In an exploration of the attitudes taken by different cultures in different historical periods with regard to the cultural phenomenon of hybridity, I came across an interesting chiasm within the domain of South African literature in the early decades of the twentieth century.
The two sides of the chiasm belong one to the white and the other to the black tradition, and are formed by four extremely important novels in the South African literary genealogy.
The white novels are God's Stepchildren by Sarah Gertrude Millin, published in London in 1924 by Constable, and Turbott Wolfe by William Plomer, also published in London, but in 1926 and by the Hogarth Press of Virginia and Leonard Woolf. The black novels are Chaka by Thomas Mofolo, published in 1925 at Morija, South Africa by the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society (PEMS) in the Sesotho language, and Mhudi by Solomon Tsikisho Plaatje, published in 1930 by the Lovedale Press, also in South Africa 1.
Both Millin and Plomer center their narratives around the issue of relationships between black and whites, focusing in particular on the sexual encounter between individuals of the two different groups and the origination of mixed descent. Conversely, Mofolo and Plaatjie seem little interested in such issue, so the chiasm created by the four authors opens towards radically different solutions to the problem created by the black/white encounter in South Africa, while positioning itself along the line of racial divide and at the very crossways of the intellectual debate taking place at the time. Thus such a crossway is also an intersection and takes on a name of its own, a definition the English language coined expressly for this purpose - miscegenation. Such a definition of mixed sexual relationships bears the stigma of deviancy and unnaturalness and therefore the brunt of shame and the consequent horror and punishment.
The early decades of the twentieth century saw a systematic escalation of racism in South Africa, while the process of gradual expropriation of indigenous land and subjugation of indigenous populations was gaining momentum. After the conclusion of the Anglo-Boer war (1899-1902), the influence of the English colonial presence spread all over the country and established an economic, institutional but also intellectual hegemony. The declaration of the Union of South Africa in 1909 brought some improvement to the position of the Boers in the game of power, but the African populations were totally excluded from the new pact. Not only so: within a short time the appropriation of the land by the European settlers achieved its zenith with the Native Land Act of 1913. The last signs of organized resistance were quickly taken care of, as happened in the case of the Zulu rebellion of 1909 led by the mythical hero Bambatha and brutally put down, as witnessed among others by Gandhi himself, who in that circumstance sided with the British and then bitterly regretted it, as we may see in his autobiography 2.
As has been proven by recent historical research, the takeover by the British accelerated the total colonization of the indigenous populations, which were by then needed as free labour to be recruited in the farms and mines owned and run by the Europeans. Yet one should not undervalue the role of the intellectual influence of British culture in that particular phase of South African history: including that of British liberal thought as well as that of evolutionism and eugenetics, and the British position on the so-called 'native question'.
But there were endogenous colonial elements which greatly contributed to that view, and, what is more, to that organization of races which was then to develop as apartheid from 1948 onwards. Saul Dubow reminds us how during that period, in South Africa out of "two opposing uses of 'culture' there emerged a third anthropologically influenced notion of culture, [...] that was to become part of the legitimising ideology of segregation" and "was to be found in a policy of racially segregated development" (Dubow, in Marks and Trapido: 1987, 84). 'Separate development' was the word used as a mask for 'apartheid', while 'miscegenation' had been the definition meant to implicitly refuse and reject hybridity. The great war of words began on a note of extraordinary hypocrisy, accusing the factual reality of South Africa to be contaminated and hence implying the implicit idea that salvation might come from ethnic cleansing, as later advocated by the ideologues of apartheid.
