|Title:||Phaswane Mpe: Young Novelist of Post-Apartheid South Africa [An Obituary]|
|Publication info:||Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
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Phaswane Mpe: Young Novelist of Post-Apartheid South Africa [An Obituary]
no. ns 2, June 2005
PHASWANE MPE: YOUNG NOVELIST OF POST-APARTHEID SOUTH AFRICA [AN OBITUARY]
Phaswane Mpe, who has died aged 34, was one of South Africa's most promising young novelists. His debut work, Welcome To Our Hillbrow (2001), was the first to record the huge changes that have transformed its inner cities over the past 10 years. It grappled with the struggle of black South Africans to create a post-apartheid identity after the collapse of the old racial hierarchies; the process was complicated by the arrival from elsewhere on the continent of thousands of black Africans, who were often more confident and better educated. Mpe belonged to the generation who grew up with the humiliations and deprivations of apartheid and expected to enjoy the fruits of freedom under democracy. Instead, they were confronted by new social ills: unemployment, poverty and HIV/Aids.
He was born and brought up in the northern city of Polokwane and went to Johannesburg in 1989, the year before Nelson Mandela was released, to study African literature at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), which had only recently opened its doors to black students.
Needing a cheap place to live, he ended up in Hillbrow, an inner city area close to the university. Hillbrow is to Johannesburg what the East End has been to London. Successive waves of immigrants settled there, only to move to better areas once their fortunes improved. During the last decades of apartheid, Hillbrow's high rise flatland was home to students, single mothers and a few mixed couples who managed to evade the law forbidding interracial sex. Its cafes were full of old immigrants from eastern Europe playing chess and backgammon and drinking coffee. Hillbrow now houses waves of African immigrants - Zimbabweans, Malawians, Nigerians and Mozambicans mix uneasily with black South Africans, who resent competition for scarce jobs. Prostitutes, drug dealers and gangsters live side by side with respectable families unable to afford better accommodation.
As a country boy, Mpe was entranced by the edgy chic of Hillbrow. He said he wrote his book to escape the demons of his depression and to make sense of the chaos around him. Mpe's first language was Sepedi, but he wrote mostly in English. He also wrote poetry and short stories, many of which are about HIV/Aids. In Welcome To Our Hillbrow, he explores how the epidemic exacerbates xenophobia: "This Aids was caused by foreign germs that travelled down from the central and western parts of Africa. Aids' route into Johannesburg was through makwerekwere [the derogatory name for foreign Africans]; and Hillbrow was the sanctuary in which makwerekwere basked."
Mpe did a diploma course in publishing at Oxford Brookes University and finished a master's degree at Wits, where he lectured in African literature for several years. As a respected intellectual, he wrote newspaper columns on culture and politics and was a judge on literary award panels.
In 2003, he began doctorate studies on sexuality in post-apartheid South African literature. He was interested in the effect of traditional African understanding of Aids on sexual behaviour; for instance how baby and child rape was motivated by myths that sex with a virgin eliminated the virus.
Like many black South Africans, he subscribed to an eclectic belief system that embraced western and African culture. For the past year, he had the office next but one to mine at Wits. This kind and generous man had an endless succession of visitors, mostly students that he was mentoring. He was small and intense, with large dark eyes that dominated a gaunt face. He suffered from nightmares and sporadic bouts of illness which, he said, doctors could find no cause for. He had great difficulty producing new creative work.
He seemed to take on a new lease on life in his final weeks. He had consulted a traditional healer who had diagnosed his illness as a message from the ancestors that he should become a healer. (In African religious traditions, the ancestors are the intermediaries between God and man.) He abandoned his doctorate and was about to apprentice himself to a healer (in Sepedi, Ngaka) to learn about herbal medicines. He saw his new career path as a continuation of the old one: healers understand physical malaise as an expression of spiritual and emotional dysfunction. Cure means constructing a narrative of the patient's life to pinpoint the problem. He hoped that listening to his patients' stories might help dislodge the block that frustrated his creative writing.
But he died suddenly before he could embark on his new life; the cause of his death is unclear. As he wrote in Welcome To Our Hillbrow: "He died, poor chap; of what precisely, no one knew. But strange illnesses courted in Hillbrow could only translate into Aids." We will never know if he was another victim of the epidemic that preoccupied him.
He is survived by a son and a daughter.
Phaswane Mpe, writer, born September 10 1970; died December 12 2004
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005
Liz McGregor writes for The Guardian, with particular interest in South Africa. She has lectured in the journalism program at the University of the Witwatersrand and has also been a fellow at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER).
1. Published with permission of The Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/southafrica/story/0,13262,1378377,00.html
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