This is a lightly edited excerpt from Bury Me at the Marketplace: Es’kia Mphahlele and Company. Letters 1943-2006 edited by David Attwell and N Chabani Manganyi
(2009, Wits University Press). A version of this interview was published in Looking Through the Keyhole: Dissenting Essays on the Black Experience (1981, Ravan Press).
Chabani Manganyi: There is another phenomenon that’s interesting to me. On two occasions, the first in the introduction to Down Second Avenue, the other, I think, in the first chapter of The African Image, you depart radically from your usual calm in talking about South Africa. Do you recall this?
Mphahlele: I am in a situation there where my anger is impotent so I fling out wildly. I want to spill out everything that I feel deeply and strongly inside me in very plain words. I am feeling that I am away from the situation and even if I were back, language would be impossible, or would place me in danger. But that is the irony of it. I think it is the feeling that I want an audience. My audience is not here. My audience is a very general outside world audience, not the audience that I want. I want the audience here. I fling out wildly because I feel that kind of distance. I am not being heard by the people I want to hear me.
Manganyi: Have you ever considered violence as a solution?
Mphahlele: Yes, several times.
Manganyi: How far does that take you?
Mphahlele: When I contemplate it, it goes a long way, but I often stop and wonder whether I am not contemplating something that can lead to much destruction of life. Because even while I am contemplating it, some report comes of violence that has taken place. That jolts me.
Manganyi: I have, for my own part, one concern about violence. The conclusion I arrived at was that both rightist and leftist stands end in violence. If you become very conservative, rightist and fascist, you end up with violence. If you move to the left because you want to revolutionise, change things radically, you end up with violence. And this is a very significant dilemma as I see it.
Mphahlele: Yes. Violence is the outcome of extremes … I say: “Why should I want violence where other people will be the participants, and not I?” This is what bothers me. When it seems to me that the only solution is violence, I ask myself: “Would I be the first one to pick up a gun?” and I know I wouldn’t be. Why should I then prescribe a method in which I may not be the chief participant?
Manganyi: It’s a question of morality.
Mphahlele: Moral responsibility, without even thinking whether it’s right or wrong to use violence. That worries me a hell of a lot. When the June 1976 riots occurred, it went deep, deep down inside me and showed me the senselessness of it all. But the relentless tyranny can continue and waste more lives than it did at that time. This is a situation in which I’ve even wondered whether one dares to hope. And yet, as a humanist, I feel I must have hopes and I must be optimistic about a number of things in spite of the darkness of our times. I hope that we can overcome and come out on top.
We must be masters of our own destiny. I hope that when that time comes we will psychologically be ready to carry the moment forward so that it doesn’t degenerate into some of the things we see in other parts of Africa – the Idi Amins, the Bokassas, that whole bunch. I hope our temperaments will be ready for that moment so that we will know exactly what we want to do and do it right. I used to be quite a passionate believer, given the historical reality of the white man in this country, in a non-racial society. The politicians of the 1950s offered the possibility of a non-racial society to the white man. They tried to assure him that they were sincere and that white people who wanted to lead a decent, democratic life would be accommodated in such a society. They were gunned down and they were locked up. I have said to myself, now critical of my stand for a non-racial society, “If people refuse that kind of chance, what does one do?” A genuine humanism would be all-embracing. Therefore, it would insist on a non-racial society. But if the other side doesn’t care for this, given the historical circumstances, I must reserve my humanism for my own kind and conserve energy and strengthen my own side first and see if we can stand on our own dignity and pride.
Manganyi: I guess that is what the youth has been trying to say in the 1970s. I see the black consciousness movement primarily as a humanistic movement … in terms of its value system. It is working basically on the kind of model you have just put across. It has the momentum to move beyond itself.
Mphahlele: That is right, because our humanism has never sought to shut out anybody. It has always been a humanism that could absorb many things, influences, members. You are right. I think we need to strengthen ourselves first. I hope this can happen. Then we can pull it off. They now realise that by excluding us from South African life and putting us in an enclave they have strengthened black consciousness and our sense of self. They are scared of it now. They realise they created it. When I was at Fort Hare recently they asked me to talk to students. I talked about African humanism. I said we needed to institutionalise our own cultural activities in order to strengthen them and that it should be an ongoing thing. There were questions like: “What do we do if we are an urban people and we’ve been cut off?” I replied that we didn’t have to wait for Christianity and the Bible to have a sense of morality. We have always had our own humanism.
