“Honest writers write what they see, experience, live.”
Forty one years ago, Songs of the Cowhide Drum was published. This book, a humble collection of poetry, would become the key that would open doors for the writer, Oswald Mtshali. Liberal white South Africa was in awe – a messenger boy could write great poetry. Black South Africa, his contemporaries, were not so sure about him.
“You know I’m very thick skinned. They [the reviews] were relevant because they were showing me different aspects of life in SA. [They] looked at [the collection] from their own perspective,” says Mtshali calmly.
The criticism gave him clarification, something he seemed to appreciate but wasn’t blind to. “[There] were liberals who were fascinated by this black messenger not even having a university degree writing by candlelight.” Mtshali was well aware of the fact that to white South Africa he was “a curiosity more than anything else.”
In the short 1973 essay, Mtshali on Mtshali, he reflected extensively on how he felt about the mixed reviews:
“I was innocently and genuinely employed as a ’messenger.’ This was seized upon, glamorised, romanticised and, presto, I became an underprivileged black who was ‘gifted’… I am not a Liberal, Nationalist or Progressive but a black who tried to articulate the daily hopes and disappointments of his life.”¹
Mtshali found some of the reviews by white critics patronising and even believed that some white readers bought his collection as a way of soothing their consciences. This is not to say however that none of them genuinely enjoyed his work.
Black youth felt that he lacked “revolutionary fire”. There are those who thought it was a “liberal thing”, particularly because he was published by Lionel Abrahams. “He’s not radical enough, he doesn’t articulate the black consciousness perspective enough.” Mtshali reflects not really taking the criticism personally, “I write exactly as I see life, I am not going to be swayed or influence by people.”
He left them to their opinions and focussed on articulating life “as I go through it on a day to day basis, because that’s what I think poetry, or art expression is about.” Though his work was seen as “platitudinous” by some radicals, there was no way for Mtshali to be oblivious to the politics of the era. He was also greatly influenced by Black Consciousness and felt it was an important period in black South Africa because writers, artists began to articulate pride, black pride, in their creative work. He tributes his political awareness to his older brother who had been an activist. His brother had left South Africa to study in Roma, Lesotho in 1961 and because he was involved in politics he was never able to come back to South Africa. His family would never see him again but they maintained contact through letters. Mtshali always received encouragement from his brother in this way. His reflection on life was always aware of the politics of the day without being radical as shown in the poem, Always a Suspect.
“I trudge the city pavements
side by side with ‘madam’
who shifts her handbag
from my side to the other,
and looks at me with eyes that say
‘Ha! Ha! I know who you are;
beneath those fine clothes
ticks the heart of a thief.”
Coming from rural beginnings, from a ‘black spot’² called Kwabhanya, Mtshali remembers seeing the home that he grew up, being razed to the ground. The garden they had planted. The peach trees were destroyed. All razed to the ground by apartheid bulldozers. This is one of the traumatic experiences that informed his writing.
“I remember they were saying, run to those rascals in Rivonia, let them help you and see how far they can help you.” Mtshali recalls the apartheid agents saying to him and his family. The forced removal had been timed to take place when the leaders of the ANC were facing treason charges in Johannesburg. His memory remains sharp even though he’s in his early seventies.
The “gifted” messenger boy, Mtshali had a thirst for education. Mtshali began writing in boarding school to “impress girls”. Writing was a way of keeping record of his own thoughts and feelings. “I was already ‘twittering’ and updating my Facebook status,” he says with a chuckle. Through the support and encouragement of his teachers and his parents, who were also teachers, Mtshali kept writing.
He came to Johannesburg after Matric to study towards being a social worker. This dream was thwarted by the apartheid laws that prevented Wits University from accepting black students. That’s how he ended up a messenger boy.
Before publishing, Mtshali had never really shared his poetry with anyone. After all, in those years a black man had other concerns other than sharing poetry. After being rejected by Wits, he had to make a living for his young family. After a long day at work, Mtshali work stay up late into the night, writing by candlelight.
Circa 1967, he saw a newspaper announcement from Lionel Abrahams reflecting on the fact that he hadn’t received any contributions from black writers for his new journal, Purple Renoster. Mtshali saw this as a challenge and wrote in to say that he had tons of poems that he could share. This would be the start of a relationship that Mtshali always appreciated. He credits Lionel Abrahams for having helped him not just by publishing his work but by “stress[ing] the importance of poetry and [teaching him] how to ‘break the line’, without mutilating the thought.”
