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Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali

An Abandoned Bundle

More challenging questions!

Keith Tankard
Updated: 18 January 2014
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The poet describes the obscene conditions of living in White City Jabavu. Almost as a metaphor to life there, he sees a group of scavenging dogs ripping apart the corpse of a baby which had been dumped. In the meantime, the baby's mother continues with her life without even a care for what she has done.


Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali was born in Vryheid (Natal) in 1940, where he grew up and completed his schooling.

He desired thereupon to attend Wits University but was unable to do so because the Apartheid laws forbade Black people studying at "White" institutions except under exceptional circumstances.

Instead, he travelled to the United States where he attended Columbia University, graduating with a Masters degree in Creative Writing and Education.

On his return to South Africa, he completed his first volume of poetry which he called Sounds of a Cowhide Drum. It was published in 1971 and had a dramatic impact because it was the first major work by a Black poet in South Africa.

It was also eagerly studied by liberal White South Africans who were anxious to read poetry from their Black brothers. The anthology, however, was criticised by fellow Black poets on the grounds that it was too conservative and not at all militant.

When Mtshali published Fireflames in 1980, he had responded to his critics. Indeed, this second anthology tended to foster open rebellion, being partially inspired by the Soweto youth uprisings of 1976.

After this second anthology, Mtshali settled down as an educator, first at Pace College in Soweto where he became vice-principal, and then at the New York City College of Technology where he became an Adjunct Professor, teaching African folklore and modern African history.

In 1971 Mtshali was honoured with South Africa's Olive Schreiner Poetry Prize. In 1973 he was awarded the Poetry International Award in London.

"An Abandoned Bundle" is characterised by graphic imagery of appalling savagery. The images are meant to shock.

Indeed, the very powerful visual impact instills in the reader a strong feeling of disgust for the dreadful conditions under which the people of White City Jabavu lived.

Or is the poet commenting on the people in general who are living under the apartheid regime?

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

"The morning mist
and chimney smoke
of White City Jabavu
flowed thick yellow
as pus oozing
from a gigantic sore."
  • Comment on the most graphic imagery used in these lines. (6)

[Need help?]

"It smothered our little houses
like fish caught in a net."
  • In what way could the little houses be said to be smothered "like fish caught in a net"? (4)

[Need help?]

"I threw a brick;
they bared fangs
flicked velvet tongues of scarlet
and scurried away,
leaving a mutilated corpse --
an infant dumped on a rubbish heap."
  • What is the implication of the expression "bared fangs"? (2)

[Need help?]

  • Why does the poet use the word "fangs" rather than "teeth"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • What figure of speech is found in "velvet tongues of scarlet"? (1)

[Need help?]

  • Why does the poet use this image? (2)

[Need help?]

  • What do the words "leaving a mutilated corpse" tell you about the state of the bundle? (4)

[Need help?]

" 'Oh! Baby in the Manger
sleep well
on human dung.' "
  • What do the words "on human dung" suggest about the social circumstances of White City Jabavu? (4)

[Need help?]

"Its mother
had melted into the rays of the rising sun,
her face glittering with innocence
her heart as pure as untrampled dew."
  • What does the mother feel about having abandoned the bundle? Provide TWO quotes to substantiate your answer. (4)

[Need help?]

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