Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali was born on 17 January 1940 in Vryheid, Natal, where he attended Inkmana High School. His parents were schoolteachers. He moved to Johannesburg after secondary school, hoping to study social work at the University of the Witswatersrand. Apartheid legislation prevented him from enrolling at the university, but he completed a degree via correspondence through the London University-affiliated Premier School of Journalism and Authorship. At the same time, he worked as a messenger in Soweto and wrote poems based on experiences in the township. He published his first poetry collection, Sounds of a Cowhide Drum, in 1971. South African writer Nadine Gordimer wrote the foreword for the book, which was published by poet Lionel Abrahams’ Renoster press and won the Olive Schreiner Prize in 1974.
The book’s success gained Mtshali recognition, and in 1974 the University of Iowa invited him to be a part of the International Writers’ Program. Despite obstructions from the apartheid government, he traveled to the United States to participate in the programme. He went on to earn his bachelor’s degree at the New School for Social Research in New York and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Columbia University.
After returning from the States, Mtshali went to workas a deputy headmaster at Pace Commercial College in Soweto. He published his second collection of poems, Fireflames, in 1980. Dedicated to schoolchildren of Soweto, a clear reference to the 1976 political uprisings, the book was banned by the government.
Mtshali worked briefly with the South African Council of Churches then returned to the U.S. in 1988. He studied at Columbia for his doctoral degree, earned in 1998, then spent several years teaching until coming back to South Africa in 2007. He became a lexicographer, collecting Zulu folk songs and translating classic works of literature and his own poems into Zulu. The most recent edition of Sounds of a Cowhide Drum includes Mtshali’s Zulu translations alongside his original English poems.