Kingship and Prophecy in Thomas Mofolo's Chaka

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Abstract: In his third and best-known novel, Chaka, Lesotho writer Thomas Mofolo makes no explicit references to Christianity, marking a departure from the intentionally evangelical character and language of his earlier works, Traveller to the East and Pitseng. I argue, however, that the novel alludes to the Bible, notably 1 and 2 Samuel, to make a powerful statement on the nature of kingship in traditional African society, especially in light of human sinfulness and frailty. Mofolo defends the righteousness of African ideals of society and kingship, even as he reveals how human frailty and ambition make those ideals unsustainable. Mofolo uses the Biblical narrative to illuminate his extensive awareness of Southern African history and culture, showing the specific relevance of the Christian Gospel to his society.

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Although it does not explicitly mention Christianity, Thomas Mofolo's novel Chaka (1925) draws on the biblical tradition, with allusions to the Old Testament books of Samuel and other biblical texts. Previous critical readings of Chaka differ considerably in their discussion of its relationship to Christianity, but I will argue that in Chaka, Mofolo presents a worldview that is at once Christian and African, without the intermediary effect of European colonialism. The similarities between traditional African life and the early days of the kings in Israel create relevant parallels. Chaka echoes David in the early stages of his career. He shows great courage, the people love him, and he is the victim of jealousy and conspiracy. After becoming king, he grows to resemble Saul, whose reign is marred by the fear of losing power and who ultimately spurns God in consulting the witch of Endor. In the final stages of his reign, Chaka resembles Manasseh, the most depraved of the kings of Israel and Judah. In the absence of a Samuel, and without the traditional supporting structures that groomed an African heir apparent for the kingship, Chaka relies on traditional diviners, who act like Old Testament prophets. However, it is a perverse form of prophecy, leading to injustice and death, rather than to wisdom and life. Through Chaka, Mofolo identifies the specific steps through which a brave and selfless prince becomes a tyrant.

Thomas Mofolo was born in 1877 into a Christian family in Lesotho, an independent monarchy entirely surrounded by South Africa. Through the diplomatic efforts of its first king, Moshoeshoe I (1786-1870), Lesotho maintained its independence by resisting assimilation into the Zulu empire, the Orange Free State, and the Union of South Africa. Moshoeshoe encouraged the missionaries of the Paris Evangelical Mission Society (PEMS) to establish schools, to set up a printing press at Morija and to advise him. Moshoeshoe's characteristically strategic choice of the French ensured that they would not betray him because their interests were unlikely to coincide with those of either the British Cape colonial government or the adjacent Orange Free State. Mofolo was a protege of the PEMS missionaries, attending missionary schools in Lesotho and, subsequently, working at the Morija Sesotho Book Depot, a major publisher of African language literature, not only in Lesotho but throughout Southern Africa. While at Morija, Mofolo completed three novels written in Sesotho: Moeti oa Bochabela (1907), Pitseng (1910) and Chaka (1925). All of the novels originally appeared as serials in Leselinayana La Lesotho (The Little Light of Lesotho), a Christian community newspaper.

Moeti oa Bochabela was translated in 1934 by Harry Ashton as Traveller to the East. It tells the story of Fekisi, a virtuous Mosotho who spurns the violence and corruption of his own society and travels east, toward Ntsoanatsatsi, the Basotho mythical place of origin. On the coast he meets white hunters, becomes a Christian, and travels further east. Both early missionary reviewers and recent literary critics reveal the novel's debt to Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (see, for example, Hofmeyr 151). …