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The child who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga by Ingrid Jonker

“The child who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga” is a poem of protest, written by the South African poet Ingrid Jonker. Jonker wrote this piece in response to the Sharpeville massacre of 21 March 1960. The poem was written in the Afrikaans language (all her poems were written in this language). It was known by the title Die kind which means “The child”. This piece speaks on the brutal massacres occurring across South Africa during the Apartheid regime. It was a system of institutionalized racial segregation that existed from 1948 to the early 1990s.

The child who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga by Ingrid Jonker


Summary

“The child who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga” centers on a child who was killed by the police during the anti-pass-laws protests across South Africa. Especially, the Sharpeville massacre stirred Ingrid Jonker to pen down this poem in resistance of the blatant brutality and barbarism against the innocents. This piece describes how the child who was killed during the protest is still alive. He raises his fists against the injustice happening in his country. His scream resembles the tone of freedom, identity, and protest. According to the speaker, the metaphorical child has grown bigger than the oppressors ever thought of. He is present everywhere, regulating the unequal terms that cause South Africans pain. Ironically, now he does not need a pass to roam in his own land.

Structure & Form

This poem consists of four stanzas and ends with a one-line coda. The first three stanzas contain five lines each and the fourth stanza has seven lines. It is written in free verse, meaning it does not have a regular rhyme scheme or meter. This poem is written from the third-person point of view. Jonker specifically uses the iambic rhythm (daa-dum) that resonates with the footsteps of protest. Each line contains this rising rhythm that depicts the anger in the child’s heart as well as of those who were oppressed. Apart from that, there are repetitions of similar sounds that create internal rhymings.

Poetic Devices

In “The child who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga”, Jonker uses a number of literary devices that make this piece more charged and powerful. The important devices are mentioned below.

Repetition

  • Jonker uses the repetition of the line “The child is not dead” at the beginning of the first and third stanzas.
  • In the first two stanzas, “the child raises his fists aginst” and “who screams Africa screams the smell” are repeated.

Using this device, the poet creates a resonance of ideas and emphasizes her idea present in the quoted lines.

Anaphora

The consecutive lines that begin with similar words contain this device. It is used for the sake of emphasis. For example, this device can be found in:

  • Lines 1-2 (beginning with “The child”)
  • Lines 13-14 (beginning with “nor at”)
  • Last stanza (all the lines begin with the phrase “The child”)

Metaphor

Jonker uses several metaphors in this piece. Let’s have a look at where it is used and what it conveys to readers.

  • “The child is not dead”: Firstly, the child is a symbol of the growing sense of freedom in the South African’s hearts against the Apartheid system. Here, the comparison is made between a “child” to a thought of freedom.
  • “the smell/ of freedom and heather”: It metaphorically hints at the feeling associated with freedom. Jonker connects it with the “smell” of “heather”.
  • “the locations of the heart under siege”: In this phrase, individual confinement or segregation is described as the “heart under siege”.
  • “the smell/ of justice and blood”: Like the phrase “the smell/ of freedom and heather”, here the comparison is made between the “smell” of blood and the feeling associated with freedom.
  • “the shadow of the soldiers”: Here, Jonker refers to the child as a soldier. He follows a similar path of violence shown by the brutal soldiers.
  • “a giant travels through the whole world”: Jonker compares the child to a “giant” in order to portray the growing sense of freedom, justice, and resistance among the Africans.

Allusion

In the third stanza, Jonker alludes to the massacre at Sharpeville. She protests against the brutality of the armed forces on the peaceful protestors who were demonstrating against the draconian pass laws. Besides, the poet alludes to the protests that occurred in other townships including Langa, Nyanga, Orlando, and Philippi. She describes how innocent children were killed across her country.

Irony

The last line of the poem “Without a pass” contains irony. Here, Jonker is referring to the child that does not require any pass (a form of internal passport for the colored citizen) to travel in his own country. However, in reality, natives required such a pass needed for employment and living.

In this line “the child who just wanted to play in the sun at Nyanga is everywhere”, the speaker ironically talks about the fate of children living in the Apartheid regime. If they were alive, they could play in their own land. But, the white minorities made their families leave their own land and live elsewhere. If they protested, they were brutally oppressed or killed.

Paradox

In the third stanza, the first line states, “The child is not dead”. While, in the last line, the speaker remarks, “where he lies with a bullet in his head”. It is a use of paradox where two ideas are in conflict. Using this device, Jonker tries to convey that the child died physically, but he is still alive in her heart and the hearts of the Africans.

Poetic Diction

Jonker’s diction in “The child who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga” is that of an enraged protestor who adamantly wants an answer for the child’s death. She uses specific terms, poetic devices, and tone that cumulatively make this piece a manifesto of protest. For example, the first line of the poem “The child is not dead” contains litotes. It portrays that the child is still alive by using double negatives. Besides, this line contains a metaphor. Here, the sense of freedom is compared to a “child”, growing inside one’s mind. Besides, the terms such as “fists”, “freedom”, “blood” and “scream” are meant for infusing the spirit of nationalism.

