Senkatana -Part 2

Senkatana -Part 2

Last week I began to review Mofokeng’s play Senkatana, in its new English translation published by Oxford University Press in their superb Africa Pulse series.

I pick up the story at the point at which Senkatana slays Kgolumolumo and frees its victims. The Seers comment: “he is the one who will carry their hardships, / The hardships from which he frees them. / He is the one they will hate because of his fame, / Simply because he freed them.”

Senkatana becomes king (as in his translation of Khaketla’s She’s to Blame, Prof. Lenake renders morena as “king”, not “chief”, but I understand this is a tricky, sensitive issue). His friends celebrate, but the dramatic momentum is dampened by a succession of long, wordy speeches. Yet Senkatana isn’t lacking in theatrical zest, and at this point comes the first dramatic tension of the play, with the realization by three of Senkatana’s friends that another man, Bulane, is disaffected; Senkatana is warned of this.

What annoy Bulane “are the praises of Senkatana and his status as king.” Also crucial is the revelation that Bulane is being urged on by his wife, ‘Maliepetsane, who is motivated by her hatred of Senkatana’s mother (I shall come back later to the ‘wicked woman’ motif). She and a group of fellow plotters insist to Bulane they are motivated by the will of the ancestors. They agree to look out for any “mistakes” Senkatana makes; then ‘Maliepetsane propels Bulane further. In one of many moments that remind us of Lady Macbeth (and let’s not forget the influence of Macbeth on Mofolo’s Chaka) ‘Maliepetsane urges Bulane: “hurry while there’s still time!”

There follows a scene in which Senkatana conducts the khotla, demonstrating his wisdom and fairness (and—a mark against him for his enemies—his leniency) as judge. He has another long soliloquy, this one mightily impressive, as in these lines: “There is no judge greater than [the lamp of conscience]. True judgement is what ignites that lamp. . . . Such judgement must also be supported by the conscience of the judge because he has to satisfy his own conscience with regard to a judgement.”

In the scene in which the play comes closest to Macbeth—and with an echo of Hamlet—(and I’m sorry to keep drawing parallels with Western texts, outside the Sesotho corpus, but the parallels are definitely there), there is a soliloquy in which Bulane laments “I’m eager to be king . . . I move like a snake, ready to strike, to kill. But what then?” His wife enters, like Lady Macbeth, to spur him on. “What is the matter with you? . . . I knew that a coward would not face death like a man.”

In the last stages of the play, when Senkatana’s mother urges him to resist his enemies, he protests: “If I kill them I will be dead. I will have killed my soul; I will have finished the power to fight evil; I will have killed justice, killed myself.” This is a speech that comes to mind when we consider another parallel: Senkatana as Mandela (more on that next week).

Senkatana’s mother dies; her son is distraught. Bulane’s wife places more and more pressure on him. Then………well, I shan’t do a spoiler; how the play reaches its conclusion you will have to find out for yourselves. Except that, just to round off on the Christian parallels in the play, at the very end these are explicit. Senkatana’s last recorded words are “My God! My God! / My God! Why have you forsaken me!” and a seer comments: “I saw him crucified on a tree, Golgotha. / Crucified by those he had redeemed.”

To be concluded

Chris Dunton

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