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Shantytown Poem (Anonymous)
High on the veld upon that plain
And far from streets and lights and cars
And bare of trees, and bare of grass,
Jabavu sleeps beneath the stars
The children cough.
Cold creeps up, the hard night cold,
The earth is tight within its grasp,
The highveld cold without soft rain,
Dry as the sand, rough as a rasp
The frost rimmed night invades the shacks.
Through dusty ground
Through rocky ground
Through freezing ground, the night cold creeps.
In cotton blankets, rags and sacks
Beneath the stars Jabavu sleeps.
One day Jabavu will awake
To greet a new and shining day;
The sound of coughing will become
The children’s laughter as they play
In parks with flowers where dust now swirls
In strong-walled homes with warmth and light.
But for tonight Jabavu sleeps.
Jabavu sleeps. The stars are bright.
The poem was published anonymously. It was later discovered that Hilda Bernstein, who participated in the Communist Party and was an anti-apartheid activist, wrote this poem.
The poem is set in Jabavu township in Johannesburg. Jabavu was a shantytown to the south of Johannesburg in the larger area known as Soweto. Today, shantytowns are called informal settlements or squatter camps. South African shantytowns have always housed the poorest of the poor. People build makeshift homes out of corrugated iron and whatever materials they can find. Jabavu, like most other black townships of the time, had no trees, electricity or roads. It is dry, dusty, and exceptionally cold during winter. It is very difficult for the people of Jabavu to protect themselves from illness and the cold. In the winter, the cold is oppressive. To keep out the cold, the people cover themselves with thin blankets, rags, and old sacks. The author hopes that when apartheid ends, Jabavu (and other townships) will be a better place to live.
Today, Jabavu is still not a wealthy part of Soweto, but it has electricity and mainly tarred roads. The majority of houses are simple, but they are solidly built with walls and yards. There are a number of schools that serve the area as well as clusters of shops and other services. Trees have been planted and there is a green, open space called Jabavu Park.
Before leaving Robben Island, Mandela realized that if he did not put the past behind him and forgive, he would never be free. So his promise of freedom to the people was directed at all South Africans – the rainbow nation. With freedom comes responsibility. If people want to laugh and feel safe and have the dignity that comes with being free, they must work hard to promote democracy. Liberation is for everyone and so all South Africans need to act responsibly, and respect everyone’s right to freedom and dignity.
Looking at a democratic South Africa today, the question to ask is: are the majority of oppressed truly liberated?
It is difficult to say with certainty when this poem was written as we do not know who the poet is. The poem was certainly written during Apartheid in South Africa, when townships had no electricity or roads. Many shacks had been built by people coming to Johannesburg looking for work.
Type of poem
This poem has been described as being free verse. It is a social commentary on extreme poverty and raises the issues of the children’s health and freedom. It talks of how neglected this area is in terms of basic services like electricity. It is concerned with the lack of green, safe spaces in which children can play. The poem is satirical, criticizing the apartheid government’s rulers and their apartheid laws.
The speaker is unnamed (possibly the poet). The speaker uses the third person narrative. He describes the conditions in Jabavu and what he sees for the future. He addresses society as a whole so that everyone can understand the suffering of people in shantytowns and be involved in bringing about positive change.
The voice is of someone who knows Jabavu well and has probably lived there. He understands all the difficulties and suffering of the people, especially in winter. He has a vision for much better living conditions in the future. His tone is descriptive, despairing (sad and worried) and then hopeful.
The poem is divided into three stanzas. Jabavu is described in each stanza. The first stanza describes Jabavu’s isolation from the city (“far from streets and lights and cars”). Jabavu has no trees or grass because it is not protected (“beneath the stars”). The second verse goes into further depth regarding the people’s hardship over the winter. They are both cold and unwell. The final verse transports us to the hopeful future of a well-developed and cared-for Jabavu. It has evolved into a destination for healthy children to play in lovely parks. People live in dignified dwellings with electricity. They are all safe and comfortable. The speaker offers a rosy picture of his hopes for the future.
Discrimination in South Africa
During Apartheid, black people were not allowed to own houses near the cities. Townships were built outside of towns and cities for them. They stayed in these areas and worked in the city/town during the day. There were no basic services provided to these areas. The government neglected the people living in these areas. Most services were developed in city and town suburbs for the white people only.
Poverty in South Africa
During Apartheid, the vast majority of black people near towns and cities lived under harsh conditions. As more and more people moved to be near the city for work, the townships filled with people who had no proper housing. Many lived in informal settlements in open areas. They also built shacks in other people’s yards. The living conditions in townships were very unhealthy, especially for children.
The development of the themes
Shantytown is another word for an informal settlement. The poet describes the harsh living conditions of a shantytown in Soweto, called Jabavu. He knows Jabavu well and probably lived there himself. The conditions in Jabavu were very similar to many other informal settlements in South Africa at the time. The speaker describes the emptiness of the area. The land is completely barren: ‘Dry as the sand’ (line 10) and ‘dusty’ (line 12) and ‘rocky’ (line 13). Nothing grows there in winter. It is ‘bare of trees, and bare of grass’ (line 3). It is located on the highveld, with extremely cold winters. Children have become ill because of these conditions. People find it impossible to protect themselves from the cold which ‘invades the shacks’ (line 11).
