An Analysis of Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali’s ‘Nightfall in Soweto’

Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali was born in 1940. He is a South African poet who studied at Columbia University, New York. ‘Nightfall in Soweto’ was written against the background of apartheid in South Africa. Apartheid was a political system that was based on physical separation of the races in South Africa. It lasted between 1948 and 1994. Mtshali’s ‘Nightfall in Soweto’ has as its subject matter the dehumanisation of black lives in apartheid South Africa. The author poetically documents the various levels of brutality that the agents of apartheid meted on black people during the dark days of apartheid.

Structurally, the poem is organised in eight (8) stanzas of unequal number of lines. The poem is also written in free verse and makes use of run-on-lines or enjambment. The title of the poem is significant in the sense that the nightfall it refers to is not only to be understood literally, but also figuratively. Apartheid was the metaphoric darkness that enveloped black lives in South Africa. This darkness is ominous and forebodes all kinds of evils for the blacks. Soweto was one of the black settlements in apartheid South Africa. It should be recalled that the principles of apartheid did not favour any form of interrelationship among the different races, as the apartheid system sought to entrench racial purity. Thus, blacks were physically separated from white people; they were forcefully evicted from their ancestral lands and taken to inferior lands, while the white people took the choice lands for themselves.

In terms of development, black settlements, like Soweto, were left without infrastructures and, where any existed, it was not enough for the teeming population that equally competed for limited spaces. Hence, Soweto during apartheid was a slum where blacks eked out their limited existence. Soweto was also an epicentre of violence, riots and protests during apartheid. This usually resulted in crackdowns and, in most cases, loss of lives due to the brutality of the apartheid agents.  

The first stanza of the poem is a quintet and it reads: ‘Nightfall comes like/a dreaded disease/seeping through the pores/of a healthy body/and ravaging it beyond repair’. This stanza captures the irony and paradox of black lives in apartheid South Africa in the sense that nightfall is supposed to be a time of rest for the average human being after a hard day’s work. However, in this poem the persona deploys the device of simile to compare nightfall to a ‘dreaded disease’ that destroys the health of the individual. The expression ‘dreaded disease’ is an instance of alliteration exemplified in the repetition of the voiced alveolar plosive sound /d/. The stanza mostly deploys visual and kinetic imagery to impinge the image of nightfall and its activities on the mind of the reader. Examples of words which depict visual imagery are ‘nightfall’, ‘pores’ and ‘body’. Words that realise kinetic imagery are ‘comes’, ‘seeping’ and ‘ravages’. There is also the use of hyperbole in the final line of the stanza in the expression ‘ravaging it beyond repair’. Nightfall is also personified in the poem due to the verb ‘comes’ in the first line of the stanza. In sum, the poet deploys devices such as visual imagery, kinetic imagery, alliteration, simile and personification to drive home the idea that nightfall is a threat to black lives in apartheid South Africa owing to the evil activities of state agents who were known to attack blacks at night.

The second stanza of the poem is a quatrain and reads: ‘A murderer’s hand,/lurking in the shadows,/clasping the dagger,/strikes down the helpless victim.’ This stanza dramatises the brutality against blacks in apartheid South Africa. The dominant images in the stanza are visual and kinetic imagery. Visual imagery is seen in words like ‘murderer’, ‘hand’, ‘shadows’ and ‘dagger’, while kinetic imagery is reflected in ‘lurking’, ‘clasping’ and ‘strikes’. The expression ‘murderer’s hand’ constitutes synecdoche because it portrays a part-whole relationship. The expression ‘lurking in the shadows’ conjures an image of conspiracy and ambush while ‘dagger’, a deadly weapon, symbolises the danger that apartheid poses for the lives of blacks. It is a symbol of violence and death for which apartheid was well known. The hand depicted in the stanza represents the apartheid state agents noted for their senseless killings of blacks during apartheid. ‘The helpless victim’ in the last line of the stanza is a metaphor for blacks in apartheid South Africa. They were victims of the historical crime called settler colonialism also known as apartheid in South Africa. The expression ‘strikes down’ is more or less a euphemism for the wanton murder of blacks in apartheid South Africa. In this second stanza, the dreaded disease earlier discoursed in the first stanza becomes a metonym for death, as well as a metaphor for nightfall. Nightfall, as illustrated in the second stanza, is a time of death for black lives. It is interesting how this poem plays into the contemporary themes of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement.

The third stanza of Mtshali’s ‘Nightfall in Soweto’ has six lines and reads: ‘I am the victim/I am slaughtered/every night in the streets./I am cornered by the fear/gnawing at my timid heart;/in my helplessness I languish’. In this stanza, the persona’s voice shifts from the third person deployed in the first two stanzas to the first-person narrator. The narrator identifies as the victim of the carnage who bemoans his fate in the violent scenario dramatised. The victim speaks out both as an existential lament and as a voice of protest. The reader should note the use of anaphora in the first two lines of the stanza exemplified in the repetition of ‘I am’ at the initial position of the lines. As already stated, the victim here is the collective humanity of blacks in apartheid South Africa. The victim reports being ‘slaughtered’ in the street, where the word ‘slaughtered’ hyperbolically denotes a massacre. The expression ‘I am cornered by the fear/gnawing at my timid heart’ constitutes personification and speaks of the anxiety and helplessness of blacks at night in apartheid South Africa. The word ‘gnawing’ is a kinetic imagery which conjures up the sensory of cannibalism which metaphorically speaks of black and white relations in apartheid South Africa. The final line of the stanza is an inversion, which denotes the reversal in the syntactic order of an expression. The conventional ordering of the sentence should have been ‘I languish in my helplessness’ but it has been reversed for poetic effects.

