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Thomas Mofolo: Chaka (Chaka)

As Mofolo says in his introduction, this is not a historical account of Chaka (aka Shaka) but a tale, by which he means an account of the legend of Chaka. Initially, it looks as though Mofolo is writing a hagiography, as we follow the traditional tale of the hero, struggling through adversity, son of a king but not recognised, aided by magical creatures, incredibly strong and unbeatable in battle, even against insuperable odds and finally overcoming treachery and great odds to become a great king. Mofolo tells this tale well. Chaka is the son of Nandi and Senzangakhona. Senzangakhona is a king whose previous wives had not produced a son and heir for him, which causes him great concern. He seduces Nandi, against her will, not least because premarital pregnancy was punishable by death. When she became pregnant, he quickly married her and is glad that she gives birth to a boy. But when his second wife has a son, he rejects Nandi and Chaka. Chaka, as a traditional hero, becomes something of an outcast and gets beaten and excluded. Of course, his mother helps with traditional magic.

His first test comes when a lion attacks the village and, while the men flee, the young Chaka kills it. Despite this and a visit from another magical creature, he is still excluded and is even tied up near the edge of a hut, where, it is hoped, a hyena will come and take him. However, when the hyena comes, it takes a young woman and it is Chaka who bravely kills the hyena and saves her. Her intended, however, is jealous and tries to kill Chaka, with the help of his friends but Chaka ends up killing several of them. When his father hears of this, he orders Chaka’s death. Chaka, after killing many of his adversaries, manages to flee. On his travels he meets Isanusi, a sort of wizard, who gives him two of his companions to help him become the king he is destined to become.

The rest of the novel tells of Chaka’s gradual rise to supremacy. He helps Dingiswayo – his father’s king – conquer the various neighbouring tribes. When Chaka’s father dies, it is the son of the second wife who takes over but Chaka soon kills him and takes over. Meanwhile, he has fallen for Noliwa, Dingiswayo’s sister. When Dingiswayo is killed, Chaka also succeeds him. At this point Isanusi tells him that he can be a great king and marry Noliwa or be a really great king and kill her. He chooses the latter option and stabs her to death. He will later kill his mother in the same way. Noliwa’s death turns him into a vicious and cruel king and Mofolo’s tone changes dramatically, as he describes Chaka’s slaughter not just of his enemies but of his own people who do not follow his every word or who are, in his opinion, cowardly. He destroys villages and whole areas, killing all the people and the animals and destroying the crops, so that any survivors will die. But, in the end, his people turn completely against him and it is his brother who kills him.

As the tale of a legendary hero, and one most Westerners will not be familiar with, Mofolo tells his story well. He does not pretend that it is historical and his inclusion of magic and superhuman feats of strength shows this. The character of Chaka is not dissimilar to traditional Western hero-kings, such as King Arthur, at least till the end, when he becomes vicious and cruel and, like Arthur and others, he will die at the hand of a traitor.

Publishing history

First published by Morija in 1925
First English translation by International Institute for African Languages and Culture in 1931