RRR Dhlomo

Rolfes Robert Reginald Dhlomo (1901–1971) was born in Siyamu, within what is today Kwazulu-Natal. He was a teacher, journalist and editor and he wrote in both isiZulu and English. One of his novels – An African Tragedy – was the first novel written in English by a Zulu writer. He wrote mostly about the history and leaders of the Zulus. He also wrote a number of short stories about the experiences of black mine workers on gold and diamond mines.

In ‘The Death of Masaba’, Dhlomo focuses on how racism and capitalism worked hand in hand during the early years of the South African economy. It is about a group of miners talking over the circumstances surrounding the severe injury and eventual death of a young miner, Masaba. It is a story that shows how mine bosses treated black miners as little more than units of labour to be used and then cast aside.

Be aware that this story displays a great deal of racism. Some of this is very obvious, as when it comes from the mouth of a white character. As you read, be on the lookout for examples of racism or paternalistic paternalistic A kind of racism which said that Africans should be treated as children who need to be looked after by Europeans. thinking which are less obvious. Sometimes they are included in the writer’s descriptions (not just what characters say) – an example is where Dhlomo speaks about the hard work miners did: “they did not mind it at all, for they had infinite trust in their masters”. He is being ironic here – saying one thing but meaning the opposite. There are plenty of examples like this one. Try to find as many as you can while reading.

The Death of Masaba

Author: RRR Dhlomo

‘Fellows, what do you think of this business of Masaba?’

‘Yes, just tell us what happened.’

‘Men, the boy is dying. I heard from Stimela, the boss-boy boss-boy Black supervisor. boys A racist way of speaking about black men. of the lashers, that Masaba fainted twice in the mine today. Stimela he ran to tell Boss Tom, who did not even want to listen to him, but only said: “Get away, there are lots of boys in the compound.”’

‘But what made Masaba faint in the mine?’

‘Well… I saw that there was a mistake in his ticket. It was not stamped ten days’ light underground work.’

The others they laughed when they heard the word ‘mistake’.

‘Clear out,’ they cried, ‘there is no mistake there! We old boys know well that if Masaba had been a white man there would have been no mistake. Didn’t Boss Tom say “there are lots of Kaffirs in the compound”? “If one dies,” meaning Masaba, “the Government will bring more.” He said that after Stimela had told him, “Masaba is fainting, he cannot lash.”’

want Poverty: a lack or absence of something. always-wise white people The author is being ironic here. ‘Irony’ is saying or writing one thing, but meaning the opposite. unacclimatised Not used to the conditions. dreary Depressing and bleak. sheer Very steep, nearly vertical.

The others were silent; each was busy with his own thoughts.

This affair was worrying their hearts a great deal. These men – they were sitting round a glowing bucket fire – had left their kraals for the mines, forced to do so by hunger and want. They left their homes knowing of the terrible accidents that occur below the surface of the mines. Their only hope was the always-wise white people would be true to them and treat them well: safeguard them from underground dangers, and work with them as people with equal feelings though their skins were black.

The working place where they were stationed was deep down on the 18th level. The heat on that level was terrible; so intense that unacclimatised boys were liable to get heatstroke. Behind them a yawning, dreary shaft threatened lives; while in front a naked, creaking rock rose sheer above them. From its grim, grim Gloomy and uninviting. muddy face trickled drops of dirty, poisonous water. Under these disabilities, with death everywhere beckoning, beckoning Calling or inviting. Boss Tom made them lash as though the Furies Furies In Greek Mythology the Furies were spirits of justice and vengeance. were after them. Here their half-naked bodies were bent unceasingly unceasingly Without break or pause. over the shovels. Even old lashing hands were seen staggering staggering To walk or move shakily, as if about to fall. under the heat, and through the pangs of hunger. As these were their daily lot in life, they did not mind it at all, for they had infinite trust in their masters.

But today, when they saw Masaba, the victim of callous callous Cruel and insensitive. indifference, yes Masaba, their young fellow countryman, who was not even supposed to be placed on the lashing gang, their hearts were filled with blood. The first incident happened when they were shovelling madly. Masaba suddenly dropped down … and fainted.

