Phaswane Mpe was born and brought up in Pietersburg, Northern Transvaal (now Polokwane, Limpopo). At the age of 19, he left for Johannesburg to study African Literature at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). Not having much money, he found accommodation in the cheaper inner city area of Hillbrow, which was also close to the university. At the time, the inner city flats were a place for immigrants and mixed raced couples trying to evade the police. Hillbrow would later be the setting for his 2001 novel, Welcome to Our Hillbrow.
Mpe’s move to Johannesburg was at a time when South Africa was in transition from an Apartheid state to a democracy, with Nelson Mandela and other political leaders soon to be released from prison. As the political scene in the country gradually changed, so did the social dynamics in Hillbrow. The place increasingly became home to people from all over Africa, locals, and people who simply couldn’t afford to stay in the uptown suburbs.
Mpe’s novel, Welcome to Our Hillbrow depicts the struggles of Black people to find an identity in post-Apartheid South Africa. The novel, his debut work, won the Commonwealth Writers Prize and received critical acclaim. It propelled his career and saw him dubbed one of the best post-Apartheid writers.
After completing his Bachelor’s degree at Wits, Mpe went on to do a publishing diploma at Oxford Brookes University. He returned to Wits and completed a Master’s degree in African Literature which he later taught at the same university. In 2003, he began his doctorate studies in sexuality in Post-Apartheid South African Literature but had to abandon them when he suddenly began to suffer from a mysterious illness.
As his illness persisted and doctors failed to come up with a diagnosis, Mpe consulted a traditional healer who told him that the illness was a call from his ancestors for him to become a healer. Mpe, who at the time seemed to be experiencing writer’s block, saw the call as an opportunity for him to continue to nurture his creativity. He left his studies and committed himself fully into the initiation as a traditional healer.
Shortly after he began the apprenticeship, Mpe passed away. He is survived by his son and daughter. Brooding Clouds, a collection of Mpe’s short stories, was published in 2008.