Before we explore the underlying philosophy of the novel, it is important to understand exactly where Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje emotionally and physically found himself when he wrote this text.
It was around 1920 while Plaatje was living for the second time in London that he began to write the novel. His first visit was as the secretary of the SA Native National Congress, travelling with other representatives to England to persuade the British government to repeal the Natives’ Land Act of 1913. The second time his mission was broader: to solicit help against the increasingly discriminatory legislation of the Union, resulting in wide-scale dispossession, segregation and destructive labour relations.
Through the intimate knowledge Plaatje as interpreter picked up in the courts about what justice was supposed to be, what rights and franchise were supposed to secure, he was certain that he could make the British government in London see that the structures they had put in place were doing the opposite. He knew that black people were treated differently in England than in South Africa, so he wrote: “Africa belongs to all her citizens who obey the law, and the English settlers who are acknowledged as South African citizens, as well as foreign nationals who in their country of origin treat diaspora Africans with dignity, affording them equal rights and not discriminating according to colour or creed.”
But it eventually became clear to him that the law itself was not immune to injustice in the hands of a government that denies part of its citizenry elemental rights. So in his five years in England, the US and Canada, Plaatje more and more became a cultural broker, a translator and a negotiator of note, whose boundary crossing can be read as a response to his acute awareness of the racial divisiveness of the social reality of his life at home. In London he was: Plaatje the Barolong, socialised in the Setswana tradition, working tirelessly as a linguist to preserve the language and rich archive of Setswana proverbs, fables and oral history; Plaatje the African, who in his political work advocated the unity of black people across ethnic lines to foster a nationalist ethos and thus formulated the earliest and most inclusivist phase of black nationalism.
So the man who sat down in a rather cold rented room in Kent to write Mhudi was in many ways fighting against the feeling that his heart was broken. He believed in justice. He believed that people deserved to be treated with equal respect. He believed if he could only find the right words and give the right examples the true British authorities would intervene in the actions of those whom he believed did not really understand what justice was about. What came out of this effort was not only the first novel written by an African in English and therefore a cornerstone of South African literature, but a deeply moving account of what could have been in this beloved country of ours, if only….
Already in the opening pages, Plaatje establishes his underlying philosophy of interconnected communities. As in the other famous indigenous novel Chaka by Thomas Mofolo, the first pages carefully sketch the geographical space of the story and the communities living there – but it is done as if travelling in a quiet high-up drone over the landscape: everything is seen, everything is named, nothing divides, nothing separates, the area between central Transvaal and the Kalahari desert see people living in large communities sowing, harvesting, melting iron, hunting, raising families, squabbling and breeding cattle. Without money, without watches, says Plaatje. Without orphans, without obvious wealth and poverty.
On these communities “descended” the first signs of disruption. Fleeing Shaka, Mzilikatse, a “powerful usurper” ruling by the “sword” moved with the Matabele along the banks of the Vaal river “like a swarm of locusts” as he asserted his bloody domain and extorted tax on those he had conquered. Sol Plaatje chose the moment when the Matabele finally attacked one of the Barolong communities, for his hero, Ra-Thaga, to step into the light. Fighting side by side with his peers, Ra-Thaga witnessed many terrible killings, found the family’s cattle post trashed and among all the dead bodies and ruins, decided to flee. Ra-Thaga travelled for two months into the unknown without seeing a single soul. Plaatje writes: the loneliness was frightful. Ra-Thaga slept in trees and built himself a solitary nest, descended from there “to search for the company of human beings.” The more he searched, the more his feet “dragged”, his spirit “drooped” and the solitude filled him with doom and he was wondering whether he could still speak his language or communicate with another human being.
This was an important trope in early African literature: the investigation of solitude and loneliness. In a long monologue, in the famous Sesotho play Senkatana by SM Mofokeng, the main character as a solitary survivor looked at the unbelievable beauty of Lesotho around him and lamented:
What wonderful beauty! This unending beauty!
Oh, but beauty is not beauty if it is only for one.
It fills up your heart, and then bursts it,
You are left in anguish!
Happiness that cannot be completed being alone.
All are created to be free, it is our right,
All are created to live with others,
To witness with them, to rejoice with them, to live together with them!
Without others freedom is not freedom, but painful bondage!
