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Mhudi and the beginnings of the historical novel in southern Africa


To make this review relevant to our era of the Covid-19 pandemic, I ransacked my literary mind trying to think of African writers who wrote about a pandemic they experienced in their lifetime. I came back with a blank cheque. Sol Plaatje was one of the major writers who lived through the pandemic called the Spanish Flu, which amaXhosa pertinently referred to as Umbathalala—that which floors you, because one of its symptoms was making you extremely tired. About half a million South Africans died from it—the global figure went to fifty million. Among those who died during the pandemic was the first prime minister of the Union of South Africa, General Louis Botha. 

Nelson Mandela was born in 1918, the time the pandemic was razing down the rural people of Transkei. People who worked in the cities, as migrant workers, and the ones who were fresh from the trenches of occidental tribal wars history referred to as World War I, sowed it in the rural areas. Plaatje himself almost died from the pandemic when Kimberley, where he lived, became one of the major towns the pandemic severely affected, sending about a quarter of its working population into their graves. But to my knowledge Plaatje never wrote about the scourge, choosing, later on, to say his historical novel, Mhudi, was dedicated to the memory of his daughter, Olive, who died from it. Perhaps the experience was too close to the bone for him to tackle it objectively, and, as is evident from his writing, he was not a fan of brooding introspection. 

Plaatje’s novel, Mhudi, was written in 1919 and 1920. It is lauded as the first full-length English novel by a black South African. It is also the first historical novel in Southern Africa that looked, mainly, at the historical events of land dispossession from  black people. 

One of the crucial elements in the human psyche is the need for belonging, to have a story, a narrative, not only as an individual but as a nation also—complete with its legends and myths. In Southern Africa, the organic progression of our cultures and customs was partly disturbed, almost truncated in other instances, by colonialism and apartheid regimes. And our written histories, for far too long, we’re told from a condescending position of prejudice. Hence you now find in us the growing thirst for historical fiction, told from a point of view that respects our values and ways as people, without the othering empathy one finds from white writers who are sympathetic to our black cultures. We’re eager for the telling of our stories and historical events from the point of view that makes sense to our inner lives and intrinsic cultural and intellectual identity, with voices that understand the intricacies of our native languages and proverbial wisdom. Plaatje was answering this need when he wrote Mhudi.

Plaatje described the book as a romantic epic set in the first half of the nineteenth century. It opens with a violet military attack by the impis of Mzilikazi on Kunana (Khunwana, near present day Setlagole in the North West): “Kunana, near the present boundary between Cape Colony and Western Transvaal was the capital city of the Barolong, the original stock of several tribes, who also followed the humdrum yet interesting life of the Bechuana natives…” writes Plaatje on the novel. The Barolong had just brutally murdered two Matebele induna tax collectors, Bhoya and Bangela, who were sent to collect Mzilikazi’s tribute from their tribes. Notto, a wealthy chieftain and father of Ra-Thaga, sent the two men to chief Tauana when they first appeared at his compound. Subsequently, the indunas were brutally stabbed by the Tauana people who made as if to escort them. Mzilikazi could not let this pass and needed to set an example of the Barolong that would teach other vassal tribes an unforgettable lesson in subsidence , while at the same time demonstrating the fatal consequences of refusing to pay homage to their master. His idea was not just to punish  Baroolong but to eviscerate them, lest the incident set a wrong precedent for other vassal tribes. 

Historically this occurred around 1832 in Kunana. The few from the Barolong who survived the attack were subsequently scattered as wanderers all over the hills and fields of the region, as far as Thaba Nchu and Lesotho. Eventually, they formed the core of the wounded tribes who came into an alliance with recently arrived Trekboers, themselves victims of Mzilikazi, to organise an act of successful revenge against Mzlikazzi. Their first defeat of Mzilikazi was in the battle of Battle Hill (Vegkop, 1836). The final battle where they managed to disperse Matebele (Plaatje’s spelling) of Mzilikazi was in Mosega three years later in 1839.  Mzilikazi never recovered from this, ‘he flew with his tail between his legs’ to establish a new kingdom in the north, with Bulawayo as his capital. The victors shared the spoils of Mzilikazi’s empire, cattle and land, among themselves. In a way, it was more of recuperation of everything he had taken from them. Ra-Thaga, the prince of Barolong, was among the leaders of that attack, having survived Mzilikazi’s brutal attack that vanquished his tribe to become a wanderer until he met up with Mhudi, the eponymous heroine of the book, herself recovering from the loss of her emaciated family and tribe. They forged a survival relationship that quickly turned into a romantic affair and a customary marriage. 

