Oswald Mtshali

Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali was born in Kwabhanya, which falls within what is now Kwazulu-Natal, in 1940. After completing secondary school he studied by correspondence, getting a diploma with the Premier School of Journalism and Authorship. 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. It is one of the best-selling poetry books in South African history. Although he wrote his poetry in the 1970s and 1980s, its focus on oppression and experiences of black life under racial capitalism means that it captures many dynamics which are central to how South Africa has historically worked. These were already well established before the formal arrival of Apartheid, and include systems of cheap migrant labour on farms and in mines, and white ownership of land and the economy.

Reapers in a Mieliefield

Poet: Oswald Mtshali

Questions

  1. What is a day like for the labourers in the poem? What is their work?
  2. Who are the characters in the poem?
  3. What are the power relations between them?
  4. What do we learn about the power relations between the characters from the imagery in the poem? For example, why is the image of the sun ‘lashing’ workers so appropriate?

The Miner

Poet: Oswald Mtshali

muzzle The open end of the barrel of a gun. bazooka A rocket launcher used against tanks.

Questions

  1. What is the miner’s day like?
  2. Does he seem to be free? What control does he have over his life and work?
  3. The speaker in the poem doesn’t describe the man’s work itself; he focuses on the man’s body.
    1. What is the man’s body like? What are the effects of work on his body?
    2. What does the man mean when he says, “I’m the brawn”?
    3. How does this link with the poem’s emphasis on the miner’s body?
    4. Who is the miner referring to at the end when he says, “You’re the brain”?
  4. Do you think there is a bigger point being made here about the role of the black working class? If so, what is it?

Going to Work

Poet: Oswald Mtshali

Questions

  1. What is the process of travelling to work like?
  2. Explain the image at the end of the poem.
    1. Who do you think Mr Jobstein and Mr de Wiel represent?
    2. What does the image say about the power relations between the miner, Jobstein, and de Wiel?

Questions on ‘Reapers in a Mieliefield’, ‘The Miner’ and ‘Going to Work’

  1. These poems are about low-wage labourers. Think about the various descriptions of the conditions under which they work. What issues are common to all of the poems? What different parts of racial capitalism do they show?
  2. Do you think these poems are good at showing the plight of the working class? Why?
  3. Do the people in the poems seem to be free? Can they make decisions for themselves? Refer to specific details in the poems in coming up with your answer.
  4. Look at the relationship between people and machines in the poems. Who has the power? Who or what do you think the machines represent?
  5. Which poem did you like the best? Why?