It becomes the deepest darkness.
After a distressing description of Ra-Thaga’s loneliness, Plaatje moved to the magnificent scene in which he met the main character of the book, the heroine Mhudi. He vividly drew the picture of a slender young ‘maiden’ running softly towards, but not seeing, Ra-Thaga. When he stopped her “the girl stood panting like a hunted fox”, uttering one word: “tau”. It appeared she bumped into a lion whose uppermane she mistook for moving autumn grass. The young man and woman linked up as she also referred to her lonely wanderings for months into the wilderness, yearning to meet another human being.
Plaatje describes her: She was frightfully travel-stained, her hair a bit wild, but, says he: Mhudi had a magnificent figure. Her forehead completed the lovely contour of a slightly emaciated face, the colour of her skin was a deep brown that set off to advantage her brilliant black eyes. A pretty pair of dimples danced around her cheeks. And when she blew the fire with her bewitching mouth and beautiful lips, she seemed to blow something into Ra-Thaga that almost maddened him with ecstasy. He described her apron of twisted strips, the springbuck skin drooping from her hips, the rug of lambskin hanging from her shoulders and above her beaded anklets he saw the most beautiful limbs he had ever seen. “A royal pair never sat down to a meal with greater relish than the rescued Mhudi and her chivalrous comrade, as they partook together of the wild beef from a flat stone which served as an improvised dish and table in one.”
In Chapter Five titled “The Forest Home” the author entered the narrative as himself and confessed that this was exactly how his father and mother met and became a couple. There were no home ceremonials, no conferences by uncles and grand-uncles, or exhortations by grandmothers and aunts, no male relatives to arrange the marriage knot, no uncles of the bride to divide the dowry. Through this description Plaatje depicts the interrelated way families functioned. It was a simple matter of taking each other for good and ill with the blessing of the God of Rain. The forest was their home, the rustling trees their relations, the sky their guardian, and the birds, who sealed their marriage contract with songs, the only guests. Here they established their home and named it Re-Nosi (We-are-alone).
Note how, right from the beginning, the presence of nature is regarded as an organic interlinkedness. If families were absent, nature became family. So the introduction of these two characters who deeply valued interconnectedness but had been deprived of it, set the scene for a variety of contacts with other characters and groups with differing nourishing or destructive effects on this connectedness.
The first was the Matabele. After their killing spree on the Barolong they were relishing in their victory:
By the first streak of dawn, thousands of men began to assemble at the great rallying place, the circular stockade in the centre of the city, surrounded by the king’s headquarters. There were tall men and short men, old men and young men, stout brawny fellows and lanky or wiry ones – a motley mass of black manhood. Some wore furry jackal-skin caps, others wore feathers on their caps. Some had woolly heads, others had their heads cropped while, here and there, a few appeared with black circlets on their heads – the insignia of their rank – others wore nothing at all; but everyone of them carried his spears and shield.
When Mzilikazi emerged from his dwelling, surrounded by his bodyguard and accompanied by his chiefs, arrayed in their brilliant tiger-skins, the effect of the recent victory was manifest by the satisfaction on every face. The appearance of the royal party was hailed with tumultuous shouts. The rattle of the assegais on the shields rivalled even the rattle of a heavy hailstorm. The court jesters sang and leaped, bedecked in all manner of fantastic head-dresses, till the cat-tails round their loins literally whirled in the air.
The king, with more than usual dignity, acknowledged the royal salute of ‘Bayete’ from thousands of leather-lunged Matabele.
Then the weaning of calves, cattle and some more nature were introduced into this interconnected mix:
Hundreds of calves remonstrated loudly against this wholesale theft of their mother’s milk. They seemed to ask what their elders had their big horns for, if hornless people could with impunity practise such systematic robbery at their expense. Hundreds of cows seemed to low some explanation in reply. What it was, they alone knew, but the bulls and bullocks on the other hand held down their heads in very shame, as if lamenting their impotence.
