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Mqhayi – Part 1



OVER the last few months I’ve reviewed several volumes in the new Oxford University Press series African Pulse, translations into English of classic texts from southern Africa. I’m giving this one shot more now, looking at two novellas included in the series by the Xhosa author Samuel Edward Krune Mqhayi. Volumes I’ve discussed previously had direct relevance to Lesotho or to Sesotho literature, but Mqhayi is such a major — and controversial — fi gure that I thought readers might be interested in me tackling him (and I’m using “tackling” here in the general sense and in the sense in which it’s used in rugby). Both of the two volumes have a minibiography of Mqhayi, indicating he was often referred to as imbongi yesizwe jikelele — “poet of the nation” (one suspects this praise-name may have originated with Mqhayi himself). Both volumes also have a photo of Mqhayi in full Xhosa regalia, reproduced from the Cape Times of 1925 and captioned “This is the Xhosa poet who sang praises to the prince of Wales” (the heir to the British throne): curious to reprint this without comment, as the poem in question is nothing if not ironic. One of his best-known poems is his lament for the hundreds of black southern African troops who died in the sinking of the SS Mendi in the First World War: not my favourite of the (many) poems on the subject, as, although it’s undeniably heartfelt, it’s highly conservative in terms of its concept of loyalty (to the race, to the colonial master); unlike other Mendi laments, it says nothing about oppression. The foremost Mqhayi scholar, Jeff Opland, has said that in years to come Mqhayi will be recognised as the greatest poet South Africa has ever produced. I think this is a bit of a stretch, to say the least (Dennis Brutus? Antjie Krog? Masizi Kunene?), but there’s no doubting the man’s great achievement. The two African Pulse translations of novellas have enabled me for the fi rst time to read his prose, and it’s been a fascinating, if troubled, experience. (Early on in his career, apparently, Mqhayi wrote a novel based on the story of Samson, but, as with Mofolo’s novel on Moshoeshoe, the manuscript has been lost — we really do need a Sherlock Holmes to hand!) One of the Mqhayi novellas, The Lawsuit of the Twins (1914) has an extensive Introduction by Pamela Maseko, which pinpoints the imperative of the work as being to demonstrate “how law and jus-tice were meted out in Africa in precolonial times, and the importance of social values in the rulings made during these processes”; the novella is “a deliberate endeavour to validate the precolonial sociocultural practices of amaXhosa, using the legal system as an example”. Lawsuit is, then, a work designed to validate precolonial social organization in the face of colonialist denigration and abuse. The novella has an explosive opening, as younger twin Wele lays his charge against the older twin, Babini — a scene both tense and comic, as the presiding headman fails to follow the argument. The case is then bought to the king’s court, where “men of the court are delving deep”, everyone heard and every point considered. Mqhayi depicts vividly the proceedings of the court, with a real sense of the lived-through; Thokozile Mabeqa’s sprightly translation helps the account fair swing along. The remainder of the narrative has to do with the way the twins interpret the verdict as to which should most properly be considered the elder and which most suited to head the household — a complicated matter due to the number of principles and expectations that have to be taken into account. Throughout, Mqhayi studs the narrative with appropriate praise-poems, to beautiful effect. The final chapters broaden out from the lawsuit, taking in the coming of the whites (“[we] should be kind to them, until they see their inhumanity’”) and the recognition that the social system that the novella validates is to be subjected to convulsive change. A poem on the imminent cataclysm and the people’s appalled reaction to this end Lawsuit as explosively as it began. To be concluded Chris Dunton

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