Exploring South African History in ‘Mhudi’ by Sol T. Plaatje

A Story of Love and War

A South African epic that spans the period of war between the Matabele and the Barolong from 1832 to 1837. This historical novel gives an illuminating account of a part of South African history and culture. It’s also a story of love, following the journey of Mhudi and her husband Ra-Thaga against the background of the tragedy that befalls the Barolong people and the rise and fall of King Mzilikazi.

The pastoral and idyllic life of the Barolong is disturbed by the invasion of the Matabele, whose King imposes taxes on them. One day when the Matabele tax collectors are killed by the Barolong, he warns them of the tragedy which will befall them, and how they will pay with their blood and the blood of their children. Indeed, the Matabele mercilessly attack Kunana village.

From here on we are introduced to Ra-Thaga and Mhudi and how they fled the massacre. We follow their love story, their life in solitude without any of their people, and making a home in the forest. We’re also introduced to the arrival of the Voortrekkers and their alliance in defeating Mzilikazi.

Mhudi is based on historical facts, the actual events of King Mzilikasi’s battle against Barolong. I discovered the connection between the Zimbabwean Matabele people and the South African Zulus here in Mhudi. King Mzilikazi detached from Shaka’s Zulu tribe and he moved off to Transvaal, where the battle with the Barolong follows, and after his defeat he ended up in Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia), settling in the regions of Matabeleland North, Matabeleland South, and Bulawayo.

In addition to the rich historical context of the novel, Plaatje’s style is also interesting. The disjunctive way he tells the story; the deviation in chronological order and the way he gives the reader an opportunity to see and understand the events from different angles and different points of view.

It’s a magnificent and profound book and one which, hopefully, is included in African literary syllabi to add to the learning of South African history.

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Autodidact & Bibliophile

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