Tsotsi, Athol Fugard Analysis

So these are the ideas which I have been discussing with my class.

Tsotsi is set in 1956, give or take, in Sophiatown, a township on the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa. It was written by Fugard in the early months of 1960 after Sophiatown had been destroyed by the white community in Johannesburg and, therefore, there is an inevitability to its destruction. This inevitability is expressed in the gangs of slum clearance workers and in the language where, for example, the remnants of broken houses are described as being like”skulls”.

Our main character is Tsotsi, the eponymous (anti) hero. He is “the one they called Tsotsi” which makes it clear that it is a title or label rather than a name; and a label that means simply “thug” when translated. It is not a name given to him with love by his mother, it does not connect him to his father’s family, tribe or ancestors – a fact which may have more import to an African audience than a western one. Clearly, there is distance and a disconnection between Tsotsi and his family simply from the fact of his name. This in itself starts to suggest a Freudian interpretation.

The character is also seen to be damaged. He has no recollection of his past and “didn’t know the answers” to any questions regarding his past. He seems, therefore, to be adrift in a constant moment with no history or family to ground him or put his actions into perspective.

Even more profound, he is a man without a sense of identity. Fugard tells us that, when Tsotsi looks into a mirror, he had “not been able to put together the eyes and the nose, and the mouth and the chin and make a man with meaning”. Fugard says that Tsotsi’s own features were “as meaningless as a handful of stones”.

Rather than creating a sense of identity from his own history, Tsotsi seems to create identity in others’ reaction to him. We are shown “the big men, the brave ones stood down because of him, the fear was of him, the hate was for him” and “He knew he was“. In the language of Transactional Analysis, what we see is perhaps a character craving strokes to prove his actual existence – because of the disconnection with his family – but only able to generate extreme negative strokes through violence, murder and rape.

The reader, along with the character Boston, are encouraged to see Tsotsi as lacking empathy or, in Boston’s words “decency”. He is accused of not feeling for anyone and when he attempts to rape the woman who thrusts the baby into his hands, he see her only as mouth, legs, eyes, her “neck with the pulse of an artery”, breasts and chest. A collection of body parts, a collage and therefore capable of being violated without guilt.

So, summing up, we are firstly given a character with extreme anti-social and perhaps sociopathic tendencies; a desperate and possibly manic need for attention, recognition and ‘strokes’; suffering from a dislocation from family.

At the heart of the book, there is a section where Tsotsi remembers his past. An apparently loving mother is ripped from her bed by police in a Pass raid – abusing the system of Passes which limit and control the blacks’ rights to be in any certain area. His father’s long awaited return becomes a tragedy as he discovers the empty house and wails his horror and disappointment and in his rage kicks the pregnant dog. In perhaps the central image of the book the bitch with its broken back then crawls outside to where Tsotsi (who has now recalled his name, David Madoni) has hidden and miscarries, “giving birth to death” as Fugard describes the image in his notes.

I wonder about the extent to which the memory is reliable or wish fulfilment. The mother is very warmly described: “warm” and “safe” are the words which characterise her. And it must be more comforting for someone motherless to imagine her taken from him than having abandoned him.

Anyway, the memory appears to be traumatic.

A Freudian analysis – based on the division of the mind into the conscious and the unconscious – could explain, or more properly provide a vocabulary with which to explain this. The traumatic event was too difficult for David’s young mind to deal with. The event is too visceral, too painful, effectively orphaning him. Incapable of integrating it into his conscious, the memory is repressed into his unconscious.

It is interesting – to me at least – to note that Tsotsi appears to repress the memory through conscious effort. He is shown deliberately fighting his memory, daily honing his knife as a fetish to keep the memory and his trauma at bay.

Because the repressed trauma is not integrated into the conscious, just as an untreated physical injury will fester and become infected, the repressed psychological injury could be seen as giving rise to the sociopathic lack of empathy with which he starts the novel.

Once the trauma is recalled, Tsotsi changes his behaviour: he disbands his gang; he sees Die Aap as a person rather than as a useful tool because of his immense strength; he attempts to reconcile with Boston who he had previously assaulted and kicked so hard he had nearly killed him; he visits a church; he finally sacrifices himself to attempt to save the baby (which had triggered the memories) from the slum clearance crews. It is left ambiguous at the end as to whether his gesture was futile or not: Tsotsi is killed when the wall falls upon him, dying with a very enigmatic “smile”, but the baby itself is not even mentioned. It, too may have died; or may have been rescued earlier by another character, possibly Miriam who Tsotsi forces to feed the baby.

I am personally always a tad hesitant about applying Freudian language to fictional characters but the arc of this book seems to be so apt for it.

10 thoughts on “Tsotsi, Athol Fugard Analysis”

  1. I know Fugard only as a playwright, so I can’t comment on this story, however, it seems to me reading this that the question of identity and the mismatch between the way in which an individual’s identity is perceived by different characters is frequently of importance in his plays as well. It must be a common subject in South African writing I would have thought.


    1. It’s his only novel I think and the language in the book is beautiful and lyrical and full of rhythm. There are also places which just scream out that he’s a playwright: whole swathes of meaning conveyed by a look, a tightening of the eyes, silence… I think it’s a remarkable book!


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