Senkatana -Part 3

Senkatana -Part 3

As I’ve mentioned several times in my review of Mofokeng’s Senkatana,  although  it achieves a high degree of dramatic tension and there are vibrant theatrical moments, it is an extremely wordy play and the dialogue is very formal. All the characters speak in the same high-blown, articulate way. I cannot imagine it working as a staged production, without cuts to many of the speeches and some injection of everyday language. It is what used to be called drama as literature (or drawing-room drama)—the sort of play that is most suitable for solitary reading or for reading out loud, with the parts distributed amongst a circle or family or friends.

No doubt about Mofokeng’s stature as a public intellectual, demonstrated in a play that is fair whizzing with insights and ideas (for example, on leadership, freedom and justice).  One aspect of the play that worries, me, though, is what I’ve called the ‘wicked woman’ motif. Senkatana’s mother, Mmaditaolane, is depicted as elderly, loving and frail. But Mmadiepetsane, the wife of Bulane, who is driven to overthrow Senkatana, is a monster. Try this speech for size, on the plot to depose Senkatana: “I hope they succeed. We will see how Senkatana’s mother will end up! She will be dethroned,

and I will ascend. She will become dirt on my feet. I will teach her a lesson!”
What intrigues and perturbs me in this is the fact that a similar kind of characterisation occurs with the figure of Mathabo, wife of Mosito, in Khaketla’s novel She’s to Blame. I am not suggesting one author influenced the other in this, although if they did it would have been Mofokeng influencing Khaketla, as Senkatana came out in 1952 and She’s to Blame in 1960, three years after Mofokeng’s death. I do wonder, incidentally, if the

two ever met (as they were both members of the New African movement, it is quite likely—and how one would have love to have been a fly on the wall (with another fly as translator!) as the two great men conversed—or whether they corresponded by letter? But regarding the characterisation of both Mmaditaoiane and Mathabo as vicious harridans, I wonder has there been a misogynist—women hating / fearing—streak in Sesotho literature? (you certainly don’t get that in Mofolo). A question for Sesotho scholars to look into?

One other issue I want to bring up, and it is perhaps the most significant of the points I’ve raised. The back cover of the Africa Pulse translation of Senkatana carries the following commendation by Njabulo Ndebele: “How can people in pursuit of social justice save themselves from their own evils? In this play, which he published in 1952, four years after the system of apartheid was established, Mofokeng throws this vital question at

contemporary South Africans from his grave. Decades after South Africans created a visionary constitutional democracy on the hot ashes of apartheid, Mofokeng’s question will haunt them with the brilliant prescience of a twenty-year old seer.”

As soon as I obtained my copy of Senkatana I gave it a preliminary reading and only a few weeks later did I read Ndebele’s comments. I thought at the time: “Senkatana as a kind of parable of apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa? Kgolumolumo as Verwoerd, and Senkatana as Mandela? I think that’s a bit of a stretch.” But then I spent a couple of days with Antjie Krog over a seminar at Oxford (we just got that in before the UK plague lockdown), and Antjie was adamant, what Ndebele says is absolutely spot on and it’s the main joy of the play.

When I came to re-read the play, twice, to write this column I realized how right Ndebele and Krog are, especially as regards Senkatana’s speeches on justice. I’ve since read published debates on two recent books, Phyllis Taoua’s African Freedom: How Africa Responded to Independence, and Chielozona Eze’s Race, Decolonization, and Global Citizenship in South Africa, and that experience has sharpened my sense that we can read Mofokeng’s play with an eye to Senkatana as a Mandela-figure and his opponents (Bulane as Zuma?) as those who have eroded his legacy.

Only way forward, readers? You decide, after reading the play. It can be obtained from Oxford University Press, Vasco Boulevard, Goodwood, N1 City, PO Box 12119, South Africa. 

Chris Dunton

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