Nightfall in Soweto by Oswald Mtshali poem analysis, themes, literary devices

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).

Nightfall in Soweto

Nightfall in Soweto by Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali

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 & summary of Nightfall in Soweto by Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali

Nightfall in Soweto is a thirty six – line poem written by Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali. Oswald Mbuyiseni’s “Nightfall in Soweto” portrays the horrified image of night. The poem is deeply symbolic as it explicitly projects apartheid in South Africa.

In the first stanza of the poem, nightfall is depicted similarly to “a dreaded disease” which surged painfully “through the pores” of a healthy body and then ravages “it beyond repair.”

The image of horror which accompanied nightfall is conjured up in stanza two, which is, nightfall comes with all manifestations of evil. Oswald Mtshali avers that it is in the night a murderer hides “in the shadow” with dagger and “strikes down the helpless victim.” Oswald Mtshali then admits in stanza three that he is a victim of nightfall in Soweto where blacks are treated with absolute disgust. His existence fades (slaughter, line 11) among the white in the streets; thus, he lives with “the fear” which gnaws at his “timid heart” and makes him completely helpless.

Read also: Boy on a Swing by Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali

In stanza four, Oswald Mtshali discloses that due to fear, disastrous disease and murder which linger in nightfall, man totally exists in three categories in South Africa: first is the black who were dehumanized by the apartheid regime, consequently they are no longer counted as human – “man ceased to be man.” Second is the white law officers who dehumanized the blacks. They are referred to as the beast – “Man has become beast.” Third is the blacks who are ill-treated and victimized – “Man has become prey.”

In stanza five, Oswald Mtshali realizes the category he belongs and says “I am a prey.” (line 19), adding that he is “the quarry to be run down/ by the marauding beast.” Symbolically, the marauding beast represents the white who cruelly oppressed the blacks and unleashed the apartheid – “let loose … cruel nightfall” (line 22).

The desperate desire to be freed from apartheid, dehumanization and fear in South Africa arises, graphically encodes in rhetorical questions: “Where is my refuge?” – Oswald Mtshali seeks a society where the blacks can call their home, a society devoid of apartheid. Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali poses the second rhetorical question: “Where am I safe?” – The lives of the blacks are hunted by nightfall, hence the need to be protected from the destructive nightfall. The defenseless shelter of the blacks is symbolically portrayed through the house they live in – “Matchbox house” (line 26).

Stanza seven of the poem reveals the dreadful experience of apartheid. Oswald asserts that he “tremble[s] at … crunching footsteps” which approach his matchbox house and he “quake[s] at … deafening knock at the door.” Them “Open up” comes the voice of apartheid police officers who are desperately “thirsty for my blood.” In line 30, Oswald Mtshali describes the apartheid police officer as “rabid dog.”

In the last stanza, Oswald Mtshali employs apostrophe, metaphor and rhetorical questions to depict emotionally the excruciating state of apartheid in South Africa:

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

Nightfall becomes Oswald Mtshali’s “mortal enemy;” thus he wishes and desires for daytime which renders freedom and equality in the society.

Literary Devices in Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali‘s Nightfall in Soweto

Metaphor: The use of metaphor in the poem is noted in:

Line 10: “I am the victim.”

Line 19: “I am the prey.”

Line 20: “I am the quarry.”

Line 30: “You are my mortal enemy.”

Rhetorical questions:

Rhetorical questions are found in:

Line 24: “Where is my refuge?”

Line 25: “Where am I safe?”

Line 34: “But why where you created?”

Line 35: “Why can’t it be daytime?”

Line 36: “Daytime forever more?”


“Nightfall comes like/ a dreaded disease.”

“he barks like a rabid dog.”


Alliteration is found in:

“dreaded disease” – /d/ – line 2

“Man … man” – /m/ – line 16

“nightfall! nightfall!” – /n/ – line 32

Themes in Nightfall in Soweto

Oswald Mtshali’s Nightfall in Soweto is repleted with the themes of apartheid, dehumanization and oppression of the blacks. The poem showcases a society where nightfall which ought to be reposing or sleeping moment after an elongated period of work turns out to be terror, victimization and murder of the blacks. The blacks are treated with extreme disgust to the extent that “Man has ceased to be man;” consequently the ones who attempt to be brave and challenge the apartheid become prey and “slaughtered” by “the marauding beast.”

Imagery in Nightfall in Soweto

The dominant imagery that pervades throughout the poem is terror, helplessness and victimization. The image of terror is captures in in the lines of the poem below:

“I tremble at his crunching footsteps.”

“I quake at his deafening knock at the door.”

The image of victimization is pathetic as the Oswald Mtshali states: “I am the victim/ I am slaughtered.” In spite of all these horrified things happening to him, he is completely helpless and admits his helplessness in line 15: ” In my helplessness I languish.”

Structure in Nightfall in Soweto

Nightfall in Soweto is composed of eight stanzas and thirty six lines. The poem makes use of enjambment in some of the poetic lines.

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