The moon, rose above the hills and appeared like a huge ruddy orb of fire above the treetops. As she cleaved her way upward and mounted higher and higher up the skies, she laid aside her orange glow and assumed a silvery hue. She lit the night with her everlasting radiance as though doing her best to serve the revellers as brilliantly as did her sister orb throughout the day
For indigenous groups, cattle held the key to life and personhood. Cattle were not merely chattel, but known in Setswana as Modimo o nkô e metsi – God-with-the-wet-nose. Cattle were a personal extension of the self. A Setswana idiom said: A fool with an ox is no longer a fool. The family of a successful cattle farmer will have ‘moustaches dripping with cream not wiped on by themselves’ and a prosperous homestead will have enough rich milk so that ‘even the lips of foreigners shine.’
Cattle were the key to both ‘wealth’ and ‘power’. The exchange and payment via cattle signified much more than a negotiated deal. By paying cattle as lobola, or lending to the poor, or exchanging from a chief, or conquering through wars, one interweaved oneself in other social relations. As one’s cattle became part of other herds, so one’s reputation and spiritual interest grew. Cattle made you human. In contrast: Money could not grow. Money had no identity. It came and went – in this pocket and then in that one. No-one knew where it came from. It linked you to no-one.
‘Cattle, in sum, were the pliable symbolic vehicles through which men formed and reformed their world of social and spiritual relations. (145) … Apart from their capacity to stand for particular identities and bonds, cattle also validate the authority of a specific worldview and the social order of which it was part.’ (146)
The creation of these forms of value through cattle was dubbed ‘great work’, the effect of which was ‘to extend the self through ties of interdependence’ and build a personhood.
Among the variety of groups moving in and out of the novel were also the Griekwa and Koranna, but for me, as a Freestater and growing up in Kroonstad with its statue of Sarel Cilliers on the church square, I was bowled over and became for ever another kind of Plaatje admirer, when he introduced a group of Boers. During a weeklong court case dealing with adultery between two couples, the author says this tantalising trial was one day “eclipsed” by the arrival at Thaba Nchu of a party of white men.
They were mounted and each carried a rifle. It was a travel-stained party, and the faces of the oIder men bore traces of anxiety. Apart from that they were well-fed on the whole, as the open air of a sunny country had impressed their health, vigour and energy on their well-clothed bodies, especially the younger men of the party. The spokesman of the riders was their Ieader, a Boer named Sarel Cilliers, who headed a large band of Dutch emigrants from Cape Colony. They were travelling with their families in hooded waggons and driving with their caravan their wealth of livestock into the hinterland in search of some unoccupied territory to colonise and to worship God in peace.
‘But,’ asked Chief Moroka, ‘couId you not worship God on the south of the Orange River?’
‘We could,’ replied Cilliers, ‘but oppression is not conducive to piety. We are after freedom. The English laws of the Cape are not fair to us.’
‘We BaroIongs have always heard that, since David and Solomon, no king has ruled so justly as King George of England.’
‘It may be so,’ replied the Boer leader, ‘but there are always two points of view. The point of view of the ruler is not always the viewpoint of the ruled. We Boer, are tired of foreign kings and rulers. We only want one ruler and that is God, our Creator. No man or woman can rule another.’
‘Yours must be a very strange people,’ said several chiefs simultaneously. ‘The Bible says when the children of Israel had only God as their ruler, they gave Him no rest until He anointed a king for them. We are just like them. There are two persons that we Barolongs can never do without: a wife to mind the home and a king to call us to order, settle our disputes and lead us in battle.’
‘Perhaps you are right,’ said Sarel, ‘but the English may soon have a woman for a king and you must admit that a woman cannot lead an army.”
This piece of engagement is for me a delight. I am delighted to be imagined; delighted that the endless row of negatively imagined Afrikaners in most of the literature in English, was disrupted so early on by a black writer. That someone who had intensely suffered under white people, found it in himself possible to imagine us. And he imagines us ordinary. Ordinary concerned men. He imagines us stepping into the circle of discussion with the grace of vulnerable respectfulness.
Let us look at the scene: first it describes the entry of white people into the lives of black people and not the other way round as we have become accustomed to. Second, whites are described in the same way as other human beings entering the lives of communities – not as some evil spirit, not as the harbingers of destruction, but simply men dropping in. And for me, raised with the near god-like status of Sarel Ciliers, to encounter him as an ordinary man, engaging in a comradely way with black people instead of standing on a canon lifting his hand to the heavens asking God to enable a revenge on Dingaan, was a positive pleasurable relief. This convinced me anew how this country would have benefitted if only we had allowed ourselves to imagine the lives and ways and passions of one another.
