Human-animal relationships in Thomas Mofolo’s historical novel Chaka (1925, 2017)

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Abstract

Since the publication of Tjhaka (1974), Chris Swanepoel’s first Afrikaans translation of Thomas Mofolo's historical novel Chaka (1925), Afrikaans and Dutch writers have interpreted Chaka in very different ways. According to Krog (2010), D.J. Opperman's portrayal of the Zulu king in his five-part epic verse "Chaka" cannot be separated from Afrikaner nationalist ideals during the 1940s. Malaba (1986) writes that Pieter Fourie's drama Tsjaka (1976) belongs to the "jaded Freudian accounts favoured by European (or white) artists", but that P.J. Schoeman's novel Pampata. Die beminde van koning Tsjaka (1977) does not display the same “cultural chauvinism”. Alfred Schaffer, who was inspired by Mofolo’s novel to write his poetry anthology Mens dier ding (2014), portrays Chaka as a cruel tyrant, but also as a migrant and victim of racism and oppression. These examples from the Afrikaans-Dutch canon suggest that writing about Chaka involves an estimation of his role within the framework of relationships between white and black or between different black ethnicities, and indeed Hamilton (1998) states that "the whole project of writing about Chaka is fundamentally implicated in grappling with the complexity of racial domination and race relations". This article, however, moves away from the anthropocentric focus on race relationships and racial identities which usually prevails in research on literary depictions of Chaka. It argues that human-animal relationships, animals and animality play a crucial role in Mofolo’s depiction of Chaka and that the novel’s moral framework cannot be fully understood without considering these aspects.

By way of introduction the article points out how prominently animals and animal metaphysics feature in texts about Chaka written by early European visitors to southern Africa. It then contextualises the depiction of Chaka as an animal in Mofolo's novel by pointing out that, in stark contrast to the use of animal metaphysics as part of the colonial project to characterise colonial subjects as non-human (Fanon 2004, Mbembe 2001), animal images in Mofolo’s novel often feature as part of the praise song tradition. However, in Mofolo’s novel the role of animals in praise songs serves to foreground Chaka’s megalomania and to highlight how he causes conflict in his community. Depictions of Chaka as an animal are also discussed with reference to "African humanism" as conceptualised by Mphahlele (2002, 2004). Descriptions of Chaka as an animal are read with reference to the African-humanistic ideal of an organic universe in which human beings exist in harmony with their ancestors, their fellow human beings and the universe (of which animals form an integral part). Particular attention is paid to African humanism as a communal concept and Mphahlele’s viewpoint that there are no individual heroes in the world it encompasses. Against the backdrop of this indigenous consciousness the novel is interpreted as one which uses animal imagery to portray Chaka as a leader who sacrificed his humanity as a result of his cruelty to others.

Mindful of Haraway’s (2008) view that animals are never just “literary conceits”, but also always ordinary beings whose everyday existence is interwoven with those of humans, it is argued that not only the animal as an image and metaphor, but also the depiction of real animals and the circumstances of their existence during Chaka’s reign, deserve attention. The intimate co-existence of man and animal as "companion species" (Haraway 2008) is analysed with reference to Mofolo’s descriptions of how the Zulus evolve and co-exist with dogs and cattle. Their mutually dependent relationships are contrasted with how animals, and cattle in particular, are increasingly treated as commodities under Chaka’s rule. Also, Chaka’s cruelty to animals is emphasised by contrasting it with the compassionate and intimate interspecies relationships between his human and animal subjects. Chaka is discussed, with reference to Foucault’s concepts of biopower and biopolitics, as a sovereign with absolute power over the lives, as well as reproductive choices, of the animals “owned” by him and his subjects. With reference to Derrida (1995) it is argued that Chaka’s approach to cattle speaks of carnophallogocentrism. The symbolic relationship in the novel between meat-eating and Chaka’s virile power as king is further explained with reference to Adams’s arguments in The sexual politics of meat that meat-eating "is a symbol for what is not seen but is always there – patriarchal control of animals" (2016:27).

It is noted that the novelist observes the suffering of the animals and acknowledges their inner life. Still with reference to Adams and Derrida, similarities between Mofolo’s portrayals of human and animal suffering under Chaka’s rule are explored. Biopower and sovereign power in Chaka’s kingdom are discussed as entangled practices. Chaka wields both kinds of power over “his” warriors, women and animals. The novel’s non-hierarchical descriptions of human and animal suffering confirm the tragedy of both and testify to what Calarco (2008:112) describes as "thinking through both kinds of suffering in their respective singularities and to note relevant similarities and parallel logics at work where they exist". Finally, the article concludes that animals are portrayed as ethical subjects in Mofolo’s novel. The arguments of Derrida (2002) about animals as ethical, conscious subjects with the ability to answer human beings and to call human beings to account are used to analyse the novel’s ending, in which Chaka is rejected by the animal kingdom at the end of his devastating rule. It is argued that the behaviour of the animals at the end of the novel is consistent with their actions early in Chaka's life. Scenes in which animals know certain things about Chaka, react to the consequences of his actions, and act by distancing themselves from Chaka are discussed as examples of how the novel portrays them as deliberate, conscious and ethical beings with agency.

The article refers to the recently published new Afrikaans translation of Mofolo's novel (Swanepoel 2017). Swanepoel's 1974 translation had a formative influence on Afrikaans literary representations of Chaka (Malaba 1986; Krog 2010; Viljoen 2018). More recently, it was the most important inspiration for the Dutch poet Alfred Schaffer's Mens dier ding (2014). However, even though the earlier translation is important in the context of the Afrikaans canon and its relationship to African languages and African literatures, and also testifies to the transcontinental ties that bind the Afrikaans and Dutch literary systems, reference is made to the 2017 translation because it seems more suited to an interpretative approach involving the African-humanistic framework. In his preface to the new translation, Swanepoel (2017:9) points out that he has "completely reworked" his original translation to correct translation errors, address key omissions and interpret the original text in a new way. Although Swanepoel does not explain how his new interpretation of Mofolo’s novel differs from before, many changes seem to be aimed at rooting the translation more firmly in the context of an indigenous philosophy than the previous Afrikaans translation or, indeed, the latest English-language translation (Kunene 1981). I share the concerns of Krog (2016) about interpretations of the novel as one based on Christian values and ethics. Krog argues convincingly, through several comparisons between Kunene's English translation and the original Sotho text, that Kunene made dubious translation decisions rooted in his view of Mofolo's novel as "a matter of Christian moral judgment" (cited in Krog 2016:88). She points out that the original Sotho text makes possible interpretative decisions that places the novel rather in an African-humanistic framework. As Krog did with the original Sotho text, the latest Afrikaans translation is therefore used to read the novel in the framework of African humanity. This is done in recognition of Mphahlele’s (2002:238) viewpoint that African humanism is not only a moral, religious and knowledge-based framework, but also exerts significant influence on the arts: "[I]t also defines the [...] body of [...] the arts and language that make up the total of our being."

Keywords: African humanism; becoming animal; biopower; biopolitics; carnophallogocentrism; Chaka; companion species; critical animal studies; human-animal studies; Mofolo, Thomas; Shaka; Tjhaka; Tsjaka

 

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Mens-dier-verhoudings in Thomas Mofolo se historiese roman Chaka (1925, 2017)

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