Age is such a high price to pay for maturity. But when that age goes beyond the universally set 70+, the transaction becomes an overdraft, and it's time the drawer paid interests. South Africa has drawn from the wisdom, maturity and vision of Professor Es'kia Mphahlele, and it's safe to say that it's forever indebted to him. Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill would have said, "never before…was so much owed by so many to so few".

Mphahlele, an opponent of apartheid's Bantu Education system and its attempts to infiltrate the intellectual life of all South Africans is in a jovial mood as we sit down to talk under the theme of Hiding the Truth in a Book. Lounging on a sofa in his spacious living room in the township of Lebowakgomo, 50 kilometres outside of Polokwane, Mphahlele's surroundings mirrors his travels all over the world. He opens by saying; "A book is a self contained product and it's got its own ways of stating the truth. Its own ways of pursuing the truth. A book is confined to a particular theme and depending on what the characters do, and it also depends on what kind of books are you writing, fiction, a book of essays, you have to be specific"

Points to ponder; Mphahlele left South Africa in 1957 after fighting scores of running battles with apartheid education authorities. He once wrote about that stage of his life, "Remember August 1952, Zeph? You as president of the Transvaal African Teachers Association, Isaac Matlare, its editor, myself as its secretary general, were fired from Orlando High by the Transvaal Education Department. Banned from teaching anywhere in the country". This insight comes from his tribute to his late friend Zephaniah Mothopeng, written thirteen years ago.

Today, Mphahlele looks at that system of education with aggrieved suspicion for having misinformed people and discouraged them from viewing reading as a lucrative hobby and practise. "Historical truth for instance (does not tell of) how Africans came to where they are. About Africans and their culture in this country, where you had two main racial groups, the one who had all the power of expressing themselves. They had all the means of publishing, the means of marketing the books. They would often conceal the truth by not telling the readers", Mphahlele seems to be fumbling for answers to my question. Until he puts it in context.

"For instance, why are we confined to areas that are not productive? There are a number of books that are written, which don't tell that truth that the white people planned the occupancy of a number of regions which are not productive. The white people occupied the more productive stretches of land. Now, that truth is often hidden in history books. They talk about conquests and they talk about Africans being under-developed. The whole story of under-development has got its hidden truths about it" Mphahlele finishes his response.

He is concerned that people who are living today do not have accurate grasp of knowledge, what took place, how they got here, where they are and where they are going. He is pained by the fact that more and more people have divorced their minds from curiosity, which is the only justice behind reading a book. His biggest culprit is history; "Some history books bring it out, others don't. Again you gotta understand that there are historians. There are good historians, there are very poor historians. There are historians who do tell the truth, there are historians who tell half the truth. And there are those who don't tell the truth at all. That is the thing about history, a history written by people who despise the people they are writing about" he says.

Hating to be one to be misinformed, Mphahlele confesses that his eyes were only opened in 1957 when he first got exposed to African literature outside of South Africa. That was when he settled in West Africa. That is where his first autobiography, the highly acclaimed Down Second Avenue was published. He says that is where he met authors like 1981 Nobel laureate Nigerian Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and others. Mphahlele later moved to the United States of America where he continued to lecture.

In 1977 when he indicated his intention to return to apartheid South Africa his friends in exile responded in a way that irked him. He retorted to such rebuke with venom, "The leader of this frustrated and yelping pack was poet Dennis Brutus, a lecturer still in the US. Word was out that Es'kia Mphahlele was betraying the cause of liberation by going back to apartheid and tyranny. The lobby attempted to influence certain American universities not to re-invite me to lecture on their campuses. But no self-respecting institution was going to sponsor such a private obsession as Brutus's" he wrote in 1991.

Since returning, he has lectured at Wits University, published his collection of short stories and essays titled The Unbroken Spirit, his second autobiography, Africa My Music and worked on or involved in the editing and writing of 45 books, amongst them Chirundu. Last year he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Cape Town.

Mphahlele might be old, been there done that, wrote the two autobiographies and bought the T-shirt, but he's not dogmatizing about writing African literature in English like purist academic Professor Ngugi wa Thiong'o does. "You learn English inorder to attain knowledge and through knowledge create ideas or communicate ideas. So, to say a person is a slave to English if they write in English is ridiculous" he says.

Whoever coined the phrase, "like old wine, matures with time", must have lived plenty centuries ahead of Mphahlele. This is so because Mphahlele's imposing intellect doesn't give a clue that he was once fermented. That his maturity is a result of the time he spent meeting equally informed people. It simply alleges that he was born great, and at 84, indications are that he's not about to relinquish his birthright. "I just would not want to start becoming foolish by sounding wise. At the moment I'm just thinking of what more writing I should do" he muses.

Today at 84, he personally takes care of his ailing wife, for whom he is proud to say, he prepares food for her (Mom Rebecca has since passed away...RIP). And his wish is to see the rejuvenation of a reading culture. Maybe in his own written words he would have said, "Adios to you all! We'll meet at the crossroads of human endeavor".

By: Goodenough Mashego

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