Later Ra-Thanga and his friends described the white men with Celliers to Mhudi: they don’t look like the missionaries but must “come out of the sea, another sea – away beyond where the clouds do end.” Their group of horses is as large as troups of zebra, they have a forest of guns. A friend says: I liked their stately beards best. I have never seen so much beard as I saw today, hanging on the chins of those Boers. Mhudi should see those beards. Did you ever see a beard flowing down to a man’s belly? Did you see that short, stout Boer who laughed the loudest, and how he emptied the gourd of sour milk? … After he swallowed the milk, much of it stuck in his beard; he caught hold of his growth like that (demonstrating) – folded it like a cloth, mopped his mouth twice, and his face was as clean as that of a man who never drank any milk.”
The third interesting point about this scene is the verbal engagement. Now one has to remember that Plaatje not only had various reasons to deeply resent Afrikaners, he also felt himself committed and loyal to British values of rights and liberties, but now here the Boere explained their desire for freedom and how the British were hampering it. But the British has a good king, said Moroka. To this Celliers offered the notion of two viewpoints. Earlier in the novel, Mzilikazi said: You see, a man has two legs so as to enable him to walk properly. He cannot go far if he hops along on one leg. A man has two ears to hear both sides of a dispute. A man who joins a discussion with the facts of one side only, will often find himself in the wrong.
This placed Celliers and Mzilikazi in the same sphere of wisdom. In a fascinating episode, occurring much later, Celliers’ opinion was asked about the ruling on the adulterating couples. He suggested that if people got married they should stick to their oaths, but King Moroka pointed out that since the Barolong had become much more ‘refractory’ in recent times, he now ruled that these two men and women could take the one they newly fell in love with – in other words, a much more modern and open minded ruling than that offered by Celliers.
I think Plaatje must have shaken his head in surprise about himself, when he wrote how the Boers were saying: No man or woman can rule another. Which means that in Plaatje’s view, the Trekkers had no desire to rule over others, they were simply looking for freedom. But then Celliers slips into gender – a possible queen. And on this they all agree and again, note the irony – Plaatje chose Mhudi as his heroine, ascribed to her the bravery of four separate and successful encounters with lions, the ability to smell unsavioury plans, to set out singlehandedly to warzones to look for her ill husband, to warn him regularly against simplifying issues. Whatever the Boere and the Barolong were saying, Mhudi ruled the plot.
The fourth point is that the engagement was clearly based on transferred oral tellings: so you hear that a Boer’s name is Schalk von Merrel, (vander Merwe?) and another one shouts” Mieklaas Mieklaas – which of course was Niklaas. On the other hand, every river, hill or plain in the text were indigenously named, confirming the believe that land could only be owned through naming by those who lived on it.
The fifth interesting point is that the Boers made an agreement with the Barolong to punish the Matabele for their cruel way of fighting, killing women and children. There clearly was no notion of: we are taking your land and you better now obey us. The Boers moved into the area as many other groups did and they were forming alliances on equal footing like all the others.
But the surprises in this book are not yet over. The reader moves along with Ra-Thaga and Mhudi, their lives among a community, the impression of bravery and guts they made and the crisis at Mzilikazi’ household when jealous wives plotted against his favourite but barren wife. After the Boers had been beaten at Vegkop/Battlehill they returned to King Moroka to beg for assistance to bring the surviors back to Thaba Nchu. On the road back to the Barolong, a lively friendship sprang up between Ra-Thaga and a young Boer named De Villiers. Plaatje writes: and they made up their minds to learn each other’s language, so De Villiers taught Ra-Thaga how to speak the Taal and Ra-Thaga taught the Boer the Barolong speech. It was the communication and their mutual aversion to the Matabele that forged the special bond between them.
Plaatje did his best to ascribe to de Villiers the kind of characteristics that would endear him to Ra Thaga. The boer’s pride felt hurt by the loss of property, in particular a cow called Driekol. Everytime Ra-Thaga met the boers his admiration grew: their unerring shooting, splendid horsemanship, dexterity of Boer women with the needle, aroma of the food (possibly, says Plaatje, due to the fact that their iron pots were always systematically scrubbed and cleaned) and the lustre of their eating utensils.
