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What are the key themes in Tsotsi?

by mickey.geldenhuys
A theme is an important idea or concept underlying the action and all the other elements of a literary work. Writers often use important issues from their own society (e.g. love, hate, greed, poverty) as themes in their writing. A text may contain several themes and these may not be explicit or obvious.

The themes in Tsotsi include a wide range of issues, including ones that are personal, moral or ethical and social. A number of the themes in Tsotsi involve a tug-of-war between opposites where we are called upon to consider and weigh up both viewpoints and make up our own minds. Usually the truth of the matter lies somewhere between the two extremes: for example, there are tensions involving opposing poles as shown below:

Some thematic tensions in the novel

A good way to summarise the key themes is to draw a mind map. Here are some of the key themes in Tsotsi.

A mind map of key themes in Tsotsi

Try to complete the mind map by thinking of events, scenarios and characters from the novel to support the themes. When answering a question in your literature paper, it is a good idea to reference a short extract from the text that supports your answer so while you are completing the mind map, think of a few examples too. This exercise will help you prepare for your literature exam and ensure you have all the information you need to answer questions.

Here are a few examples: 

Light and darkness
When we first meet Tsotsi, the sun is going down and an encroaching darkness is spreading as the gang makes its way to the station on a “job”. But while the gang uses night-time darkness to cloak crimes there is also an inner darkness that Tsotsi maintains through strict rules: for example, “never to disturb his inward darkness with the light of a thought about himself or the attempt at a memory”.
Decency and moral transformation versus crime
Boston’s upbringing had provided him with an understanding of all the things that make up “decency”, which include a sense of morality, integrity, compassion, honesty and ubuntu. His descent into crime, cruelty and murder makes Boston physically and psychologically sick. This is why he suffers an attack of guilt and nausea after Gumboot’s murder. It seems that some of the gang members, notably the cold-blooded Butcher who mocks Boston’s attack of nausea, can never achieve decency as they have no capacity for feeling sympathy for others or any inkling of what decency involves. However, for Tsotsi there is some hope of finding decency. The arrival of the baby in his life and the memories and lifestyle changes that it begins to spark off indicate that he has the potential to achieve decency and to escape the state of inhumanity that rule his present existence.
Redemption and atonement
The Tsotsi we meet at the beginning of the novel is a heartless killer who preys on the most vulnerable of his fellow beings. He is a nihilist, that is, someone who believes that human values are worthless and that life is a pointless charade. He has a “basic horror of existence”. For him the world is “an ugly place” where things are “crooked and … twisted out of all meaning”.
Yet once the baby comes into Tsotsi’s life everything begins to change for Tsotsi. He starts learning to care for another human being and take responsibility for him.
By the end of the novel he appears to have experienced a kind of partial conversion. His career as a criminal is “finished” and he has rejected his gang. He has discovered that he has options and that he can choose not to kill. After being rescued from the shebeen, Boston acknowledges that Tsotsi has changed: “You are different … You are changing … You are asking me about God”.
Most of the characters in the novel experience both physical and psychological pain. Tsotsi inflicts pain on his victims, notably Boston, but also suffers it himself as a street child and as a gangster.
The beggar, Morris, angered and resentful because of his history of suffering and rejection, discovers finally that despite all the pain he experiences, he wants to live.
Miriam must come to terms with the pain of permanent separation from the father of her child. Her Simon goes to work one morning and never returns.

Find more help in: X-kit Achieve Literature Study Guide: Tsotsi

Tsotsi is also avialable in eBook format.


Grade 11