If we institutionalised our cultural activities we could also try to put a stop to the commercialisation of our culture by white people, like [the 1974 musical] Ipi Tombi and that kind of junk which they export. We can work with our own African idioms in music, theatre, literature and so on. At the end of it a fellow comes to me and introduces himself as Pienaar. He is a member of the faculty. He says to me, “Well, I’ve just one question. I wonder if the African will not become exclusive if he does what you say he should do; that is, have a sense of self-pride and work with his own African idioms. Will the artist not then become exclusive and perpetuate the kind of thing you are criticising among the other racial groups?” I said, “No. There is no reason why he should if he is a good artist. Every good artist goes beyond the moment into the future. He must have a vision and there is no reason why he should become exclusive. If he does, it is because he is very local in his appeal. But there is nothing wrong with that, as a starting point.” It gave me a hint, you see, that now the white man is scared. He sowed the wind and will reap the whirlwind. Scared that the African will exclude him. Shit, man! And then afterwards I said to myself, “Who the hell is he to worry about exclusiveness?” He of all people, worried that he would be excluded from African society when he has always wanted to be apart.
Manganyi: If we blacks are to contribute in a meaningful way to a future South Africa this contribution should include literature and art that says: “This is where it hurts but there is a tomorrow. No black person will romanticise this anguish.”
Mphahlele: No fiction or poetry can capture all the anguish we feel. But starting from the given that we are in this anguish, the writer and the artist must move forward, go beyond it. That is the kind of message I was preaching at the workshops I was running for PEN last November. I was saying that what I see in [South African literary magazine, published between 1978 and 1996] Staffrider is real, vibrant literature. But it lacks a myth. Our myth should be that there is a tomorrow. This literature captures the agony of the moment. It has no resonance because it has no past either, no past to work on. We were saying earlier on that our present-day writers have been cut off from the 1950s. They don’t even know that it existed. They think literature begins with them. So there is no resonance echoing the past, foreshadowing the future. This is what we must move beyond, and the images we use have to indicate that.
Manganyi: This is a very important question because it has a lot of political consequences in South Africa. I have been called as an expert witness in one of the censorship hearings. I also worked with the defence lawyers at some stage during the Saso-BPC [South African Students Organisation – Black People’s Convention] trial. This is where the question became so poignant to me. You read a piece of literature and you want to decide whether in fact there is a one-to-one relationship between the literature and the actions of the reader subsequent to reading the poem.
Mphahlele: I firmly believe that no poem or novel or play really impels people into political action because one is using a work of imagination which has a roundabout way of saying things. It uses metaphor, it uses allegory and it uses other devices which are meant really to enrich the personality rather than … simply move from stimulus to …
Manganyi: To response.
Mphahlele: Response. Yes. To move people into action you need to speak their language, the language of every day, which is prose, and you go directly to what you want to do. As soon as you use a work of imagination, you are negating the possibilities of response from the other imagination, the imagination of the reader. It would have to be a very bad poem or novel, almost a non-poem or a non-novel, to get people into action … Because it has then to move towards everyday spoken language. I think you are right when you say that we have to face up to this problem because so many of our young writers really passionately think that the poetry they write can be revolutionary; revolutionary in the sense that it will mobilise people into action. It doesn’t work that way; it has never worked that way. Either one has to write out a prose manifesto or do something else. It has nothing to do with political action. While at the same time it moves people and it increases one’s emotional responses which is what literature and art do … to increase us and give us a new view of an experience, of a common experience. I think this is what we should be aware of.
Manganyi: I have always thought that we in South Africa are, in fact, depriving ourselves of an opportunity to create a vital literature and art that is not inhibited in subject or theme across the colour line. This could prepare us in a very fundamental way for the kind of synthesis and reconciliation of the various cultural and political strands that exist within the society itself.
Mphahlele: Yes, you are up against a formidable opposition. If only we could talk about Africans, Indians and so-called “coloureds”, as simply black … Then you have the white people. We Africans have our own strand, the Indian another strand, and the so-called “coloured” person, yet another. Then you have the white strand. You have a situation in which the divisions are tightly regulated and which almost forebodes doom for people who want to cross these dividing lines. The other people, for instance, will punish their own kind if they try to cross the line over to ours. Particularly the radicals. Then the liberals will play it safe on that side, as long as they think that they are crossing the line now and again, to peep into what we are doing and to read what we are writing, and to listen to what we are saying, yet conscious, at the same time, of the tough legislation that exists. I find it difficult myself to know what can be done in a situation like this where the … legislated division is such a hard and formidable structure. Should we, as black people, try to reach across this line?
