Author: Thomas Mofolo
Translated by: Daniel P. Kunene
Genre: Historical Fiction/Epic Tragedy
Publication Date: 1931 (in Sesotho), 1981 (English) Publishers: Heinemann African Writers Series
Chaka (spelt Shaka sometimes) is the famous novel by the writer Thomas Mofolo of Lesotho. Written in the Sesotho language and translated by Daniel P. Kunene, it is a re-telling of the story of the rise and fall of the Zulu king circa 1787 – 22nd September 1828. This historical fiction is considered one of the twelve best works of African literature of the 20th century by a panel organized by Ali Mazrui.
Chaka is the illegitimate first-born son of Senzangakhona, a local chieftain and Nandi, daughter of Bhebhe, the past chief of the Elangeni tribe. His father, fearing ridicule from his wives and people repudiates the boy Chaka and his mother. It is this repudiation that fuel’s Chaka’s uncontrollable and pathological ambition for power leading to the moral destruction of the character and subsequent death. As cited by the O. R. Dathorne “The historical Chaka is only the impetus for Mofolo’s psychological study of the nature of repudiation.”
News of Chaka’s rejection and his illegitimacy spreads through the villages, making him the object of ridicule and persecution. Nandi, fearing for her son’s life seeks the help of her native doctor who strengthens Chaka with potent medicines. After this, Chaka’s exceptional bravery is manifested throughout the land when he kills a lion and a hyena respectively, feats that earns him the adoration of the older women and younger ones. It also earns him the envy and hatred of his half siblings and the villagers and he flees.
Chaka’s spectacular rise to power is due to the black magic/medicine/ or sorcery of Isanusi, the great medicine man whose special medicine imbues Chaka with power and exceptional bravery, creating in him a hunger and thirst for unquenchable ambition which is fueled only by the stark need for revenge, culminating in an incessant flow of blood. After the death of his father, Senzangakhona he comes back to his village in grand style and takes over the chieftain. Subsequently after the death of Dingiswayo, king of the Mthetwas and Chaka’s protector, he ascends the Zulu throne as king and embarks upon expansion and consolidation of his empire with such ferocity and speed born out of a singleness of purpose unsurpassed in South African history. Indeed, the historical Chaka is known as the Black Napoleon by many scholars.
It is worthy to note that other interpreters of the novel Chaka, have suggested that Isanusi was a mythical figure created by Chaka to pursue his agenda of power acquisition and mindless revenge. As is noted by Nana of ImageNations, ‘this tragic epic story, Chaka runs parallel, at some fronts, with Macbeth. For it was Isanusi who promised Chaka the power he desires, it was he who fashioned him a new weapon and also provided him with a strong medicine that would later make him a great King. And it was within this that his end lay.’
To quote Mark Anthony from Julius Caesar ‘ambition is made of sterner stuff.‘ Indeed, Chaka proves this when he made a shattering decision to sacrifice Noliwa his betrothed and sister to Dingiswayo, on the altar of ambition and absolute power. Through her death, Chaka becomes an absolute monarch, the greatest, most revered and feared King in all Zululand and beyond. His pathological cruelty also knew no bounds.
“In order to comprehend this fully, we should use the example that the number of people killed by him in the ways we have described, is equal to the number of the Basotho, counting every man, woman and child, multiplied three or four-fold. Imagine them all being killed! (Page 153)
Significantly, the death of Noliwa also marks the beginning of the end of Chaka.
Problems of Facts Versus Fiction
The story is narrated by an omniscient narrator. However, he is the first to admit that he does not know or have all the facts.
“I believe that errors of this kind are very many in the book Chaka; but I am not very concerned about them because I am not writing history, I am writing a tale or I should say I am writing what actually happened, but to which a great deal has been added, and from which a great deal has been removed so that such has been left out and much has been written that did not actually happen, with the aim solely of fulfilling my purpose in writing this book” xv
Again he says, “but since it is not our intention to recount all this affairs, of his life, we have chosen only one section which suits our purpose.”
As N R Thoahlane said in the Leselinyana la Lesotho, “By his own testimony, Mofolo in writing this book, did not intend to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the Zulu king, but neither did he intend to tell nothing but exaggerations produced by a facile pen.”
There are areas where facts and fiction are at variance with each other. However, according to the translator, Daniel Kunene, in just about all these, the effect is to build up greater intensity in the plot and to increase dramatic tensions and suspense by creating new juxtapositions of highly volatile events and situations.
An example of the above is Mofolo’s version in the issue of Chaka’s illegitimacy. The historical Chaka was not illegitimate. Mofolo’s artistic triumph here is that since the historical Chaka had a tragic flaw of Archillean stature and proportions, Mofolo had to create attendant circumstances to complement that stature. Another example of divergence comes from the killing of Nandi, (Chaka’s mother) by Chaka in Mofolo’s story. Nandi’s expulsion from Senzangakhona’s household is another area of Mofolo’s variance with history. According to Mofolo, Senzangakhona was very much in love with Nandi and it was only because of pressure from his senior wives that he banished her. But other accounts emphasize Nandi’s volatile temper as the cause of her expulsion.
Thomas Mofolo used the African story telling narrative style in Chaka, with its attendant use of repetition of statements and ideas, directly or indirectly, for emphasis.
The effect of the narrator’s reference to the audience, inviting them to be part of the story telling and the use of the omniscient ‘we’ reflects an identification with the audience that forms an intricate part of the African oral story telling technique in African Folkloric Drama and Literature.
Arguably, the story of Chaka is also a story of greatness, of singleness of purpose, of one man’s heroic achievement in brilliant military strategy. Chaka’s hegemony was primarily based on military might, smashing rivals and incorporating scattered remnants into his own army. He supplemented this with a mixture of diplomacy and patronage, incorporating friendly chieftains, winning them over by subtler tactics, such as patronage and reward. In this way a greater sense of cohesion was created, though it never became complete, as subsequent civil wars attest.
The story of Chaka is also a tragic one; where events built around a figure whose very actions or fatal flaw, that is his pathological quest for power leads to his downfall and his death at the hands of his two half brothers and an aid. Sadly and interestingly his death also marked the disintegration of his empire and the beginning of the incursion of the Europeans into what is now known as South Africa.
“You are killing me in the hope that you will be kings when I am dead, where as you are wrong, that is not the way it would be because umlungu, the white man is coming, and it is he who will rule you and you will be his servants.” P 167
I recommend this great novel for all lovers of historical fiction.