Down Second Avenue by Es’kia Mphahlele

Down 2nd Avenue

Year of Publication: 1959

Genre: Autobiography

Es’kia Mphahlele’s Down Second Avenue is an autobiographical book that recounts his experiences of Apartheid in South Africa.  The book  recounts Es’kia’s life story from A – Z – from when he was a young boy living in Marabastad ( in Pretoria) through to when he became an adult and  fled the country to go into exile. Es’kia’s account of life under apartheid is vivid: painting the hardships he experienced even as a young boy living with his grandmother.

The story begins with the young Eseki (nickname), aged five, and his brother and sister taken to live with their paternal grandmother in the little village of Maupaneng, seventy-five miles out of Pietersburg town. Their parents instead remained in Pretoria because of work: Father was a shop messenger and mother a domestic servant. As a child, Eseki listened to stories told by Old Segone at the fire place. Old Segoe was a great story – teller.

One day, Eseki was surprised at the story he heard – it was  about the black man and the white man.

“The Black man must enter the white man’s house through the back door. The Black man does most of the dirty work… Black man cleans the streets but mustn’t walk freely on the pavement; Black man must build houses for the white man but cannot live in them; Black man cooks the white man’s food but eats what is left over.” – p6

When Eseki was twelve, his mother came to fetch him, his brother and sister away from their grandmother. But back in Marabastad, things turned out not too good for the family because of an unlikeable and abusive father.

“We’d never really known father before. And now living close to him and seeing him at close quarters, I realised that his face was unlikeable.” – p14

Eseki’s mother eventually moved the family away to live with her mother at Second Avenue. There, Eseki proved himself a brilliant student; he gained a first class pass at standard six, went on to St.Peters School in Rosettenville which was a white suburb south of Johannesburg city. Though her mother earned 3 pounds a month in domestic service, she was enthusiastic about sending Eseki to school.

“You’ll come back and be able to look after yourself and the two you’re leaving behind.” – p113

Eseki  later moved on to Adam’s college and then to University of South Africa to earn Honours degree in English becoming the first to receive an M.A in English with distinction. He then took up various teaching posts. Later, after Eseki criticised the Bantu education and government policies, he lost his job as a teacher. Finding another teaching post was not possible because the government of the day had its eyes on him. Eseki eventually left South Africa, fleeing first to Nigeria and then to other countries.

In Down Second Avenue, Mphahlele who passed away in 2008, left a memoir true to life under the apartheid era, showing what it was like for a black man to live under apartheid and yet still rise amidst all odds. Down Second Avenue was first published in 1959 by Faber & Faber (and later by Picador Africa in 2004).

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8 Responses to Down Second Avenue by Es’kia Mphahlele

  1. Geosi, you’ve piqued my interest with this fine review. I’d add Down Second Avenue to my TBR pile, which keeps growing. Haven’t read much of African non-fiction, especially South African. This would be a good place to start.

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  2. Interesting book. I love such stories and will look out for it. Thanks for sharing

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  3. bushybeard says:

    I read it at university in 2010. My lecturer worked with him for many years before she came to the University of Johannesburg.
    It was my first view of South African non-fiction. I wasn’t particularly impressed at first, but it has a way of growing on you and, when you take it apart, his language use is quite interesting. I feel like today’s youth have no concept of what it was like to live in those times and to struggle to overcome obstacles… to work hard in the most humble of jobs and in the honourable ones.
    I respect him all the more because he never chased political ambitions or fame. He did the best he could and focused on his work – this is what I would call the backbone of society. Men like this build a nation’s heritage and core values, not politicians who only have a name.

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  4. Alex Nuwamanya says:

    I am reading this book for the fourth time

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  5. Joel Mukwedeya says:

    Yes, never a final reading. This novel delights with several layers of meaning served in astute diction and fitting idiom!

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  6. I like to buy the book(down second avenue)

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