Peter Abrahams fled South Africa at the age of 20 for a life of exile in England, France and later Jamaica, where he wrote powerful indictments of his homeland.
Peter Abrahams, one of South Africa’s acclaimed black writers, whose novel Mine Boy focused on racial oppression in the land of his birth, died last week at home in St Andrew Parish, Jamaica, aged 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 the age of 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.

Mine Boy focuses on racial oppression in South Africa's mines.

“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 apartheid. The book gained wider recognition in 1955, when it was published in the US.

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.

Peter Henry Abrahams was born March 19, 1919, in Vrededorp, near Joburg. His father was from Ethiopia and his mother was of mixed French and African parentage, making their three children “coloured”, according to South African racial classifications then in force.

Abrahams was about six 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 Joburg 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 the age of 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 WEB du Bois and wrote his first stories when he was 11 years old.

After attending a South African teachers’ college, Abrahams taught in Cape Town and later worked for a magazine in Durban. But his goal was to leave South Africa for good.

Peter Abrahams as a young man.

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 worked as a journalist and published five books between 1942 and 1950.

He became acquainted with several well-known figures of 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 women - which would have been illegal in South Africa. His first marriage, to Dorothy Pennington, ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife of 68 years, the former Daphne Miller, and their three children.

Abrahams worked as a magazine editor in Jamaica and later for Radio Jamaica. He was a news commentator until he was 80. 

Washington Post