By Khanya Mtshali

He brought an honesty to work

deemed unskilled and menial.

A self-respect that towered

over the egos of overlords

occupying fancy positions,

in a hierarchy of thanklessness.

He had to work.

As a younger man,

he preferred the solitary jobs

that kept him away from the world

for days and weeks.

Sometimes it got so quiet that

he heard his breath whispering to itself,

never quite making out what was being said

— the secrets of an unconscious realm.

As an older man,

he yearned to work with others,

relished the challenge of synchronising his movements

to fit into an orchestra of minds and bodies

assembled for the purposes of extraction.

His uniform beamed with the same flair

as his Sunday Best

— loud with expression and gesture.

He belonged to a time

when taste was considered a virtue

as sacrosanct as the scriptures

he recited as a child,

a simple joy abetted

by the miracle of payday.

Short-lived like most,

but testament to the fact

that there was a God

for as long as they

could make the money last.


A cycle of fleeting abundance and perennial lack,

a fate that alienated him

from his own humanity,

shamed him into walking long distances

to stand in queues and sit in waiting rooms

thick with desperation and indifference,

filling out documents

certifying the plight he was born into

            — a heritage of humiliation.


Khanya Mtshali is a writer and critic from Johannesburg, South Africa. She writes about literature, culture, tech, politics, and fashion and her work has been published in The Guardian, The New Yorker, Africa Is a Country,, Mail & Guardian, The Johannesburg Review of Books, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. She is the author of It’s Not Inside, It’s On Top: Memorable Moments in South African Advertising and she has published an introduction to the book Last Interview and Other Conversations: Billie Holiday.