Es’kia Mphahlele Evocation: 13 Years post his Demise

Es’kia Letobe ‘Mazwi’ Mphahlele was an iconic South African Author, Educationalist and Philosopher, who was born on 17th December 1919, in what Paulo Freire considered a favela, in Marabastad, Pretoria. His totem is Kgaga (Armadillo)hence reference to Mokgaga and Phuthi (Duiker). As I am the eldest grandson of Stephen Moloi (who acted as ‘Jack’ in Todd Matshikiza’s musical play King Kong, which toured London in 1961), this means that together with Mokgaga’s childhood playmate and neighbor (simply called ‘Moloi’),  in his autobiography Down 2nd Avenue (1959), we share the totem of Phuthi. Amidst the present razzmatazz of local Government Elections (LGE), it is still recalled that Wednesday 27th of October 2021, marked the 13th anniversary of Mokgaga’s death in 2008. Some may stridently ask – Es’kia who? Mokgaga’s non-familiarity to the bulk of South Africans, may be an accurate indictment on the deficient status quo of the National Department of Sports, Arts and Culture (DASC) and both National Departments of Education (DOE), Basic Education (DBE) and Higher Education and Training (DHET). 

Mokgaga’s obscurity sadly takes place, under the watch of his one-time political home, the African National Congress (ANC). Mokgaga was one of ANC’s ideologues, thanks to ‘Clause 8 of the Freedom Charter of 1955 “The Doors of Learning Shall be opened to all”. Pitifully the ANC led government, has become notorious for kleptocracy, nepotism and crass corruption, as part of its litany of gaffes. Topping its bloopers, are constant headlines exposing its ardent embezzlement of the state’s coffers, benefiting sparse plenipotentiaries alongside their cronies. I am hesitant to speak to sages but on this rare instance, I will sanguinely bite the bullet. What follows is my open letter, with Mokgaga.

Mokgaga, I undertake this monologue, as part of our ensuing epistemic relationship. The final week of October 2021, symbolically included the day, you sadly transitioned in Lebowakgomo. It was disconcertingly my non-existent student budget, while a Masters (MA) candidate at Stellenbosch University, which rendered my inadvertent absentia at your funeral. Regardless of your lifetime of accolades, you remarkably emphasized for a modest funeral. I remain enthralled, by your humility. My perseverance, seven years later, ensured my eventual arrival at your home. The occasion was miserably, during your son Dichaba Robert (Chabi) Mphahlele’s funeral, on 6th June 2015. Given the nature of that mournful occasion, my memory of that trip can be described as ambivalent. Although I was elated to have arrived at your home, I was just as saddened, by the circumstances which led me there. It was surreal how on that night, I slept on the living room couch, next to Dichaba who lay (inside his sealed coffin) in the middle of the lounge. At dawn I was introduced to your surviving Mokgaga family and friends. Among those I interviewed, included Reverend Pedro-Nehru Raboroko and your last born son, Puso Leslie Mphahlele (with his distinct American accent) and your doting longtime neighbor Mme, Catherine Shirley Maimele.    

Mokgaga although we share, the totem of Phuthi, we never met. That fateful detail, did not deter my pedagogic research agenda, pertaining your oeuvre. I am part of the myriad of imminent literati, who never physically met you however engage your oeuvre.  Indeed after accessing, reading and writing about your oeuvre, I opine that the public may justly question, the difference between us and those who personally knew you. My interest in your work, dates back to the early 2000’s. It was ignited after having read your ‘words of wisdom’, themed as part of the Afrikan Affirmations series, in The Mercury Newspaper, back in 2003/4. At the time I was an undergraduate student, at Zululand University (Ongoye). It was quite a eureka moment to later learn, during the course of my doctoral research, while interviewing businessman Mike Stainbank (in January 2015), that Afrikan Affirmations was his brainchild, conceptualized as a product linked with The ES’KIA INSTITUTE. The latter’s motto, is self-explanatory “Inspired by the Life and work of Professor Mphahlele”. Disappointingly socio-political dynamics have persisted, which have affected the institute’s funding, consequently stagnating its further prospects. 

Mokgaga my enduring research of your insights, proudly persists to date, both on your primary and mature works. The latter commences from your novice book Man Must Live and Other Stories (1947), until your final book Mandela: Echoes of an Era (1990) respectively. As for your contribution to Philosophy, I located your ideas under the Afrocentric theme of ‘African Humanism’. The latter addressed overcoming our ‘split personality as colonized black subjects’. Eversince your mentorship under Norah Taylor, you have insightfully argued for an ‘integrated self’. You are a self-declared unapologetic ‘integrationist’ and advanced your essays on ‘African Humanism and Culture’, dating back from The Fabric of African Culture and Religious Beliefs (1971) until Africa in Exile (2000). 

Mokgaga let’s conclude,with a brief update. Literary Journal Wordsetc who published your final interview, with journalist Madala Thepa in 2008, dolefully folded. On 25th August 2010 in its Polokwane Campus, University of South Africa introduced an annual memorial lecture, in your name. Your second biographer Chabani Manganyi co-edited Bury Me at the Marketplace (2010). Penguin Publishers republished your book, In Corner B [1967] in 2010, 2011 (your mentee Peter Thuynsma wrote the introduction of this edition) and 2018.Your co-edited Seasons Come to Pass [2004], was republished in 2012. Your adopted daughter Mmatshilo Motsei released Reweaving the Soul of the Nation (2017) and dedicated it to you. Your centenary year of 2019, was busy, among others three colloquia were hosted, at University of the Witwatersrand (WITS), artists Zakes Mda and Khehla Chepape Makgatho contributed towards an exhibition, at Polokwane Museum and Mobogo More’s book Looking Through Philosophy in Black (2019), reflected your relevance in Philosophy. Ali Hlongwane acknowledges you, in his book The Lion of Azania (2021). Jaki Seroke features you in Zwelethu: Our Land (2021). Tragically your brainchild Funda Community College, enduringly operates under siege. 

Mokgaga wa Mmakubela… mabjoko a letile, tsena o re fahlolose. Badimo ba le roballe.

By Dr Tshepo Mvulane Moloi

The writer is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Johannesburg Institute of Advanced Study (JIAS)