This poem is Jonker’s best-known and has featured in numerous publications, films, and on television. Famously, Nelson Mandela read ‘The Child Who Was Shot Dead by Soldiers in Nyanga’ during his address at the opening of parliament in May of 1994. The poem is filled with allusions to the Apartheid and anti-apartheid movements in the 1960s, including the horrific practice of killing young children in protests. It should also be noted that this poem was original written in Afrikaans. This version was translated by Antjie Krog & André Brink.
Explore The Child Who Was Shot Dead by Soldiers in Nyanga
‘The Child Who Was Shot Dead by Soldiers in Nyanga’ by Ingrid Jonker is a moving poem about resistance against the Apartheid in South Africa.
The poem begins with the speaker listing out aspects of a “child.” This symbolic child features in the poem as a representative of the ideas of freedom that drive the anti-apartheid movement in Africa. Although many have died in protests, the child, or the quest for freedom and justice, live on. He raises his fists against those who stand in his way and travels throughout the world, spreading his message.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
‘The Child Who Was Shot Dead by Soldiers in Nyanga’ by Ingrid Jonkeris a five-stanza poem that is divided into uneven sets of lines. The first, second, and third stanzas contain five lines, the fourth: seven, and the fifth: one. The poem is written in free verse. This means that the poet chose not to use a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern.
Throughout this piece, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza and lines one and two of the second stanza.
- Anaphora: can be seen when the poet repeats the same word or words at the beginning of lines. For example, “The child” which starts numerous lines throughout this poem.
- Allusion: occurs when the poet refers to something but doesn’t provide readers with all the details they need to understand it. This occurs in the third stanza of this poem when the poet mentions place names like “Langa” and “Nyanga.”
The child is not dead
of freedom and heather
in the locations of the heart under siege
In the first stanza of ‘The Child Who Was Shot Dead by Soldiers in Nyanga,’ the speaker begins by noting that “The child,” the most important symbol throughout the poem, is “not dead.” The child becomes a symbol of resistance and hope. The speaker describes how this child raised his fists against his elders and screamed for “freedom,” seeking out a new way of living. The “locations of the heart under siege” is a symbol for the areas of Africa affected by the cruel apartheid laws of the period.
The child raises his fists against his father
of justice and blood
in the streets of his armed pride
The second stanza is similar to the first. The speaker notes that the child stands up to his father and screams for justice for those lost under apartheid. The child is resisting and pushing back against a system that was incredibly unjust and unimaginably brutal. Images like “fists” and “blood” are ways to ensure readers understand the child’s purpose and the passion behind his words.
The child is not dead
neither at Langa nor at Nyanga
where he lies with a bullet in his head
The child, who is still only a symbol of resistance and change, is “not dead.” He was not killed as other children were during protests. He does not really “lie with a bullet in his head.” He’s going to live forever and continue his protestations. Here, the speaker is alluding to the practice of police officers killing protestors, including children, in order to send a message to the general public. The sense of freedom the child represents can’t be killed by bullets.
Stanzas Four and Five
The child is the shadow of the soldiers
on guard with guns saracens and batons
the child who became a giant travels through the whole world
Without a pass
In the final stanza, readers can find an excellent example of anaphora. The phrase “the child” begins six of the seven lines of this stanza. The “child” the speaker says is everywhere at once. They are peeping through windows and becoming a man trekking through “all of Africa.” The child is “present” at all meetings and legislation. He’s there, a symbol of resistance and strength, always.
The poem ends with a three-word line, “Without a pass.” The child does all this without permission, including becoming a “giant” who travels through the whole world. The sense of freedom the child embodies goes far and wide throughout the world without permission or any allowances. This is another way of exploring how powerful the anti-Apartheid movement was.
The tone is passionate and inspired. The speaker is determined in their message and relays it with a clarity of purpose. The use of repetition ensures the reader feels their passion.
The purpose is to explore the strength of freedom and resistance against the Apartheid in South Africa. Jonker speaks from a unique perspective, allowing readers to understand how life-consuming and horrific this period was.
The themes at work in this poem include freedom and resistance. The speaker emphasizes these themes through the symbol of the child. He stands up for what he knows is right and can never die. He isn’t a physical person but an idea.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Child Who Was Shot Dead by Soldiers in Nyanga’ should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘Ingrid Jonker’ by Sally Bryer – a poem of praise celebrating Jonker’s contributions to South African poetry.
- ‘A Far Cry from Africa’ by Derek Walcott – a poem based around the struggles in Africa.
- ‘Stolen Rivers’ by Phillippa Yea de Villiers – is dedicated to Chiwoniso Maraire, who was well-known as a Zimbabwean singer, songwriter, and an exponent of Zimbabwean mbira music.
- ‘Nothing’s Changed’ by Tatamkhulu Afrika – talks about the rampant apartheid system in District Six near Cape Town in South Africa, and explores racism.