Peter Abrahams, one of South Africa’s first acclaimed black writers whose novel “Mine Boy” focused on the country’s institutionalized system of racial oppression, died Jan. 18 at his home in St. Andrew Parish, Jamaica. He was 97.
His death was first reported by the Jamaican newspaper the Gleaner. The cause was not reported.
After an impoverished childhood, Abrahams fled South Africa at age 20 for a life of exile in England, France and later Jamaica, where he wrote powerful indictments of his homeland.
Before such white South African writers as Alan Paton and Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer became well known, Abrahams led the way as one of the earliest and most impassioned critics of South Africa’s racial inequity.
He published his first collection of stories, “Dark Testament,” in 1942 and secured his literary reputation with “Mine Boy,” which described the struggle of Xuma, a black worker in South Africa’s diamond mines and his growing political awareness.
“The only place where Xuma was completely free was underground in the mines,” Abrahams wrote. “There he was a master and knew his way.”
An Irish friend is sympathetic to Xuma’s plight, but in a world of mounting racial injustice, there is one divide between them that cannot be breached.
“How can you understand, white man!” Xuma shouts. “How can I be your friend when your people do this to me and my people?”
“Mine Boy” appeared in Britain in 1946, shortly before South Africa began to adopt laws that resulted in the legally sanctioned system of racial discrimination known as apartheid. The book gained wider recognition in 1955, when it was published in the United States.
“Mine Boy” was “the first African novel written in English to attract international attention,” Nigerian literary scholar Kolawole Ogungbesan wrote in 1979.
Abrahams went on to write more than 10 volumes of fiction and autobiography, most of which dealt with the problems of his native country, including interracial love, which was against South African law but a part of his life from birth.
Peter Henry Abrahams was born March 19, 1919, in Vrededorp, near Johannesburg. His father was from Ethiopia and his mother was of mixed French and African parentage, making their three children “colored,” according to South African racial classifications then in force.
Abrahams was about 6 when his father died, and his mother struggled to find work. As a result, the children were often shifted from one household to another in the Johannesburg slums. He sold firewood as a child and became an apprentice to a tinsmith.
A white woman in the tinsmith shop read him the story of Shakespeare’s “Othello,” and Abrahams began to read at age 9. He became enchanted by English literature. “With Shakespeare and poetry,” he wrote in “Tell Freedom,” a 1954 autobiography, “a new world was born.”
He later discovered the works of black American writers Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Du Bois and wrote his first stories when he was 11.
After attending a South African teachers’ college, Abrahams taught in Cape Town and later worked for a magazine in Durban, South Africa. But his goal was to leave South Africa for good.
“I had to escape or slip into that negative destructiveness that is the offspring of bitterness and frustration,” he wrote in a 1953 nonfiction account, “Return to Goli.”
In 1939, Abrahams found a job as a stoker on a merchant ship and spent nearly two years at sea before settling in England. He began to work as a journalist and published five books between 1942 and 1950.
He came to know several well-known figures of what was called the Pan-African movement, including future national leaders Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. In Paris, he became friends with expatriate black writers Richard Wright and James Baldwin.
In the mid-1950s, Abrahams received a contract to write a book about Jamaica and settled permanently there with his family. “It reminded me of South Africa except for one thing,” he later said. “The racism was not law.”
Abrahams was twice married to white English women, which would have been illegal in South Africa.
His first marriage, to Dorothy Pennington, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 68 years, the former Daphne Miller, and their three children.
Abrahams worked as a magazine editor in Jamaica and later worked for Radio Jamaica. He was a news commentator until he was 80.
Abrahams published his final book, the autobiographical “The Black Experience in the 20th Century,” in 2000. But his thoughts always returned to his native country.
“Perhaps life had a meaning that transcended race and color,” he wrote in “Tell Freedom.” “If it had, I could not find it in South Africa.”