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Plaatje’s discursive battle against colonial pariahdom in Mhudi: A century later


The aim of this paper is to situate Mhudi in Plaatje’s broader argument against colonial pariahdom. Plaatje’s decision to write the first-ever English novel by a “Black African” was impelled by an aspiration to counter and debunk a dehumanising discourse aimed at depicting African people as a people without history, religion, art, political jurisprudence, and most importantly a knowledge system.  Plaatje wrote Mhudi (Setswana for fog) during a three-year sojourn overseas with the intention that it was to be a fictional accompaniment to Native Life in South Africa. Plaatje sought to show that his people fit the Aristotelian criterion of being human, namely, endowment with rationality. Thus in the preface, Plaatje declared that his objective was, “to interpret to the reading public one phase of ‘the back of the Native mind’”. More specifically, Plaatje used Mhudi to demonstrate that before the arrival of settler-invaders, his people (the Barolong) had already constituted a civilised society and had an unwritten constitution that was geared towards ensuring societal harmony, that was opened to assimilating edifying foreign influences, and that commanded that non-nationals must be treated with hospitality. 

On the one hand, Plaatje, therefore, wielded the sword of literature to rebuff the coloniser’s history and to affirm his people’s story in order to establish historical belongingness and worldliness. On the other hand, Plaatje, similar to Caliban in Aime Cesaire’s A Tempest and to Friday in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, used the self-arrogated tools and norms of western modernity (rationality, literacy, equity and natural rights) to expose the paucity of the much-proclaimed British sense of fairness and to excoriate the colonial legal order for its inherent duplicity. Thus in 1921, Plaatje published a booklet titled The Mote and the Beam: An Epic on Sex-Relationship ‘Twixt White and Black in British South Africa. Plaatje appropriated the title of Jesus’s discourse on judgmentalism to make the case that behind colonialist discourse, its civilising justification and legal system lay bad faith, double standards and often white uncivilised behavior. He thus closed this booklet with the following parting shot: “And as it is true that white men brought Christianity and civilisation to Bechuanaland, it is also true that the first authenticated cases of rape, murder and suicide in Bechuanaland were the work of a white man”. 

The main insight of this essay is that with Mhudi, Plaatje sought to carry on his advocacy against the situation of pariahdom that he bemoaned in Native Life in South Africa. We would recall that in Native Life, Plaatje argued that land dispossession and perennial dislocation had reduced Black life into a form-of-life worse than slavery. To be pariah, as Plaatje saw it, reduced a human being into a non-entity –  a non-entity is worse than being property/slave. It is to be a nothing. In his language, to be selo hela – a cosmic hobo. This is why in Mhudi, he emphasises the fact that his people had a home and that homing was key to being-becoming. Not only that, he shows that to be a human being is to be humane and that a key to being humane to others was to display hospitality to strangers. In Mhudi, Plaatje has one of the Barolong Chief explain this hospitality as follows: “my home is his home, my lands his lands, my cattle his cattle, and my law his shield”. Settler colonialism negates all this. The settler leaves his home to establish a home elsewhere. In this process, the settler creates “the native”, de-homes the natives and ultimately, and constantly, physically and psychically dislocates the native. This is what it means to be a pariah. 

The point here is that Plaatje understood that to challenge constitutionally-sanctioned pariahdom, he had to produce works of fiction and non-fiction that contested and undermined the discourse that under-girded this constitution. This is the first insight that we can draw from Plaatje’s critique.

For the aforementioned reasons, the insight here is that struggles against settler colonisation and deprivations of belonging must begin with a frontal attack on colonialist discourses. Such an attack would be geared towards refusing a discourse that legitimises colonisation, dehumanises conquered people and produce them as outcasts of the world and pariahs of global humanity. Plaatje recognised this imperative. 