It might be dissipating our energies if we set ourselves the mission of educating the other man before we have tried to educate and strengthen ourselves. Trying to educate the other man, you get hurt eventually. You run into a wall. The other people just listen and they say they sympathise; they empathise. That’s all that ever happens … there is this inner feeling, this kind of inner slavery of the mind … even in white academics … who would not like to throw off those shackles, and move forward into progressive and constructive thinking. It bothers me a lot because we are now faced with a fragmented culture in this country.
It is difficult to know what the future will be; what kind of institutionalised synthesis there will be. We know there is a synthesis within the personality – the African absorbing from this and absorbing from that. And at the same time, I think he very often loses balance because he really doesn’t know himself and his inner potential. He has been under white rule so long that there’s a number of things he mistakes for the real thing, which come from the white culture and he has no orientation. Like the urban African who has lost some orientation, because he has started off from the point where his community itself is fashioning a new urban culture, from the residual elements of memory.
I’m trying to think whether we can move into a consolidation of our own side so that we emphasise the positive rather than the mere survival elements of our own culture and feel self-contained and also self-reliant. Black consciousness comes into it, necessarily. If we can do that, we might be able to survive the onslaught from the other side, which is always coming at us; survive it in the sense that we would then be emphasising the positive element. It would also help us move towards a future in which the other man has no choice but to join in our majority culture.
As we are now, it seems as if the white looks at us only as a political force and riot as a cultural force in which politics are an ingredient. He doesn’t think we have that kind of culture which he himself can act out and engage in as one of us. He looks at us as an inferior people because we are politically weak, politically impotent. Not really an active kind of involvement in our culture. Our thinkers must get together and find out how we can bridge the rural/urban gap among ourselves and create a sense of unity; a sense of cultural unity so that the urban man can be, in one way or another, reinforced by a knowledge of where he comes from, where he is going, and what has happened to him so far.
Manganyi: Black memory.
Mphahlele: Yes. Black memory. And if we can do that I think we might be able to form a monolithic structure among ourselves. I don’t know where the Indian would fall in or the so-called “coloured” man. I don’t know if they themselves even worry about where they belong. Do they simply see themselves as micro-communities living off the handouts they’re given by the existing power?
Manganyi: One of the things I’ve been thinking about which you’ve touched on indirectly is what I see as a typically South African definition or understanding of culture, namely the equation of culture with power and privilege.
Mphahlele: … if culture doesn’t have the power and the privilege then it’s not worth affiliating to. Those who are in power are supposed to have the cultural stability and cultural viability which gives an exaggerated idea of its worth. You and I know that it is a defensive culture and not a creative culture; it’s a purely mechanistic culture coming from the other tradition, from the “great Western tradition”. For one thing, it lacks the spiritual force; it is spiritually bankrupt. It’s a political thing.
Perhaps we, as scholars, should try to mobilise our forces and talk about culture and about what we can do to reinforce ourselves and look more deeply into ourselves, more profoundly across the rural/urban demarcation line, while at the same time keeping the door open for anybody else who wants to affiliate to this bigger thing. This division is being encouraged also by the rhetoric, or the language; the terms, which the newspapers use, like the “urban black”. The other black is never even mentioned. They’re out of reckoning in the towns. I would like the gap bridged, in the cultural sense.
The whites here seem so scared of really moving forward in a cooperative effort, a collective effort towards creating links with us as equal partners. I see here white people as scholars who simply take an academic interest in us, and nothing more. They still enjoy the privilege. Nobody would want them to forgo that, but they’re making no effort at all to convince us that they would like these bridges to be built which are culturally constructed and not just as an intellectual exercise. There are whites who link up with us as writers. They try their best, in the circumstances, to speak up against censorship, against a culture that creates barriers between races. But I wonder if even they think more profoundly within themselves that such a common national culture is possible. For instance, I see the Afrikaans writers as people who are attacking censorship because they are now also being affected. But I can’t see them, for instance, affiliating to our culture. They still, I think, look at their culture as superior because it has this political backing. Another group is the one whose occupation is “race relations”; groups who try to come across, to reach across the line. They, again, are people who study problems. They’re not activists. I don’t see them as activists. I see them as students of race relations.
Manganyi: Isn’t it true, though, that the ultimate scenario for survival in Southern Africa will be a development of what you have described as the majority culture? If we are to survive as a plural society that eventually becomes non-racial, the national culture that emerges will have to be a majority culture. In other words, the majority culture will ultimately become the base on which any cultural additions can be integrated. This, for me, implies, among other things, that the sensibility of white South Africans will have to undergo a radical transformation … in the direction of a sort of gut level conviction that they are Africans, that they are in Africa … that the memories, the nostalgia for Greece and all those trappings of the great civilisations, will have to be abandoned in favour of new cultural heroes, and so on.
