Nightfall in Soweto by Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali

Nightfall in soweto by oswald mbuyiseni mtshali
Nightfall in soweto by oswald mbuyiseni mtshali

NIGHTFALL IN SOWETO by Oswald Mbuyiseni

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About Author

Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali, (born 1940, Vryheid, Natal, South Africa), South African poet who wrote in English and Zulu and whose work formed strongly upon the direct experience of life in the Johannesburg township of Soweto.

Mtshali served as a messenger before his first collection of poems, Sounds of a Cowhide Drum (1971), won the Olive Schreiner Prize for 1974. After studying in the United States at the University of Iowa and Columbia University (New York), Mtshali returned to South Africa in 1979 and taught at a private school in Soweto. His second volume of poems, Fireflames (1980), was banned by the South African government because it was dedicated to the schoolchildren of Soweto, an obvious reference to the uprising there in 1976. Mtshali later updated the nonfiction work Give Us a Break: Diaries of a Group of Soweto Children (1988).

Mtshali’s poetry inevitably reflects his harsh experiences under the apartheid regime. He observes with a bitter and sardonic eye the grimy beer halls, the crowded trains, the slum housing, and the harsh working conditions that make up the lot of black Africans in South Africa. His bitterness finds emotion in brilliantly controlled lines etched with an acid irony. Mtshali’s poetry is remarkable for its evocative imagery, and his confident and unexpected similes have a rich emotional impact.

Nightfall comes like
a dreaded disease
seeping through the pores
of a healthy body
and ravaging it beyond repair

A murderer’s hand,
lurking in the shadows,
clasping the dagger,
strikes down the helpless victim.

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.

Man has ceased to be man
Man has become beast
Man has become prey.

I am the prey;
I am the quarry to be run down
by the marauding beast
let loose by cruel nightfall
from his cage of death.

Where is my refuge?
Where am I safe?
Not in my matchbox house
Where I barricade myself against nightfall.

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.

Nightfall! Nightfall!
You are my mortal enemy.
But why were you ever created?
Why can’t it be daytime?
Daytime forever more?

Analysis of Nightfall in Soweto by Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali

1. Glossary

Nightfall 🙁 noun) the close of the day; the coming of night.

Dreaded 🙁 adjective) Causing fear or terror

Lurking 🙁 present participle deriving from the verb to lurk, which means to move or wait quietly as if planning to do something wrong and not wanting to be seen. Clasping 🙁 present participle of clasp)(transitive) it is derived from to “clap” which means to take and /or hold firmly aside your hands or arms.

Dagger 🙁 noun) (weapon) A stabbing weapon, similar to a sword but with a short, double-edged blade.

Gnawing 🙁 present participle of gnaw) means to cause pain or bite something persistently especially in a small but continuous way.

Languish 🙁 intransitive verb) (intransitive) to encounter long-suffering

Quarry 🙁 noun) the person or animal that one is hunting or chasing.

Crunching: is derived from the verb to crunch which means to make a noise like the sound of something being crushed.

Quake 🙁 noun) A trembling or shaking.

Deafening 🙁 adjective) loud enough to cause temporary or permanent hearing loss

Rabid: (adjective) Affected with rabies. Furious, raging, extremely violent .


The speaker clamours against the treatment of the South African Blacks in Soweto at nightfall. Nightfall in Soweto symbolizes terror. It is the beginning of the insecurity, fear and violence that go on all night long. This poem has as the background the Apartheid system in South Africa.

It has as a setting Soweto. It depicts the agony and dangers the people of Soweto face in the night. It also portrays the inhuman treatments the Black people in South Africa are subjected to in the hand of the white police who is regarded as the agent of pain, oppression, vengeance, killings and all forms of evils.

The poem opens with a comparison. In actual fact, the coming of the nightfall is correlated with that of the dreaded disease affecting the body in a harmful way and damaging it beyond repair. As for the second stanza, the speaker regrets strongly the morally bad crimes committed in the night. Obviously, the white police hide in the shelter of darkness with different dangerous weapons to kill innocent defenceless people. Night is likened to a damaging disease in the way that the white policeman catches some helpless, frustrated Blacks.

