Lewis Nkosi’s "Mating Birds". A Character Analysis of Ndi Sibiya

Essay, 2012

13 Pages, Grade: 2


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. General remarks about the novel
2.1. Literary context
2.2. Historical context
2.3. Critical context

3. Textual analysis
3.1. Narrative techniques
3.2. The Protagonist
3.2.1. Biographical facts
3.2.2. Analysis Sibiya as the intellectual black Isolation and passivity The stereotype of the black rapist Sibiya’s sexual and political rebellion

4. Conclusion

5. References

1. Introduction

“I am lost. […] Doubly lost. […] I believe in nothing” ( Nkosi 2004: p. 43) – that is how Ndi Sibiya, the protagonist of Lewis Nkosi’s novel Mating Birds, describes himself in his (fictional) memoirs that he writes from his prison cell in Durban while awaiting death sentence. And indeed he is a lost figure: not only torn between his awareness of race laws being what they are in Apartheid South Africa and his desire for a white girl, but also an outcast among his own people, he constantly runs the risk of falling apart because of the social and cultural conditions he is living in – and thus his downfall seems to be predictable right from the beginning.

The major part of my essay will focus on the character of Sibiya, the fictional writer and first-person narrator of Mating Birds. After giving a brief survey of the literary context of the book, as well as a short summary of what critics have said about it and its historical background, I am going to analyze what Sibiya’s character is shaped by and to what extent he himself eventually causes his downfall at the end of the book.

The following questions are going to lead me troughout the whole essay: Is Sibiya depicted as a stereotype or rather an individual person? What are the reasons for the special position he takes in the black society of South Africa? What makes him become so obsessed of Veronica? And in what way is he a victim and in what way the offender?

2. General remarks about the novel

2.1. Literary context

Written and published as Lewis Nkosis first novel in 1982, Mating Birds achieved considerable acclaim and a lot of positive feedback. The book was translated into ten languages later and entered the canon of anti-apartheid literature, and in 1986 the author was honored with the McMillan PEN Award.

It was not the first time that Nkosi – as one of a group of people generally referred to as the Drum writers, thus authors, critics and journalists who at some time of their career worked for the Drum magazine – addressed interracial sexual relationships in his work; some of his stories of the 1970s also reveal a certain fascination of that subject. (Cf. Brink 1992: p. 1)

As the novel was written in South Africa during Apartheid, where it was regarded as very important that those elect black people who were given the opportunity to obtain a western education exploit their knowledge to fight for the liberation of all black people, Nkosi – like many other black authors as well – felt the need to document the experience of the South African natives living in a space where being black was seen as inferior and subordinate to being white (Cf. Fortuin 2009: p. 6).

2.2. Historical context

To understand Mating Birds and especially the character of Ndi Sibyiya, it is necessary to take a look at the historical circumstances in which the novel is set.

In Apartheid South Africa, the rape of a white woman was considered a particularly appalling violation of everything related to the white race and its alleged purity – which led to the attempt of limiting all forms of interaction between black and white people in the country to a minimum, and in that sense to especially prevent social interaction between black men and white women. This constant insistence on racial segregation actually “stemmed from the belief that the survival of the white man in Africa depended on the purity of the white race” (Fortuin 2009: p. 9).

This conviction of the white racist South Africans led to the enactment of several racially discriminative laws that were supposed to set bounds to miscegenation in the Apartheid state.

On the 1st of July in 1949, the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, which made it illegal for “Europeans” and “non-Euopeans” to marry, came into effect; the enactment of this law was the culmination of a number of legislative attempts to prevent interracial sex of all kinds. One year later, in 1950, the Immorality Act – which was the final step to officially prohibit any kind of interracial sexual relations – became law. The following quote from an article that was published by the Natal Witness in support of these acts makes the public attitude towards these laws at that time abundantly clear:

“Miscegenation is contrary to our fundamental beliefs and legislation has recently

been introduced for its prohibition […], Mixed marriage strikes at the root of white

supremacy. Even if it were limited to exceptional cases, it tends to breed ideas that

are antipathetic to our conviction that the colour bar in Africa must be

maintained.” (Fortuin 2009: p. 10)

Another term that has a long history in the South African Context is the so-called Black Peril. It refers to the permanent threat that male blacks allegedly posed to white women. What the racists feared most was, however, not miscegenation itself, but rather the defilement of their racial purity – which they perceived as “the mother of the white nation” (Fortuin 2009: p. 10). Accordingly, miscegenation between black and white people would automatically carry with it “a pollution of he purity of the white blood” (Fortuin 2009: p. 10) and thus necessarily lead to the decline of the white race and then of the western world - however this was only the case if a black man had sex with a white woman and not the other way round.

