Ihad to read Es'kia Mphahlele's autobiography Down Second Avenue for one of my UNISA courses. I really admire this man. He is proof that success comes from nothing but hard work.
He did not have one single advantage in his life, no big break or helping hand. He grew up in poverty and worked hard at school and never gave up. He went on to be a writer, teacher, activist and scholar.
His mom worked full time as a domestic worker to put her three kids through school, so Ezekiel was brought up by his grandmother and his aunt. Men seemed to fade into the background in his childhood. He was surrounded by stong women who were determined to bring the children up to have dignity and strong morals, despite the hardships they faced daily. Who in the history books ever remembers the important role that these maids and clothes-washers played?
Es'kia's school career started off inauspiciously; herding goats was a priority in the Maupaneng countryside where he grew up. Once he moved to a Pretoria township he showed an aptitude for reading and English that led to him becoming a writer and journalist.
He was also a teacher but was banned from teaching after he objected to the new Bantu education syllabus. He includes a snippet of this syllabus in his biography and it is shocking to see the substandard education the government saw fit to provide non-whites.
He completed a Masters in English literature with UNISA and passed with distinction, this being the first time anyone of any colour had achieved a distinction for a senior degree at UNISA.
An extract from the book that really stuck with me is this:
“you must keep moving, writing at white heat, everything full of vitriol; hardly a moment to think of human beings as human beings and not as victims of political circumstance….our South African situation has become a terrible cliché as literary material.”(p210.)
I have often thought that our South African situation is a cliché that still weighs heavily upon our writers. Will we ever be able to free ourselves of this yoke and write about human beings as human beings? And if we do so, are we being honest about our human experience? Most of us experience the South African cliché, whether directly or indirectly.
If you want to get an idea of what it was like to live in the townships from the 20's to the 60's, you should read this book. Mphahlele is a quiet South African hero who triumphed despite the huge odds stacked against him.