Throughout the novel, Mhudi has a far better sense than her husband Ra-Thaga who, though physically strong and brave, is not a very good judge of character. She influences every major decision he makes as a sensible voice and conscience of pan Africanism. It’s apparent that Plaatje deliberately made her smarter not only to complement Ra-Thaga naivety but to be a bullhorn of a feminist drive against general African patriarchal tendencies also. Ra-Thaga’s weak and needy character becomes blatant when they meet up with the Boers whom he fawns over to Mhudi’s irritation. That attitude is more warranted seeing Plaatje make it apparent that the Boers, though compelled to regard them as allies, generally looked down on them below themselves, even if not at a lower level than other savage kaffirs. Even Phil Jay, with whom Ra-Thaga strikes a budding friendship of mutual respect, can’t totally escape his racial past, something that continually creates tensions between them. Other Boers think their friendship is profane and make no attempt of hiding it. When Phil Jay is not around they treat Ra-Thaga in the same derogatory manner as KhoiSan people who are at their cruel employ. For one he’s refused the use of white people’s utensils when they need to drink and eat. When Phil Jay marries, with Ra-Thaga encouragement, a yarpie meisie she sees in Mhudi, not a friend, but a trusted nanny. This becomes apparent when they separate to go their different ways at the end of the war. The Boers reward them with an old bartered wagon to raise their status into what would eventually make them black middle class, or aristocratic blacks. In his real-life,Plaatje was part of the black middle class whose political battles he fought led him to become one of the founding members of the South African Native National Congress (later the African National Congress).

As I indicated, Mhudi as a character is strong and resilient, often rebelling against many of the customs of her times and circumstances. The circumstances of her life often find her making new means of living, of surviving when thinking of ways to rescue her husband from a lion’s mouth—literally and metaphorically. Not even going to the battlefield is out of bounds for her—a blasphemy for women then—when seeking to make sure her husband is safe. She’s wonderfully headstrong and resourceful in making sure she never loses her loved ones again. Ra-Thaga sometimes feels humiliated by her solicitations, especially around other men, but he also had deep reverence and love for her. They loved each other with unswaying and unconditionally deep love that survived all their tribulations and trials, and there were plenty of those. Much of what is beautiful in the novel is when it dwells on their love and lives. 

The novel also addresses the intricacies of land dispossession from an African point of view. The effects and extent of tribal warfare are sometimes exaggerated and reshaped to fit Western sensibilities. Like that of making white saviours who made it possible for great African tribes to be established and coexist away from the intertribal warfare. According to this narrative, great African nations like amaNdebele, Basotho, and amaZulu would not have been founded without the help of white settlers. To date, the tale has not gone bankrupt as you may have noticed, in social media superficial arguments in particular, where opinions are naked and raw in the brave stupidity of sophisticated ignorance. You would have seen that when you mention the tragedy of black land dispossession, there will pop a white smart-alec somewhere reminding you that white settlers fought and worked for this land while the natives were busy killing each other. I call it Shaka Syndrome (SS).

Historical fiction is the point of intersection between literature and personalised memory of historical facts. Its strength is in exploring the inner lives of characters in whom events that will eventually become history happen to. It is the art of giving broad appeal and dynamism to the static facts of history. My slight beef with Plaatje’s novel is that this is not always done to a higher literary standard. The narrative voice of the book is disjointed sometimes. The characters have little to no stream of introspective self-consciousness that allows us as readers to get into the bones and marrow of their personalities. The heavy missionary editorial hand that bowdlerised the formative Pan-African views of Plaatje is also to blame for this. That part of Plaatje’s thought is more apparent and bolder in his earlier book, Native Life In South Africa because it was published outside the country and so had no overriding concerns for the censoring hand. Meanme Mhudi has an inorganic Christian gestalt that artificially emboldens themes, especially from the actions of Ra-Thaga, with blatant designs to fit the clever native narrative. Plaatje’s strong views about land, when they pop in this book, do so in a flavourless chewed up neutral way, or are disjointed to the overall structure of the books—always a tell-tale sign that some passages were cut out. Perhaps the motivation was not necessarily nefarious, more like they were scared the book might end up being banned. The second book was published after and against the discriminatory 1913 Natives Land Act, in London. So it is bolder and such had a far and wide global mobility that reached even the United States under the auspices of the prominent African-American W.E. B. Du Bois before it came to South Africa—it was published here only in the late apartheid period. 

