Adams College Alumni: Es’kia Mphahlele (1919-2008)

Adams College in Amanzimtoti, Durban is on a quest to restore its archives depicting its history. The latter includes mini biographical profiles of its past staff and students. This is my contribution.

Professor Ezekiel Letobe Mazwi Mphahlele, popularly known as Es’kia or mokgaga oa makubela, may be summed up as having been an educator, award winning author and an Afrocentric philosopher. Miscellaneous other ways to describe him, include Father of African Humanism, Dean of African Letters, Prophet of Marabastad and one of the Founding Fathers of Modern African Literature. The name Es’kia was preceded, by nicknames such as Eseki and Tseke (the latter was common amid his family), Es’ki (common among his childhood friends ‘The Foxes’) and Zeke (common amidst scholars). Es’kia consequently decolonized his first name, from Ezekiel to Es’kia in 1977. Rationale for the latter was due from his ontological experience, in South Africa and in exile that highlighted his ‘integrated self’. Ezekiel was not an African name. It is a biblically derived Hebrew name, problematically chosen due to systematic imposition of missionary influence, meted upon his colonized parents. Madala Thepa (the last journalist to interview Es’kia) on behalf of the now defunct Wordsetc a ‘South African Literary Journal’(in its Second Quarter of 2008 edition), narrated that his enquiry about the name Es’kia being Ndebele, was astringently rebuffed. Es’kia’s quoted reply was “There is nothing like that. Es’kia is Sotho” (Thepa, 2008:20). 

In his initial autobiography (the sequel was Afrika My Music (1984)) Down 2nd Avenue (2009 edition), Es’kia narrates that he was a first born, to Moses (“a shop messenger in an outfitters’ firm” (Mphahlele, 2009:1) and Eva Mphahlele (“a domestic servant” (Mphahlele, 2009:1), in the slum of Marabastad in Pretoria. He was a first child out of a total of six siblings (he had three step siblings, after his father remarried). His younger brother was Dikgati Solomon and their baby sister, was Tabitha Basie (nicknamed Girlie). From the age of five (in 1924) until the age of 13 (in 1932), Es’kia and his siblings resided with their paternal grandmother in Maupaneng, a village outside Pietersburg (now Polokwane). The latter village life influenced Es’kia’s Worldview, as evident in his philosophy of ‘African Humanism’ from 1971, while in his last spell of exile in USA. Es’kia’s debate with Addison Gayle Jr., who criticized his book Voices in the Whirlwind (1972), popularized Es’kia’s thoughts in USA. 

In brief Es’kia studied at the Methodist School (in Marabastad), the Anglican affiliated St. Peters Priory in Rosettenville (1935-1937),  Adams College (1939-1940), University of South Africa (UNISA) where he attained his ‘Joint Matric Board Certificate’ (1942-1943), B.A (1949), B.A Honours whence his capstone was A Study in English Romantic Poetry (1955), M.A dissertation entitled The Non-European Character in South African English Fiction (1957) and his PhD. thesis was The Wanderers, completed (in a record eighteen months) as part of the Creative Writing Program of the University of Denver, Colorado, USA (1968). The latter was judged as the Best African Novel for 1968/69 by African Arts Magazine of University of California, Los Angeles. Es’kia was among prestigious nominees, for the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature in 1968, won by Japanese novelist Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972).

As part of the Adams College archive, Es’kia can be counted as one of its convocants, among its cohort of ‘black’ South African literati orraconteurs. Es’kia’s genesis with Adams College, commenced sometime in 1938, after he had excelled and attained his Junior Certificate (JC) from St. Peters Priory. A dialogue sparked by Es’kia’s two maternal uncles (one of whom was an alumni of Adams College), who both worked as teachers and his mother, planted the seed. When Es’kia’s opinion was sought by his mother, he obliged to their suggestion, as he was personally undecided, about his own prospects for his future. After sending his application, he did odd jobs in Pretoria, to save some money in order to supplement his mother’s meagre income, used to pay his tuition and boarding. Once accepted to attend Adams College, Es’kia enrolled for a ‘Teachers Certificate’, in the Teacher Training Department (dubbed as the ‘Normal College’), in 1939 and 1940. 

Es’kia’s magnus opus Down 2nd Avenue (2009: 135-138) details his ambivalent experience, while a student at Adams College. What follows, is from the latter. On arrival Es’kia described Adams College as “A human jungle of about 400 men and women…This then 80-year old American Board of Missions foundation sprawled over a large area of land. We travelled long distances between jubilee, the men’s hostel, and the classrooms and chapel and dining-hall…I soon got used to hearing boys shout or chant Zulu war songs from a balcony. Both the men and the women were generally big, tall, bony people, unlike the bunch of us detribalized and sophisticated up-country folk. The first thing that struck me when I arrived were the massive buildings of stone blocks, the violent growth of vegetation around, and dormitories that could easily have accommodated a fair-sized gymnastic club. The floors were always dusty and the inside of these miniature halls smelled strongly of semi-dry grass, which was used for stuffing mattresses…There was no inspection of dormitories and boxes at Adams. None of the scholastic aura St. Peter’s boasted. Adams was more like a mine compound” (Mphahlele, 2009:135).    

“Dr. Edgar Brooks was principal of the school, and under him were headmasters in the high school, teacher training, industrial and music departments. He was a Senator representing Natal Africans in the Upper House of the Union Parliament…He had been a professor of political science at the Afrikaans University of Pretoria. The doctor was away in Cape Town during parliamentary sessions from January to June each year, rushing back for the Easter recess. When he was away a small beaver-like German, Dr. Brueckner, acted as principal: a philosopher, theologian, electrical engineer, builder all in one…He was most unpopular with us because of his brusqueness, while most of us had a wholesome respect for his superior. There was a strange assortment of African and European teachers at Adams: tired-looking, bored men; retired, decrepit, cantankerous white professors one has come to associate with mission institutions; very large African teachers, one with a smile as broad and unfriendly as the ocean; grim-looking white missionaries’ who were always telling us at speech day how lucky we were to receive an education. The house-master was a bloated little Zulu with a moustache. He was nicknamed Sakabula (a bird that feeds on guavas, which were full on the campus). Dr. Brookes set up a sons-of-chiefs course…But we didn’t enjoy freedom of expression as at St. Peter’s. Notably Zeph [Zephaniah Mothopeng], the one who used to wear mine boots at St. Peter’s was also at Adams…taking a post-matriculation teacher’s course. He still had his fire, but he felt closed in…” (Mphahlele, 2009:136-137). 

Es’kia’s happier moments, were recorded by his second biographer (the first was Ursula Barnett in 1976) Psychologist Chabani Manganyi,in Exiles and Homecomings: A Biography of Es’kia Mphahlele (1983). “During my time at Adams a writing contest for students was organised…of folk stories. I wrote one and presented it to the judges. That was the first time my writing afforded me recognition. I won…It had never occurred to me before Adams that I could create other worlds, other realities; that I could write. By now, however, an insistent urge to write was making itself manifest…In the course of 1940, Stanley Sikakani and I were selected from the school on the basis of scholastic performance to visit the elite English school of Michaelhouse in Natal. I represented the ‘Normal’ College while Stanley was selected from the high school. It seemed to have been Edgar Brookes’s idea that one needed that kind of immersion in order to become a well-rounded person upon departure from Adams College” (Manganyi, 1983:64-65). Recall this Man of Letters!

By Dr Tshepo Mvulane Moloi