Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali was born in Kwabhanya (Vryheid), KwaZulu-Natal in 1940. After completing secondary school in he went to Soweto hoping to study social work. Apartheid legislation prevented his enrolment but he studied via correspondence, obtaining a diploma with Premier School of Journalism and Authorship, affiliated to London University. He worked as a messenger in Johannesburg, drawing on his observations of the city to write the poems that became his first collection, Sounds of a Cowhide Drum. Published by Lionel Abrahams of Renoster in 1971, with a foreword written by Nadine Gordimer, this book went on to become the best-selling poetry book in South African history.
Following the extraordinary success of his debut, Mtshali went in 1974 to study at the International Writers' Program at the University of Iowa. This was followed by undergraduate studies at the New School of Social Research, and an MFA from Columbia University. His second collection, Fireflames, was published in 1980, whilst working as a deputy headmaster at Pace Commercial College in Jabulani, Soweto. With it overt criticism of the government, it was banned. After a stint working for the South African Council of Churches he returned in 1988 to Columbia University to pursue his doctoral studies. He taught in the USA until his return to South Africa in 2007. His focus now includes the lexicography of Zulu, a translation of Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet' into this language, and the collection and recording of its folk songs.
Many people write poetry, but there are few great poets in any country.
Is Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali an African poet because he is black? Is he an English poet because he writes in English? Does he belong along with Léopold Sédar Senghor of Senegal, Tchicaya U Tam'si of the Congo, Wole Soyinka and Christopher Okigbo of Nigeria, Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo of Madagascar, Mazisi Kunene, K.A. Nortje and Dennis Brutus of South Africa? Or do his songs of innocence and experience place him somewhere along with Blake, and his gifts of colloquial irony with the tradition of Auden, and his almost surgical imagery along with Sylvia Plath?
In an introduction to their collection of 'Modern Poetry from Africa', Ulli Beier and Gerald Moore remark that it is dangerous to try and establish a literary orthodoxy. But they point out that the process of poetry is 'essentially one of verbal magic: the poet – magus makes by naming'. It (the process) undoubtedly lies at the root of all poetry, but it is probably closer to the surface of the poet's mind in Africa than elsewhere because of the comparatively recent arrival of literacy in the continent, and because he inhabits a society where a vast body of traditional ritual, dance, song, poetry (spoken) and story is still alive. Mtshali has this verbal magic; for the reader he makes-by-naming areas of experience that, for fellow blacks, will provide a shock of recognition, and for whites, a revelation of a world they live in and never know. Only a fine poet could write so well; only an African could convey this experience. I don't think the synthesis has happened in quite this way before, in South Africa.
How does Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali see himself? If one looks carefully into the work of any poet, one will find his manifesto set out somewhere more succinctly than could be expressed in any analysis.
from an eggshell
laid by a Zulu hen,
ready to fly in spirit to all lands on earth.
The colloquial tone, the ironic humour, the shackle of vivid, concrete, regional-personal image, the liberation of imagination that makes the creative writer freeman of the world – here in a few lines is Mtshali's stylistic and philosophical statement.
Stylistically, it is not as simple as it looks. Which is to say that the simplicity – balladic, lyrical, unerringly chosen according to the demands of the subject – is an end and not a beginning. That it has been reached by labour and the priceless dissatisfactions of selfcriticism is evident in a few poems that I myself should have left out of this book, but perhaps should be in it because, by contrast with the majority, they show how this poet has sloughed-off what mars them: the grandiose invocation, 'literary' image, trite phrase. His best work is unadorned. It stands clear in the surety of his verbal magic, at home in his own vocabulary.
Mtshali's relationship with his immediate world – his philosophical approach, if you prefer – is married successfully with his style. The most striking poems are often those where the verbal magic, in this case the creation of mood or sense of place, contains a sting that finally shrivels the verbal magic away, leaving a question or statement burning in the mind. The lovely evocaive simplicity of 'The shepherd and his flock' which begins with
are like a pair of scissors
cutting the blanket
of dawn from the sky
ends with a sudden insight into the mind of the boy greeting the white farmer's children as they go to school: will he ever go to school, too? In 'Boy on a swing', pure sensation is conveyed, making-by-naming with heady brilliance, but out of the disorientation-inspace of swinging, the 'four cardinal points meet in the boy's head' and the cardinal questions of the child's life are flung out of the poem centrifugally:
When will I wear long trousers?
Why was my father jailed?
These questions, contained objectively in totally different categories, fuse together in the context of a black township child's life and thereby tell us everything we need to know about that life. When – not often – Mtshali turns to symbolism and metaphor, as in 'Ride upon the death chariot', where Caesar's empire is used as an equivalent for one nearer home, at the close of the poem he slashes away with a single image the comfortable remove of history at which he has put us. The woman who comes to wipe the faces of the
whose papers to be in Caesar's empire
were not in order
is suddenly poignantly localised –
full of bread and tea.
Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali is the poet of the kraal peasant
in vests baked
brown with dust
and the black miner
daubed with gold-tinted ochre
[. . .] armpits mouldy with sweat of pushing a
cocopan [. . .]
He shakes a plastic 'skal' in a noisy beerhall
and gulps down the beer
and strikes his chest,
a victor over a day's work:
'Hurray I'm the brawn –
and you're the brain'.
Mtshali has forgotten nothing of the black man's rural past, nor does he turn historical tragedy into costume-drama – compare the pith of his 'Birth of Shaka' with the overblown rhetoric of Senghor's epic poem about Shaka. But he is also – pre-eminently – the poet of the black Johannesburger, a Villon of Soweto, the voice of that
reeking from a beerhall
shuffling to jail
swaying to hospital.
Township bully, roadganger, clerk, drunk, chauffeur, nightwatchman –
have not paid him a visit,
but if they come
he will die in honour,
like a full-blooded Zulu –
and the baas will say:
'Here's ten pounds.
Jim was a good boy.'
He sings of all these, and of their other, collective identity in the city as eternal suspect – for being poor, for being black, for rousing guilt:
side by side with 'madam '
who shifts her handbag
from my side to the other [. . .]
This is a city poet's tongue, quick as a chameleon's and rasping as a tiger's. The white man' conscience may be 'locked safely with bonds and securities / In a Chubb safe sarcophagus' but perhaps the white man's skin may not be quite impervious to irony.
The world you will enter through these poems is a black man's world made by white men. It finds its epitome in the ghastly vision of township dogs fighting over the corpse of an abandoned baby – surely one of the most shocking poems ever written, and yet a triumph, since it could have been achieved only by forging from bitterness a steely compassion, by plunging into horror deep enough to bring forth tenderness. The daily circumstances of his life remain those of the majority population of South Africa. The image of bread recurs again and again in his work: even snow suggests the labour for bread – 'Trees sagged / and; grunted / under the back-breaking / flour bags of snow' – and even the fact that man cannot live by bread alone is seen as a need for the 'rare bread, solitude' which he seeks to 'feed my hunger to read, / to dream, and to write'.
This is the imagery of survival. Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali, ironist, knows all that threatens man, abroad as well as at home: the walls of distrust, and the 'moats of fright around his heart'.
Sounds of a Cowhide Drum came thundering unavoidably into the ears of apartheid South Africa, rousing awareness not only of the enslaved life of black people, dispossessed of their land, their culture rejected as primitive by white descendants of Colonialism, then exclusively in power. Mtshali is one of the black majority population who took rightful possession of what could not be withheld – the white needed to have his commands understood – the European language, English and literature, becoming a masterly poet, and exploring that possibility in capturing, expressing the range and depth of what it was to be a black, child to old age, under racism. Not only the pain and rejection, but to be at the same time an individual with untouchable creativity, the essence of human existence as distinct from that of any other being. The exaltation of music, dance, the words of many natal languages on the people's tongues. In postapartheid South Africa a vital part of the new life in process of emerging is that the African languages of this, our region of Africa, should be taught in our schools, no matter what the language of instruction is. Of course, we have to recognise that every country has to master a lingua franca for communication with the outside world, and for historical colonialist reasons, it is French, Spanish, predominantly English, our children need the English lingua franca – but the greater, birthright need is for the languages natal to the majority of our population to come to the heart of a culture – the nation's culture, literature.
Not surprising that Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali, with his deep understanding of the human psyche, master of the ultimate in communication – undreamt of by Twitter – the poet's power to reach from the conscious to the depths of the subconscious, has added to Sounds of a Cowhide Drum in this new edition the beat of poems written in his mother tongue, isiZulu.
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
Sounds of a Cowhide Drum / Imisindo Yesighubu Sesikhumba Senkomo, Jacana, Johannesburg, 2012
1971: Southern Africa English Academy Poetry Award
1974: Olive Schreiner Prize for Poetry
2007: South African Lifetime Achievement Literary Award
2013: Honorary Doctorate awarded by North-West University, Mafikeng, South Africa
Video of Oswald Mtshali reading 'Men in Chains'
Video of Oswald Mtshali reading 'The Miner'
Audio podcast – interview with Victor Dlamini
Poet profile: Mubyiseni Oswald Mtshali at Poetry Potion
Review of Sounds of a Cowhide Drum
Launch of Sounds of a Cowhide Drum with Skinned by Antjie Krog
'Sounds of a Cowhide Drum'
'Men in Chains'
'An Abandoned Bundle'
'The Birth of Shaka'
'Boy on a Swing'
'Inside my Zulu Hut'
'A Newly Born Calf'
'Always a Suspect'
'A Ditty Dance for Dalai Lama'