Their thin ‘cotton blankets, rags and sacks’ (line 15) provide no warmth against the cold. People are living in poverty and cannot afford thick, warm blankets. Despite what the poet sees and possibly also experiences – the poverty and awful conditions – he is filled with hope. He dreams of something better. He ends the poem on a note of optimism when he describes how much better life in Jabavu could be in the future.
Stanza 1: Jabavu sleeps (dormancy)
Literally, the people in Jabavu are asleep at night. The dark night symbolizes apartheid. The cold symbolizes the white government’s lack of concern or empathy for the oppressed. During apartheid, the black people did not experience freedom and they did not have the same rights as white people. Townships like Jabavu were far from sources of employment and lacked the infrastructure and services for sustainable development. They lacked adequate sanitation, water, and refuse removal services. There were no decent houses, schools, or clinics. Poverty, disease, and malnutrition were rife. At first, they accepted their fate. This was the period of dormancy, inactivity – sleep.
Stanza 2: Through dusty ground/Through rocky ground/Through freezing ground
Poverty, hardship and suffering is emphasized in the image of the dusty, rocky and freezing ground upon which the people sleep inside their shacks.
Stanza 3: Jabavu will awake (hope)
The anti-apartheid movement eventually led to the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. It is this anti-apartheid movement that we figuratively call their awakening. They started to fight against the rules of apartheid. Some became activists fighting for democracy. As the first president of the new democratic government, Nelson Mandela promised the black people freedom. This would guarantee them human dignity. In his inauguration speech, Nelson Mandela told the people of South Africa that it is their right to be free and that is what the new government would continuously strive to achieve. In his speech, he promised the people that they would be free from want, hunger, deprivation, ignorance, suppression, and fear. Freedom from want means that the people of South Africa would no longer live in poverty. The black people would not live in townships of deficiency like Jabavu – where there are no roads, electricity, clinics, etc. This meant that they would be free to achieve or gain whatever they needed or desired. They would also no longer be deprived of anything. They would be able to have whatever material benefits that they considered being basic necessities in society. They would also have the freedom to be educated. Equality would ensure inclusive quality education for all. They would be able to choose their career and achieve their dreams. Nelson Mandela promised them that they would no longer be suppressed and they would no longer live in fear. It was important to Nelson Mandela that everyone lived in freedom so that they would have human dignity. This is what we understand in the first line of stanza 3 when the poet writes “One day Jabavu will awake”.
Stanza 3: laughter
“The sound of coughing will become/The children’s laughter as they play”. The children’s illness will become health. This includes mental health – not holding grudges; holding on to the past does not free you. It makes you bitter.
Stanza 3: strong-walled homes
Security. The people hope to live a life without fear.
The poet repeats certain words or phrases in the poem.
“And bare of trees, and bare of grass” (line 3). Literally there is absolutely nothing growing in the area. Figuratively the people are poor – they have nothing.
The word “cold” is used four times throughout the poem and emphasizes the extreme cold. Trying to keep warm is all that the people can think about at night. In lines 12 to 14, the poet repeats ‘through’ and ‘ground’. The cold is so intense and powerful that nothing stops it, not even dust or rocks. In lines 14 and 15, the poet emphasises the cold again: “the night cold creeps./In cotton blankets”.
“Jabavu sleeps” is repeated five times at the beginning and end of stanzas. The first two stanzas describe the township at night during winter. People are desperately trying to sleep but struggle because it is so cold. In reality, Jabavu and its people are not sleeping. It is only in stanza three that we understand that the poet is using the word “sleeps” symbolically. The speaker believes that Jabavu’s future will be a great improvement on its past. When that happens, it will be as if the township will have “woken up” from its long sleep of poverty and suffering. These harsh conditions are temporary, only “for tonight” (line 23). The final line expresses this hope by repeating ‘Jabavu sleeps’, but we now know that the stars above are ‘bright’ symbols of hope.
Conjunctions are repeated.
“And far from streets and lights and cars/And bare of trees, and bare of grass”.
The same words at the start of a line are repeated.
“And far from streets and lights and cars/And bare of trees, and bare of grass”.
“Jabavu sleeps” at the end of stanza 1 and “Jabavu sleeps” at the start of stanza 2.
Non-living things are given human attributes.
Jabavu, the shantytown, is compared to a person who is asleep and will wake up ‘One day’ (line 17). Jabavu will be able to “greet” everyone just as people say “good morning” to each other at the start of a “new and shining day” (line 18). The sleep is temporary and the poet is absolutely sure that Jabavu will be able to “awake” to a better world in the future.
The winter cold is also personified by the poet. It is described as unstoppable because it “creeps” or crawls into everything. It is like an enemy that attacks and “invades” (line 11) a town and its houses.
Two things are described as having something in common. The words ‘like’ or ‘as’ are used.
Line 10 has two similes:
“Dry as the sand” compares the harsh dryness of the cold winter to sand because there is no rain.
“rough as a rasp” compares the cold to a metal tool rubbing against the skin. In other words, the cold of winter is so severe that it feels painful.
The initial consonant sounds of words are repeated.
In stanza 1, the f and b sounds are repeated: “far from streets… “; “bare of trees, and bare of grass”.
In stanza 2, the c and r sounds are repeated.
“The children cough./Cold creeps up”. This hard sound emphasises the harshness of the conditions in Jabavu.
In line 10, the r sound is repeated: “rough as rasp”.
In stanza 3, the p sound is repeated: “play/in parks”.
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