Friday, 16 June 2017

The power of reading... and re-reading

Down Second Avenue was one of the books that had a huge impact on me as a student in South Africa in the early 1960s. In his memoir of growing up not too far from where I had grown up in Jo'burg, Es'kia Mphahlele could have been writing about another planet. Until my university years, I had been completely blinkered within apartheid's 'white bubble'. This book, along with Peter Abrahams's Tell Freedom, introduced me to life beyond my blinkers. I was also lucky to have fellow students who helped to slash the bubble. But the invitation of these two fine writers to enter their lives - to see through their eyes and hear their inner voices - exerted a particularly intimate power and a necessary shock.

Es'kia Mphahlele and Peter Abrahams are sadly no longer with us but their work lives on for new generations. My friend Mma-tshepo Grobler recently wrote that she'd bought a copy of Down Second Avenue on a recent trip home to South Africa. (We first met when her brilliant educator mother, Martha Mokgoko, ran an extraordinary workshop on Journey to Jo'burg shortly after it had been 'unbanned' in 1991.) I was keen to know Mma-tshepo's thoughts:

Down Second Avenue was a completely different read the second time around. I read the book when I was about 10 years old I think but my memory of the book was nothing like what I have just read recently. Mphahlele’s retelling of his time growing up in the rural areas and then his subsequent move to Marabastad is the part of his story that I think my childhood self connected with the most. His description of the uncles, Aunt Dora, his gran, his surroundings and everyday life in Marabastad, the police and the neighbours are all elements that were present in my childhood. Two things that struck me whilst reading the book now as an adult are 1) how like Mphahlele, sustained poverty, difficult working conditions, neighbourhood politics were accepted as normal to me as a child and 2) my mind as a 10 year old was definitely not developed enough to understand the gravity and depth of this book. My adult self was completely blown away by the broadness of this book. Mphahlele skillfully addresses, questions and recounts so many themes and issues that we still face as South Africans. What saddened me most after reading was the thought that the politics of poverty still prevail with a vice grip on our people – nothing has changed. 

What an indictment in that last line. It is time for me to re-read Down Second Avenue too.


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