On Poet Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali; When Night Fell in Soweto

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It is all well and good to celebrate young, vibrant and amazing Africans who are determined to become a force to reckon with in their spheres of influence, however…we must also not forget that the foundations on which we build were laid by men now greying and sage; men like South African poet, Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali.

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The venerable poet and educator was born 17 January 1940 in Kwabhanya (Vryheid), KwaZulu-Natal South Africa at the thick of the apartheid rule. At the completion of his secondary education, he went to Soweto seeking to further his studies, but the oppressive apartheid legislation prohibited any such delusions of grandeur.  Intent on his pursuit of education, he studied via correspondence, and obtained a diploma with the Premier School of Journalism and Authorship, affiliated to London University.

In the interim, Oswald worked as a messenger in Johannesburg, and to paraphrase a writer, “Oswald observed with a bitter and sardonic eye the grimy beer halls, the crowded trains, the slum housing, and the harsh working conditions that was the lot of black Africans in South Africa. His bitterness is expressed in brilliantly controlled lines etched with an acid irony.”

His experiences as he trawled through the city in pursuit of a livelihood and a future which must have looked desperately bleak, birthed his first collection of poems, ‘Sounds of a Cowhide Drum’ which was published by Lionel Abrahams of Renoster in 1971, with a foreword written by Nadine Gordimer; it is said that this book went on to become the best-selling poetry book in South African history and won the Olive Schreiner Prize for 1974.

Oswald Mtshali. Pic Wanda Hennig

With success and recognition beckoning, Oswald proceeded to study at the International Writers’ Program in the University of Iowa; this was followed by undergraduate studies at the New School of Social Research, and an MFA from Columbia University in the United States. On his return to South Africa in 1979 he worked as a deputy headmaster at Pace Commercial College in Jabulani, Soweto and subsequently published his second volume of poems, Fireflames in 1980; however, it was banned by the South African government because it was perceptibly dedicated to the schoolchildren of Soweto; [The Soweto Uprising, also known as June 16, is a series of protests led by high school students in South Africa that began on the morning of 16 June 1976. Students from numerous Sowetan schools began to protest in the streets of Soweto in response to the introduction of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in local schools. An estimated 20,000 students took part in the protests. The number of people who died is usually given as 176, with estimates of up to 700. June 16 is now a public holiday, Youth Day, in South Africa, in remembrance of the events of 1976.] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soweto_uprising]

Oswald returned to Columbia University in 1988 to pursue his doctoral studies, after working for the South African Council of Churches for a while. He taught in the United States at the New York City College of Technology until his return to South Africa in 2007.

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His works include the Sounds of a Cowhide Drum, Renoster, Johannesburg, 1971, Fireflames, Shuter & Shooter, Pietermaritzburg, 1980, Give Us a Break: diaries of a group of Soweto children, Skotaville, Johannesburg, 1988, and Sounds of a Cowhide Drum [republished] / Imisindo Yesighubu Sesikhumba Senkomo, Jacana, Johannesburg, 2012.

His awards have included the Southern Africa English Academy Poetry Award in 1971, the Olive Schreiner Prize for Poetry in 1974, the coveted South African Lifetime Achievement Literary Award in 2007 and an Honorary Doctorate awarded by North-West University, Mafikeng, South Africa in 2013.

According to poetryinternationalweb.net, Oswald –who has always written in Zulu and English- is working on the translation of Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ into the Zulu language, and the collection and recording of Zulu folk songs for posterity sake.

Every student of literature must have encountered and reviewed Oswald Mtshali’s poetry in one form or the other; even now, his poems are still subjects of debate and review, and I daresay that’s the power of true poetry; it is timeless, transcending cultural, generational, and socio-economic barriers.

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Enjoy the ebb and flow of Nightfall in Soweto:

Nightfall comes like

a dreaded disease

seeping through the pores

of a healthy body

5 and ravaging it beyond repair

A murderer’s hand,

lurking in the shadows,

clasping the dagger,

strikes down the helpless victim.

10 I am the victim.

I am slaughtered

every night in the streets.

I am cornered by the fear

gnawing at my timid heart;

15 in my helplessness I languish.

Man has ceased to be man

Man has become beast

Man has become prey.

I am the prey;

20 I am the quarry to be run down

by the marauding beast

let loose by cruel nightfall

from his cage of death.

Where is my refuge?

25 Where am I safe?

Not in my matchbox house

Where I barricade myself against nightfall.

I tremble at his crunching footsteps,

I quake at his deafening knock at the door.

30 “Open up!” he barks like a rabid dog

thirsty for my blood.

Nightfall! Nightfall!

You are my mortal enemy.

But why were you ever created?

35 Why can’t it be daytime?

Daytime forever more?

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