In 1924, the white writer Sarah Gertrude Millin put the following words in the mouth of one of her characters, the relentlessly zealous Edith Lindsell:
Things have been left alone too long. They should have been stopped hundreds of years ago - hundreds of years ago. It should have never been allowed to happen in South Africa that - that white children should have come into the world with shame and sorrow in their blood. (Millin: 1924, 271)
God's Stepchildren is, from beginning to end, a sustained oratorial invective against racial mixing. Its plot spans several generations descending from a new sort of original sin, the marriage of Reverend Andrew Flood to a Hottentot woman named Silla in a remote village in the interior of the Cape Colony in the early nineteenth century. Andrew and Silla produce a number of brown children, and one of them, Deborah, makes love with a fair haired Boer and gives birth to Kleinhans. Around 1842 Kleinhans, grown to be a man, dreams he can marry a white girl, but has to content himself with a coloured girl called Lena:
Lena herself showed in her delicacy of feature and clear yellowish skin her ancestral superiority over Kleinhans. For all she had the straight, coarse, black hair and shadowed black eyes of the Cape girl, and Kleinhans' hair and eyes were light in colour, it was quite obvious that she was further removed from the aboriginal than he was. The Hottentot blood in him expressed itself in his heavy, triangular-shaped face and wide nose; but she had the thin little nose, the well-cut mouth and the oval cheek-line of her Malay grandmother, her German blood showed in her paler skin, and her voice, too, was light and gentle where that of Kleinhans was heavy with nearness to the African earth. [...]
And Kleinhans [...] learned to forget [...] that he had once intended to marry a pure white girl, and that he had been beaten almost to death for merely speaking to one (Millin: 1924, 127-128).
It is interesting to analyze the quality of this description. The two individuals are depicted against the foil of an absolute and unquestionable pattern of canonic beauty which is ostensibly white and European. Their (relative) handsomeness is measured on that meter only, and they may be defined 'attractive' only insofar as their features approach a white ideal of beauty. But the most remarkable thing is that, while on one hand they are given as an improvement on the 'aboriginal' ancestor, "a thing like a beast" (Millin: 1924, 240), on the other they have a new and monstrous quality of their own , they are "half-caste" (Millin: 1924, 247), "unnatural creatures" (Millin: 1924, 295; italics in the text), and their being such acquires an additionally negative value.
Millin embraces the theory of eugenetics and envisages the progress of mankind from a state of abjection (aboriginal Hottentot) to the perfection of whiteness (European), but instinctively refuses to accept the intermediate step of that same process, the mixed creature, the coloured. It is a fundamental contradiction in the novel and it creates a strange and enigmatic tension without relief. The solution finally adopted by Barry Lindsell, Kleinhans and Lena's apparently white grandchild, who decides to leave the society of Europeans and join "his coloured family" while refusing to procreate, or rather disowning the child who is already under way, the fruit of his union with the pure and immaculately white English wife Nora, is not a real solution, but a way out of the predicament.
Barry's is a non-solution because his child will be born anyway and because his choice does not erase the offensive presence of coloured people from the face of South Africa. A rationally consistent reasoning would rather suggest the destruction of the impure offspring and the castration of the violators: in a word, the practices of nazism. Millin positions her novel one step short of the final solution advocated by nazism, which by the way reveals a grotesque aspect in that she was a Jew whose family had emigrated to South Africa from Lithuania, and she had only just started to climb the social ladder.
Millin's obsession with blood and its different qualities offers a range of different justifications. She assumes that individuals of mixed descent are less intelligent: for instance, beautiful Elmira, the daughter of Kleinhans and Lena, who was to become the wife of the old white farmer Lindsell and give birth to Barry, was sent to a school for white girls, where she passed for white:
She was not as clever at her schoolwork as she had promised to be when a child. It was as if her brain, running a race against the brains of white children, was very quick at starting but soon tired and lagged behind, so that the time came when it fell altogether out of the running (Millin: 1924, 152).
The peculiar slowing down of the coloured girl's brain is not an exception. The progenitor of the unfortunate, "degenerate" kin, Rev. Andrew Flood, had already noticed the same phenomenon in his offspring:
He had thought that a child with a white father might be different. He knew that the native children arrived at their full capacity very early. At the age of four or five they were far in advance of white children of the same age; but at fourteen or fifteen they would begin to falter, to lag behind, to remain stationary while their white competitors went ahead. It seemed to the missionary as if their minds were unlocked sooner, but also sooner locked again. He had a vague theory that it had all to do with the traditional hardness of their skulls (Millin: 1924, 84).
