Language and Style in Peter Abrahams’ Mine Boy (1946)

Peter Abrahams’ Mine Boy was published in 1946, two years before the National Party returned to power and legally formalised the apartheid structures that were already in place in South Africa at the time. The novel’s subject matter revolves around the problematic race relations in South Africa at the build up to apartheid. Mine Boy is written from the third person narrative viewpoint and uses stream of consciousness to bare the mind of its chief characters to the audience. The novel makes use of the chronological plot structure and tells the story of Xuma, its hero, who arrives in Malay Camp, a suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa, in search of a job in the mines. He is said to come from a rural setting and experiences a cultural shock as his communal values clash with the self-preserving ethos of the city. The novel is mostly about Xuma’s experiences in the city working at the mine and those of the people he meets at Leah’s house.

Mine Boy is written in lucid postcolonial English that incorporates abrogation and appropriation to reflect the indices of its social environment. Among its aspects of language and style are figurative expressions like simile, metaphor and personification, diction and imagery, invectives, symbols, allusion, foreshadowing, suspense, humour, songs as therapy and coping mechanism.

Diction and Imagery are important stylistic devices through which the author conveys thoughts and registers sensory impressions in the novel. The word ‘induna’ has a Zulu origin and refers to a person of power or authority. In the context of the novel, ‘induna’ is used to describe the mine police. A mine policeman is called induna and its plural form is indunas. In the novel, the mine police keep law and order at the mines by directing the movement of the mine boys, searching them when they arrive before entering the compound and quelling any form of riot or rebellion. ‘Yabo’ is also a Zulu word of positivity and affirmation. In the novel, the white man Chris, Johannes’ boss, uses the word ‘yabo’ while conducting a manliness test on Xuma as part of Xuma’s recruitment exercise. He asks if Xuma is ‘yabo’, that is if he is good or strong enough for the task. It is humorous that Xuma takes a fighting pose when Chris pokes at his chest because he thinks that Chris is challenging him to a fight. Chris has to explain that it is only a way of testing to see if he is strong enough to work in the mines.

The expression ‘indaba’ comes from the Zulu and Xhosa languages and means ‘discussion’, ‘conference’, ‘business’ or ‘matter’ depending on the context. In the novel, the word ‘indaba’ is used when Mr Paddy O’Shea, the Red One, is having a discussion with Xuma, his new mine boy, giving him instructions on what it takes to be the leader of 50 men. He tells Xuma, ‘. . . But to be a good leader you must be a good worker. . . If you work for me I want no nonsense’. The expression ‘baas’ means ‘boss. Xuma uses this word to address Mr Paddy O’Shea but Mr O’Shea admonishes him not to call him boss. This is an indication that Paddy wants Xuma to see him as his equal and friend. But this is not possible for Xuma at this point because he imposes the colour barrier on himself and this makes it difficult for him to see any white person, however kind and considerate, as his friend and equal.

‘The Stockvelt’ refers to the association of beer sellers in the novel. They are depicted in the novel when they are seen leaving Leah’s house after having a meeting to contribute money to bail some of their members who were arrested by the police in a recent raid. Of course, Leah is not affected by the raid because she has a paid informant in the police. ‘Stokvel’ is a South African word used to describe a savings association or club. Another word that requires explaining in the novel is ‘Skokiaan Queen’ which refers to a woman who deals in illicit liquor. She is also known as a Shebeen Queen. This word describes women like Leah who brew and sell illicit drinks to earn a living in the novel. The fact that white people could sell alcohol in restaurants without sanction speaks of the racial discrimination against blacks in South Africa at this time. The word ‘Bioscope’ refers to a cinema where people go to see movies. A ‘macadamised road’ is one that has been tarred and ‘piddle’ is used to describe Daddy’s tendency to urinate on himself either as a sign of old age or being constantly drunk or unconscious due to excessive alcohol consumption.

Imagery in the novel cuts across visual and auditory spectrums. The author uses these images to describe the sights and sounds of the city and some of its parts that reflect or remind one of rural life and space. An instance of such description is seen in this excerpt: ‘The rumble of trams and trains, the noise of cars, the voices of people. . .’ Words that evoke visual imagery in the excerpt are ‘trams’, ‘trains’, ‘cars’ and ‘people’, while words that evoke auditory imagery are ‘rumble’, ‘noise’ and ‘voices’. Noise is an auditory image that recurs in the novel. It serves as an important characteristic of the city space. Both the city and the mines are places which generate noise, which is one of the environmental hazards in the novel. An instance where noise pollution is described and its effect on Xuma at the mines is given as follows: ‘And the hissing and the explosions from the bowels of the earth. These things beat against his brain till his eyes reddened like the eyes of the other men’. The author describes Malay Camp, a settlement mostly occupied by blacks, as ‘A row of streets crossing another row of streets . . . A row of houses crossing another row of houses’. The power of imagery is equally demonstrated in the description of the mealie meal taken by the workers at the mines: ‘. . . In each tin was a hunk of mealie meal porridge cooked into a hardened chunk, a piece of meat, and a piece of very coarse compound bread’. The other forms of imagery are conveyed through figurative expressions like simile, metaphor, personification, among others, which will be treated shortly.

