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The story of the construction of South Africa as a construct


by Alon Serper - Monday, 23 March 2015, 9:30 AM

Sol. T. Plaatje.  Mhundi: An Epic of South African Native Life a Hundred Years Ago.  Originally published in 1930 by Lovedale Press. Reprinted 1970 by Negro Universities Press A division of  Greenwood Press, Inc. New York.


The novel is the first novel written in English in South Africa.  It touches on tribal, racial and gender relationships.  It describes the history and coming about of South Africa to what it is today, a tragic country of oppressed and oppressor, injustices and inequality. The roots were laid here at the time of the novel, the mid 19th century.


It tells the love story between two survivors of a tribal massacre of the Barolongo tribe by King Mzilikazi's Matabele tribe.  Breaking from the formidable Zulu nation, the Matebele tribe sought to expand by conquering other tribes, taking over their land, looting their livestock and recruiting soldiers from among them.


The Barolongo tribe was massacred and their capital city destroyed by the Matebeles, after they killed two tax collectors and envoys of the king, in order to serve as a deterrent to the other tribes they conquered.  Seeking revenge, the defeated tribes formed an unholy alliance with the expanding Boers.  The Boers were described in the novel (p. 221) as “”a race of proverbial Bible readers” who argued that they “were God’s chosen people, so they argued” and who “held that it was unnatural to reward a Kaffir [in original  text, Sic] for anything he did as liberally as if he were a baptized Christian”. One can be reminded of soldiers returning from the Second World War with white soldiers receiving a house as reward whilst the non-whites receiving a coat and a bicycle. They thus saw themselves as superior over the inferior “Kaffirs” which means infidels, blasphemous, impure and heretics in Arabic.  Which is what racial colonialism is about.


The Boers’ gunpowder fire power, horses and wagons, that the Matebeles were yet to encounter, made the Boers a force that the Matebele people could not compete with and led to the Matabeles being forced to flee north.  The author made a prediction that this unholy alliance with the White colonialists will cost dearly to the triumphant tribes that will pay a heavy price for it.  It is a story of opportunism, divide and rule and short-termed unholy alliances among rivals who hated each other, for the sake of avenging those who they hated more, an enemy of my enemy is my friend.




The novel threads relationships between the

1.     Barolongo couple (Mhudi/Ra-Thaga) who survived the massacre and the destruction of their city.  It empowers Muhndi as a strong and independent woman,

2.     King Mzilikazi and his favorite wife (Umanandi) who, much adored by the people and the king was nevertheless barren. It equally empowers Umandi as a strong and independent woman as well as caring and noble.  

3.     Umandi and King Mzilikazi's other wives who envied her, conspired against her and forced her to flee for her life, to the chagrin of the king and the Matebele people,

4.     Ra-Thaga and a young illiterate Boer (Phil Jay) he took a shine to and was reciprocated with similar feeling from the young Boer.  The two learned each other’s language and treated each other as equals to the fury of the Boers.

5.     the unjust and cruel Boers and the Blacks who saw the Boers as non-human monsters, whilst been seen as inhuman and inferior slaves by the Boers whose existence is to serve the Boers.

6.     the king and his courageous chief of staff (Gubuza).  The chief of staff tells the unpleasant truth during the victory celebration after the massacre, was scolded by the king, but was courageous during the fight with the alliance force and saved the king’s life.

7.     and

8.     the young illiterate Boer and the woman he desired and wanted to marry, that showed a very patriarchal Boer society. 


The mystical and superstitious habits of the blacks are described.  The predictions of the magicians and the relationship between the magicians and the king are discussed.  The king massacred the magicians when they made predictions he did not like.     In due course, King Mzilikazi regretted and lamented not listening to the magicians.


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Posted by Alon Serper on 23 March 2015 09:48:31

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