The issue of historical events play a big role in Mhudi. In summary, the sequence of events unfolded as follows: the Barolong executed two of the Matebele tax collectors, the Matebele retaliated and invaded their village, the Batswana made and alliance with the Boers and attacked the Matebele. Those are the constituents of the Mfecane/Defacane war; the same war that was dismissed as tribal wars. It was only in the middle of this war that the Great Trek emerged but the happenings of that war were overshadowed by the trek. “The events of the Mfecane have moreover impressed themselves indelibly on the consciousness of subsequent generations. The memories and traditions of this period serve to maintain the sense of identity of peoples who were vitally affected by it, influencing attitudes within and between groups in many complex ways.” It is clear that the less mention is made of the Mfecane war, the more complexes (psychological/inferiority) is inflicted upon the people who are directly affected/influenced by it. Plaatjie fights to show that the trek was not the only notable event in history; that there is a history that has been repressed and misinterpreted by history recorders/books. This is a perfect example of ‘interpreting the back of a native mind.’ That is why in Mhudi, Plaatjie doesn’t make the trek central to the novel and to history, but mentions it as part of a bigger picture; he actually, in a way, equates the ‘trek’ of the Matebele to
Sol Plaatjie makes Mhudi an interface between the1830’s and 1917; he uses those historical moments to comment on the events of his lifetime. Many of the events then were a beginning/cause of the events he was experiencing in his life. In the preface to the original edition, he mentions that from childhood he’s been taught to fear the Matebele; a warning that I can relate to but have never known the reasoning behind it. He then provides explanation for these notions in the most ‘corrective’ way; it is clear that Plaatjie has a definite view of the continuity of history. As far as I can research, I am convinced that the ultimate underlying issue in Mhudi is that of land. Plaatjie, he himself having been personally involved in the struggle against the Land Act of 1913 (through the South African National Congress), uses Mhudi to give a view of the genesis of this injustice of land distribution. Land is primary to the narrative; the Matebele steals land from the Batswana, the Batswana retaliate, the Boers steals the land from the Batswana. Mhudi was written after the Land Act was registered so Plaatjie uses novel to foreshadow the act. “…the whole background plot of Mhudi is summarized with specific reference to its leading up to and foreshadowing the Land Act”.
In the novel the Matebele are the oppressors whilst in Plaatjie’s time (1917) the Boers were the oppressors. There are a lot of similarities between the events of the 1830’s and those of 1917. To add on the one I’ve already mentioned above, the Matebele introduced the authoritarian tax regime after they invaded Kunana; the same way the Boers introduced the tax system after taking over the land. The idea of law and justice was one that involved consensus politics; debates between chiefs and overall judgement influenced by many wise men. Then in 1917, the justice (or injustice, rather) system that was imposed was more governmental than tribal/individual; the contrast between the Matebele state and the Barolong government can be compared to that between the African justice system and the Boer government during 1917. Also, the oppression of the Matebele over the Batswana was unconditional: women and children suffered the wrath; it would seem that after the Boers took the land, they subjected everybody, including women and children, to their oppression. So Plaatjie uses the dominion of the Matebele in 1830 to compare it to the dominion of the whites in 1917. This is not to say that he thinks the Matebele are just like the Boers, it is the ideology of the reinforcement of their power over the people in history that are similar to that of the Boers in Plaatjie’s time. He portrays the Boers in the novel to be people who ill-treat their servants, as being greedy, cruel and untrustworthy; his time was the height of such behaviour from the Boers.
One of the main characteristics of the African people that Plaatjie emphasizes on is that of hospitality. The idea of ‘my land is your land, my cattle your cattle and my law your shield’ has been taken advantage of by everybody who arrived on that land, especially the Boers; Plaatjie was living in a time of the consequential undermining of this hospitality, hence the novel “is a moral attack on the descendants of those who were welcomed to the land and helped by their hosts to drive off those who threatened it.”
Mhudi employs a lot of prophecies to ensure the comparison between the time of the setting of the novel and the time it was written; Plaatjie uses this to link the 1830’s with the events of the early 20th century. Mzilikazi’s prophecy at the end of the book is not fulfilled in the book itself but used as a technique to focus our attention on the future; when observed, the prophecy is fulfilled because the Boers stole the land from the Batswana and used them as slaves and servants to develop their own land. They also, with the Batswana women, ‘breed a race of half man and half goblin’ (page 175). The use of Halley’s comet is also very important; it appears every seventy-five years and marks the ‘downfall of kings and destruction of nations by wars or sickness’ (page 149).
“Just as Mzilikazi uses this fable as a predictive device to warn the Barolong, so, in the context of his writings and his life, Plaatjie seems to be using his novel Mhudi to warn the whites.” It does not seem far-fetched because after the last Halley’s comet (1910), the next one was supposedly in 1985 and indeed it seems it was the beginning of the downfall of white domination.
So ultimately Plaatjie, on top of emphasizing on the corrective way of viewing African traditions and norms, rates the land issue very high; he feels that without a land, man can’t grow (especially in the time of the setting of the novel and in 1917). As far as I can see/read, Mhudi is a novel about the importance of land; the Matebele cheats the Batswana of land and the Boers do the same. The idea of hospitality and sharing spaces is dominant as a theme, and it is the injustice involved in the sharing of the land that makes the novel what it is. It seems human relations are in order according to the way Plaatjie represents the communal living, the way he represents the position of a woman in the society/family is also a symbol of harmonious living; he also makes reference to the idea of universal brother- sisterhood. I think through the stories he narrates in Mhudi, he’s able to emphasize his need for Africans, or anyone for that matter, to land he can call his own (to define their identity). In the end history lives on: the Matebele are still found in
- “Introduction” to 1978 edition of Mhudi, by Tim Couzens.
- Couzens, T. “The dark side of the world: Sol Plaatjie’s Mhudi” in English studies in
Africa. 14.2(September 1971)