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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 while Plaatje was living for the second time in London that he began to write the novel. 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.
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. 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.
Ra-Thaga travelled for two months into the unknown without seeing a single soul. Plaatje writes: the loneliness was frightful. 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:. 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.
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:. 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.
Then the weaning of calves, cattle and some more nature were introduced into this interconnected mix:. 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 a personal extension of the self. A Setswana idiom said: A fool with an ox is no longer a fool. 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.
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. 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. 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. We are after freedom. The English laws of the Cape are not fair to us. 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. 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.
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. 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 see that short, stout Boer who laughed the loudest, and how he emptied the gourd of sour 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.
Mhudi by Sol Plaatje
Sol Plaatje was a pioneer in the history of the black press, and also one of the founders of the African National Congress in It takes a historian who was invested many years in research to write a biography as detailed as this one. It is as detailed as it is beautifully written in accessible language. In May Plaatje wrote to his old friend Georgiana Solomon, now well into her eighties, the latest letter in what seems to have been a regular correspondence.
Mhudi, by Sol T. Plaatje
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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 while Plaatje was living for the second time in London that he began to write the novel. 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. 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.