those memories come back very vividly to me and then I feel no nostalgia at all for the place - the kind of nostalgia I feel for Marabastad. And yet I keep going to the district to recollect my unprotected life as a herdboy, sniffing around for the old smells, listening to the old bird sounds, insect sounds.
Manganyi: That is a very interesting observation ... I was going to say that when one reads Down Second Avenue one encounters a very grim situation ... Would you like to say something about that?
Mphahlele: Yes, there is, perhaps, a weird kind of nostalgia for Marabastad ... My formative years there seemed to have been more significant than back in the North ... There was a peer group, which meant a lot to youngsters as we grew up; something to rely on for moral support ... Then the school itself ... being able to go to school more regularly than ever before. We tried to make life interesting for ourselves, in spite of the conditions ... the kind of inner culture that was in the process of formation. You saw a sort of patchwork - these people were trying to make a life for themselves in a new urban situation, although some of them had been in Marabastad a long time, I would imagine 30 years or so. The jazz bands and New Year's Day festival mood when people used to go on picnics, in groups again, in clubs, and then the music of the time ... Marabi. It rings in my mind all the time ... My grandmother was a Lutheran. The Lutherans would go up and down the streets, usually on the night of Good Friday, singing and so on. I often go to the almost empty land where Marabastad used to be. I look around; recall the smell of the place again. Those are the things that I feel nostalgic about and yet they were not the things one would like repeated. We grew up casually. I think of the boy who used to live next door to us, whom I mention. He used to sing a lot and play around in the carcass of a car, an old car that was in their yard. Well, he died when I was already abroad. That boy's lust for life haunts me all the time ... It was the kind of death that gets to you. After we had left Marabastad I met him only once, by chance. It was a fleeting kind of meeting, and we never saw each other again. When I think of him I remember the music because there was always a group of singers that came to his house just to practise and the thumping of the piano in that house ... the loud voices - that is the memory that brings him back alive. My memory reels off things about Marabastad, and there is always a pang in my heart for him. Those are the nostalgic moments I have about Marabastad. I wouldn't want to go back to all those beer raids, which were always upsetting; to all the fights, the street fights ... women, you know, tackling each other ... and tearing each other's clothes up ... and spitting venom - just the kind of life which people were bearing up with, trying to live above their conditions ... One cannot help but contrast that with a place like Soweto, which has another kind of composition altogether, with many micro-groups as it were, or microsections. Marabastad was a homogeneous location. If anything happened in Fourteenth Avenue, Second Avenue, First Avenue - you got to know about it.
Manganyi: I think that is one of the reasons why people have resisted moving to these new areas. There is something very attractive about a place like Alexandra Township, even with its filth ... because of this sense of cohesion ...
Mphahlele: That sense of togetherness. Something our people don't want to let go of.
Manganyi: Yes, one would say that it was very much in line with what you sometimes describe as the humanism of the African people. So it had the cultural background as a base, and when you move to a place like Soweto this is disrupted.
Mphahlele: Completely. We were disrupted and we are not moving in the same direction at all. Things tug away from the centre all the time, whereas there is a kind of convergence in places like Alexandra, Lady Selborne; that was a pull towards the same centre. People wouldn't want to leave that kind of life for an insecure and unknown situation.
Manganyi: One sometimes develops the impression that the kind of vitality that you've been talking about, that is the basis of your nostalgia, may have something to do with what I would describe as your compassion, your interest in ordinary folk, particularly in your short stories. I think this is quite clear.
Mphahlele: Yes, this is really it. I am very much attracted to humanistic existence, where people treat each other as human beings and not simply as instruments or tools; where people become committed to one another as human beings without necessarily declaring the commitment; if one of their kind is in difficulties the others immediately rise to the occasion and do something about it. ... I would like to see, for instance, an adult being able to reprimand a boy even though he is not his own child - and that's something which, unfortunately, we're losing. That kind of community for me has an integrity which I'd be unhappy to see violated. I do think that compassion is a very important quality in man, which goes a long way in binding people together. I keep going back to Tagore, who was a Bengali poet. He writes a lot about this quality in human beings - to want to reach out, outward, out of themselves. He writes a lot about how it is that we are always hungering for emotional experiences, which is why we want to read literature. He also says, quoting from some of the religious literature of India, that you don't love your son because you desire your son; you love your son because you're looking for yourself. You love someone because you are looking for yourself and this is proper. When you feel sorrow, grief and joy for someone else, it is a way of reaching out; the way you enlarge yourself. You enrich yourself. I keep reminding myself of Tagore's words, because they're so very much in consonance with what I believe: people reach out because they then become self-fulfilled. That is what African humanism is about: you are enlarged and increased when you go out of yourself. And part of the vehicle for this is compassion. This is why I lay such a premium on compassion. We see it mostly in people who haven't reached a high level of literacy ... or a high level of formal education. They haven't been alienated yet. We have consciously to be aware that we have been removed from our origins and that we have to make our way back, as it were, and reaffiliate. That is very possible. I don't think there needs to be any psychological block unless alienation is complete. I haven't found any such psychological block myself as a writer. Always I am drawn back to the people, the labourers, the non-professional people, where I see more vitality, where people still live, still feel life at its basic roots.
