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Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali

The Birth of Shaka

Easy questions to cut your teeth on!

Keith Tankard
Updated: 22 January 2014
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The poet examines the birth of Shaka in an epic fashion, seeing aspects of his birth as revealing powerful omens for the future king.


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 prestigious Olive Schreiner Poetry Prize. In 1973 he was awarded the Poetry International Award in London.

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

"His baby cry
was of a cub
tearing the neck
of the lioness
because he was fatherless."
  • What is a metaphor? Identify the metaphor in this stanza and explain what it is that is being compared to what? (4)

[Need help?]

  • What word tells us of the savage nature of the baby's first cry? (1)

[Need help?]

  • Who would the "lioness" represent? (1)

[Need help?]

  • How would the newborn Shaka know that he was fatherless? (2)

[Need help?]

"The gods
boiled his blood."
  • What is the significance of the gods having "boiled his blood"? (2)

[Need help?]

"Ancestors forged
his muscles . . . and nerves."
  • What is the purpose of the poet's reference to the ancestors? (2)

[Need help?]

"His eyes were lanterns
that shone from the dark valleys of Zululand
to see white swallows
coming across the sea."
  • What is the significance of comparing Shaka's eyes to lanterns? (2)

[Need help?]

  • What are the "white swallows"? Why has the poet used the metaphor "swallows". (4)

[Need help?]

  • Is "white swallows" a derogatory or insulting phrase? (4)

[Need help?]

"Lo! you can kill me
but you'll never rule this land!"
  • What is the historical significance of the words "you'll never rule this land!"? (4)

[Need help?]

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