Line-by-Line Analysis

Lines 1-2

The child is not dead

… against his mother

Ingrid Jonker’s poem “The child who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga” begins with an allusion. The first line “The child is not dead” alludes to Dylan Thomas’ poem “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London“. In this poem, Thomas refuses to mourn the child in order to pose his resistance against the impact of World War II. While in Jonker’s poem, she refutes the fact that the child was killed. According to her, their children cannot die. They are still alive in their hearts.

The child raises both his fists against his mother. It shows this innocent kid’s keen desire for freedom and justice. Besides, the “fist” is a symbol of resistance and revolution. So, through this image, the poet seeks a revolution that can end the pain of Africans.

Lines 3-5

who screams Africa …

… the heart under siege

The child screams Africa. He shouts the “smell of freedom” and the “heather”. It means one can sense the growing sense of freedom in everyone’s heart from his scream. His voice resonates with the demand of those who reside in the heather or veld.

His shrill voice demanding freedom reaches the nooks and corners of the continent. It breaks through the fences set up against his fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters. The “heart under siege” is a reference to a person who is oppressed or segregated from the mainstream. Here, Jonker uses synecdoche in the usage of the word “heart”.

Lines 6-10

The child raises his fists against his father

(…)

in the streets of his armed pride

The second stanza begins with a repetition of the second line of the poem. This time, the child raises his fists against his father. Hia father is present in the march of generations. It portrays the march of South Africans against the “pass laws”. In one of these demonstrations at Sharpeville, several children were killed. The incident moved Jonker to pen down this piece.

There is another repetition in the third line. Here, the poetic persona talks about the child’s scream that depicts his desire for justice and blood. The term “blood” symbolizes the anger of all those who were oppressed and denied their rights. It is also a reference to the bloodshed of the demonstrators.

In the last line, Jonker uses another synecdoche. Here, the term “armed pride” is an abstract idea that depicts the concrete term “proud soldiers”. Besides, it is also a personal metaphor. Through this line, the speaker talks about the streets where the proud soldiers were armed against the peacefully protesting Africans. According to Jonker, the child is also there and he voices his people’s demands.

Lines 11-12

The child is not dead

… nor at Nyanga

The third stanza begins with a repetition of the first line that acts as a refrain. It is meant for the sake of emphasizing the idea concerning the child’s death. He is not dead. The brutal forces cannot kill him or others like him present in the colored townships such as Langa, Nyanga, Orlando, and Philippi.

Langa township is located in Cape Town, South Africa. On 21 March 1960, several anti-pass protestors were killed there, the same day as the Sharpeville massacre. Nyanga is a township in the Western Cape, South Africa. The residents of Nyanga also joined the national call to protest against the Apartheid laws passed in 1960. The title of the poem refers to a child of Nyanga who was killed by the soldiers.

Lines 13-15

nor at Orlando …

… a bullet in his head

In the third line, Jonker refers to Orlando, which is a township in the urban area of Soweto, South Africa. Some of the most important events of the fight against the apartheid system occurred there. Sharpeville is a township in Transvaal, today part of Gauteng. On 21 March 1960, South African police opened fire on the protestors, killing 69 people, including 8 women and 10 children, and injuring 180, including 31 women and 19 children.

In the following line, Jonker says that the children who were killed at the police station in Philippi were not dead. Philippi is one of the larger townships of Cape Town. In the Apartheid era, it was designated for Coloureds, Black Africans, and whites.

The last line tells readers that the child lies with a bullet in his head at the Philippi police station. This image depicts the horrific rule of the apartheid regime. They were so heartless that they killed innocent children who could not even understand what Apartheid really meant!

Lines 16-19

The child is the shadow …

… into the hearts of mothers

All the lines of the fourth stanza begin with the phrase “The child”. Jonker uses this device for the sake of emphasizing her ideas. According to her, the dead child is now the “shadow of soldiers”. It means he is walking the same brutal path to avenge the deaths of others like him.

Readers can find the use of the enjambment in the first two lines. These lines are joined together by using this device. In the second line, the poet shows readers the image of soldiers on guard with guns, Saracen tanks, and batons. It depicts the soldiers’ preparedness in stopping the anti-pass protests. After reading this line, it seems as if they were preparing for war. Ironically, they used these instruments against thousands of peaceful protestors.

According to the poet, the child is omnipresent. He can easily slip into all the meetings and legislations. It seems as if he is overseeing everything and informing his countrymen about the things they were unaware of. He peeps through the windows and into the hearts of mothers. The child does so in order to infuse the spirit of anger inside the mothers who were silent. They cannot remain silent. They have to speak up, stand up, and snatch what they deserve.

