Connect with us


Mqhayi – Part 2



After last week’s introduction to the work of the isiXhosa author S.E.K. Mqhayi and a discussion of the new English translation of his novella The Lawsuit of the Twins, I am turning now to his other newly translated novella in the African Pulse series, Don Jadu. Brace yourselves, because it’s a highly controversial piece of work. Don Jadu (1929; expanded 1935) has the sub-title “Travelling as Education”, an anticipation of the title Mopeli-Paulus gave his poetry collection Ho Tsamaea Ke Ho Bona (1945), “To Travel is to Learn.” A sub-sub-title reads “A story that encourages unity and development.” We shall see about that. There is a charming Preface, in which we find Mqhayi displaying a certain wry humour, tailing off with “I will end here and leave it to [Don Jadu] to tell his own story. Yours today and yesterday.” In the first section of the novella, Don Jadu, twenty, sets out on a 30-mile journey to visit his aunt. The episodic  narrative has him encounter policemen; armed robbers; ostriches (“we who have grown up in the land of the Xhosa, we don’t take ostriches lightly”; as for me I’d take on an armed robber rather than an ostrich any day—have you seen those bloody things out at Khotsong?); next up are hostile Boers; dogs; boys; girls; a friendly and hospitable Boer. Each of the encounters is set up by Mqhayi to get across a lesson (this novella is nothing if not didactic); these lessons synthesize the teachings of Christ with principles such as ubuntu (reminding us that a person is a person because of other people). Before I go on, I want to address a puzzle. In his first encounter, Don Jadu is challenged by one of the policemen with “’Are you a Lawu?’” and in a later encounter he describes one of the robbers as “a Lawu man”. The word is used several other times in these opening pages, with a Lawu associated with lies and malice and the breakdown of communality. The African Pulse edition has a glossary,but the word Lawu is given only a brief and unhelpful explanation, despite its obvious importance to the narrative. As I don’t speak a word of isiXhosa, I asked around (and my thanks to Bo ‘M’e Pumela Mahao and Antjie Krog for enlightening me). Lawu basically means San or Bushman, and it is a derogatory term and so unacceptable (like “kaffir” or “native”). I guess this is why the editors shied away from giving a full account of it in the glossary, but as its use tells us something about Mqhayi’s writing maybe they should have grasped the bullet more firmly. Section Two of the novella has the hero some years later undertaking a variant of the same journey, during which he spearheads a series of initiatives aimed to build up education for the people, encouraging them to work towards self-sufficiency, and to reform labour relations. One passage after another reveals Don Jadu’s self-esteem (reflecting his author’s?): “when [a large crowd of workers] took to the road [with me] it was as if they were following a statesman”; “right to the end I had everyone eating from the palm of my hand.” A deeply troubling aspect of the first two sections of the novella is the trust it places in reformism (Mqhayi was writing under a harsh colonial regime, which was growing ever harsher), the facility with which people’s lives are enhanced, with no opposition from the holders of power, and the novella’s avoidance of a confrontational political agenda. As far the narrative form is concerned and the way it’s used to build up the didactic material, the impact is both attractive and preposterous (Don Jadu  is at one level a good read, especially it’s love-story element. But then comes the final section, added in 1935, and titled “The waking up of black people in accordance with their tradition.” You might expect “waking up” would have something to do with the liberation struggle, but you’d be well wrong. What it has to do with is the establishment of the country of Mnandi, inspired by the following gob-stopping creed: “the black man should get off the back of the white man and be independent and succeed on his own, in accordance with the traditions and customs of his origin; and he should stop frequently emulating the whites, whose livelihood is different from his”. That bit about the black man getting off the back of the white—who exactly was on whose back in the mines and in the fields (mines and fields developed on stolen land?? As for the country of Mnandi, the word that springs to mind is Bantustan. This is not to say the last part of the novella is without merit (despite all the reservations above, I do understand  that Mqhayi was a great writer). There is this rather fine passage: “acceptance of the Word and of progress are not reasons for casting off traditions and customs that are central to the nation’s existence” (this is a principle that underlines the work also of B.M. Khaketla, and of course that of Mofolo—his employers at Morija couldn’t see that point; they just loved Moeti oa Bochabela but were appalled by Chaka). Some of the Laws and Codes of practice set out at the end of Don Jadu (this manifesto masquerading as a novella) are rather appealing, such as the following: a young woman who is made pregnant out of wedlock is to be punished as follows: “there will be older men with grim faces, twenty of them, called to the temple to enter and sit there. The girl will be made to enter and stand in front of them for some time, while they look at her in silence. In the other room the young man will be looked at by twenty women with sombre faces. This punishment is very painful to young people.” There is also this passage from the very end of the book: regarding the establishment of Mnandi “it indeed proved wrong what some people had feared, namely that black people . . . could never achieve anything independently because the State did not want the success of black people.” Nonetheless, I believe what I said above still holds true, the concept of the independent Mnandi brings Mqhayi frighteningly close to the concept of the Bantustan. Chris Dunton

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



Copyright © 2022. The Post Newspaper. All Rights Reserved