The following poem, which metaphorically confronts the brutal experience of early mining work in South Africa, was written by black South African poet J. J. R. Jolobe.

The Making of a Servant
(translated from the Xhosa)

I can no longer ask how it feels
To be choked by a yoke-rope
Because I have seen it for myself in the chained ox.
The blindness has left my eyes. I have become aware,
I have seen the making of a servant
In the young yoke-ox.

He was sleek, lovely, born for freedom,
Not asking anything from any one, simply
priding himself on being a young ox.
Someone said: Let him be caught and
          trained and broken in,
Going about it as if he meant to help him.
I have seen the making of a servant
In the young yoke-ox.
He tried to resist, fighting for his freedom.
He was surrounded, fenced in with wisdom and experience.
They overcame him by trickery: 'He must be trained.'
A good piece of rationalisation can camouflage evil.
/ have seen the making of a servant
In the young yoke-ox.

He was bound with ropes that cut into his head,
He was bullied, kicked, now and again petted,
But their aim was the same: to put a yoke on him.
Being trained in one's own interests is for the privileged.
/ have seen the making of a servant
In the young yoke-ox.

The last stage. The yoke is set on him.
They tie the halter round his neck, slightly choking him.
They say the job's done, he'll be put out to work with
          the others
To obey the will of his owner and taskmaster.
/ have seen the making of a servant
In the young yoke-ox . . .

Though he stumbled and fell, he was bitten on the tail.
Sometimes I saw him raking at his yoke-mate
With his horns — his friend of a minute, his blood-brother.
The suffering under the yoke makes for bad blood.
/ have seen the making of a servant
In the young yoke-ox . . .

Stockstill, tired, there was no sympathy.
He bellowed notes of bitterness.
They loosened his halter a little — to let him breathe,
They tightened it again, snatching back his breath.
I have seen the making of a servant
In the young yoke-ox . . .

I saw him climb the steepest of roads.
He carried heavy loads, staggering —
The mud of sweat which wins profit for another.
The savour of working is a share in the harvest.
/ have seen the making of a servant
In the young yoke-ox.

I saw him hungry with toil and sweat,
Eyes all tears, spirit crushed,
No longer able to resist. He was tame.
Hope lies in action aimed at freedom.
I have seen the making of a servant
In the young yoke-ox.1

Citations

  • 1 : J. J. R Jolobe, “The Making of a Servant,” in The Making of a Servant and Other Poems, trans. Robert Kavanagh and Z. S. Qangule (Johannesburg: Ophir Ravan, 1971).

Connection Questions

  1. Describe the process by which the ox becomes a servant in the poem. What is the ox like at the beginning? How does he change? What are the steps in the process of turning the ox into a servant? Was there anything that surprised you in this process?
  2. This poem was written in Xhosa. Much of Xhosa poetry is meant to be heard rather than read. What different effects might come from this being spoken rather than read?
  3. Reflecting on what you know of that period, how is the poem a metaphor for being an African worker in early-twentieth-century South Africa?
  4. What is the impact of the repetition of the chorus in each verse? Notice that a key word in this poem is making, a gerund, a verb-based form that leaves this open to the present tense. What difference does this choice of word and the way it is handled throughout make to the poem?

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