I once sat at an inaugural lecture and cringed with horror, as someone paid tribute to the chief celebrant, by noting that this scholar had "risen beyond being an African philosopher" or something to that effect. The speaker seemed to see the tag 'African' as some kind of a yoke, which, if an African scholar worked hard enough, they could shed and successfully join the world of scholarship (‘proper’). I'm not sure whether I was more horrified at the notion of the label ‘African’ as something to be transcended by scholars of African descent; or at the fact that the African in question did not publicly challenge this promotion to 'sans Africain' philosopher glory. Thinking about the life and work of Prof. Eskia Mphahlele, I am reminded of this incident.
As a non-South African (aka ‘African foreign national’) I have known Prof. Mphahlele’s writing since my teenage years. As a high school student, and later during my undergraduate years, Mphahlele’s portrait of Marabastad in Down Second Avenue, coupled with Richard Rive’s District Six in Birmingham Palace and Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People added an important depth and nuance to my ‘Sarafina’ portrait of South Africa.
Over a decade later when I finally met Prof. Mphahlele, it was a pure, humbling experience. For here was a legend of no mean proportions, who remained so humble, so modest, and most importantly, an educator at heart. Here was THE Prof. Mphahlele, with all those books and critical works to his name, all those years of teaching experience all over the continent and beyond; all those keynote addresses – here he was, genuinely chatting to a no-name graduate student about his experiences across the continent with such pride and passion. And as I listened to him, I felt honored to meet him. He was an African intellectual who embraced and celebrated Africa in its fullness without succumbing to the urge to romanticize and edit her less sightly features: – not a 'weekend special' African who occasionally reaches into the dusty backwaters of their identity to retrieve the Africa of the Timbuktu manuscripts and Egyptian pyramids on special occasions as a stamp of self-approval; nor a shallow so-called-Afropolitan who embellishes an uncritical embrace of that now-fashionable word ‘cosmopolitanism' with the prefix 'Afro'. He was African who celebrated his blackness, his Africanness and his humanity so passionately, yet with such intellectual rigor and critical reflection that he inspired pride in me.
And as I turned the news of his death over and over in my mind, my heart mourned for the walking archive of wisdom and insight that had been taken away from us. Most importantly, it mourned for the South African academy and its cracks, through which some of its priceless cross-generational memory slowly slips unnoticed, as the work of the Mphahlele’s of this country – celebrated in curricula across the continent - continues to be relegated to the periphery in South African curricula. I often wish this academy would borrow a leaf from Prof. Mphahlele's work, thought and life, and embrace a meaningful Afropolitanism.
Thank you, Prof. Mphahlele.