The Child is Not Dead, also known as “The child who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyang” is a hard-hitting poem by Ingrid Jonker – a renowned South-African poet who fought against the apartheid through her thought provoking and exposing poetry. She blatantly questions the segregation laws and the brutality exercised by the police officials on protesters who practiced their right to speech. Apartheid had taken away everything from the non-whites of South Africa and they were credited the status of strangers in their own land who required a ‘pass’ to walk around the territories occupied by the whites. This inhumanity and estranged behaviour did not go well with the blacks who decided to conduct a march for their rights in different townships of South Africa. The government’s lack of mercy found another outlet in violence against the people opposing the system, including women and children.
The sight of dead children compelled Jonker to pen down her verse that sent out a message to all the oppressors about the still intact nationalism and spirit of freedom the oppressed harboured. The blood of their children did not become their weakness but fuelled the vehicle of struggle and rebellion against them.
The Child is Not Dead | Summary and Analysis
The poem’s original transcript is in Afrikaans which is now available in multiple languages. Its original publication lies in the pages of the collection Rook en Oker (1963) and is titled “Die Kind.” The verse is divided into four stanzas with different number of lines and a concluding set of two lines which is popularly called as a coda. The composition employs free verse and an omniscient third person speaker. It alludes to the barbaric killings of the people protesting against the law that mandates use of passes for non-whites to travel across their own land.
There is a tone of criticism, aggression and feelings of rebel that charge the poem at its best. The language adopts a scenario of civil protests equalising a war which is an indicator of the atrocities clouding over many innocent lives due to certain whims of political people. The poem’s preoccupation with a child’s death is a microcosmic view to the innumerable deaths of faultless people who lose their life in the conflict.
The Child is Not Dead | Analysis, Stanza I
The child is not dead
The child lifts his fists against his mother
Who shouts Afrika ! shouts the breath
Of freedom and the veld
In the locations of the cordoned heart
The poem begins with an affirmation about a child who the speaker asserts is not dead. It is a symbolic statement to notify the oppressors that the child who succumbs to the wounds by the police is corporeally dead but alive in spirit. The action of raising his fist becomes a symbol of rising action against the whites. Fist represents the unity of five fingers. Hence it is a symbol of communal power. The expression “lifts the fist against his mother” subtly hints at a dig that the child makes against his complacent parents who resign to their fate like many people. The generational difference in approach to apartheid is highlighted where youth is more active in demonstrations as compared to the old men and women.
Africa is a part of every soul who lives there. The people who are fighting against apartheid shout through their breath the will of freedom that comes from the open and uncultivated countries of southern Africa which are now under the custody of guards. The phrase “shouts the breath” is an example of synaesthesia which is the use of contradictory senses. “Heart” in the last line is a metaphorical reference to their residing identity and nativity which they unwillingly leave in the police enclosure.
Structurally, this stanza consists of five lines with a capitalised beginning of every first word in each sentence.
The Child is Not Dead | Analysis, Stanza II
The child lifts his fists against his father
in the march of the generations
who shouts Afrika ! shout the breath
of righteousness and blood
in the streets of his embattled pride
There is a repetition of the phrase “the child lifts his fists” which is now against his father unlike against his mother in the previous stanza. Again, the fist becomes a symbol of resistance that becomes a spectacle during protest marches as the people shout slogans against the injustice. The refrain “who shouts Afrika ! shout the breath” emphasize intolerance on the part of the non-white communities against violent actions they experience on daily basis. The child’s soul is witnessing these marches and he is too a participant in spirit if not in flesh. The blood draws an attention to countless deaths of people who put themselves forward for their community. However, their readiness to fight for their right faces a deadly end.
The Child is Not Dead | Analysis, Stanza III
The child is not dead not at Langa nor at Nyanga
not at Orlando nor at Sharpeville
nor at the police station at Philippi
where he lies with a bullet through his brain
Structurally, this stanza differs from the previous two as it consists of four lines with an anaphoric expression of “not at.” These lines hold a particular importance in their allusion to the historical events such as the Sharpeville massacre of March 1960 and incidents of violence on the part of police administration on the peaceful protesters from the lands of Langa, Nyanga and Orlando. The reference to Philippi police station is personal to the poet who visits the station and comes to face with a horrific incident where a child is lying like an object with a bullet wound.
The act of hitting the child with a bullet at his head is symbolic in its attempt to rid the child of his thinking abilities if escapes death. The other parts of one’s body are not as sensitive and critical as the brain. So the police killing people by shooting at their head holds a strategic stance too. This episode becomes the force for this poem’s endeavour.
The Child is Not Dead | Analysis, Stanza IV
The child is the dark shadow of the soldiers
on guard with rifles Saracens and batons
the child is present at all assemblies and law-givings
the child peers through the windows of houses and into the hearts of mothers
this child who just wanted to play in the sun at Nyanga is everywhere
the child grown to a man treks through all Africa
The anaphora “the child” takes the centre stage in this stanza to thrust the fact that he is still alive in the hearts and morale of the communities fighting against the segregation regime. The soldiers are guarding the territory with their rifles and batons in their Saracens which is “a six-wheeled armoured personnel carrier.” The child is standing with them as their shadow to have an inside view of the strategies. He is also present in all political and administrative meetings for the same purpose. Since he is not alive anymore, he can transgress boundaries without any fear. The child also peeps into different houses to have a look at mothers who are lamenting the loss of their children or are trying to protect the ones who are still alive.
Contrasting the setting before his death, the speaker proudly claims that the child is travelling the entire continent without any risk. The child’s crime- a natural desire to play out ironically marks the brutality of his punishment i.e. a gunshot death. The only means to access freedom lies in one’s death in this context.
the child grown into a giant journeys through the whole world
Without a pass.
The concluding lines present a metaphorical contrast between the child who is now undertaking various journeys throughout the world as a giant figure without the need of the law abiding document i.e. the “pass.” The giantess signifies the greatness of his sacrifice which his people will not let go in vain. The police guards might have been successful in killing the child in his physical form, but they fail to kill his soul and the communities’ ethos.