Black exile says duty drove him home to South Africa, despite race restrictions

Is exile a step to fulfillment or frustration? The question hangs heavy over blacks in South Africa. And that makes Es'kia Mphahlele a man of particular interest and relevance in this country.

Besides being the doyen of South Africa's black writers and a leading intellectual and educator, Mphahlele can offer a personal assessment of what is gained and what is lost when a black man flees South Africa's hated system of apartheid.

Many thousands of blacks have left South Africa. Mphahlele did so as an embittered young man. But few have returned, as he did in 1977 after 20 years in exile.

Mphahlele's story will be told in detail with the expected publication this month of his autobiography, ''Africa My Music.'' But in advance of its publication, he discussed at length his experiences abroad and why he returned to South Africa.

''For the first 10 years (exile) was all adventure. I kept moving and enjoying the liberty,'' he says, clad as usual in a colorful dashiki shirt. But for Mphahlele, exile eventually became a sterile existence, despite his mounting recognition as a writer and scholar. ''I just didn't feel I had a duty to perform,'' he emphasizes.

The ''duty'' lay back in South Africa. ''Here I find I am doing so many things in the community that are satisfying. It is all part of helping make something take shape,'' Mphahlele says.

Mphahlele's accomplishments since returning to South Africa have been considerable. He has provided the spark for new initiatives in black education and black publishing.

With his guidance, a number of black writers founded Skotaville Publishing, South Africa's first independent black publishing house. And Mphahlele established the Council for Black Education and Research, a body promoting black ideas and objectives in the politically explosive field of education.

Mphahlele has done these in his spare time. His full-time occupation is head of the department of African literature at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Mphahlele founded the department after returning to the country , making the University of the Witwaters-rand one of the few ''white'' universities here that offers African literature.

Seated in his book-lined university office, Mphahlele says his return to South Africa unfortunately contained no pleasant surprises.

''I didn't have any romantic ideas about the extent to which things had changed in South Africa,'' he says.

His initial impressions of the country he left after being banned from teaching were that there was more mixing of the races. Mphahlele noticed a greater black presence in the cities and more blacks ''behind the cash register and things like that.''

But he says it soon became evident that this mixing was superficial. Beneath the surface lay a disturbing reality: Apartheid was indeed achieving its aim of separating the races, particularly in terms of any meaningful interpersonal relationships.

''The pressures of the (apartheid) laws are much more severe. We moved more freely among whites before I left the country,'' Mphahlele says. He recalls that as a young journalist working for Drum magazine in the mid-1950s he had a number of white friends that he visited frequently.

''There was real interaction between black and white. Today, no,'' he says, shaking his head. ''It's pretty grim and you feel you don't even want to make that effort any longer.''

Mphahlele says apartheid has also erected substantial barriers between blacks and the other nonwhite groups, the Coloreds (persons of mixed race descent) and the Indians.

''We used to have a lot in common, particularly in the Congress Movement,'' he says, referring to the multiracial political resistance movement that blossomed here in the 1950s. But today Mphahlele sadly finds that between all race groups ''the boundaries are frozen and we are leading completely separate lives.''

Mphahlele has always eschewed platform politics. But his commitment to quality education for blacks in South Africa quickly brought him into conflict with the white authorities. He began his career as a teacher in 1945 at a high school in Soweto, the large black township near Johannesburg.

But when the Afrikaners gained control of the white government in 1948, Mphahlele saw that education was going to be used as a tool to undergird apartheid. He criticized the central government's assumption of control over black education and its dedication to the use of education as a means of separating the races.

In 1952 Mphahlele was banned from teaching because of his opposition to the government's approach to black education. Mphahlele saw his concerns as more professional than political. But in 1955 he joined the African National Congress , then a legal black political organization. (Today the ANC is banned.)

Mphahlele was called on to give a speech about education at the historic Congress of the People in 1955, when government opponents of all race groups met and drew up the so-called Freedom Charter, a political manifesto calling for a nonracial, democratic South Africa.

In 1957 Mphahlele wrote in a letter that ''conditions were crushing me and I was shriveling in the acid of my bitterness.'' Unable to teach in his own country, Mphahlele took a job in Nigeria, a step that began two decades of self-imposed exile. During those years he lived in other African countries as well as Europe and the United States.

Mphahlele says his first love has always been teaching and it was the prospect of teaching in a black school that brought him back to South Africa. But on returning, Mphahlele discovered that South Africa's immigration officials had had a change of heart, apparently deciding Mphahlele was still too dangerous to be allowed to work in black schools.

Instead, Mphahlele took a job he regarded as second best. He came to the predominantly ''white'' University of the Witwatersrand.

Although he has written two novels, several volumes of short stories, and a number of essays and is a nominee for the Nobel Prize in literature, Mphahlele still seems proudest of his work as a teacher.

On Saturday mornings he can be found running informal classes in Soweto as part of the Council for Black Education and Research. Classes are usually packed.

Mphahlele has powerful ideas about how to overhaul education for blacks in South Africa, beginning with an end to strict segregation. Mphahlele has a deep love for African tradition and folklore. And he speaks often about a ''synthesis'' whereby blacks will learn to express their ''traditional African consciousness'' through English.

Mphahlele says the government has deliberately undermined blacks' English proficiency by emphasizing their indigenous African languages.

Mphahlele once admitted in an essay explaining why he returned to South Africa that the move included compromises. ''Life for an oppressed person is one long, protracted, agonizing compromise,'' he wrote.

But he added that the compromises he faced in South Africa were ones he could deal with ''because I am now a member of a community'' - a feeling he didn't have when he lived abroad.

Today, he says he has ''no regrets at all'' about coming home.

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