South Africa: Men in Chains | Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali

The train stopped

at a country station.

Through sleep curtained eyes

I peered through the frosty window,

and saw six men:

men shorn

of all human honour

like sheep after shearing,

bleating at the blistering wind,

‘Go away! Cold wind! Go away!

Can’t you see we are naked?’

They hobbled into the train

on bare feet,

wrists handcuffed,

ankles manacled

with steel rings like cattle at the abattoirs

shying away from the trapdoor.

One man with a head

shaven clean as a potato

whispered to the rising sun,

a red eye wiped by a tattered

handkerchief of clouds,

‘Oh! Dear Sun!

Won’t you warm my heart

with hope?’

The train went on its way to nowhere.

 

Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali was born in KwaZulu-Natal in 1940. Apartheid legislation prevented his enrolment in University after he finished secondary school, 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 his first collection, Sounds of a Cowhide Drum. Published in 1971, this book went on to become the best-selling poetry book in South African history.

Following the his successful debut, Mtshali studied 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. 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.

A Simple Lust By Dennis Brutus

Born in 1924 in Salisbury to South African parents, Brutus is best known for his protest poetry which challenged the South African apartheid while celebrating freedoms all men ought to have. He was instrumental in the exclusion of South Africa and Rhodesia from the 1964 Olympics on the grounds of racism. His activism led to his being banned from all political and social activity and in 1973 he was arrested but escaped while on bail. He was later re-arrested and sentenced to eighteen months in prison. He spent those months on Robben Island, in a cell next to Nelson Mandela. Described as “A fearless campaigner for justice, a relentless organizer, an incorrigible romantic, and a great humanist and teacher,” Brutus died on 26 December 2009, at his home in Cape Town, South Africa.

584232-2A Simple Lust is a beautiful collection of Brutus’ poems during his time as a political prisoner and exile traveling the world unable to return to South Africa. Brutus captures the alternating awareness of limitations and challenges such restrictions in his poems about the land of South Africa, “A troubadour I traverse all my land… and I have laughed, disdaining those who banned/ inquiry and movement…choosing, like an unarmed thumb, simply to stand…” (2)

And stand he does, in his resistance to the forces of oppression and his insistence on delimiting the land as his, he captures the emotional gamut of black and colored South Africans, from the desire to fight for freedom, “Sharpevilled to spearpoints for revenging…” (9) to a simple resolute appreciation for just surviving, “Somehow we survive,/ and tenderness, frustrated, does not wither” (4).

Little can match  the well of understanding and emotion Brutus deftly disperses throughout A Simple Lust, yet his writing style and keen sense of observation elevate the reader’s experience even more. Brutus does to words what Achebe did to African Literature, he expands our appreciation of them. With words such as ‘air-live,’ ‘harsh-joy,’ ‘lovelaughter,’ he pushes their limitations past meaning into feeling.

A Simple Lust takes the reader from the darting eyes of a prisoner in his cell describing the effects of confinement on the psyche, to desolate beaches in Algiers, through the sorrowed longings of a wife separated from her husband, presenting cold reflections on ‘Amerika…the home of the brave’ (144), and on. Brutus welcomes the reader into a lush, experienced, understanding of oppression and resistance. More importantly, it offers a profound sense of what it means to carry joy as hope and to, as Brutus, reject desolation as the only reality.

“Peace will come./ We have the power/ the hope/ the resolution./ Men will go home.” (96)

A Simple Lust by Dennis Brutus

African Writers Series | 1979 | ISBN: 0 435 90115 X | HEB 115