The ultimate goal of a historical novel should be to provide inner life to historical facts; fill, through informed imagination, the gaps of authentic telling by interrogating unhealthy silences of history; confront the bias of interpretation while putting flesh and blood to the dry bones of history. Historical novelists are not supposed to compete with historians; instead, they’re in a symbiotic relationship, like bees to flowers. Their task is to churn the flowering of historians into delicious sweet honey for the general public. Importantly, a historical novel must construct a coherent narrative of the past, creating a world that has passed to show the readers how that would relate to the one they’re living through. Plaatje’s novel fulfils some of these standards, which is why it is still relevant today beyond its appeal for the unresolved issues emanating from the legacies of land dispossession in Southern Africa. 

The genre of the historical novel is also most suited for periods of nationalist soul and identity searching, because how we deal with history also informs our identity. It offers unique ways to talk about the tensions and antagonisms that roil the political condition of a particular age and nation. Because national identity is a collage of domination, the historical novelist sometimes has to refute the sanctity of received opinions of the victors. Historical novelists are often quick off the mark because, unlike historians, they also work  by intuition and informed imagination, especially when historical facts collapse as they often do due to lack of evidence or something. When a historical novel is done well it doesn’t betray history, instead it opens it up for introspection by lending a voice of the past to the future. This is why, to date, our academics, politicians and all often open begin their lectures and talks with the opening paragraph in Plaatje’s Native Life in South Africa: “Awaking on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, the South African native found himself, not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth.” Not only are you able to feel the deep hurt, anger and haplessness of being black at that time, but Plaatje sends us a lightning bolt of consciousness from his age, for us to imagine how desolate things felt to a black person of that age and, must have been grey grimly morning. He also makes this cascade through the canyons and dongas of time into our generation also, to be a river of pain Stimela sings about that must flow through the ages until our land is restored to its rightful owners, or black people disappear in this country, whichever comes first. That is the power of historical fiction. It brings about the depth of fury with an invincible tone the truth always acquires. Historical fiction leases real emotions into historical facts in ways that reincarnate their life and meaning. Like the biblical prophet Ezekiel it tries to answer the perennial voice of God in history: Son of man, can these bones live? And it is one of the most brilliant ways of indexing memory. Hence the historical novelist requires the strength of balancing the demands of fact against the dizzying power of the imagination.

During Plaatje’s epoch, South Africa was undergoing one of the most tumultuous transient processes in its history. Our era is supposed to be a peaceful transient period of legitimate land repossession for the majority. These are moments when cultures compete for hegemony, where traditional customs are dissolved by the inventions of a new language, politics and demarcations in favour of new ways of thinking, mostly fed by universalism that sometimes suspends or dissolves those very traditional identities. Novels are supposed to be great vehicles for capturing all this span and stratification of cultures, especially fragmented ones because they must speak to the deeper fragmentation of political imagination of their times. I found Mhudi lacking in this regard of depicting the inner strife towards the intellectual flowering of our African humanism. Plaatje, in my opinion, missed the opportune moment here because the influence of African humanism was still greater and fresh in our people’s mannerism, having not yet superseded by occidental influences. But he wasn’t able to delineate it in a manner that transcends and supersedes the fracturing effect of foreign influence. In fact, as the black middle class of his era, Plaatje kowtowed to Western sensibilities as the superior of our natural ways. He saw them as the light that was delivering us from our dark ways to the neglect of what is good and superior from our culture. This was a common attitude the black middle of that era held. They, almost all of them (including those who didn’t profess Christian religion), got hijacked by the imperatives of non-culturised Christian ideology. This is understandable only because Ubuntu, which is what I mean by African humanism, shares many values with Christian doctrine, so the transition must have felt seamless to them. 

