A Sin of Omission, a novel by Marguerite Poland

Set in the Eastern Cape (South Africa) of the late 1800s, A sin of omission follows the story of a black South African Anglican deacon, Stephen (Malusie) Mzamane, who has to journey to his mother’s rural home to inform her of his elder brother’s death. A sin of omission is one of six titles which were shortlisted for the Walter Scott Award 2020. The author, Marguerite Poland, who spent her own formative years in the Eastern Cape, is the recipient of two national Lifetime Achievement Awards for English literature, one from the Department of Arts and Culture in 2005 and then in 2010 from the South African Literary Awards. On 28 April 2016, the Order of Ikhamanga - Silver (OIS) was conferred on Marguerite Poland‚ for "her excellent contribution to the field of indigenous languages, literature and anthropology."


Xhosa Cattle Killing

During the 1860s, in the aftermath of the ‘Cattle Killing’ of 1856 which decimated the herds of the Xhosa people, many children were taken in by missionaries to save them from starvation. The colonial government proposed to educate the sons (and someXhosa cattle daughters) of prominent Xhosa families with the purpose of encouraging loyalty and subservience, while the Church was eager to win souls for Christianity. The protagonist of the novel is based on the real life of one such child, Mtutuko Stephen Mnyakama.

Over fifty years ago, Marguerite Poland’s great uncle told her the story of a young man at his grandfather’s mission station in the Eastern Cape. It was the story of this Reverend Stephen Mtutuko Mnyakama, and the novel, based on his life, is dedicated to his memory.

In the novel, the protagonist and his brother are rescued as children by English Anglican missionaries and they are brought up and educated as Christian missionaries: they go to the Native College in Grahamstown, from where the most promising students would be sent to be trained at the Missionary College in Canterbury, England.

English Missionaries

St. Andrew's College Cape Town

Only Stephen is sent to England to continue his studies; his brother is deemed too rebellious. In England, he observes how foreigners are treated, and how different he is, although the English try hard to create an Englishman out of him. On his return to South Africa, he is reminded of the racial inequality between the governing white colonists and the indigenous population. So while Stephen can speak like an Englishman, is educated, and is a devout Christian, his colour prevents him from having the usual privileges accorded to newly-trained missionaries.

He is sent to a poor and remote mission, Nodyoba, near Fort Beaufort, back in the Eastern Cape, but this is not what he had dreamed about and he encounters prejudice from colonial society, from within and beyond the Church, and is forced to see the extent of his dislocation from his own people. He does not belong to either society and he questions his own sense of self. A war breaks out between his clan, the Ngqika, and the British. Does he support his people who are fighting an unjust system? Or does he uphold his faith and his vows? He has to choose between conflicting loyalties: his own people, including his own brother, and the colonial cause as a clergyman.

A Sin of Omission

The title, also a Christian concept, refers to the failure to do something one can do. If an omission happens deliberately and freely, it is considered a sin. In the novel, it also refers to things that are unsaid and done; unexpressed discriminating judgements, unfulfilled promises and things Stephen himself doesn’t tell. The sin is also on the part of the Anglican Church and the omission is their inability to see what they were doing; creating people who could not fit in either to their own society or the colonial one. The novel focuses on identity; how we create it, and how important identity is to the forming of a person’s character.

One example of the insensitiveness of missionary education is their practice of name-changing. Names in African society hold a significance which is respected and honoured in a particular way, and the mission children were given English names. The protagonist is renamed Stephen. His brother Mzamo, a more rebellious figure who gets into a lot of trouble, refuses the Christian name of Saul that was given him by the missionaries, and is partly the reason he is denied the education given to his brother who does toe the line.

Unequal society

This is the story of a man caught between two worlds. The white people who knew and educated him were either too naïve or not in a position to help him as he struggled. Stephen is still a native and treated as such by the colonials. Quoting Marguerite Poland, “The obstacles and hurts that my character faced in the 1870s and 1880s still exist. Sins of omission are not so difficult to identify and be addressed or punished. They are committed by everyone daily through the small slights, neglects, prejudices and lack of empathy that are ingredients of the human character, particularly in societies where prejudice and gross economic inequalities exist. Most such sins are committed out of fear, of ‘becoming involved’, apathy or simply lack of sensitivity to the feelings or needs of others. Other ‘sins’ are greater and underscore the dictum that evil will flourish if just men do nothing. We still live in a very unequal society in South Africa.”

Angela Robson

Photo’s (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license):

Nguni cattle (Justinjerez)
The chapel at St. Andrew’s College and Anglican School in Grahamstown, South Africa (Andrew Hall)





Additional reading:

'History', 'literature', and 'English' : reading the Lovedale missionary record within South Africa's colonial history, by Leon de Kock


The dead will arise : Nongqawuse and the great Xhosa cattle-killing movement of 1856-7, by J.B. Peires