But Ra-Thaga’s admiration is not shared by Mhudi. She goes with her husband to visit the boers, and I mean, is that not already something special to behold – a black couple setting out to visit a Voortrekker couple as if it was the most ordinary thing to do. Unfortunately there Mhudi saw how a Hottentot girl was being flogged by a boer, how he was encouraged by other apparently delighted white women, how they clasped the girl’s right ear in a vice. When her husband and deVilliers came back, she told Ra-Thaga, he told DeVilliers and DeVilliers went to free the girl.
Plaatje writes: Mhudi’s whose love for the Boers was thus shattered as quickly as it had been formed, retained a strong confidence in the sagacity of her husband who apparently had the sense to make friends with the one humane Boer that there was among the wild men of his tribe. And when they left, she shook the dust of Moroka’s Hoek off her feet and vowed never to go there again. She also began to call the Boers: my husband’s friends.
Yet it feels as if one cannot read enough about the friendship between the two men, their conversations, their noticing of each other’s pleasure and discomforts. The men became friends in a non-hierarchical way only because they learn each other’s language. Gayatri Spivak, in “The Politics of Translation,” speaks of the connection between solidarity and second language acquisition when she points out that “if you are interested in talking about the other, and/or making a claim to be the other, it is crucial to learn other languages” (192, emphasis added). So for Mhudi it was harder: De Villiers’ wife could not speak Setswana and did not offer to teach Mhudi die Taal. While translation becomes the vehicle of imaginative connection across and through difference for De Villiers and Ra-Thaga, the novel shows the debilitating influence of the social realities of the time on the potential of learning the other’s language. This becomes particularly obvious in the interaction between the women: Annetje too had fallen in love with Mhudi. “She said if she lived to have little ones of her own surely they would be proud to have for an ayah such a noble mosadi as Mhudi.”
Throughout the text, Plaatje supplied translations for Setswana words, usually immediately following the word. Here, however, his narrative withdrew its translative function. The utopian moment was foreclosed when Annetje inscribed Mhudi as a domestic servant. Plaatje’s mixing of languages juxtaposes “ayah” and “mosadi” (Setswana for ‘woman’) in such a way as to emphasise the words’ non-equivalence. “Ayah” comes from the Hindi aia and has entered the English lexicon as ‘maidservant,’ ‘governess’ or ‘nursemaid’ of Indian or Malay origin. It is thus a term steeped in the legacy of the British Empire and connotes a servile relationship. “Mosadi” on the other hand, is a neutral term.
The friendship between De Villiers and Ra-Thaga highlights an awareness that their African identities as expressed in relation to each other were radically different to the stable, fixed identities prescribed by their social peers within their respective ethnic communities. De Villiers used Bible texts to confront a group of Boers who were irritated by his disgraceful spectacle of attachment to Ra Thaga: “What did Paulus mean when he said to the Galatians: There is neither Greek nor Jew, bond nor free, male nor female, White nor Black, but are all one in Christ Jesus? That this connection was genuine was expressed through the gift of a wagon and ox to Ra-Thaga and Mhudi from the young De Villiers couple.
At the heart of Mhudi lies the philosophy of interconnectedness and it plays out in its plot as well as the characterisation, but never in a naïve or uncomplicated way. Plaatje makes space for individuality: Mhudi differs markedly from her husband Ra-Thaga although both are in their own way strong and protective. The Barolong differ from the Matabele, yet in each group fools, heroes and sages appear; the same with the broader circles of Koranna and Griekwa, the same with the Boers and missionaries. All these groups, with good and bad individuals, have broader links with other groups from Southern Africa as well as from a variety of those-from-other-seas and are treated with insight as interesting and worthwhile equals. What the foregoing discussion show is that strategic alliances, forms of co-operation and friendship can render the walls of exclusive communities porous enough to allow strangers access, even if only temporarily and perhaps never completely.
But the interconnectedness in the text did not only stretch to humans. His belief in a just and reconciled universe, where all creation, nature and humankind lived in balance, underpinned the utopian sections of the novel. All the groups are placed in a physical landscape eliciting some of the most poetic writing Plaatje ever committed.
