Mqhayi – Part 1

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

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

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

Previous Silence is violence – Part 3
Next Bitter lessons from Covid-19

Warning: count(): Parameter must be an array or an object that implements Countable in /home/thepostc/public_html/wp-content/themes/trendyblog-theme/includes/single/post-tags-categories.php on line 7

About author

You might also like


Male sexual enhancement medication

EVERY man wants to perform at his best in the bedroom and can suffer when sexual problems stand in his way. Most men opt to self-treat or boost their performance


Kenya: tough road ahead

THE 1 September decision by Kenya’s Supreme Court to annul the results of the 8 August presidential election and order a fresh vote was at once unexpected, historic, bold and


The Middle East: Not Enough Wars Yet

“When all the Arabs and the Israelis agree on one thing, people should pay attention. We should stop this Iranian takeover,” said Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu last month. So