Manganyi: Have you ever considered the possibility that the triumph of your aunt in Marabastad, the triumph of your grandmother, the triumph of your mother under the circumstances that you have described, and the triumph of the community, as it were, over what was basically a dehumanising social structure ... could have had an impact on your own ability to survive in later life?
Mphahlele: Yes, I am certain of that. It has had quite an influence on my own survival. If I hadn't experienced that sort of life I would have gone on, perhaps under my own steam. But remembering all the time the lives of those people and how they survived, that has always given me a tremendous uplift. I inherited from them the will to go ahead and grapple with life. I have been that way all my life. I always seem to be ... moving inexorably, inevitably, from one thing to another; being pulled and being pulled, almost as if I wasn't controlling it myself. Almost as if I wasn't stopping and making decisions to do so ... but just moving on. Yet I know I have been making decisions from time to time. But the overall journey of my life has been a kind of drive, drive, drive, on and on and on ... "Man must live" ... The tenacity has come from Marabastad. The conditions in which one grew up, when there was hardly anything else outside your own school books to read, when there was nothing, nothing at all, and your parents were in no position to advise you about your educational journey ... They just left you to make your own decisions, as you know, and went ahead. Yes. This is typical of all Africa ... of all South Africans when you come to think of it. In Marabastad you saw the beautiful and the ugly. You had to make your own choices. The beautiful was so beautiful in the context of an ugly situation. That held your attention and attracted you so you wanted to move on, with the ugliness and all ...
Manganyi: To get back to your relationship with your father. This is certainly one of the most crucial experiences in your life. I have often wondered whether this compassion and devotion to humanistic values is not perhaps related to a feminine identification. Perhaps I should explain what I mean by that. The strong people, who were the important people in your life during the formative stages, appear to have been your maternal grandmother, your maternal aunt and your mother. There are no indications really, not in anything that I have read, that there was a strong male presence in any sense.
Mphahlele: ... yes, that's so very true.
Manganyi: And so, I have wondered whether your sensibility is not in some way connected to that identification [with women].
Mphahlele: Yes, now that you say it, I feel strongly so. When I think of strong people I don't think of men, I always think of women. I always think of women who are strong almost as if I didn't expect them to be. There are so many precedents throughout my life. I have always noticed the strong women more than the strong men. Even when I was in the United States the thing that struck me so forcibly about the whole process of survival, was not so much the men but the strong black women ... they're very resolute, they can't easily be fooled. And then again, I think of my own mother and the way she had to survive on her own and struggle through. When I hear somebody tell me that a man has been brutalising his wife I'm filled with disgust ... and revulsion.
Manganyi: In Down Second Avenue one gets the impression that there was some schoolgirl you were interested in. Did you go out often with girls?
Mphahlele: I didn't ... I was a very shy person ... agonisingly shy. I used to feel like kicking myself on the shin for it. Because other boys just seemed to be so relaxed with girls ... I was dead scared.
Manganyi: How did you manage Ribs [Rebecca, Mphahlele's wife]?
Mphahlele: I met Ribs in 1942, when I was 22. She came to Ezenzeleni from Wilberforce with a choir to perform for the blind. She had sprained her ankle, and I was there on the spot. I told her to sit down and I stretched the ankle, twisted it this way and that. I got a bandage from our dispensary and so on ... After they left, I wrote [to her]. There just seemed to be something natural about it. I didn't have to make much of an effort at all. It was through that correspondence ... she replied and I replied. We communicated that way until I decided. She lived in Sophiatown and she had come for a vacation. A friend of mine took me to their house. I broke the news to her, about my love. Fortunately she didn't look formidable, as formidable as the other schoolgirls, who looked as if they were going to bite you if you said one single word to them ... You know the way they'll say, tsamaya kwa [get away]! Hell, man! I would imagine all sorts of things. I was just dead shy. The girl Rebone was, I could feel that she was very warm towards me. I never had the courage, ever, to say to her, "I love you" - and I knew that I did. When you get so used to each other and so close I think it becomes even more difficult, not so?
Manganyi: I think in Ursula Barnett's book she says somewhere that you almost had a nervous breakdown at St Peter's ... What exactly went wrong at that time?
Mphahlele: What happened was that throughout my school life, when examination time came, I would brood and worry ... I was always terrified of failing, because I felt my mother would have to keep on paying fees and there were two others behind me. The idea of failing haunted me throughout my school days. When I went to St Peter's, the same thing happened the year I was going to write my final exams. I studied so hard, mental exhaustion overtook me. One night I fainted and was carried to bed. I missed my half-yearly exams and that worried me even more, in the last year of JC [Junior Certificate]. I recovered from that after a week or so. I went home on vacation, came back and continued to study, then things were all right.
Manganyi: Did you have any recurrences of that episode?