Lines 20-23

the child who just wanted to play …

Without a pass

The child conveys to his people that he wants nothing bigger than their demands. He just wanted to play in the sun of Nyanga, nothing else. But, after his death, the whole country has become his playground. Now, he has transformed into a man and treks through Africa. There are no forces that can stop him or demand a pass to verify his identity. This metaphorical child of anger has grown to the size of a giant. Now it can roam easily wherever he wishes to. His protest can rage through the world.

The coda at the and is an important part of the poem. It refers to the pass laws which were a form of internal passport system designed to segregate the population, manage urbanization, and allocate migrant labor. According to the poet, the dead does not require a pass. Does it implicitly highlight the fact that one has to die in order to move across his own country? The irony is that the colored population could not in the apartheid era. Only the dead could.

Themes

Jonker’s poem “The child who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga” taps on the theme of protest and resistance. This piece highlights a child who was shot dead at Nyanga during the anti-pass demonstration. Jonker was moved by the death toll at Sharpeville and Nyanga. She could imagine how several innocent children were killed at the peaceful demonstrations. In this poem, she presents one such dead child. He voices the anger and agony of his countrymen through his clenched fist. His heart-piercing scream reveals the growing sense of nationalism, freedom, and resistance in the hearts of many. Besides, this poem also showcases the themes of brutality, horrors of apartheid, and freedom.

Tone & Mood

Throughout this piece, the tone is bold and expressive of firm determination. In the first three stanzas of the poem, the tone is emotive, nationalistic, and firm. Using it, Jonker highlights the fact that even an innocent child understood the value of freedom and equality. After his death, he realized that the long silence had to end. Hence, through the poet’s voice, he harks to his countrymen to end their suffering by standing together for the sake of saving other kids like him.

This uncompromising tone changes to an ironic one in the following lines. Here, Jonker satirically comments on the lawmakers and their apartheid maneuvers such as pass laws and Group Areas Act. The mood of the text is angry, protesting, and unrelenting.

Imagery

Jonker uses the following types of imagery in “The child who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga”.

  • Visual Imagery: In the first two stanzas, Jonker uses the image of a child who raises his fists in order to show his resistance towards apartheid. The line “in the march of generations” depicts a group of protesters’ march. By this line “on guard with guns saracens and barons” Jonker presents an image of armed soldiers with guns, batons, and tanks.
  • Auditory Imagery: The line “who screams Africa screams the smell” resonates with the screaming of a child demanding freedom and revenge.
  • Organic Imagery: Throughout this poem, Jonker uses this imagery to infuse her anger in readers’ minds. After reading the lines such as “where he lies with a bullet in his head” readers feel angry and at the same time sorry for the innocent child.


Historical Context

“The child who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga” was written in March 1960 and first published in Rook en Oker in 1963. Jonker was part of Cape Town’s racially mixed literary bohemia. During the 1950s and 1960s, the colonial Government enforced their draconian Apartheid laws on the colored population by using security forces. It led to the Sharpeville massacre of 21 March 1960. Jonker witnessed a black baby shot by a white soldier and died in his mother’s arms. This shattering event made her write the poem Die kind (wat doodgeskiet is deur soldate by Nyanga) also known as “The child (who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga)”.

Questions & Answers

What is the poem “The child is not dead” about?

Ingrid Jonker’s poem “The child is not dead”, also known as “The child who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga” is about a child who speaks up against the brutalities and unjust apartheid laws. He represents all those who died during the anti-pass-laws protests in the 1960s.

What have you learned from the poem “The child” by Ingrid Jonker?

Jonker’s “The child” makes readers aware of the enforcement of the draconian Apartheid laws. For example, in the protests at Nyanga, police brutality killed the protestors and their children in order to make them afraid. But, the poet thinks it was going to act against their perception. It means it would break the floodgates of people’s anger.

When was “The child is not dead” written?

Ingrid Jonker wrote this poem just after the Sharpeville massacre of 21 March 1960.

What is an important theme developed in “The child is not dead”?

The main theme of this piece is protest and resistance. Jonker also employs the themes of brutality, freedom, and the horrors of apartheid.

How does Jonker use details to develop one of her themes in “The child is not dead”?

Jonker uses vivid imagery to depict one of her themes protest and resistance. She uses the images of fists and blood to symbolically portray this theme.

Which of the characteristics of free verse can be found in “The child is not dead”?

The main two characteristics of free verse are non-metrical lines and an irregular meter. Jonker’s poem contains both of these features.

What is the location/setting of “The child who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga”?

This poem is set in South Africa of the 1960s. It was written just after the brutal killings of innocent protesters at different townships such as Sharpeville and Nyanga.

What is the poet’s message in this poem?

Jonker portrays the harsh realities and brutalities of the Apartheid era. Through this piece, she delivers an important message to readers. It concerns how the growing sense of freedom cannot be killed using barbaric means. The child is nothing but a symbolic representation of this idea.


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