The work of classical African literature pioneers such as Sol Plaatje and Thomas Mofolo progressed the intra-textual/intra-reflective complexities of the conditions of Africans in their time and beyond. In the process, it became the new norm or aesthetic in the social milieu and the emerging normative narrative..
The choice of these writers – to write in English or in their languages of origination – is a political act. For Mofolo, it was simple and clear; he intended to advance Sesotho and make it a language of expression, of creative latitude and of officialdom. For Plaatje – who was fully conversant in Setswana, isiXhosa, Dutch and other languages, it was more complex than that. He edited Imvo Zabantsundu in the absence of JT Jabavu and did an excellent job in a mostly isiXhosa publication. He translated two of William Shakespeare’s plays, wrote the canonical Native Life in South Africa, wrote the political ideology of the South African Native National Congress, which later became the African National Congress. This was indeed a polyglot, a polymath and a genius.
It is Plaatje’s choice of producing work in English – including his most famous fictional work; Mhudi – that is most curious. To assume that Plaatje did this to pander to publishers and to appeal to a broad ‘market’ would be to simplify a sophisticated choice. Plaatje did not have to pander to anyone because he was one of the most brilliant intellectuals of his time, and he had audiences in droves. I think he opted for English as a way of expanding his previous work; Native Life in South Africa, aptly published in response to the promulgation of the Natives Land Act of 1913 that officially disenfranchised black Africans of their land. It will be a folly to take Plaatje’s writing fiction in English as mere cosmopolitanism because he succeeded in fusing deeply into the fabric of his story the African folk-narrative and storytelling technique and dynamism in his English writing. That is to say, at the very core of the ethos and philosophy of Mhudi, is a genuinely Setswana narrative.
It is crucial to see Plaatje’s Mhudi as a torchbearer in African literature, albeit in the ‘wrong’ language of English. This means that I do wish Plaatje wrote his formative work in Setswana – as a way of not only establishing but of entrenching and formalising African languages literature. That it took a decade for Mhudi to be published is not entirely worrisome but perhaps indicative of other socio-political issues of the time that I am not concerned with. The tradition of narrativising African stories in English is also not a problem in itself; but to do it at the expense of the language of origination is worth thinking about. Plaatje cannot be blamed for this because he did a lot of other impressive and ground-breaking work in the development of Setswana. His translations are noteworthy, especially of the iconic Shakespearian plays Julius Caesar and Comedy of Errors. His fight with the white establishment over the orthography of Setswana is a critical milestone too. His political involvement stretched him beyond a mere literary figure. It made him the leader of the ‘brain trust’ of the liberation movement and its discourse. But let me return to his role in formalising literature written by Africans in any language.
The importance of Plaatje’s Mhudi cannot be overstated. Mhudi became a pulamadiboho – a pioneering text in this complex animal we today call African literature. Attaching this label of ‘African literature’ to Plaatje’s Mhudi is indicative of the new intellectual’s arrogance. I doubt that Plaatje and his contemporaries saw what they were doing and writing as a formation and formulation of what was to be known as African literature. What I want to believe is that Plaatje and others were simply fulfilling their roles as bards – as recorders of the African condition at that time. In fact, I think they were writing at par if not in the transcendence of world literature. They saw themselves as role-players in the production of literature – not some appendage of the category that we have come to name ‘African literature.’ Maybe this is also my arrogance in writing – assuming that this group of torchbearers wanted to write better than white authors of that time. This is not what I am suggesting because that will mean that our torchbearers failed to define themselves outside of the white literary space. Instead, what I am suggesting is that they set themselves over and above this milieu. They knew the power of the African narrative. They weren’t just writing a response to the ‘white gaze’. Whatever the philosophical reasons, what they have left us with is a history, work and narratives that will outlive our age.
In essence, Mhudi is a Setswana narrative trapped in the English language. Mhudi is Setswana through and through – in its power dynamics, in its narration, its narrative cardinality and in its very being. Because Plaatje was such an acutely aware social and political activist, his choice of English was not a mistake. It did not merely entrench English. But it was also not just a rebuttal of the misdirected and faulty western representation of his people. This is evident in his Native Life that came a few years before Mhudi. In fact, Mhudi is an extension of Native Life. It historicises the usurpation of black people’s land and it gives it a face, a name – a head-strong, warrior Motswana woman named Mhudi. Therefore, Mhudi is Native Life’s sequel – and this alone makes it acceptable as an English text. But it is an English text that meets the Ngugian terms of ‘molding the (foreign) language in our image.’
Mhudi locates the image of Africans in no uncertain terms at the edge of the importance of land ownership. Mhudi makes it clear that land – and all above and beneath it – are at the core of African lives. This is to say that to Africans’, the land is not property – it is a communal asset that defines the quality of life. It is a medium of spiritual connection to our past and future generations. In Mhudi, Plaatje extended his political role – of the anti-colonial agenda of the SANNC (later the ANC) and other liberation efforts of that time. One can surmise that in Mhudi, Plaatje extends his generation’s anti-colonial/decolonial project. While his peers chose the hardcore political narratives, I think it is Plaatje who is more successful because fictional narrative is more attractive than political historical-social narratives. This way, Mhudi elevates fiction above history and politics. It affords the writer the latitude to expand possibilities of history by imagining into existence possibilities that could be missed or ignored by history. Also, history – much like a legacy – is a problematic thing; a weapon in the hands of the victor, yet fiction (especially historical fiction) is a liberatory tool in the hands of the victim. It allows the victim to rewrite themselves into the narrative, boldly and bravely.