The fourth and the shortest stanza of the poem is a tercet and reads: ‘Man has ceased to be man/Man has become beast/Man has become prey’. The dominant poetic device in this stanza is anaphora seen in the expression ‘Man has’ being repeated at the initial position of the lines. This stanza juxtaposes the binary scheme of oppressor and the oppressed, the hunter and the hunted. Each line is capable of an ambivalent or ambiguous interpretation, which is the beauty of poetic language. For instance, the expression ‘Man has ceased to be man’ could speak for both the victim and the oppressor, blacks and whites, in apartheid South Africa. For the blacks, it speaks of their dehumanisation while for the whites, it speaks of their inhumanity towards the blacks. The second line has the same ambivalent interpretation so that the beast could refer to white people who ‘eat’ up black people in apartheid South Africa. It could also mean that the blacks, through a systematic brutalisation, have been stripped of their humanity and now live like animals in the slums of Soweto. The final line specifically refers to the condition of blacks in apartheid South Africa; it speaks to their victimhood and perpetually oppressed position. But then again, we can pity the white oppressors because, philosophically speaking, they are also victims of the system that they have created. The juxtaposition of man/beast binary scheme in the stanza echoes throughout the poem. A thin line separates man from beasts, and once man loses his reasoning, he becomes a beast. This is why both white and blacks are unable to escape the beast labels in this poem as the actions of white state agents against blacks suggest that they too have lost their humanity. It then leads us to the idea that the man who looks down on another man is himself lowly placed and the man who treats another man as a beast is himself a beast. The word ‘become’ constitutes a repetend in the stanza. Notice that in this stanza the narrative voice has reverted to the third person viewpoint. These shifts will continue till the end of the poem. Why?

The fifth stanza of Mtshali’s ‘Nightfall in Soweto’ comprises five (5) lines and reads: ‘I am the prey;/I am the quarry to be run down/by marauding beast/let loose by cruel nightfall/from his cage of death’. In this stanza, the narrative voice shifts to the first-person viewpoint where the victim identifies himself and which, as earlier explained, represents the collective voice and humanity of blacks. The motif of victimhood permeates the poem and is reinforced in this stanza in words like ‘prey’ and ‘quarry’ which are synonymous in meaning. It should be borne in mind that the blacks are the conventional victims while the white South Africans are the ‘marauding beast’ who hunt down the blacks. Thus, this stanza is replete with metaphors. There is alliteration in the penultimate line of the stanza, as can be seen in the repetition of the lateral sound in ‘let’ and ‘loose’ which help to heighten the sense of anarchy in the poem’s atmospherics. We also have consonance in the lateral sound that ends ‘cruel’ and ‘nightfall’ still in the penultimate line of the stanza. ‘Cruel nightfall’ is at once an instance of personification and transferred epithet because the word cruel is a human act but being placed beside ‘nightfall’ constitutes transferred epithet as nightfall itself cannot be cruel but the human actors make it so. The expression ‘his cage of death’ at once confirms the sense of personification that was begun in the previous line and constitutes an implied metaphor, as nightfall is indirectly compared to death. Soweto then is minimalised to a cage, a prison, that restricts the freedom of blacks.

The sixth stanza of ‘Nightfall in Soweto’ has four lines and reads: ‘Where is my refuge?/Where am I safe?/Not in this matchbox house/Where I barricade myself against nightfall’ The first two lines constitute rhetorical questions which reinforce the sense of insecurity of blacks in apartheid South Africa. The penultimate line depicts the poverty expressed in terms of the poor living conditions and inadequate infrastructures for blacks in apartheid South Africa. The ‘matchbox house’ depicts limitation in terms of space for the blacks. The final line of the stanza deepens the imagery of limitation and restriction for black lives in the poem. It dramatises the idea that the house is a prison, where there is no safety from the brutality of the warders (nightfall). In other words, the matchbox house cannot protect the black South African against their tormentors.

The penultimate stanza of the poem has four lines and reads: ‘I tremble at his crunching footsteps,/I quake at his deafening knock at the door./’Open up!’ he barks like a rabid dog/thirsty for my blood’. This stanza is imbued with a sense of the dramatic not only in the description of the murderers’ activities but also in the use of direct quotation in the expression ‘Open up!’. This stanza dramatises the fear of the black persona as his murderer draws near the house and knocks at the door. Simile is seen in the expression ‘he barks like a rabid dog’ which adds to the preponderance of animal imagery in the poem. The expression ‘thirsty for my blood’ conjures images of cannibalism earlier discussed in the poem. ‘Thirsty’ constitutes gustatory imagery while ‘blood’ exemplifies visual imagery. The context of this stanza and, indeed, the whole poem intertextualises with Lucky Dube’s ‘Crazy World’, a song that portrays the same theme of nightmarish nightlife for blacks in apartheid South Africa. Like ‘Crazy World’, ‘Nightfall in Soweto’ illustrates themes such as uncertainty and anxiety, fear and psychological torture, massacre of blacks, violence and trauma, as well as untimely death.

The final stanza of the poem is a quintet just like the first and reads: ‘Nightfall! Nightfall!’/You are my mortal enemy./But why were you ever created? Why can’t it be daytime?/Daytime forevermore?’ The whole of this stanza constitutes an apostrophe, an address to an absent entity done as if it is present and can respond. The stanza addresses nightfall in an apostrophic manner and goes on to declare it as his enemy. Nightfall, earlier personified in the poem, now represents all the dark or evil forces of existence, including the apartheid system. The persona makes use of rhetorical questions to bring the poem to a philosophic ending that keeps the reader thinking long afterwards. In these rhetorical queries, the persona wonders why such unjust and discriminatory systems as apartheid were created, meaning that they are human-entrenched systems. It would also take human beings to dismantle them and create a world where all peoples, irrespective of tribe, colour and country, could live together in peace and harmony.

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