Simile is one of the dominant tropes in Mine Boy. It is that through which the author achieves analogy in the text. For instance, the expression ‘the induna was like a shepherd with a spear’ describes the ironic and the paradoxical relationship between the mine police and the mine boys. They are supposed to protect everyone and keep the mines safe, but they could be brutal towards the mine workers. Simile is used to describe the alterity that defines the lives of the mine workers, their helplessness and their lack of choice in life. It is Xuma who notices that the workers appear trapped in their roles: ‘. . . The eyes of these men were like the eyes of the sheep that did not know where to run when the dog barked’. In this analogy, the mine boys are the sheep while the dog represents the colonial apartheid forces that threaten their daily existence. Eliza’s beauty is conveyed through simile in the expression, ‘Like a smooth brown fresh flower’. Simile is equally used to describe Johannes (J. P. Williamson) when he is sober. He is ‘Gentle as a lamb’.

Metaphors also abound in the novel. For instance, the description of the mine dump as ‘A mountain of white sand made by black men’ is a metaphor on how black labour enriches white investors in colonial South Africa. Another instance of metaphor in the novel is when Xuma describes Teacher Ndola as ‘that sickly monkey in the clothes of a white man’. Here, Teacher Ndola is being compared directly to a monkey. This constitutes an instance of humour in the novel because of the visual imagery that the expression generates in the mind of the reader. The imagery also speaks of the funny character of Africans who unsuccessfully try to imitate western culture. It makes one recall Kobina Sekyei’s The Blinkards. There is an instance of implied metaphor in the expression, ‘A trickle of red spittle flew out of his mouth and fell at Xuma’s feet’. The word ‘flew’ conveys on the spittle the imagery of a bird, which results in an implied metaphor. The expression refers to the old mine worker who has the lung disease often contracted at the mines.

Personification abounds in Mine Boy. The expression, ‘This mocking of a man by the sand’ constitutes personification. It captures Xuma’s first day experience at the mines pushing sand to the dumps. All his effort does not seem to reduce the sand, as if the sand is laughing at his struggle, rendering his labour meaningless or absurd. This scene equally alludes to the myth of Sisyphus. Personification is also seen in the description of the buildings in the city as sleeping: ‘. . . empty street with tall sleeping buildings’. Another related expression is ‘The city of gold sleeping’. Sleep is a human quality that has now been ascribed to inanimate things like building and city. When Ma Plank advises Leah to pause the sale of beer because of fear of a traitor from within her household, Leah replies, ‘And the sky will give us money’, which is an example of personification. Work at the mines is described using personification thus, ‘And the conveyor belt sang and the picks fell and the spades and the drills hummed’. Singing and humming are human actions now being ascribed to belts and drills. In Xuma’s house, the kettle is equally described as singing while the water in it is boiling on the stove.

Oxymoron is exemplified in the expression ‘But he is a good fool’. This expression is made by the wife of the kind coloured man who helps Xuma to escape being arrested by the police during his first outing in the city with Joseph. The black woman thinks that her husband is a fool to meddle in other people’s business but at the same time believes that her husband is a ‘good fool’, which is an ironic way of approving his action of saving the naïve Xuma.

Invectives are tropes in Mine Boy. Invectives refer to a poetic insult or abuse. They are likely tropes in a racist clime like the one depicted in the novel. An instance of invective is when the white supervisor at the mines uses the word ‘kaffir’ on Johannes. Kaffir is an insulting and racist word for a black man. The narrative voice refers to the alcohol that Leah sells as ‘kaffir-beer’, hinting at why it is illegal in colonial South Africa; it is a local drink, not European.

Ideophone features in the novel. Ideophone is a device in which words mimic sounds. An instance of ideophone in the novel is seen in the expression ‘tramp-tramp-tramp-tramp’ which depicts the sound made by the indunas’ marching feet.

Antithesis is seen in the expression, ‘. . . for she wants me and she does not want me’. Xuma says this to Di, Paddy’s wife, about the ambivalence that characterises Eliza’s love for him. Eliza suffers from double consciousness; she is a black woman who wants the things of white people. This makes it difficult for her to love Xuma or any black man for that matter. She ends up leaving Xuma and leaving town.

Euphemism is seen in the expression, ‘He is finished’ by the doctor, referring to Daddy (Francis Ndabula) in his final moments after being hit by a car. The expression is a euphemistic way of referring to Daddy’s case as hopeless, meaning that his death is only a matter of time.

Paradox defines the lives of most of the characters and the conditions of blacks in the novel. Lena’s life is paradoxical and strange in the sense that ‘she has a son who will soon be a teacher, a daughter who marries a man that looks like a white man’ but she chooses to live in Leah’s house ‘for a little beer and food’. It appears that Lena’s children had tried many times to help her but she would slip back to her life of drinking. It is paradoxical and ironic that Xuma longs after Eliza who ‘was cold and had gone out with another man’, apart from hurting him many times. Xuma finds it difficult to love Maisy who really cares for him and makes him happy. In his moment of grief after being hurt by Eliza, Xuma copes by working at the mines and says that ‘The only place where he was completely free was underground in the mines’. This is indeed at once paradoxical and ironic.