Boss Boy Stimela ran and told Boss Tom: ‘Nkosi, the boy Masaba has fainted. He can’t lash.’

Boss Tom was greatly surprised when he heard that a ‘Kaffir’ could not do the job for which he was solely created, the handling of the shovel. He said to Steamer: ‘What! Masaba can’t lash? A bloody Kaffir … can’t lash?’

‘I know, sir,’ replied Stimela, ‘that Masaba faints as soon as he stoops to lash. I think he’s not used to it yet.’

‘Oh, kick him, Steamer.’

Stimela was, however, one of those fast-dwindling dwindling Becoming smaller and smaller; shrinking; wasting away. Boss Boys who, instead of ‘waking up’ Masaba with a kick, according to orders, went to him and said, ‘Try and lash, boy. The Boss will hit you, say you’re loafing.’ loafing Slacking; being lazy or aimless.

Poor Masaba went and threw himself at his master’s feet.

‘Nkosi, I am not used to lashing yet. I get so tired, sir, and my head aches so. My eyes get clouded and misty when I stoop to lash, sir. I beg you, sir, my good Boss, my father, give me another job until I’m used to this job of lashing. I will work well, sir. I will do anything for you, Boss. But lashing kills me, Boss, please.’

ominously Suggesting that something bad is about to happen.

And he burst into tears, while his fellow workers muttered ominously under their breath. It is difficult for a boy and his Boss to come to a quick understanding down there. Because in the mine their language is different from ours. There their speech is made up of all those naked and revolting phrases that would shame the Prince of Darkness. Prince of Darkness Satan; the devil.

Still muttering amongst themselves, they said, ‘Masaba, isn’t your ticket stamped?’

‘I don’t know,’ sobbed Masaba. ‘This is my first time to work in the mine. I began work yesterday.’

‘Hey, what’s up there?’ bawled Boss Tom, drawing nearer. ‘If I get you talking again, Masaba, there’ll be hell for you.’

‘He is dying, sir,’ cried Stimela in a strained voice.

It was then that Boss Tom uttered words seemingly innocent in his thoughts, but to natives’ minds full of damning meanings. This thoughtless ganger ganger The leader of a gang of labourers. who did not know the working of a native’s mind said: ‘There are lots of Kaffirs in the compound!’

The boys having digested these words bent once more over their shovels.

A piercing cry stopped their labours. For, with a heartrending cry, Masaba fell with a sickening thud, knocking his head against a jagged piece of rock on the stope. stope A step in a mine. brooded To think deeply about something that makes one unhappy, angry, or worried. Without delay he was carried to the surface and from there was hurried to the hospital. When his fellow countrymen heard that Masaba was seriously ill, they brooded.

‘Lord Jesus, please save Masaba for his poor mother’s sake. She will be left alone in this world.’

The next day, as they were changing from their wet clothes, a mine police boy entered their room: ‘Er…er… Madoda, the manager said I should come to tell you that Masaba is dead.’

When an inquiry was held over the death of Masaba, it was found that Boss Tom was guilty. For he had caused a new boy to lash before putting him first on light underground work, as was the rule with new boys. Through his carelessness and indifference indifference Lack of interest, concern or empathy. he had caused the death of Masaba.

‘I say, fellows, if Masaba had died accidentally, it would not have mattered. But I hold that he was murdered. For his ticket was stamped: Not to be employed on lashing.’

Hau, didn’t you hear that Boss said to Stimela, “There are many Kaffirs in the compound”? Ho! Ho! You don’t know the white people!’

And they went out to dig Masaba’s grave.


  1. How does Boss Tom treat the black mine labourers? Does he treat them with dignity? Think about specific parts of the story in coming up with your answer.
  2. What does the story say about what life was like for these miners? What dangers did they face?
  3. Why did the miners in the story do this kind of work? How were they forced to sell their labour on the mines?
  4. The author uses sarcasm and irony when he describes miners putting their faith in white people, who he describes as ‘always-wise’. What point is he actually making?
  5. This story was written in 1929. Do you think it is still relevant today? How are some aspects of life and work in South Africa today the same as they were back then? How are they different?