Historical novels can never be a comfort blanket of history because their success depends on them being transgressive. Because, by necessity, they speak through, or to address the gaps left by known historical facts, or where contradictions—a platform for drama—occurs. Successful historical novels are also usually driven by the compulsions of tragedy. Hence they are the last refuge of memory of those who have witnessed history from the position of the defeated. There lies one of the compulsive appeals for the novel Mhudi to me. The fact that it respects the Homeric instituted to literature imperative of telling things in fairness from all sides, even from the opponent’s adversarial point of view. Plaatje knew what he was doing when in the end he tells the story of Mzilikazi’s defeat with compassion and care, though his protagonists were part of the victors then. The memory of victors is usually diminished in dramatic worth because of the boasting demands of the triumphant ego. Hence, the telling of  so-called historical facts is mostly unsuccessful when dramatised into a historical novel. The power the historical novelist gets most of the time is in siding and recreating events from the emotional power of the defeated, giving their side of the story what the moment of their humiliation meant to them as they chronicle, from memory, the events that led to their defeat. This is almost impossible from a victor’s point of view without the Homeric storytelling powers Plaatje also leased for that part. This power is beyond those of a mere event recording by a writer of history. It requires spiritual participation in the actions that create history, what has religiously termed a prophetic spirit because here you’ve also to depict memory as a means of representation and identity. The English had Shakespeare who accomplished this for them, dramatising the political anxieties of the Elizabethan era and ancient history, and the likes of Hilary Mantel to mine their Tudor past. Before that, the Greeks had Herodotus to make fresh their myths, and Thucydides to report from the battlefields of their world in transition. The Scots particularised the demands of historical fiction to reinvent their culture and traditions that were destroyed by England through Walter Scot. We have Sol Plaatje also who reminds and teaches us how to mine the facts that made us pariahs in our land. Who gives us ammunition to rise from that pariah state, first, in Biko’s language, by killing the mentality of oppressive colonial domination in our minds before enacting real actions. 

The luxury of history is that it affords us a chance to learn about the world beyond the confines of our immediate experiences. This provides us with an opportunity to understand where we fit in the greater scheme of universal things. That’s what history does best, to locate and help us understand how we got here, and why things are the way they are. Historical novels, in particular, position us, in ways more pleasurable than academic study, into the companionship with past events and characters. 

What I now often worry about are the talks that make writers too frightened of being political, to the extent that they sometimes feign foolish neutrality on important topics of the day. Plaatje refused to cower under this trick, which by the way is usually promoted by those who benefited from the injustices of the past. Now, for the comfort of their conscience, they wish to reduce writers into mere creators of feel-good products that must slip easily down the reader’s throat to fortify their confirmation bias of skewed hegemony that still survives by the back door, born-again prejudices of the past as fake demands of higher art. It is dangerous for writers to fall for this trick because it castrates them from their authentic task of standing with the truth at whatever cost. Instead, they want writers to be loyal only to their wallets by betraying their vocations for the rewards of mammon. 

Writers, like the truth, must be subversive and refuse to be turned into cyphers for the system. They must be the spearhead of a revolt against the triviality of habitual thought and the monotony of conventional morality. All artists, for that matter, must strive to be free to explore life in all its varieties, including political ones. Enter imagined realms and  open us to our highest aspirations. Their main concern must be about their craft, turning the raw material of life experiences into art. The only demand we must make of art is that it must be useful to the progress of the ideals of our humanism, even if sometimes, because of that, they cannot avoid being political. Both fiction and nonfiction are political. The difference is that in fiction a writer creates a universe, and in nonfiction, they’re making an argument, as Arundhati Roy once alluded. 

What’s important is the writer’s ability to make art through whatever material they choose. If they decide to reimagine uncomfortable truths of our historical past by dramatizing them into a historical novel, especially if it means prompting us to move away from the comfort of our false positions, to learn from the past, so be it. This is what we must learn to be the legacy of Sol Plaatje in literature.

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