Abrahams saw the potential and working together regularly they would work on Mtshali’s poetry till there was enough for a book. Song’s of the Cowhide Drum came out with a bang, trouncing poetry sale records that many in South African don’t see even today. In 1973, he had already sold 11000³ and was on the reading lists of several universities.
The success of this book, did not make him rich, but it encouraged him to submit to other publications such as New Coin and Quarry. Most importantly the success of the book, allowed Mtshali access to an education he had always craved. When Mtshali received an offer to be part of an International writers’ programme at the University of Iowa, the apartheid government would make it difficult for him to get a passport. His dream to study, was almost lost but when he was invited to Poetry International in London, he would receive a visa only if he signed a document promising to come back to South Africa. He considered not coming back, was even advised not to come back. But he had a young family. He came back, this would benefit him later when the government finally gave him an open visa allowing him to go and study in Iowa.
“My thirst for education would lead me to sacrifice everything,” he tells me. “The chance to study and become a better person,” would cost him his first marriage. He has no regrets, however. He went on to earn his BA and later a Masters in Education. With that, he would come back to teach in South Africa.
He returned in the 1980s, persuaded by Johnny Makhathini of the ANC who told him South African needed educated South Africans to return home and set up structures, especially in education. Pace College in Soweto is part of Mtshali’s legacy as an educator. It’s perhaps the cherry on top of his legacy. He beams and gets excited when he remembers going door to door, as the vice-principal, to find students for the new school. “I can count [a] top banker among my old students. The top banker used to work in a coal yard as a 13 year old but he wanted to learn, he wanted to get out of where he was.” He says he is now seeing the fruits of his labour because many of his students have since become prominent South Africans in business, government, law and other sectors.
He has written, plays, essays and published two collections of poetry. He studied journalism, literature and education. He has taught and inspired us for over thirty years. Now retired and living in his beautiful home in Pimville, Mtshali still writes but not as much as he used to when he was younger. He’s now moving to express himself for the first time in isiZulu. This is something that he thinks shows growth because he has always written in English. It is only now in his later years that he’s starting to translate his works into isiZulu. At the 2011 Poetry Africa he recited his poem Ode to Mandela in English and isiZulu.
Hearing the poem in English and Zulu reveals the magnificent quality of Zulu poetry that goes unnoticed because many Zulu writers aren’t in the mainstream. There was just something thrilling about the rising and falling rhythm of words in Zulu poetry that revealed itself in how he performed it on stage – more animated compared to the English version. He reveals that he’s currently translating Sounds of the Cowhide Drum into Zulu. He hopes to complete that work soon and send it to a publisher.
He says he’s turned off by publishers that are only interested in money because he doesn’t want to be motivated by money. It hinders his writing process if he has to focus on making money. For him, having been unsure of teaching or becoming a writer wasn’t about worrying about getting paid. He reflects that he’s not a millionaire but he is somebody. His experiences and legacy are more important to him. So it seems that he no longer minds losing the “obscurity of being a nonentity” that he used to enjoy before his first book of poetry.
Mtshali busies himself with translating his work into Zulu, with an epic poem and most importantly with his family – his children and grandchildren. And occasionally coming out of retirement to grace the stage and enthral us with his poetry and great smile. He still feels like his work is not done. He still finds great fulfilment in being part of workshops as he was during Poetry Africa and talking to young people about the life of a writer. He says that one has only two important dates in their lives – the day you are born and the day you day. “In between there’s a big chasm there. You fill it up goodies or you fill up with garbage. I try to fill up my space with as much goodies as possible. My goodies are poems or whatever I’ve written.”
He’s no longer in the spotlight and he seems content. His legacy will never be forgotten. Some poets burn with a ‘revolutionary fire’ and enter the mainstream, others like Oswald Mtshali enter our collective psyches without making too much noise. Their words stay there, the imagery turn our eyes on to an everyday life we no longer see.
“I shuffle in the queue
with feet that patter
on the station platform.
and stumble into the coach
that squeezes me like a lemon
of all the juice of my life.”
~ The Song of Sunrise
Mtshali still has many stories to tell, all we have to do is listen, “It’s important to say I’m writing for the love of poetry, the love of the written word and I’m enjoying every moment of that.”
¹ Mtshali on Mtshali, Bolt No 7, March 1973 as reproduced in Soweto Poetry: literary perspectives, edited by Michael Chapman
² a black spot is a political term used to describe residential areas that were occupied by black people or mixed races and were considered unsavoury. The Group Areas Act dealt with such areas – Sophiatown, District 6 being the most famously known.
³ editors note in Bolt no. 7, March 1973