Mphahlele: The nearest I came to it was when I was doing my BA Honours. That headache returned. This second time ... I came to a complete standstill. I had to go to hospital.
Manganyi: How was St Peter's? It seems to have been such an important school as far as African education is concerned.
Mphahlele: It was a very reputable school. It had a discipline of its own. It wasn't Spartan at all. Both teachers and students were most inspiring. We had been preceded by fellows who had taken their matric in the first class. People like ... Oliver Tambo ... Those were our seniors ... There was an open acknowledgement of students who were really good ... There were more white teachers than black, at the time ... They steered clear of politics completely, as all missionaries did. They just let things ride and people didn't feel that their views were being suppressed. When it came to open debate, for instance, they allowed anything to go. They had a very strong sense of morals, of course, like all missionaries - in our relationship with girls, for example. But there was a climate of real scholarship - academic achievement, which was really inspiring.
Manganyi: How did that compare with Adams?
Mphahlele: When I got to Adams the first thing that hit me was I seemed to have come to a jungle in comparison with St Peter's. There was order in the dorms at St Peter's. There were standards of cleanliness, standards of hygiene. Not at Adams ... There you really had to survive ...
Manganyi: It's curious, because when one reads Edgar Brookes' account, A South African Pilgrimage, one doesn't get that impression.
Mphahlele: You never would, not with Brookes. He was the kind of principal one seldom saw. There was no contact between principal and students. When he taught us Principles of Education his mind seemed to be on other things altogether. The teachers were a miscellaneous group. Some were absolutely dumb. A few were quite inspiring. One American taught us physiology and hygiene; his wife taught us geography. A German, an impressive man, taught us psychology of education. These three were the only really inspiring teachers in the whole Normal [Education] department. The others I had no esteem for at all. There was no atmosphere like at St Peter's. Oh yes, there was a woman who taught us blackboard work and chart work. She was good. All in all, the academic achievement of students wasn't anything to talk about ... Very ordinary. Their matric results were very ordinary. There were no heroes.
Manganyi: Would you like to say something about education in the early 1950s? That is a very important era.
Mphahlele: I had been working in the blind institute, I didn't feel ready to teach. That's where I spent the first four years of my working life. After two years I got my matric. Then I decided I was ready to teach. When I went to Orlando High School, I knew that I wanted to be a teacher ... even at Adams, in spite of the quality of the teaching. I did a lot of my own private reading. Saturdays and Sundays I always spent in the library. I wasn't much of a socialiser. I had only one close and intimate friend at Adams. I tended to shut myself in. I did very well in my exams and came out top. When I felt I was ready to teach, I was literally stronger and more capable ... Doing matric privately gave me a sense of stability. I reassured myself that I could do other things on my own. I said to myself: even though I haven't been able to attend university, I'm going to damn well do it. As soon as I started teaching at high school I registered with Unisa [the University of South Africa]. A lot of what I was studying was feeding into my teaching ... I never thought I was doing a subject in order to pass exams. I had quite a clear idea of myself and I was sure where I wanted to go. I was then 26. Then I became interested in the teachers' organisation and joined ... I was elected secretary. I got married just before I started teaching at Orlando High.
Manganyi: More stability!
Mphahlele: Yes. Ribs is an outgoing person - really outgoing. She hasn't my kind of personality at all. She drew me out of myself to a very large extent. So when I was at Orlando High I had really loosened up. The year I became secretary, Zeph Mothopeng president and [Isaac] Matlhare editor of the journal, we decided to launch an attack against the syllabuses of native education. We looked into the textbooks, most of which were glorifying the white man ... through and through, especially in the humanities. Matlhare, Mothopeng and I attacked the syllabus and said what was wrong. This was in 1949. We were re-elected in 1950 and 1951, but in 1951 the Eiselen Commission Report came out and we realised it was completely malicious. So we decided to launch a campaign against it, all over the province. We went to various areas, talking to teachers and parents, to warn them against the recommended system. It was the whole philosophical basis we were attacking. It was wrong. The architects had concocted something in their heads called Bantu culture. The African must be taught to respect his culture, they said. This Bantu culture, of which we had no conception at all ... The implication also was that the missionaries had taught us to be rebels. Our reply was that they taught us nothing of the sort. If anything, the missionaries were teaching us the virtues of humility before the Lord. Verwoerd, of course, came to Parliament and went on with that sort of rhetoric: ... Africans shouldn't be given false hopes or given the idea that they could compete in a world which was not theirs. Things of that kind! That made it even worse. The rhetoric in Parliament interpreted the very spirit of the Eiselen report ... It clarified the whole aim of the system and made it even more objectionable than it might have been just in print. It was when we were in the middle of launching this campaign, opening up the subject for debate, that we got letters of dismissal. This was in August of 1952. We were given a month's notice. We were told we couldn't teach anywhere else in the country. We left. But the circumstances surrounding our dismissal went further than our attack against Bantu Education. It involved also our work at school, our positions at Orlando High. The principal ... quite openly declared his stand on the side of Bantu Education...