2.3. Critical context

While Mating Birds was highly commended by western critiques, its reception in South Africa was rather ambivalent.

First published by St Martin’s Press in New York, the novel received a great deal of praise throughout the USA and Europe. It was especially lauded for its “lyrical intensity” and “compelling narrative structure” (Stiebel 2005: p. 147) and even called “very possibly the finest novel by a South African, black or white, about the terrible distortion of love in South Africa since Alan Platon’s Too Late the Phalarope (Stiebel 2005: p. 148), to name only some of the extremely positive feedback. What seemed so striking about the narrative to the western literary world was probably the literary examination of the Apartheid state by Nkosi as a black writer, as – as already mentioned above – the documenting of experiences during the Apartheid regime by educated black people was viewed as very important.

In South Africa, though, Mating Birds partially had to face harsh critique, and it might only have been accepted by the Directorate of Publication due to the relaxed political situation at the time of its release, which is incoherent with the novel’s setting. One of the most distinctive reasons for the – at least for the most part – negative comments is probably the fact that in South Africa Mating Birds seems to have been an interloper in the historically “whites only” territories of literary avant-gardism and erotic writing” (Stiebel 2005: p. 149).

One of the most famous (negative) critical feedbacks on Nkosi’s novel is André Brinks essay “An Ornithology of Sexual Politics: Lewis Nkosi’s Mating Birds that was published in 1992, six years after the book had been published. Brink argues that the novel does not contain any journalistic facts, describes it as a gross-over simplification and asserts that “Nkosi is exaggerating the horrors of the South African situation”. (Cf. Brink 1992: p. 16)

3. Textual analysis

3.1. Narrative techniques

One very interesting aspect of the novel – which is essential for the development of the character of the protagonist and the reader’s perception of it – is the narrative perspective. Mating Birds is told from Ndi Sibiya’s point of view, who puts down his memoirs on paper in a kind of diary:

“The table is heaped with cheap prison paper, and with the enthusiasm

of a man partaking of the last meal before setting out on a long and

arduous journey, I write the story of my life. I write of my first encounter

with the English girl, of my subsequent arrest, of my trial and conviction.”

(Nkosi 2004: p. 24)

Thus, Sibiya – as a fictional writer and first-person-narrator – is operating from a retrospective perspective on the past. Therefore the story is not told chronologically – instead the narration changes betweens flashbacks, conversations with a psychoanalyst and prison scenes:

“I write not in an orderly fashion, not even chronologically, but randomly,

setting down what memory thrusts to the forefront of my diseased mind,

with a hasty if confined sense of relief.” (Nkosi 2004: p. 24)

As a consequence, the reader gets to know the story from Sibiya’s perspective alone.

Furthermore there are several narrative threads evolving in the course of the story: the prologue and epilogue, both addressing the “mating birds”; Sibiya’s personal development, thus his childhood, youth and studenthood; his relationship to Veronica Slater; and his therapy sessions with Dr. Dufré.

3.2. The Protagonist

3.2.1. Biographical facts

Though not told in a chronological order and thus at times confusing, Ndi Sibiya’s memoirs enable the reader to acquire at least a rough idea of the basic biographical circumstances of the protagonist.

After a rural childhood – interrupted only by one defining trip to the city, where he experiences an initial encounter with a white girl – Sibiya is sent to a Lutheran seminar by his parents, where he is supposed to learn reading and writing, and in that sense to gain all the “white” knowledge that his fellows don’t have access to, which is why the whole issue is not very well received in his village.

When his father dies, Sibiya’s mother takes him to Durban, where they live in a slum amongst other black people. He soon discovers that life there is totally different from what he is accustomed to from the rural area he grew up in; and while his mother soon assimilates and abandons her old values, Sibiya is not really able – or willing – to fit in.

Later, as a student of the University of Durban, this feeling of not fitting in stays; he soon gets involved into several student protests – but at the same time he realizes that he, as one of the few black students amongst nothing but white people, inevitably turns into a misfit again.

At the beginning of the actual plot of the novel – or rather the events that led to its (fictional) origin – Sibiya, meanwhile expelled from university and not willing to run for a job, has become a jobless youth who wanders through the city of Durban every day, until he finally spots Veronica Slater on the other side of the fence at the black-white-segregated beach.


Excerpt out of 13 pages


Lewis Nkosi’s "Mating Birds". A Character Analysis of Ndi Sibiya
University of Vienna
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
lewis, nkosi’s, mating, birds, character, analysis, sibiya
Quote paper
Melanie Heiland (Author), 2012, Lewis Nkosi’s "Mating Birds". A Character Analysis of Ndi Sibiya, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/448725


  • No comments yet.
Look inside the ebook
Title: Lewis Nkosi’s "Mating Birds". A Character Analysis of Ndi Sibiya

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free