Translation as Literary Reconciliation: Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali’s Sounds of a Cowhide Drum / Imisindo Yesigubhu Sesikhumba Senkomo

The 1995 South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) intended to “provide a forum for both victims and perpetrators [of apartheid] to share their stories and bear witness to historical harms and injustices in an open, public forum” (Gaertner 446). The terms and expectations for the TRC’s notion of reconciliation, however, do not account for the lasting effects of the legacy of apartheid on contemporary South Africans. More specifically, the TRC does not account for socio-political and cultural reconciliation beyond the proposed reconciliation of the individual victim and perpetrator. It instead provides a temporary but ultimately insufficient method of healing dependent on the closure of a past that cannot and should not be put to rest so easily. How do we navigate the daily experience in a country that has and continues to experience national trauma? More specifically, how do we begin to approach the divide between self and nation, between self and history through literature?

It was overcast on August 14, 2018 when I stood with my tour group on Queen Victoria Street in Cape Town, at the doors of the Cape High Court where the Population Registration Act of 1950 classified, registered, and distributed subjective citizenship rights to individuals based on how “white” they appeared. There are two benches that sit on either side of the doors to the court. Written across the top of one are the words: “Whites Only.” On the other: “Non-Whites Only.” I recalled anti-apartheid Soweto poet Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali’s barbed wit in his poem “Pigeons at the Oppenheimer Park”:

“Every day I see these insolent birds perched / on ‘Whites Only’ benches, defying all authority. / Don’t they know of the Separate Amenities Act?” (4-6).

The benches are a nod to the narrative of apartheid that threads through this country, an insidious reminder of the very human brutality that pervaded this place until only two decades ago. Atrocity, history, and trauma contained within two monuments, to be witnessed and to be swiftly forgotten by the passerby. My tour guide reminds us that South Africa has greatly improved since then. She recalls Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s desire for the creation of the concept of “the rainbow nation,” the united country that post-apartheid South Africa would and has become. I did not necessarily agree with her sentiments. How am I, a South African emigrant, to encounter prescribed notions of national identity in a politically and socially unstable space from which I have severed myself when reconciliation, both personal and national, seems unfathomably distant?

I thought of Mtshali and other anti-apartheid poets, of Keorapetse Kgositsile (“No Serenity Here”), Mongane Serote (“Child of the Song” [1975]; “When Lights Go Out [1975]), and Sipho Sepalma (“A Child Dies [1977]; “Measure for Measure” [1977]). I thought of their manipulation of poetry as a mechanism of translating protest, defiance, and healing, and how within their works I had often found an understanding of the stakes of the survival and empowerment of the oppressed written voice in the predominantly white literary environment of apartheid South Africa. What of a literary reconciliation, then? I thought, staring at the benches on Queen Victoria Street. Could socio-political and cultural reconciliation be translated – if it can be translated at all – within a literary forum? While the TRC acknowledges that the past has “the uncanny habit of returning to haunt one” (South Africa 7), it does not account for the extent to which the past would come to haunt post-apartheid and contemporary South Africa, nor does it provide adequate methods of reconciliation beyond confession and contrition. Reconciliation depends on the acknowledgement of the denial of language, of the voice of the oppressed minority under the silencing regime of apartheid, and how language and voice are appropriately translated within the framework of the very term “reconciliation.” This observation brings into question how we may consider literary translation as reparation, how to bridge the gap between self and history, self and nationhood through the political, sociocultural, and linguistic recontextualisation of earlier anti-apartheid works that sought to do the same. Mtshali’s 2012 isiZulu translation of his 1971 English collection of anti-apartheid poems, Sounds of a Cowhide Drum / Imisindo Yesigubhu Sesikhumba Senkomo, offers a hopeful start.

Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali is a renowned anti-apartheid Soweto poet whose first collection of poetry, Sounds of a Cowhide Drum (1971), and its triumphant reception spearheaded his success as one of the first published black South African poets and his later canonisation as a vital anti-apartheid black poet in South African literary history. In 2012, Mtshali re-issued his collection under the name Sounds of a Cowhide Drum / Imisindo Yesigubhu Sesikhumba Senkomo, in which his original English poems from 1971 are presented alongside his new isiZulu translations. Mtshali’s isiZulu translation of his first collection – the publication and circulation of which largely depended upon being written in English – critically situates itself within a multilingual, multicultural, socio-politically-aware contemporary South Africa, recalling and laying bare the daily traumas he experienced and sought to navigate during apartheid in poetic form. However, by deliberately privileging the contemporary isiZulu-speaking audience in his new translation, Mtshali engages in a practice of the translation and recontextualisation of Soweto poetry by black anti-apartheid poets into the political, sociocultural, and linguistic circumstances in which they were first produced while simultaneously taking into account new, but haunted, audiences attempting to navigate their own iterations of the past bleeding into the present, thereby challenging while necessarily acknowledging his works’ initial English contextualisation.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o makes the poignant argument that “the choice of language and the use to which language is put is central to a people’s definition of themselves in relation to their natural and social environment, indeed in relation to the entire universe” (4). Following this statement, Mtshali’s choice to return to isiZulu, to privilege a language systematically oppressed and rigidly controlled by the language of imperialism and enslavement, is central to his redefinition as a poet unconstrained technically, politically, and socio-culturally by the English literary authority that dictated the manner and success of his work. Reconciliation, then, becomes recognition and empowerment through the recontextualisation of narratives previously subject to the norms and canons of white English and Afrikaans literary practices to those that respond to the needs of the black anti-apartheid poet and to those of the contemporary South African. Mtshali offers a framework by which we may construct a dialogue of literary reconciliation in South Africa for those who experienced apartheid and for those who have inherited the legacy and residual posttraumatic memory of an unforgiving past. If done ethically and in an informed but critical manner, translation of anti-apartheid texts such as Mtshali’s has the capacity to be used as a tool of protest and healing, of remembrance and reparation. Reconciliation in this form does not dictate the TRC’s depiction of nationhood as the product of blind forgiveness and an inefficient balm on a still-open wound, but one that offers national harmony as an acknowledgement of the necessary cohabitation of past memory and current movement, of protest and of peace through literary translation. History refuses to be subdued and demands reparation beyond containment in monuments, in benches, in tour guides. It cries for translation, for ethical recontextualisation, for recognition.

History refuses to be subdued and demands reparation beyond containment in monuments, in benches, in tour guides. It cries for translation, for ethical recontextualisation, for recognition.

Aiden is an English Honours (Literature) and art history minor student at UBC. A disgruntled horror writer and local cryptid, they are frequently found arguing about paranormal podcasts in darkened cafés and frightening baristas with their high tolerance for caffeine and regret. Can and will get into a fist fight with Shakespeare in the presumed afterlife.

Works cited

Gaertner, David. “20 October 2008: Translating Reconciliation.” Translation Effects: The Shaping of Modern Canadian Culture, edited by Kathy Mezei, Luise Von Flotow, Sherry Simon, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014, pp. 444-57.

Mtshali, Oswald Mbuyiseni. “Pigeons at Oppenheimer Park.” Poetry International Web,

Ngugi, wa Thiong’o. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Literary Collections, 1986.

South Africa, Parliament of South Africa. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report: Volume One. Government Printing Works, 1993.


Tait, Aiden. Photograph of a Protea. 14 Aug. 2018. Author’s personal collection.
Tait, Aiden. Photograph of a Bench on Queen Victoria Street. 14 Aug. 2018. Author’s personal collection.
Tait, Aiden. Photograph of Alley in Bo Kaap. 14 Aug. 2018. Author’s personal collection.
Tait, Aiden. Photograph of Table Mountain from Highway. 8 Aug. 2018. Author’s personal collection.

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