Mphahlele: [The identification with Africa] has nothing to do with the natural landscape. It has nothing to do with the inner core of a people’s thought and belief. It’s such an artificial thing, it just doesn’t have roots at all. I don’t see that ever becoming a viable thing of the future. How do whites begin to think African? Is it a kind of evolution we have to rely on or should the existing bridges be exploited even more? I don’t know.
The white man of this century is very far from thinking African. He thinks of himself as an African when he sloganises, when he wants to tell us that we must not regard him as European. He does this in order to assert his position without the responsibilities that go along with it. I wonder whether in this century the white man will ever spiritually feel he belongs to Africa as long as we are not in power, whether he thinks ours is really a culture of poverty. I wonder if there is a possibility of our seeing a non-racial society before the political structure itself has been radically reversed. We are in no position of strength to do anything other than consolidate our forces and our spiritual and cultural resources among ourselves as Africans.
I often wondered whether Africans, Asians and so-called “coloured people” as a group could move towards a common culture. The obstacles are pretty stark. The Indian will be feeling that he is affiliating to a people who are impotent, without any political power. The “coloured” man will be thinking that he is going to lose the privileges he has enjoyed as a so-called “coloured”. He doesn’t see himself as a politically disadvantaged person in the way other black people are. He still has the idea that he’s in a better position and should protect that. In the 1950s, in the midst of real political activism, when the Congress of Coloured People was affiliated to the Congress Alliance there was a hope that so-called “coloured” people might affiliate with the Africans. It was also hoped that the Indian Congress would feel that they were politically disadvantaged and link their destiny up with ours. But it … happened only at an intellectual level. The common man didn’t think that way at all. Also they were separate from us residentially, so they were visibly different from us. That’s what the common man thought.
Now things have been broken up even further, fragmented by the banning of the organisations and by group areas. We’ve grown farther and farther apart, and that hope is even more distant. I’ve kept wondering whether one should persevere but I realise that, the laws being what they are, we might more safely and more profitably look at ourselves as African people throughout the country. Across these artificial boundaries.
Manganyi: That raises another very important but complex question … the development within the black communities of an inner freedom. After the renaissance of the 1970s, if one may put it that way, let us look at the black people, particularly the younger people. A difference has come about. Although the whole question of freedom in political terms has not, in fact, changed in any way, people have a greater sense of self-respect. They are more self-reliant and have an inner sort of energy. Some kind of liberation of the self has come into being.
Mphahlele: We need to teach them to know themselves better, to make even greater input into the existing beginnings of self-pride. Self-pride is an accumulation of what has been going on through the years – the black experience. The African’s experience has been moving towards the point where people feel we’ve got to be self-reliant, to create things for ourselves – our own music, our own fun – because we are cut off from the institutions of the white man. Our people have been cut off from the literature of their own people and knowledge about their own people, by white people, by white scholars. 1976 was really a culmination of what’s been happening over the decades. They need to be told now who they are, and where they come from, and what they should be doing about these things that we’re talking about. That’s where the scholar comes in: he must exploit that consciousness, the black consciousness, so as to probe deeper into the personality and move forward.
Manganyi: In The African Image, there is a very interesting passage that has the quality either of a fantasy or a dream; it’s not quite clear which. It is the fantasy of arriving in Orlando at the old house and then being gunned down by the police. It ends up by waking up and finding that one is in the suburbs of Pennsylvania. Could we see what that is all about?
Mphahlele: I had been thinking: what will I be coming back to, what will I be doing, what are the odds, what are the possibilities? And this is really fantasy. And I saw myself coming into a place and feeling that I might very well become a sitting duck in the sense of being exposed to arrests, detentions, the lot. That was happening to so many people. Not because I would be politically active but simply for the views I would be expressing in public. And I wondered if it was worthwhile coming. What also kept haunting me was that I must get back and help in educating our young people, to subvert what they had been taught through Bantu education. I was quite aware then what Bantu education had done. You meet the people who were products of it. There were a lot of them in Zambia … And if I came back to teach I’d help to purge its effects. It was almost like a dream. I sat there and thought intensely about it. But I was quite awake. This is part of the psychology of exile. Even the most benign exiles have this fantasy of having become dangerous people who may get into serious danger if they were to set foot in Jan Smuts [airport].