In the third stanza, the speaker introduces himself as a victim who is cruelly killed every night in the streets. So the speaker stands for every black person who is mercilessly killed in every street of Soweto. That is why the word “streets” is in the plural.

All in all, “I and the victim” (line 10) symbolizes the sufferings of the totality of the Blacks in Soweto and other areas where the blacks are heavily dominated by the whites. The fourth stanza describes the inhumanities and offences done on man every night. That is why the speaker denounces the fact that man has stopped to be man, and that he has become beast a prey.

Man has ceased to be man

Man has become a beast

Man has become prey (Lines 16, 17, 18)

The above-mentioned lines indicate that man has stopped to be a man because he is hunted down by the agents of the apartheid system that are designed by a beast. These agents are the policemen who are on their nights round to the blacks so as to give a good hiding to them. That is why the blacks are now afraid and frightened. The black man has become unmanly. He has ceased being humane, accommodating and friendly. He has sadly transformed into the victim or the prey of the cruel white men.

The fifth verse goes on repeating the image of the savage beast and its prey or quarry. The speaker shows how the quarry is constantly treated cruelly in the night. The oppressive and inhuman machinery and agents of the apartheid system are at work at night to terrorize the black people. The apartheid system and its evil agents are the marauding beasts hunting black South Africans as quarries.

In the sixth stanza, the victim asks several rhetorical questions to show how dejected he is. That is why he cries out in pain. The speaker also tells the reader about the worrying experiences he encounters during nightfall. He says that the trembles on hearing the footsteps of the police and the deafening knock at the door.

All in all for the black in South Africa during the Apartheid system, nights stand for troubles for the innocent. The black then wonder why night has been created at all if it should be full of risks and danger for them. It is with this lament on the night that the poem ends.

2. Themes in the poem

The poem focuses on the theme of the destruction of human lives. It is also concerned with the looting of mother earth.

 “I am the quarry to be run down

By the marauding beast

Let loose by cruel nightfall

From his cage of death. (Lines 20-23)” This shows the destruction that the colonizers brought to the blacks’ life.

Fear and insecurity are found in the following passages;

“I am cornered by the fear

 Gnawing at my timid heart;

 In my helplessness, I languish “(line 13-15) the speaker shows how he fears when it is nightfall, he is helpless and terrified because of the situation he is undergoing. Lines 24 up to 29 are the illustrations of insecurity and fear where the speaker shows how he is living under pressure and he is not feeling at ease even when he is inside his house. All his life is unsecured and all what he feels is fear “Where is my refuge?

 Where am I safe?

Not in my matchbox house

 Where I barricade myself against nightfall.

 I tremble at his crunching footsteps;

 I quake at his deafening knock at the door “.The speaker doesn’t have a refuge. He has nobody to help him. All his life is characterized by fear and insecurity.

All in all, the poem is a very strong weeping or deep sorrow about the destruction and the looting.

The mood of the poem is very sad and its tone is unpleasant.

3. Literary devices

The poet makes use of several literary devices to achieve his artistic creation. It is a matter of irony, apostrophe, simile, rhetorical questions, repetitions and personification.

As far as irony is concerned, it is ironic that night which is regarded as a time to rest, relax and renew one’s energy happens to be the most dreaded time in Soweto. Night, which is ordinarily quiet and calm, turns out to be ironically cruel and unsafe as it is the case in the poem being studied.

Apostrophe is found in the last stanza. In the following lines in which the speaker exclaims,

Nightfall! Nightfall!

                        You are my enemy

The rhetorical question is found in the following lines:

Where is my refuge?

                        Where am I safe?

                        Why were you ever created?

Simile is present in stanza 1 lines 1 and 2 and in stanza 6 inline 2. They are:

Nightfall comes like a dreaded disease

                        He barks like a rabid dog

There is also repetition of “man” and “nightfall”. There is the parallelism of “I am” and where. And finally, there is a personification of nightfall. Nightfall is personified as a dangerous creature who comes like a dreaded disease. So, nightfall is given the quality of the human being.


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