Epigram can also be found in Mine Boy. An example is the expression, ‘Hard work helps the heart’. This is Xuma’s thought on using work to cope with Eliza’s absence. There is an instance of chiasmus in the expressions: ‘No man is a fool who takes the woman he wants’/ ‘But all men are fools who want the women they take’. The expressions are from Leah and Ma Plank, respectively, while they are discussing the Eliza-Xuma relationship.

Symbols abound in Mine Boy. Money, for Leah, is a symbol of power. Leah understands that real power is economic, which explains why she must sell beer which brings her money, even though the colonial authorities had banned it. The knob-kerries and assagais wielded by the indunas are symbols of racial violence and police brutality against the blacks. Xuma is wounded in the head when a policeman hits him with a baton during the stand-off at the mines after the death of Chris and Johannes. The pass given to Xuma at the mines symbolises identity policing and spatial limitation for the black man in colonial South Africa. The whistle at the mine is a symbol of the regimented life of the mine boys. It is equally symbolic that during the workers’ protest at the mines, the white men and the indunas are with the mine manager on the left while Xuma, Paddy and the mine boys are on the right. Some characters in the novel are symbolic. Eliza, for instance, symbolises the damage that the invading colonial culture has done to the African personality and psyche. Leah embodies the values of the city as well as modernity, while Xuma represents traditional values and communal spirit. Maisy is a symbol of the happiness that the city can afford a sensible individual.  

Literary allusion is obvious in the description of the relationship between Xuma and Paddy O’Shea, who wants Xuma to relate with him as friends, but Xuma is unable to do so because of his skin pigmentation. At Paddy’s house, the narrative voice states, ‘And the more they tried to make him feel at ease the more difficult it had been’. This situation alludes to Bigger in Richard Wright’s Native Son, who feels embarrassed, angry and ashamed when Mary Dalton and her boyfriend, Jan Erlone, try to relate with him as equals. The fact that Xuma and Maisy always sit at the back of the bus echoes Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man where the black characters always sit at the back of the train as a sign of segregation in post-war American south.

Suspense is an important narrative device in the novel. The novel follows Xuma through his experiences in the city of Johannesburg, and all along the reader is kept in suspense as to how his story will turn out in relation to his success as a man, his relationship with Eliza and Maisy, as well as his work at the mine. Another instance of suspense in the novel is the withholding of Dladla’s identity as the one who has been betraying Leah to the police. When Dladla is murdered, the identity of his killers remains a mystery throughout the novel. One can only suspect Leah, but there is no evidence!

Humour is another narrative device in Mine Boy. The novel is a tragedy of black lives in a modern milieu, but this tragedy is punctuated with instances of dark humour. A good example of dark humour is seen when Xuma observes that he has never seen Daddy stand upright without swaying from one side to the other. This means that Daddy is always drunk. Xuma has this thought after Ma Plank tells a story of how Daddy used to be respected and responsible in his youthful days. Daddy’s character demonstrates how time and circumstances can change people.

Foreshadowing is exemplified when Leah reports to Ma Plank that the police inspector said he would get her. This statement foreshadows Leah’s eventual arrest, trial and sentencing towards the end of the novel.

Songs and dances act as motifs in the novel. Songs also serve as a coping mechanism. Leah sings ‘Rain Song’ when she is sad: ‘Mother it’s raining/And I’m getting wet’. The narrative voice observes that ‘there is haunting sadness’ in Leah’s voice as she sings the song. Then when her mood changes, she sings a happy song that relates the story of a man who boasts to girls about his greatness and handsomeness, but could not escape the trap that the girls set for him. At the mine, Xuma feels better after joining the men to hum and practise mindfulness during break time.

Mine Boy is written mostly in paratactic style, using non-periodic sentences, fragments and anaphoric expressions. An example of a paratactic expression in the novel is given as follows: ‘And the conveyor belt sang and the picks fell and the spades and the drills hummed. And everywhere men worked. Their bodies streaming with sweat’. An instance of the use of fragment is seen in the expression, ‘Gentle as a lamb and seemingly ashamed of his great size and great strength.’ This expression describes Johannes. Both examples also serve as non-periodic sentences. An example of anaphoric expression is; ‘And almost afraid of looking at anybody and always just too ready to step aside, and very hard to provoke. And on this early Monday morning Johannes was sober and his face was serious. And his brows were bunched in the manner of a man who broods a great deal’. Each expression begins with the coordinating conjunction ‘and’. This helps mimic the flow of human thoughts as the novel thrives on stream of consciousness. Was this helpful?

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2 thoughts on “Language and Style in Peter Abrahams’ Mine Boy (1946)

  1. I have read your analysis of some literary works. I want to hone my writing skills in prose and poetry at a fee.
    Please get in touch.

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