Just A Passerby- Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali

Posted: January 8, 2011 in SOUTH AFRICAN POETRY
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POET’S PROFILE

Mtshali

Mtshali

Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali is a South African poet who was born in Vryheid, Natal. After his early education, he left for Johannesburg with a dream to pursue further schooling in the University of Witwatersrand but he fell victim to the endemic workings of the apartheid era in which he was born. He did not gain admission and resigned to live in Soweto, a Bantu suburb of Johannesburg.
But Mtshali was a dreamer. He continued to war in his mind the injustices of the system in which he was born. His poetry borders on the survival of a people and the hope that tomorrow will bring. His commentaries were sometimes of the despair of a people who doubtless continued to protest. His great poem, “Amagoduka at Glencoe Station” closes with these epic lines:

“We’ll return home
to find our wives nursing babies-
unknown to us
but only to their mothers and loafers.”

This explains the disruption of family life and with it, identity, which was one of the trademarks of the apartheid era.
The beauty of Mtshali’s poetry is that though he wrote about serious issues, his lines were comical, humorous and sometimes, careless of the consequences. That was a subtle way of saying the most difficult things and getting the desired impact. He has been tagged as one of the most influential black South African poets of all time.

JUST A PASSERBY
I saw them clobber him with kieries,
I heard him scream with pain
like a victim of slaughter
I smelt fresh blood gush
5 from his nostrils,
and flow on the street.

I walked into the church
and knelt in the pew
“Lord! I love you.
10 I also love my neighbour. Amen”

I came out
my heart as light as an angel’s kiss
on the cheek of a saintly soul.
Back home I strutted
15 past a crowd of onlookers.
Then she came in –
my woman neighbour:
“Have you heard? They’ve killed your brother.”
“O! No! I have heard nothing. I’ve been to church.”


REVIEW

This poem is a sarcastic statement of the helplessness of black South Africa under the apartheid regime. The story is almost unbelievable but is not surprising, with the knowledge of Mtshali’s style. The poet narrates his witnessing of the clubbing of a man to death. He uses the word “clobber” (line 1) which is a more savage form of “clubbing.” Knobkieries or kieries, as he uses here, are huge clubs that are used for defence across East and Southern Africa.
The first six lines are gruesome narrations of a slaughter scene. The clobbered man is here representing the rights of the black race in the apartheid regime apparently beaten to death. But nobody can talk about it. He is said to scream with pain/ like a victim of slaughter (lines 2-3). He bleeds from his nostrils (line 5), representative of all the blood that was shed in apartheid South Africa.
But the poet just passes by, helpless.
He walks into a church. This cowardly act of unconcerned piety reflects the total failure of the passivity that apartheid-era religion offers. Religion is a means of escape and under its purported shade, the poet can declare: “Lord I love you…”(line 9). Love is a high contrast to the emotion that courses through his veins. He feels anger and hatred but in the church, he leaves all those emotions outside. “…I also love my neighbour. Amen” (line 10) is the phrase that reinforces his denial.
Now, the poet leaves the church …heart as light as an angel’s kiss/ on the cheek of a saintly soul… (lines 12-13). His conscience is cleared and he struts home. Strutting is walking with kingly poise and haughty carelessness. Past the spot of death and with others looking on, he walks home, not even stopping. Does he not care? He does. But in apartheid South Africa, where the life of a black man means less, survival overrides sympathy. Even brotherly sympathy! So it is of no consequence when his woman neighbour comes in to tell him of the death. Of no consequence to him but to our shock when we find out that it is his brother who was clobbered!! … “Have you heard? They have killed your brother” (line 18).
Mtshali is a master. The poet just answers, in unbelievable self-denial: “I have heard nothing. I’ve been to church” (line 19). This last line opens the eye to the horror of apartheid and makes us appreciate the work of Mandela and all those who fought for the end of the system. This last line enforces Mtshali as a master.

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Comments
  1. This is a great review. The lives of South Africans under apartheid was a living irony. Using church to cover pain, while the apartheidists use church doctrines to implement their suppressive agenda, killing the people and regarding all coloured people to be less human. I wonder how South Africans took the church to be when the God who preaches love supervises their killing with his laws, at least with the interpretation of his laws.

    I first read of this in the Selection of African Poems. Thanks for reminding me of this and for your review.

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    • Dela says:

      Reading this poem opened my eyes to apartheid in ways that I hadn’t seen before. It’s really great what the poets have immortalised for us the generations.

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  2. Aschalew legese says:

    i like this poem because im an African and abhor apartheid

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  3. Aschalew legese says:

    This poem is very interesting and it can show the evil of aparthied

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  4. dandechisa says:

    the analysis should include various types of literary elements other than this it is very good.

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    • Dela says:

      I try not to go too much into the literary composition of the poems I review. I want to help people understand the poetry they read. That’s all. If I do go into the literaries, it will be just too much work for a freelance blog, trust me. Hope you understand.

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  5. Salami Wasiu says:

    Please, i want to know the theme, tone, use of figures of speech especially simile.

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  6. Dela says:

    Refer reply above, Salami. Thanks.

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  7. Esther F.I.E says:

    D poem like other protest poems from South Africa makes one shudder at man’s inhumanity against his fellow man!

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  8. precious says:

    this poem is a great one,the apartheid of the african people , it is a lesson for we africans,never again will it be because, we know our right now.

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  9. Kate says:

    This story is very intresting because it has brought our notice to the kind of treatment people went through during that system of governing thank GOD it has changed.

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  10. Juliet says:

    Oswald is indeed a great writer! I like his writings!!!!

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