Sol T. Plaatjie, Mhudi – A Review

Title:                      Mhudi
Author:                Sol T Plaatjie
Publisher:            Penguin Random House
ISBN:                     978 0 143 18540 6
Pages:                   193
Reviewer:           Tumelo Motaung


Twice this month I’ve been chastised by friends for reading old books. First by Ayanda Xaba, and most recently by Ndumiso Dladla, both authors. With only three of all books I’ve read in the year having been published within the last five years, I found myself exposed. Mhudi, which was published in 1910, is indeed an old book. Said to be the “first full-length English novel by a black South African”, there are more than a hundred years between myself and the text.

Having searched for the book over a number of years, purely on the basis of it being on a number of “Must Read African Literature” lists, I was over the moon when I found a copy at Bridge Books during the April Book Club meeting. Shiny new, red, with a Dumile Feni on the cover. I took it home with no idea of what I what to expect.

Judging from the title, one would assume that the novel was about Mhudi, a young Bechuana maiden who finds herself alone and orphaned in a foreign land. At least this is what I said, fifty-six pages on, when a colleague asked what the book was about. Boy, was I mistaken. Mhudi, who later inherits the title “mother of sorrows” is not as much at the center of the plot as she is a part of it. At the center of the novel is the issue of land.

Mhudi, as a character, is strong and resilient, often rebelling against many of the customs of her time. The circumstances of her life find her making new means of living, of surviving, and thus gaining reverence from her husband, who loves her unconditionally. Much of the novel is about her and Ra-Thaga’s love.

A man was not made to live alone. Had it not been for Mhudi, I don’t think you would have known me at all. She made me what I am. I feel certain that your manhood will never be recognized as long as you remain wifeless. [160]

Writing the novel just before the Native Land Act of 1913 became headline news, Plaatjie, who lived through the Anglo Boar War and the voertrek, takes us on a historical journey over the mountains, valleys, and rivers of South Africa; and at times venturing as far as Rhodesia. He does this by describing the events that occurs in Mhudi’s lifetime. It all begins with the separation of Mzilikazi’s Matebele from the Zulu tribe all the way to their battle against the Boers and subsequent migration north.

Plaatjie looks at a time when the “Native” lived off of the land, when the soil was for his sustenance; a time when a man’s power and influence was measured by the number of cattle he owned. He looks at when different tribes went to war using shield and spear, and then how these weapons proved useless against the barrel of the gun.

Although some readers may find the language in the book a little heavy, I found that the humour and richness in proverbs brought the book closer to home. I did at times feel as though the phrases were a direct translation of a local language into English, but that made me relate even more to the narrative. With names such as Tshetsanyana, Matsitselele, Rra-Thaga, Kong-goane, Maupenyana, and Tlholo, the text often required that that I slow down and decipher meaning in the names to better understand the time it was set in.

With the wide area of land covered in the book, I feel I would have benefited from a map of the terrain to better understand how all the tribes moved and where they eventually settled. I feel this would have assisted me much in understanding the current tribal scattering of our people across the land.

She wondered if they too were classed into tribes such as the people are on earth. Can it be that the stars also engage in fighting sometimes, and if so, did they kill one another’s wives and children? Could it be that the thunder and lightning and hailstones that accompany the rain at times were the result of aerial battles. [60]

The issue of race, although not central to the novel, sticks out like a sore thumb. I will remember, many years on, the way Plaatjie wrote about how Boers almost killed Ra-Thaga for drinking out of a cup their cups. I will remember Mzilikazi’s prophesy about how the Bechuana would regret helping the Boers in their conquest of the Matebele, how he said they would turn, take their land and murder them. I will remember these because they are the many lived realities of many black people over a hundred years after Plaatjie wrote about it.

This book, at a time when the policy on land redistribution in South Africa is being tip-toed around, is important. It has, for me, come to be the old and wise ancestor who prophesied the future of land in this country, which saw Africans dispossessed of their land, driven into reserves, and forced into labouring on white farms. Plaatjie, who was a founding member of the Native National Congress at the time, has here written down a tale those reality has spanned a century.

The viewpoint of the ruler is not always the viewpoint of the ruled. [70]

Find more quotes from Sol T. Plaatjie’s Mhudi on our GoodReads account.