Back to Plaatje. To the best of my knowledge, Plaatje was the first theorist to expound on constitutionally-sanctioned pariahdom. He did this in the context of demonstrating that the Natives Land Act was pivotal to the realisation of the objectives of the constitution that founded South Africa in 1910. Plaatje’s unique contribution was to recognise that the ultimate aim of settler colonialism, in contrast to colonialism without settlement, is to shatter the autochthonous worlds of the indigenes and in their wake to impose that of settler-invaders. Unlike the colonialist, the colonist leaves home with no intention of returning; he or she aims to create a new home elsewhere. In these uneven processes of very violent de-homing and homemaking, settler-invaders seek to displace, delegitimise, and suppress indigenous perceptions of the world, ways of knowing, relationship with the surrounding environment, and spiritual anchorages. In a phrase, the settler aims to efface “the native’s” way(s) of being in the world. More than that, if ‘the world’ is understood as, “…a form of relating or being-with…” settler colonisation and its Manichean logic produce “natives” with the intention of expelling them from the world of fellow humans (Cheah, 2008). As Plaatje understood it, the Natives Land Act accelerated and perfected colonisation understood as dehumanisation and the production of “natives” as pariahs of “the new world”.

It is with this understanding in mind that Plaatje mobilised the lexicon of natural rights and the discourse of rationality to resist his people being cast as outcasts of the world. Plaatje was aware that at the heart of the aforementioned worlding and de-worlding processes was the eruption of western modernity into the world of the conquered. Western modernity is that long fifteenth century phenomenon whose condition of possibility is the violent expansion and universalisation of Europe and Eurocentrism; and at the other end, the dispossession, dislocation and, ultimately, ‘invisibilisation’ of the rest of the world. In the logic of western modernity, the colonised are ‘colonisable’ because they are not endowed with thinking capacity (Ramose, 2002: 526). This is because in this logic, unlike Descartes “non-westerner” does not think and, therefore, he or she is not (Maldonando-Torres, 2007). This is also the condition of possibility for the expulsion of the colonised from the world of the same. 

According to colonialist discourse, “non-western” populations (“savages” and “primitives”) can only be in the world of humans as dispensable tools of western modernity. However, and more importantly, colonialist discourse is always suffused with an ethic of horizontal and vertical differentiation. This ethic holds that “non-western” peoples can never be as human as people of the west; and at the same time, following the logic of divide and rule, that some “non-western” people or “tribes” or castes are better than other “non-westerners,” and can become westernised through western tutelage (Acheraïou, 2008: 216-217). It is this latter group of “natives” that appropriate Christian mission philosophy and the values of the Enlightenment to resist invisibility and what I am here calling de-worlding discourses. 

The point here is that more than just simply protesting the Act, Plaatje and members of his group – all Christians and western-educated – undertook their deputation to the imperial government to resist their interpellation as sub-humans and outcasts of the world. Even more critically, they also sought to remind citizens of the metropole that colonised worlds and colonising worlds are co-constitutive. Their reasoning for the latter proposition was that colonised peoples have contributed as much as any British subject to the making of Great Britain and the western world.

Towards this end, very much like Caliban’s appropriation of Prospero’s language in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Plaatje appropriated the legal and literary language of the British to resist invisibility as well as constitutional attempts to produce him as a pariah. Plaatje was, therefore, aware that his narrative of resistance had to extend beyond simply countering colonial laws and their impacts. To be effective, his account had to challenge the whole gamut of colonialist discourse since it was this discourse that produced “natives” and the latter creatures’ specific form of life: a pariah life divested of worldly belongingness. Plaatje was thus unambiguous that his,

…appeal is not on behalf of the naked hordes of cannibals who are represented in fantastic pictures displayed in the shop windows in Europe, most of them imaginary; but it is on behalf of five million loyal British subjects who shoulder ‘the black man’s burden’ every day… (2007: 18-19).

In contesting the Natives Land Act, and thus the Union constitution indirectly, Plaatje thus staked his and his people’s belonging to a common humanity and a shared imperial citizenship.

The genius of Plaatje was to show that a radical refusal of settler-colonial constitution and its laws would involve a radical challenge of their underwriting discourse. It is important to remember that this discourse is based on a dichotomising system (savage versus civilised, primitive versus modern, human versus not-yet-human) that underlined nineteenth century anthropological discourse.

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