Down Second Avenue is a work of non-fiction, sometimes sub-titled “Growing Up in a South African Ghetto”, that documents the formative years of Es’kia (Ezekiel) Mphahlele, dubbed the “father of black South African writing”.

The book was first published in the UK in 1959, and in the USA in 1971, and I read the Penguin Classics edition, which is introduced by renowned Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. It is one of Peter Boxall’s ‘1001 Books to Read before you Die’, so by reading it for my immersion into South African writing and culture I’ve ticked it off that list.

Mphahlele tells of his early childhood in Marabastad, outside Pretoria, where he was sent by his parents to be raised in poverty by his steely paternal grandmother. As a teenager he returned to the care of his parents, who had become increasingly estranged from each other. Poverty, both inside and outside the system was everywhere, and mortality was high among the impoverished black population.

In childhood Mphahlele didn’t really question the apartheid system, but as he become more educated he became increasingly angry at the injustices perpetuated by the whites against the black population.

He succeeded academically and professionally against all the odds, becoming a teacher, but tells of winning a prize in early adulthood where “the whites … segregated themselves. They drank out of complete tea sets while we had an assortment of oddly-matched cups and saucers.”

Eventually, at the age of 37, in 1957 Mphahlele departed South Africa for Nigeria, with his wife and three children, after managing to obtain a passport, despite hurdles presented by the authorities, which bridled at his vigorous political campaigning over the years. In Nigeria, where he lived until 1961, he felt able to breathe at last “the new air of freedom”, while his children could learn “something worthwhile … not for slaves”.

He expresses his bitterness at life under apartheid, and the difficulty of having his writing accepted on its own terms, without prejudice:

“No South African journals circulating mainly among whites would touch any of my stories, nor any others written by a non-white, unless he tried to write like a European and adopted a European name. … Every time something has been published that I wrote, I have felt patronized.”

The book ends:

“I think now the white man has no right to tell me how to order my life as a social being, or order it for me. He may teach me how to make a shirt or to read or to write, but my forebears and I could teach him a thing or two if only he would listen and allow himself time to feel.” In 1977 Mphahlele returned to South Africa.

As in the Julia Blackburn book I reviewed earlier this month (which is otherwise entirely different from this book), here again was a plea for a demonstration of basic human feeling from members of the white colonial system propagating an inhumane regime.

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