(1971, London – Boston. Faber and Faber, Ltd.)
(First published in 1959)
I have just reread Es’kia (formerly Ezekiel) Mphahlele’s Down Second Avenue which describes life in Marabastad from about 1930 to its evacuation under the Group Areas Act in the 1950s. As a child, I lived in the Asiatic Bazaar, the Indian section of Marabastad. Though Marabastad was one location with a section for Coloureds, a section for Indians and a section for Africans, and the African section was right next to the Indian section, I had to read Mphahlele’s book to discover what life in the African location was like. There were similarities between the locations but because Coloureds and Indians were not as harshly controlled as Africans, they could take advantage of little opportunities and rise out of abject poverty. Es’kia Mphahlele did so too, but his successes were despite tremendous odds against him and his superlative achievements are a testament to enormous strength of character, unflagging belief in himself and the support and sacrifices of a mother who, as a domestic worker, earned £3 pounds a month. His great achievements in the face of apartheid notwithstanding, Mphahlele felt that he could never fulfil his true potential in the severely restrictive environment of racist oppression. Like Bloke Modisane, he felt compelled to leave South Africa, not only for himself, but for his children as well; they were being socialised into enslavement.
… Motswiri clings to you tightly when he sees a constable walk up or down the road and says Ntate, is the policeman going to arrest me is he going to take you is he going to take Mamma? You hold the frightened kid close to you and think of Second Avenue the long long great divide. Another time Motswiri comes to you with imitation handcuffs crudely made of wire and shouts Bring your hands here, where’s your pass I’ll teach you not to be naughty again. Now he wants a torch and a baton and a big broad belt and a badge, how agonizing! (206)
Down Second Avenue begins with Mphahlele’s experiences as a boy living in the rural village of Maupaneng not far from Pietersburg (now Polokwane). Eseki, his nickname as a child, his brother and sister were sent to live with their paternal grandmother in the village. “ My grandmother sat there under a small lemon tree next to the hut, as big as fate, as forbidding as a mountain, stern as a mimosa tree.’ (11) She was not a loving and gentle woman. When Eseki was in his twelfth year, his mother came to fetch him, his brother and sister and they went to live in Marabastad in Pretoria, with a father who didn’t support them and abused their mother. After a very brutal attack, Eseki’s mother moved out with her children and went to live with her mother in Second Avenue. The Second Avenue family, in addition to Eseki’s grandmother, included Aunt Dora, her three children and three uncles.
In Marabastad, the police were an ever-present menace. From the veranda of their home which faced Barber Street, the boundary between the Asiatic Bazaar and Marabastad, the family watched police goading and beating the “malaitas,” men who, on Sundays, went to Bantule, the adjacent location, where they engaged in violent, fighting matches. On Saturday nights, police raided the location to catch people brewing beer. And every night, police were on the prowl at curfew time, subjecting people to demands for their passbooks. As Mphahlele points out, the police were not there to protect the inhabitants but to enforce the inhuman restrictions that the law imposed on them.
In the location, the residents were subjected to an onerous life. They had to queue for water for hours at a communal tap. It was at the tap that Eseki, who fetched water for the family, encountered the memorable women of Second Avenue who entertained one another with stories and gossip while they waited. As Eseki’s mother was a domestic worker, she lived away from Second Avenue on the premises of the family for which she worked. So it fell to Eseki, as the eldest child, to cook, do housework, and collect washing from people in the white suburbs for Aunt Dora’s laundry business. Aunt Dora was a formidable woman and readily challenged those who tried to cheat her, such as when she beat up Abdool, the Indian shopkeeper on Barber Street. Though Africans lived across the street from the Asiatic Bazaar, they encountered Indians and Chinese only as traders and shopkeepers, but they went into the Asiatic Bazaar to bioscopes and to dances at the Columbia and at the Dougall Hall.
Eseki hated school when he lived in Maupaneng. He had struggled with arithmetic and when he came to Marabastad was regarded as a backward child. But he eventually proved that he was an exceptional student; he obtained a first class pass in the external examinations at the end of Std Six. That got him entry into St Peter’s School in Rosettenville in Johannesburg. He gained another first class pass at the end of Std Eight and that took him to Adam’s College in Natal where he qualified as a teacher. Studying privately, he completed his matriculation examination and then enrolled for the B.A. at UNISA and studied by correspondence. He obtained the B.A and B.A Honours degrees and just before he left South Africa, he obtained a Master’s degree in English and was the very first student to receive an M.A. in English with distinction.
Because he was an outspoken critic of Bantu Education, he lost his job as a teacher. This was a terrible blow as he regarded teaching as his calling. He became a marked man and could not find another teaching post, not even in the neighbouring countries. He then spent time in menial jobs, a messenger among other things, until he eventually obtained the position of sub-editor of Drum Magazine. His experience there was not a happy one but he managed to get seven of his short stories published in the magazine. He presents a realistic not a romanticised view of working at Drum. Because of its exceptional writer-journalists – Henry Nxumalo, Nat Nakasa, Lewis Nkosi, Bloke Modisane, Can Themba and Ezekiel Mphahlele among others, the tendency today is to see Drum in a liberal light. That was not Mphahlele’s experience, neither was it Bloke Modisane’s.
Mphahlele also presents political movements without any gloss. He, as well as Bloke Modisane in Blame Me on History, write of the ANC as a collaborative organisation, willing to accept the Native Representative Council, composed entirely of white members – a structure that the All-African Convention rejected.
When one looks at the volume of Es’kia Mphahlele’s work, one realises that this is a man of great stature, worthy of a Nobel Laureate. But apartheid cloaked the brilliance of his work and even today there are people in South Africa who have not heard of Es’kia Mphahlele.