Iconic South African Author Es’kia Mphahlele Celebrated

Iconic South African Author Es’kia Mphahlele Celebrated at the Market Theatre

‘The Market Theatre’ dually hosted from 21st-28th February 2021, The Amazwi Mphahlele Exhibition alongside a theatre adaptation, directed by Mr. Clive Mathibe, about one of Mphahlele’s arguably lesser fêted children’s book, titled Father Come Home/Tate Etla Gae. The theatre play, ran from the 9th to 28th February 2021. This is how Mphahlele was introduced in ‘The Market Theatre’s’ press statement, “Mphahlele is a renowned author of two autobiographies, more than thirty short stories, two verse plays and a fair number of poems. In a career spanning over sixty years he received local and international awards most notably was his nomination for the Nobel Prize in literature in 1968”.


Indeed much effort was made towards reviving the memory of Professor Ezekiel Letoba Mazwi Mphahlele (1919-2008) or ‘Es’kia’ or ‘Zeke’, throughout February 2021, at ‘The Market Theatre’ in Newtown, Gauteng. Origin of the nickname ‘Zeke’ remains elusive to me, unlike that of ‘Es’kia’. After almost two decades (1959-1977) in self-exile, in defiance of the Apartheid regime, after arriving back in South Africa (the latter was interestingly renamed in Mphahlele’s jargon as ‘the tyranny of place’) in 1977, he decolonised his name, from the biblically derived Hebrew name of ‘Ezekiel’, to ‘Es’kia’. Mphahlele argued that the latter, embraced his African identity. The latter decision is evidently recorded, in Mphahlele’s last interview (published in the now defunct South African literary journal entitled wordsetc) to journalist Mr. Madala Thepa. Mphahlele argued that “Es’kia is Sotho...So in Sotho the short name or shortcut to Ezekiel is Es’kia” (Thepa, 2008:20).


Contextually when fast-forwarding from past showcases, hosted at ‘The Market Theatre’, prior shows chiefly include, adaptations of Mphahlele’s The Suitcase in 2005 (followed up elsewhere in 2005 with amid others, a five week sold out England tour in Hull, Lancaster, Newcastle, Liverpool and Derby), returning to ‘The Market Theatre’ in 2007 and 2017. All the aforesaid were directed by Mr. James Ngcobo, the current Artistic Director of ‘The Market Theatre’, appointed in this post in 2013. Ngcobo’s adaptation was meant to honor Mphahlele, as South Africa’s globally acclaimed ‘doyen of Arts and Culture’ or ‘Dean of African letters’. The latter was a fond reference, by scholar-activist protégés of Mphahlele, such as Professors Muxe Nkonde, Njabulo Ndebele, Peter Thuynsma and Sam Raditlalo.


About Amazwi

The Chairperson of Council of ‘Amazwi South African Museum of Literature’, Ms. Sanele Nhlabatsi, reported in the ‘Amazwi South African Museum of Literature Strategic Plan 2020-2025’, that “The National English Literary Museum [NELM] was renamed Amazwi South African Museum of Literature (Amazwi) by Minister of Arts and Culture [Mr. Nkosinathi Mthethwa] on 19 March 2019 (Government Gazette, 12 April 2019, Notice Number 566)” (Nhlabatsi, 2020:2). Amazwi’s ‘mission statement’ reads as follows “To preserve the literary heritage of South Africa, promote its narrative to the world, and foster a culture of reading, writing and storytelling for education and enjoyment” (Amazwi Strategic Plan, 2020:6). So Minister Mthetwa’s aforesaid decision confirmed Amazwi, as an agency of ‘Department of Arts and Culture’ (DAC). Subsequently however it later transpired, that on the 14th of June 2021, President Cyril Ramaphosa, announced reconfigurements of South Africa’s government departments. DAC for one, was merged with ‘Department of Sport and Recreation’, becoming the ‘Department of Sports, Arts, and Culture’ (DSAC). Mr. Nkosinathi Mthethwa was announced, as Minister of the new DSAC.


Amazwi is derived, from indigenous Nguni languages of South Africa, such as isiXhosa and isiZulu and means ‘voices’ / ‘words’. This name change, is based on the linguistic and cultural inclusivity, as per Amazwi’s new mandate, to promote and preserve vital South African literary works, authored in English and all of South Africa’s recognized indigenous languages. Amazwi inherited NELM’s two satellite institutions, The Eastern Star Gallery Printing and Press Museum and Schreiner House, in Cradock. Historically NELM was founded by Professor Fredrick Guy Butler (1918-2001) in 1972, in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape Province, while ‘Head of English Department’, at Rhodes University. Grahamstown was renamed, after ‘Gazette no. 641 of 29 June 2018’, which paved the path for the 2nd of October 2018, to become the official date, to use Makhanda. Makhanda or Makana ka Nxele, is a descendant of the Khoikhoi and Xhosa people, he was a prophet and warrior. For the DSAC, all name changes are meant to serve, as ongoing efforts of ‘symbolic reparations’, resulting from South Africa’s unjust past.


‘Amazwi Mphahlele Exhibition’ and Mr. Clive Mathibe’s adaptation of Tate Etla Gae


The first to speak, was Mr. James Ngcobo and his opening message, reminisced about the earlier stated theatre shows he directed, of Mphahlele’s ‘The Suitcase’. Ngcobo highlighted his joy at meeting Mphahlele in 2005, at ‘The Market Theatre’ and also the former United Nations Secretary-General Mr. Kofi Anan (1938-2018), at ‘Hull Truck Theatre’ in Hull, Yorshire, UK in 2017. Ngcobo ended his address with an emphasis to increase engagement of our local art works, through our indigenous languages. He thus announced a planned partnership with the Johannesburg Institute of Advanced Study (JIAS), headed by Dr. Bongani Ngqulunga, with the aim of publishing the Sepedi translation of Father Come Home/Tate Etla Gae, as authored by Ms. Rami Chuene.


The second speaker Mr. Clive Mathibe, greeted the audience by proudly declaring that he hailed from Mphahlele’s village in ha Mphahlele, in Limpopo. Mathibe explicated therefore that his adaptation of Tate Etla Gae was drawn, from Chuene’s translated text into Sepedi, of Mphahlele’s ‘Father Come Home’. It is noteworthy to quote from one of the press statements articulated by the organisers, “Es’kia Mphahlele believed that the regeneration of African consciousness is essential to real African development and progress. And his novel, Father Come Home is presented through the protagonist, Maredi. He portrays a boy’s struggle of growing up in a traditional village where manhood is defined by family/clan names and the cultural rites of passage. Maredi grows an emotional and desperate need to define himself through knowing his father. Growing up without a father figure has a profound effect on boys that lasts into manhood”. We await more books and plays, to be translated into all our indigenous South African languages.