Book review

2010-07-28 00:00


Bury me at the Marketplace: Es’kia Mphahlele and Company: Letters 1943-2006

N. Chabani Manganyi and David Attwell (editors)

Wits University Press

OUR literature and culture, like our politics, bear the marks of apartheid. Painful ­divisions remain. But some writers have been able to draw us towards a fruitful unity in diversity. They have done this not by underplaying their allegiances but by articulating them with ­empathy and passionate reason­ableness.

Notable among such writers is Zeke Mphahlele, who died in 2008. This volume, which consists mainly of letters (most of them written by him, some addressed to him) but also of two interviews, gives us a rich picture of Mphahlele’s outer and inner life. Having obtained an MA at Unisa, but forbidden to teach because he opposed Bantu Education, he went into exile in ­Nigeria in 1957, and completed Down Second Avenue, arguably South Africa’s finest autobiography. Exile took him restlessly on to ­Paris, Nairobi, Lusaka and the United States, where he became a respected academic, writer and cultural scholar.

In 1977, feeling the need to ­re-establish his roots, he returned to South Africa, much to the ­annoyance of some of his ­exiled South African friends. The apartheid government wasn’t pleased to see him, but he ­obtained a good post at the University of the Witwatersrand and then became a central creative figure in black ­education and culture.

Mphahlele’s letters are deeply humane — probing, compassionate, wise, energetic, humorous — and the range of his correspondents suggests how wide his sympathies were: black writers from this country and from elsewhere, white South African writers and academics, and family members, particularly his daughter Teresa.

In 1990 Penguin published a pictorial biography of Nelson ­Mandela. The text was written by Mphahlele. The two men had much in common: they were of about the same age, and they are both great manifestations of ubuntu, of what Mphahlele called African ­humanism.

Maybe not many individuals will buy this 500-page book, but every serious library ought to possess it.

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