Down Second Avenue Summary

  • Last updated on July 10, 2023
Title: Down Second Avenue

Author: Ezekiel Mphahlele

Publication Date: 1959

Genre: Autobiographical novel

Page Length: 224 pages (approximate)


Down Second Avenue, a groundbreaking autobiographical novel published in 1959, chronicles the life of Ezekiel Mphahlele, a black South African, as he navigates the racially oppressive apartheid system in mid-20th century Johannesburg. Through a series of vividly portrayed experiences, Mphahlele offers a profound insight into the struggles, resilience, and determination of a young black man striving for education and personal growth amidst systemic racism and discrimination.

Section / Chapter Summaries:

1. Boyhood
The book begins with Mphahlele's recollections of his early childhood in Marabastad, Pretoria, a segregated area in South Africa. He describes his family's humble living conditions and his father's struggle to provide for their household. Mphahlele's thirst for knowledge becomes apparent as he details his fascination with books and the influence of his elder brother who encourages his education.

2. The School
In this chapter, Mphahlele navigates the oppressive education system designed to undermine the aspirations of black children. Despite facing numerous challenges, including inadequate resources, discriminatory treatment, and cultural alienation, he exhibits remarkable resilience and determination to succeed academically.

3. The Road
As Mphahlele grows older, he encounters the harsh realities of racism and segregation in Johannesburg, where he moves to seek better opportunities. This section portrays the daily struggles faced by black individuals, including lack of access to decent housing, unequal employment opportunities, and constant police intimidation.

4. The Discovery
Mphahlele's discovery of literature becomes a transformative experience. Embracing the power of storytelling, he recognizes its potential to challenge the dominant narrative of apartheid and become a voice for the oppressed. Through literature, he finds solace and purpose, which propels him to challenge the status quo.

5. The Return
In this chapter, Mphahlele returns to his hometown of Marabastad after years of absence, only to find his family facing economic hardships and increasing racial tensions. He witnesses the spirit of resistance emerge amongst the people, who, like himself, refuse to succumb to the dehumanizing effects of apartheid.

6. The College
Driven by his determination to acquire a higher education, Mphahlele secures a scholarship and attends the University of Fort Hare. Here, he experiences both personal and academic growth, gaining insight into the broader political struggle for racial equality and forming lasting friendships with fellow students who share his vision for change.

7. The Return to Sophiatown
Returning to Johannesburg's vibrant township of Sophiatown after completing his studies, Mphahlele is confronted with the profound changes happening in his absence. The forced removals and destruction of this vibrant cultural hub symbolize the authorities' aggressive attempts to suppress resistance and control black communities.


1. Education and Knowledge:
Throughout the novel, Mphahlele emphasizes the transformative power of education and literature in challenging systemic racism and oppression. His journey showcases how access to knowledge enables individuals to overcome barriers and strive for equality.

2. Racial Injustice and Discrimination:
The pervasive theme of racial injustice underscores the entire narrative, depicting the inhumane treatment endured by black South Africans under the apartheid regime. Mphahlele portrays the indignities and violence inflicted upon his community, giving voice to their struggles and resilience.

3. Personal Identity and Individual Agency:
Mphahlele's narrative highlights the importance of personal identity and self-determination. Despite systematic attempts to suppress his voice and aspirations, he persists in carving his own path, refusing to let his circumstances define him.

4. Social and Political Context:
Down Second Avenue offers a compelling account of the broader social and political context in mid-20th century South Africa. The novel immerses the reader in the daily lives of black South Africans, shedding light on the oppressive apartheid regime and the resistance movements emerging within the community.


Down Second Avenue is widely regarded as a seminal work in South African literature. Its unflinching portrayal of the realities faced by black individuals during apartheid serves as a powerful testament to the resilience, ingenuity, and spirit of resistance inherent in oppressed communities. Mphahlele's writing has further contributed to shaping the South African literary canon and raising awareness about the ongoing struggle for racial equality. The novel's historical significance lies in its ability to bridge the personal and political, allowing readers to empathize with the humanity behind the statistics and policies of apartheid.

Categories: Books