Ezekiel Mphahlele’s fiction and other writing have been important bridges between African and Western societies. As an African in a segregated South Africa dominated by Western whites, and later as an African living in exile in Europe and the United States, Mphahlele has been in a unique position to present to many Westerners a picture of black South African life that they would not otherwise have had. Because his writings were officially banned by the South African government in 1961, making it illegal for South Africans to read or even quote his work, most of his stories were not read in his own country until the ban was lifted in 1979. While Mphahlele has always considered himself an African author writing for an African audience, he also recognized the opportunity to address Western oppressors at the same time that he celebrated the strength and beauty of his own people.
Trained in a European-based school system, Mphahlele had as literary models only Western fiction writers, including Charles Dickens, Miguel de Cervantes, and Fyodor Dostoevski. He writes in Afrika My Music that he had never read an “artful” short story before he began writing them, “so I had no genuine models.” He traces his realism to Dickens, William Faulkner, and others and his tendency to focus on a single character in a single intense situation to Scottish and English ballads. Over these European frameworks he drapes the cloth of South African experience and sensibility. His stories typically focus on one African character struggling to survive.
Critics often point to Mphahlele’s prevailing sense of hope and optimism, even as he writes about racial tension. This optimism comes from Mphahlele’s immersion in African humanism, a belief in the essential connection between human nature and the natural world, strengthened by the presence of ancestral spirits and the spirit of community.
Man Must Live, and Other Stories
Mphahlele’s first short-story collection, Man Must Live, and Other Stories included five short stories about characters struggling to survive in a difficult world. The theme of survival grew out of his own childhood in a segregated black township, always under a cloud of poverty and oppression. In the title story, a black railroad policeman named Khalima Zungu adopts a philosophy that he chants to himself, “man must live.” He marries a woman of means, then treats her poorly and squanders her money, always telling himself that he is entitled to whatever he can get because “man must live.” After his new family leaves him and he burns down their house out of revenge, he lives alone in a tin shack, still believing that his need to live is more important than how he treats others. Zungu’s life has been a hard one, but his decline is due more to his character than to his circumstances.
Mphahlele knows that survival in a racist society is a struggle, but his underlying belief in community informs this story and many later stories. Community is a central pillar in the belief system Mphahlele has called African humanism. The seven hundred copies of Man Must Live, and Other Stories sold quickly in and around Cape Town, establishing Mphahlele’s early reputation. As he grew as a writer, however, Mphahlele rejected most of the stories as clumsy and immature. Only “Man Must...
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