Just a passerby by Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali analysis, literary devices, theme

Background of the poet

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

Mtshali worked 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 edited the nonfiction work Give Us a Break: Diaries of a Group of Soweto Children (1988).

Read also: Nightfall in Soweto by Owald Mbuyiseni Mtshali

JUST A PASSERBY by Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali

I saw them clobber him with kieries,
I heard him scream with pain
like a victim of slaughter
I smelt fresh blood gush
from his nostrils,
and flow on the street.

I walked into the church
and knelt in the pew
“Lord! I love you.
I also love my neighbour. Amen”

I came out
my heart as light as an angel’s kiss
on the cheek of a saintly soul.
Back home I strutted
past a crowd of onlookers.
Then she came in –
my woman neighbour:
“Have you heard? They’ve killed your brother.”
“O! No! I have heard nothing. I’ve been to church.”

Analysis/summary of Just a passerby by Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali

Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali’s “Just a Passerby” is an eighteen – line poem that portrayed the gory imagery of apartheid in South Africa. Though “Just a Passerby” is pointedly ironic and sarcastic, the poet – speaker recounts what he witnesses in the street of South Africa which has, for years, been a daily experience of the blacks. The poet – speaker, perhaps on a Sunday morning, is apparently making his way to the church, paying no absolute attention to anyone. Being a black person, he knows how problematic and horrible it is to look at the white on the street. They may call him and enquire to know the reason he stares at them. And if no perfect answer is not given, it may lead to beating. He knows also how apartheid regime has led to the murder, starvation and homelessness of the blacks.

Consequently he walks slowly, and just almost approaching the church, he sees a group of white cruelly clobbering a black man with kieries. The white clobbering the black to death is usual and repeating phenomena; therefore, he cannot give way to the temptation of looking and thus attracts battering to himself. He keeps walking. Then something makes him to stop: it is the familiar voice of the clobbered victim’s. He hears the victim screams with pain. The fear of apartheid flees immediately from him. He stands momentarily and gazes at the scene. The familiar voice; yes, it is his brother’s. What he sees happening to his brother is horrible and pathetic. He narrates:

I smelt fresh blood gush

from his nostrils,

and flow on the street.

He could not bear the gory scene and he instantaneously walks into the church, his heart beating rapidly in rage. The image is extremely fresh in his mind as he kneels in the pew. His lips trembles in anger but then the biblical verse that says thou shall love your neighbour as yourself comes emotionally to him. He finds himself saying:

“Lord! I love you

I also love my neighbour. Amen”

He storms out of the church at the end of the church service. He feels the strong anger to take revenge abating.

I came out

my heart as light as the angel’s kiss

He struts home, passes a mournful “crowd onlookers” who are entirely blacks. They are the one that carried the body home. He barges into the house, and not long his “woman neighbour” comes in. Her facial expression indicates something is amiss. He can conjecture at this point what brings her suddenly into his house. But he has to wait for her to say it anyway. He listens closely as she says:

“Have you heard? They’ve killed your brother.”

He replies, putting all emotional effort not to give way to the rising anger in him. But to do this, he has to lie:

“O! No! I heard nothing. I’ve been to church.”

Literary Devices in Just a passerby


The use of the word “brother” symbolizes the entire blacks in South Africa. Thus, the clobbering of the poet’s brother signifies the bitter experience of the blacks and what it horribly means to be black in an apartheid society. The poet’s saying of “I love also my neighbour” is a biblical allusion which delineates that love ought to exist between the black and white.


The most notable themes in Oswald’s “Just a passerby” are apartheid, inhumanity, murder and helplessness of the black in a society where one is adjudged by his or her skin.


Oswald uses words that simple and easy to understand. The poem is a chronicle of what the poet’s experience in his society. He therefore employs straightforward words that require no deep poetic reflection before the meaning will be understood.


Repeated words for emphasis in “Just a passerby” are:

“I” – line 1, 2, 3, 7, 9, 10, 11, 14 and 19.

“Love” – line 9 and 10.

“him” – line 1 and 2.


“like a victim of slaughter” – line 3.

“as light as an angel’s kiss” – line 12.

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