Motho Ke Motho Ka Batho Babang Poem Analysis

Analysis of A Person is a Person Because of Other People by Jeremy Cronin

The poem “Motho Ke Motho Ka Batho Babang”, also known as “A Person is a Person Because of Other People” by Jeremy Cronin was first published in his collection Inside in 1983. Based on the African philosophy of Ubuntu that concerns with “I am because we are,” the title is in South Africa’s indigenous language that literally translates to “A person is a person because of other people.” No individual can exist in isolation and the real power lies in unity. A man can learn a lot from another man, even to be a better man. But Africa’s colonisation gives an ample evidence of the dehumanising treatment mete out by the colonisers to the natives. Surprisingly, the injustice does not halt there. The government introduces system that promotes racial discrimination, privileging whites over blacks in their own country. Such baseless politics call to activism against it and thus writers like Cronin become active participants in the struggle. John Pepper Clark in his essay “Poetry in Africa” claims “some of the best works of art…[have] been created by artists labouring under crippling conditions,” in this case by the prisoners of the Apartheid government.

Motho Ke Motho Ka Batho Babang | Summary and Analysis

The poet’s first person pronoun, as many readers assume, is his own persona who narrates an episode from his imprisonment years. With twenty eight lines and no stanza division, the poem is a free verse composition which is informal, conversational, secretive, urgent and hopeful in tone and defiant in mood. Time and again the reader senses breaking of rules in a prison as the two inmates attempt to communicate with one another without receiving any attention. They possibly do not know each other and are in a solitary confinement with many barriers. The poet employs African literature’s oratorical primacy in his work as it is equivalent to storytelling. Though the use of words in the actual conversation is next to negligible, the language of the poem is simple as one can expect the way in which the prisoners would interact with each other in person. Also, the intermingling of languages English with Afrikaans suggests a two-fold aim of the poet. The local language serves the purpose of an emphasis on the native’s own culture and the former assures it to be reachable to a wider audience.

A Person is a Person Because of Other People  | Analysis, Lines 1-4

By holding my mirror out of the window I see
Clear to the end of the passage.
There’s a person down there.
A prisoner polishing a doorhandle.

The speaker who is an inmate holds out a mirror out of the window his cell has. The pronoun “my” provides a sense of agency to the speaker who at least possesses a mirror, if not his freedom. The verb “see” is crucial to understand the rest of the poem because his only means of a communication in the prison is perception of gestures. The “mirror” becomes a reflection of the outside world where reality becomes representative in nature. It is similar to Plato’s cave allegory where one sees reality only as a representation.

In the mirror he sees “a person” who is a “prisoner” performing a mundane task of polishing a door handle. The speaker’s focus on the man as a person first and then a prisoner depicts the primary coordinate of a man is his humanness and his identity as a prisoner follows it. Each of us is a person first. Also, the action of polishing a door handle is ironic as he could only rub off the dust over the door handle but can never open that door.

A Person is a Person Because of Other People  | Analysis, Lines 5-15

In the mirror I see him see
My face in the mirror,
I see the fingertips of his free hand
Bunch together, as if to make
An object the size of a badge
Which travels up to his forehead
The place of an imaginary cap.
(This means: A warder.)
Two fingers are extended in a vee
And wiggle like two antennae.
(He’s being watched.)

The speaker further observes in the mirror the other prisoner looking at him through that mirror. Thus, both of them do not directly look at each other but through a medium. The prisoner uses his hand to alarm the speaker about the presence of a prison guard and thus they need to be cautious. The irony in the prisoner’s “free” hand is interesting as being in captivity still allows him to have something free. There is also alliteration in the line “I see the fingertips of his free hand.”

The speaker understands his gesture but for the readers, the poet chooses to provide interpretations through the italicised words in the parenthesis on the right side of the poem. The prisoner also informs the speaker that he is under surveillance by using his two fingers acting like “antennae.” The poet uses a similie to warn the speaker about the plausible danger. Again the poet practices parenthesis to clarify the readers about the prisoner’s signs.

A Person is a Person Because of Other People  | Analysis, Lines 16-22

A finger of his free hand makes a watch-hand’s arc
On the wrist of his polishing arm without
Disrupting the slow-slow rhythm of his work.
(Later. Maybe, later we can speak.)
Hey! Wat maak jy daar?
–a voice from around the corner.
No. Just polishing baas.

The first line again has an alliterative use of “f” to indicate the importance of apt signalling. Here, the prisoner either manages to notify a particular time to the speaker for their actual conversation or asks him to wait for a further intimation. But the next line in parenthesis clears off the air about the possible meaning of his indication. However, the word “speak” is ironic because they cannot literally talk with each other. They have been communicating through signs and they’ll continue to do so.

Just then the guard shouts at the prisoner in the local language.

The italicisation, now towards the left, represents the directness of the speech which we encounter for the first time throughout the poem and its lack of any interpretation does not bother the readers as they can assume what the authoritative guard must be interrogating. Also, by rendering an opportunity to the guard for a verbal stance in the poem, the poet sends out a message that the one in the position of power is worthy of speech as a popular contention. Nevertheless, the poet also gives that power to the prisoner who replies back to the guard. This power is not limited to his speech as it is a beginning of the greater power that he will accumulate with unity to fight the oppression.  “Bass” is again a local dialect for “boss” and the prisoners are liable to address the guards or white men of authority in this fashion.

A Person is a Person Because of Other People  | Analysis, Lines 23-28

He turns his back to me, now watch
His free hand, the talkative one,
Slips quietly behind
Strength brother, it says,
In my mirror,
A black fist.

These last lines of the poem get rid of the parenthesis as now the readers are in a position to understand the gestures of the prisoner. They too have become participants in this guessing game and are able to decipher the intentions of the prisoner. Again, the ironic “free hand” comes to picture which is personified as a “talkative one” because it is the hand who has been communicating messages till now.

The hand also becomes the symbol of strength and unity which is the need of the hour for all prisoners. The prisoner addresses the speaker as “brother” that portrays brotherhood feelings each black man harbours for his fellows. The “black fist” becomes a symbol of power, resistance, empowerment and the collective consciousness of the black community who are fighting against the Apartheid regime.

The two prisoners do not know each other but their shared beliefs and common purpose brings them together in this non-verbal set up where action speaks louder than words and the body- though captive, is free in spirits.


About The Poet

Jeremy Cronin is a South African political activist and writer whose strong stance against the Apartheid led to his imprisonment. He channelized his thoughts into some of the best poems African literature has ever seen which revolve around oppression, injustice and a man’s fight against the authorities. As a white man, his support towards his black comrades reflects humanity to be the core of every individual and racial difference’s failure in neglecting the humanness that resides in every person on this earth.




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