Crouching down for the night Mhudi opened her eyes and looked away into the immense depth of the skies overhead reading something there that she had never observed before. This immense dome, so lofty yet so brilliant, suggested the power of its Maker, who apparently also made the trees and birds, and beasts and men[. . .].
‘Last night I dreamt that I … came upon a tree under which there flowed a rivulet. …In their familiar buzzing language the bees muttered an invitation to me to come into the shade of their tree for shelter to eat honey and fruit and be happy. In the midst of this vision I was awakened by the cooing of the friendly doves [. . .] while the butcher-birds and other warblers also sang or whistled in a variety of dialects
War and revenge remained destabilising factors. So when a war broke out it disrupted all wild life, insects – even the comet at night represented an apocalyptic warning to those who disturbed the cosmos’s balance and cyclical stability.
Plaatje invoked several communities in ever widening circles of inclusion: through the character of Mhudi, he challenged conceptions of gender that rendered women invisible or marginal to discussions on community; through creating various communities across linguistic, religious, ethnic, racial, gendered and human identifications he built a non-divisive South African panorama. That such utopian vision bore little resemblance to the extremely fraught socio-political context in which Plaatje found himself, did not make it less poignant. Aware of the importance and limitations of nationalist discourse to forge a sense of commonality, Plaatje offered “the pre-eminent literary text arising out of the first formation of South Africa as a single political entity”
I cannot think of any other book written during these times which so freely and generously treat various white and black groups as equals. When I read the book many years ago, I was uncomfortable with the non-inferiority, the non-fury against whites. It took a new South Africa and more than twenty years of living with the devastation of white rule, that opened my eyes to the brilliant point Plaatje was making about how things went wrong.
Although the living together of many groups seemed his ultimate dream, he ended the book with deVilliers wanting Ra-Thaga to come and live with him, but Ra-Thaga politely refused. Ra-Thaga suggests: white people have a way of writing down conditional promises and treating them as debts. After a gift of a waggon and ox, each couple went their own way and that ending cautioned against a too optimistic portrayal of such alliances. In other words, writing this book a hundred years later, Plaatje suggests that things were at that stage in the mess they were in (land Act, removal of franchise, dispossession, tighter race laws etc) because people all went their own way, when it COULD have been so different. Mhudi can be read as a “great parable of South Africanness” with, what is called, an “ongoing utopian force”.
Of course Plaatje had a number of considerations in mind when he wrote Mhudi. Apparently he wanted to relook a particular historical period from an African and more specific a Barolong viewpoint. It had long rankled him that the Boers, to whom he attributed many of the later misfortunes of his people, owed their survival to succour and help to Chief Moroka from ThabaNchu. He described in a newspaper article that lumping all black people together as a barbarian menace to Europan civilisation is nothing but colossal ingratitude. Therefore Mhudi is also about the inevitability of the overthrow of oppression and tyranny.
Mhudi is a book of many things: the literary creation of a man of complex sensibilities, who found writing it not only an escape from the day-to-day struggles that preoccupied him as he wrote it in 1920, but also the opportunity to give expression to many of his underlying values and beliefs. Plaatje is in control of both his characters and their circumstances, released from the constraints imposed upon his own activities and ambitions. He is freer, he allows his fascination to come to the fore, his humour, his wide knowledge of Setswana culture and proverbs as well as other cultures, his admiration for women and the qualities they possess, his vision of the consequences of the continued injustice in South Africa, his hope that the ideals of interconnectedness might yet provide a solution to our evils, above all perhaps an optimistic faith, a generosity of spirit and a commitment to the idea of a South African nation. All these things were conveyed in Mhudi in a totality and coherence not expressed elsewhere. The result is a revealing personal testimony and a pioneering lovely novel which anticipates in many of its themes the preoccupations of later generations of writers from the African continent.
I do not want to squeeze this lovely text into the straightjacket of a message for our times. Let us celebrate one single man who, far away in a foreign country, gathered within himself his talent, his history and his singularity to write a text that for one shining moment cuts us free into a country that we now only can yearn for. Let us allow the beauty of the novel to wash over us, let us breathe deeply from the oxygen of Plaatje’s imagination, let us set ourselves free in the transformation that only art at its best can bring.