I think Mhudi extends Advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi’s thesis about the lawyers who were Plaatje’s peers. Ngcukaitobi suggests that ‘the unfinished struggle for land can only take place through a framework of law.’ Perhaps we can extend this by saying that Plaatje saw an even bigger gap – that we can also employ the ‘framework of culture’ to highlight, to foreground and to complete the struggle for land. It is such a hump of irony that the same ANC that Plaatje helped form in its formative years is the very entity that has relegated culture to the raw margins and fringes of the political moment and struggle for land.
We cannot erase Mhudi as one of the first normative texts of liberation. In fact, it is the basis for formulating the human face of ‘the downtrodden.’ Mhudi is the fictional equivalent of the political texts of the time. While ka Seme, Msimang, Mangena and others pursued the legal constitutionalism angle, Plaatje pioneered fiction in the expansion and humanisation of the liberation struggle. Plaatje’s astute political awareness also placed him at the edge of feminist discourse. He was aware that the political emancipation that was devoid of women liberation was no emancipation. I am compelled to believe that this is the reason his central character became a woman – a woman who confronted the system and challenged all facets of masculinity. This does not mean Plaatje’s writing is devoid of masculine biases and trappings. In fact, in some parts, he glorifies the unending duties of black women and mentions how these were ‘enjoyed’ by women. Yet his women are not weak – and it is this fine gender-balanced writing for an old-generation male figure that makes Plaatje a leading figure of his literary generation; where he does not disparage his female characters or nullify their role in history and in society.
Plaatje’s employment of capitalist concepts in defining the Barolong people is also exciting and speaks of sophisticated and astute literature. Plaatje’s lexicon is advanced – writing in politics and Marxism vocabulary like a man who is busy formulating the founding documents of a political party. He uses natives and peasants interchangeably embracing class dynamics in a very politically educated writer. Yet, he is not entirely or only western. He called to bear the letsema efforts of the ‘native’ life and care for African children as there were “no nameless babies.” To take his cosmopolitanism and internationalism ahead, Plaatje compares his Barolong to the enslaved Africans of Virginia and Mississippi, and the Boers of Cape Town and the advanced white-conquered lands of Monomotapa – defined as the end of the world for Barolong. In this post-Difaqane world, Plaatje lays the foundation for peaceful setting of docile, ‘primitive’ Barolong – but their world is about to be upended.
Faultlines and tectonic plates of strife and war are at play rather very early on in the book. Plaatje is graphic in detailing the brutality of Matebele – in exaggeration for emphasis and in the latter Game of Thrones way – we lose one of the protagonists very early on in Ra-Thaga’s father, Notto. There are no heroes in war – just less badly-off victims who can pick up the pieces of their lives and accept some of their losses. Plaatje urbanises the Barolong settlement of Kunana and calls it a city. This indicates a keen awareness of the advancement of African nations even after their lives were disrupted and their histories disturbed by colonial occupation. This interpretation of the plebeian African lives is vital because Plaatje elevates the African society above cattle-herding and monotony ascribed to us by the (evil) west.
The ravages of war have not abated in the last 100-years of writings. The devastation of the century-old Kunana is defined as an end of an age and civilisation. Plaatje also goes forth to use Ra-Thaga to delineate the rules of war and engagement; seemingly overlooked in the brutality of Matebele. So terrible was Difaqane and the ravages of Matebele among the Basotho people (Batswana, Basotho, Bapedi) that even today, all Nguni speakers are still referred to – somewhat sneeringly – as Matebele.
It is real and evident that Mhudi is the fictional carbon copy of the land issue in southern Africa that Plaatje had opposed most vigorously. The ethos of Mhudi is that of Plaatje’s philosophy and viewpoint of land dispossession. The language of Mhudi reflects this too – in how Plaatje defines the scorched lands of Barolong. He described this in his letters and in editorial pieces that he wrote for his papers and other various media outlets that were owned by other Africans such as JT Jabavu’s Imvo. The clarity of Plaatje’s voice and articulation of complex politics of change in southern African in the 20th century is directly reflected in Mhudi. This observation is not new, but it should be amplified. Viewed in this way, Mhudi becomes an essential and cardinal manifesto of liberation; only in fiction.
In the final analysis, Mhudi is a narrative about war and peace, diplomacy and land ownership. It is a negotiation of opposing values and interests. It is a perennial lesson in nationhood and state formation. It is a formative text on anti-colonial (or to use the term of the woke; ‘decolonial’) agenda. It has fashioned itself as a wedge in the literary memory of the continent. It is a memorandum for the continued fight for African lands. It is a template for the future of our narrative – in times of global pandemics and the extremities of violence visited upon the black body. Mhudi expands the role of the black body as a pariah in its own land – violated, oppressed and excluded significant political discourses and decisions. This pariah status was disguised as a sleight of hand moment in 1994 when the illusion of democracy came to life. And it is to Plaatje that we must address all our gratitude because it is his political and literary efforts that brought us to this moment of near freedom.
Plaatje survived the Spanish flu pandemic of 1912, but one of his children, Olive Ngwetsi did not. Mhudi is written in her loving memory. It is frightening and perhaps prophetic that we celebrate the anniversary of the birth of Mhudi (the book) during another global pandemic of the same proportions as that of 1912. And much like Plaatje, we must soldier on – in service of the ideals that he stood for. Mhudi is such a rallying call.