The name change was delayed by the covid-19 pandemic, but the home of the Wits Art Museum is now linked to the ‘illustrious author of two autobiographies, more than 30 short stories, two verse plays and a fair number of poems’.

The plaque signifying the change of name of University Corner to the Es’kia Mphahlele Building. Photo: Ayanda Mgwenya

Wits University has officially renamed University Corner as the Es’kia Mphahlele Building in honour of the late legendary journalist, author and academic, on Thursday, June 1, 2023.

Officiating at the ceremony that took place on the ground floor of the building at the corner of Jorissen and Bertha streets, Vice-Chancellor Zeblon Vilakazi said that this gesture was “long overdue” and believed that there were many more [legendary African pioneers] yet to be recognised. “Personally, to have the privilege of having the [Mphahlele family] here to witness this historic occasion is truly humbling,” he said.

Mphahlele was the first black professor at Wits University in the 1980s and founded the one-of-a-kind department of African Literature in 1983, which explores aspects of history, politics, indigenous knowledge, traditions and cultural heritage. He was also one of the founders of the first black independent publishing house, Skotaville in 1982.

The building houses some of the literature- and culture-related departments associated with Mphahlele’s work, such as the Wits Art Museum, the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies, Voice of Wits FM (Vow FM), Drama for Life and the Wits Centre for Journalism.

In a media statement released after his death on October 27, 2008, then minister of arts and culture, Pallo Jordan, described Mphahlele, who was born in Marabastad, Pretoria on December 17, 1919, as a “doyen of African letters”.

“Soft-spoken, humble, urbane, cosmopolitan, erudite and exuding ubuntu, Es’kia Mphahlele embodied in his person and in his work what he described as ‘the personification of the African paradox – detribalised, westernised but still African’,” wrote Jordan, who also described him as the “illustrious author of two autobiographies, more than thirty short stories, two verse plays and a fair number of poems”.

The statement continued: “’Add to these, two anthologies edited, essay collections, innumerable single essays, addresses, awards and a Nobel Prize nomination for literature and what emerges is to many the Dean of African Letters,’ writes Peter Thuynsma, a leading Mphahlele scholar, in Perspectives on South African English Literature (1992: 221).”

Rorisang Maruatona-Mphahlele, Mphahlele’s grandson, said, “I am actually overjoyed because [Wits University] was my first choice of university but I didn’t get in; I went to University of Johannesburg instead where I found [The Es’kia Mphahlele Room] and was overjoyed to find that at U.” He feels thrilled that “Wits University is doing the same.”

Acting SRC president Kabelo Phungwayo said that the change of name for the building was proposed in 2020 by former SRC president, Mpendulo Mfeka, and championed by former SRC transformation officer, Luci Khofi. As the year 2019 marked a century since the birth of Mphahlele, this motivated the plan to change the name of University Corner.

Phungwayo told Wits Vuvuzela that, “The SRC sees [Mphahlele] as a revolutionary scholar who shaped the [African] discourses in literature, and it teaches us African humanism as students.” He added that the SRC would like to encourage students to look into Mphahlele’s educational journey for inspiration as they undergo their studies as well.

Wits head of communications Shirona Patel said that the delay of the name change was caused by the covid-19 pandemic.

The name change ceremony concluded with Vilakazi unveiling the name plaque to applause by the guests bearing witness to this occasion.

FEATURED IMAGE: The Es’kia Mphahlele Building at the corner of Jorissen and Bertha streets is one of the tallest buildings in Braamfontein. Photo: Ayanda Mgwenya