Manganyi: It seems to me that people have this kind of anticipation of danger; it’s quite an interesting facet of the exile’s return. There’s the fantasy that you might get into serious trouble. Sometimes it’s not a fantasy but I think it engages a lot of people who have considered the possibilities.
Mphahlele: I have so often had this recurring dream that I was back in the country, being chased, but this time by Africans, without seeing their faces at all, a kind of tsotsi element. I’m just being chased and chased. Sometimes I slip out of their hands and sometimes I disappear and they disappear.
Manganyi: I think Ursula Barnett somewhere says that your major concern is people and not politics.
Mphahlele: My concern is certainly with people, although politics is part of people, and people are part of politics. People are politics. She’s probably thinking there of my literary reflection of situation; that I’m more interested in how people react to one another than in the system in which they live, which may or may not influence the way they behave to one another. It’s a question of focus. I tend to look at how people behave towards one another, in their local social situation, instead of trying to create an idea of the system in which they live, though I couldn’t possibly ignore that. I’m very much interested in the dramas of our people – where they live, their relationships to one another – between friends, between families, between friends and enemies. I keep feeling that there’s a lot that we’re not documenting in our African communities because we’re always thinking of literature as predominantly the reflection of a confrontation between black and white and that doesn’t tell the whole story.
What tells the whole story is where these people are situated, what they are doing among themselves to one another. That interests, fascinates me. We can take the system for granted; it exists, and we can reflect our people’s way of life, which is determined by the system. Once you are talking to your own people you don’t have to dwell on the kind of system they live in because they know it, and they’re more interested in their own behaviour and conduct.
Manganyi: Did you ever experience any pressure, either internally or from outside sources, to join the political organisations of the 1950s or the external wings of the banned organisations overseas?
Mphahlele: Well, yes. In the 1950s I did actually join the ANC. There was never any kind of formal joining of the ANC, you just moved in. In that sense I would have considered myself an ANC person. It was after I had given a talk at the Kliptown conference in 1955. I talked on education. I was working for Drum then. I remember vividly what kind of conflicts I had as a reporter and as a person who felt involved in politics. I covered the Sophiatown removal and the schools’ upheaval. I was intensely concerned that I should put across the real thinking of the ANC people, apart from the sensational events that were taking place. And this always put me in conflict with the editor, particularly, the editor of Post, not Drum.
I covered the Treason Trial of 1956. The prosecutor … quoted my speech at the Kliptown conference in which I said that Bantu education is founded on false principles and is meant to lower both the standard of education of the African and their own sense of self. I also said that the main argument put across by the white politicians, especially Verwoerd, was that we shouldn’t be allowed to think that we could be the equals of the white man. And my comment was that we don’t want to be equal to the white man; we want to be better than the white man and this is why we’re against Bantu education. The prosecutor used those passages to point out their inflammatory nature, to illustrate that they were meant to create bad relations between black and white, and to show that they advocated the overthrow of the government by violent means, which is what the Treason Trial was about.
When I was abroad I felt the ANC in exile was quite something else. The leaders were there, all right, but the things they were doing just didn’t seem to me to be important at all. Trivialities like attending conferences of one kind or another, tearing across the world, you know, and getting international money. Also tribalism was pretty rampant in the exile movement: Xhosa against Zulu against Sotho. I kept saying to myself: back home there had been so much cohesion among us. I mean, nobody ever bothered about these ethnic groupings at all. But in exile, man, the thing just emerged in bold relief. You saw this happening all the time and then the refugees even had more to gripe about. They were feeling restless, wanting to go back into action and do all sorts of things.
Manganyi: There is a kind of lament which I detect in one of your poems from the trilogy that includes Homeward Bound. It appears to be a lament for certain deaths that occur while you’re in exile.
Mphahlele: Some of the people were quite distant but I used to think: “People are dying, and one is so far away. There is nothing one can do, or say, to console the bereaved.” But there were those who were close to me, like that boy in Marabastad, Moloi. That hit me badly, very forcibly. I never could get over it. I’d start thinking about the whole social and political situation; of the people who were reported to have died in their cells … that accounts for my lament … in the poetry I express the idea, the feeling, that nobody’s ever going to atone for it. It’s just seen as a casual thing by those who decide where you’ll be born and where you’ll die. My feeling was that assassinations don’t remove the grief of the people who are wounded, the people who are hurt by it. You take away a man and you kill him, and the underdog still is faced with the grief. Which is why the lament must go on. Who will atone? What is a tyrant dead? “The tyrant is dead” is no use to anybody.