The First African Novel in English
First published in 1930, Mhudi was finished in 1920. The author, Sol Plaatje had trouble finding a publisher, and so the manuscript languished for a decade.
Mhudi was a groundbreaking novel, approaching history from an Afro-Centric view rather than the more common European view. It was a radically different approach for the time, showing the politics of the African continent from the perspective of the Africans as the Europeans advanced.
As Plaatje said himself in his preface, “In all the tales of battle I have ever read, or heard of, the cause of the war is invariably ascribed to the other side.” And it is this premise, turned on its head, that makes Mhudi such fascinating reading.
Nor does the story focus solely on the relationship between black and white in Africa. Certainly the black/white relationship is addressed, with both good and bad aspects, and a foreshadowing to the future. But the main antagonist of the story is the Matabele – who went north in a split with the Zulu under King Mzilikazi. Both Europeans and Africans were facing off against this enemy, together, and it was not an easy battle for anyone.
Mhudi is also a love story. The love story of two Bechuana who lost everything, found each other, and through the wiles of the woman, Mhudi – the title character, survived an African continent in flux.
Mhudi was written by a man who, by all accounts, should be considered a giant of history in South Africa, although for many years he was forgotten. Sol Plaatje was born into a Setswana-speaking family, but Plaatje himself was fluent in at least eight languages – including English and Dutch. He worked as a translator of documents, honed his writing skills, and worked for the civil service until more color restrictions came into effect.
Plaatje then became a journalist, where he wrote in multiple languages to multiple audiences.
As non-white restrictions increased, Plaatje became more politically active. A founding member of the South African Native National Congress (which would evolve into the African National Congress of Nelson Mandela), Plaatje also served as its first General Secretary.
As if pioneering African journalism, speaking eight languages fluently, founding the most influential political group on the African continent, and writing ground-breaking pamphlets on native African life, and visiting England multiple times in attempts to address issues in South Africa wasn’t enough, Plaatje also found time to translate multiple Shakespearean plays into his native Setswana.
Mhudi itself is a unique novel without equivalent in literature, and it was written by a man who has not gotten enough recognition for the movement he created.