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).