Here the scientific ideas of the time provide peculiar reasons for her beliefs. But the scientific pretext does not prevent us from reading the terrific violence inscribed in the narrative, and does not hide the naked truth of the fact that she assumes that the whole mankind is to be classified in categories and treated accordingly. The delirium of taxonomy which lies below the surface was probably the reason why the novel became so popular in Germany and was also well received in the United States where in the '20s and '30s the practice of lynching blacks was still rife in the South and the Ku Klux Klan was active and powerful. It is important to notice that in her categorization Millin puts women at an 'inferior' level. Women are, following the Bible, "The weaker vessel" ( Ibidem: 215), and therefore passive and subaltern to males, so that they can be assimilated to lower caste beings. A typical example of passive and 'low' behaviour in the novel is to be found in wild, beautiful Elmira. Desired and courted by old Mr Lindsell she marries him, submitting to his arrogant, domineering behaviour, and is somewhat accepted by the white society, because (as Millin concludes) money "can make even black blood golden" ( Ibidem: 176).
The taxonomic fixation of this writer is again evident in another novel, Mary Glenn (1925), which is not usually included in the race fiction of the period. The four main characters in Mary Glenn, but also the minor figures, white and black, are all rigidly classified into social groups distinct one from another and not to be mixed together. Even among the whites, the standing of the inhabitants of the colony is far below that of the English. Mary leaves South Africa for England, where she marries an Englishman who turns out to be a weak and ineffectual man. "I wanted to get away from Lebanon [the colonial town]", she explains to her mother. "And he was a gentleman. He is a gentleman. No one in Lebanon has got an accent like his, or such good manners. [...] he has been to a public school." (Millin: 1925, 78-79) When very young, Mary had shown an arrogance which, says Millin, was not "an appropriate arrogance" (Millin: 1925, 38), for it did not correspond to her state or rank in society. Again, the social transgression of a girl who wants to climb the social ladder acquires a sinful value and will be duly punished with a tragic retrocession to an even lower position. In keeping with this view of life, the Africans who appear in the book are mere manikins, invariably called 'kaffirs' and left out of the story: totally otherized by the narrative economy.
John M. Coetzee, in his seminal analysis of Millin's work, states that her ideas on race are not "a hotpotch of colonial prejudices but the reflection of respectable scientific and historical thought, only barely out of date in her time". (Coetzee: 199, 152) Yet the identification of blood with race, the obsession with defilement and its coincidence with sex as the encounter of two different beings - that is, the encounter with the other - and the lack of compassion which she deploys in her narrative, make of Millin one of the foremost of race writers in the colonial tradition. The fact that her ideas are embodied in powerful fictional characters makes them all the more frightening, for the partition which separates her from the philosophy of nazism is very thin indeed.
In his Preface to the 1986 edition of God's Stepchildren, Tony Voss throws a useful parallel and illustration by quoting a 1934 essay by the South African R.F.A. Hoernlé entitled "Race-Mixture and Native Policy in South Africa":
We can, I think, recognise three elements within it [the philosophy which lies beneath the accepted South African attitude against race-mixture], which may be conveniently distinguished as:
a. the idea of race purity;
b. the ideal of racial dominance;
c. the ideal of maintenance of white civilization and culture [...].
The argument [...] assumes that there are distinct human 'races', or, better, 'stocks'; that these stocks can be graded as superior and inferior; that the measure of such superiority and inferiority is white civilisation, which must be regarded as the 'highest' so far created by any human stock and the starting point for all further advance.
In short, the basis of culture is biological, it varies with the innate qualities of different human stocks. Culture is a function of race (Voss in Millin: 1924, 8).
Sarah Gertrude Millin became in her own time the great lady of South African literature and was widely regarded as the speaker for the South African cultural world. William Plomer, the son of English parents, sent to the remote province of an immense empire to try his luck and ability in the commercial arena, was and remained an Englishman. But his novel Turbott Wolfe, published in 1926 when he was still very young, is strangely imbibed with the themes of South African cultural debates and steeped in the beauty of the country he knew well - for a number of years he lived in a trading post in what is now known as KwaZulu, indicated in the novel as Ovuzane - and may well be included in the area of South African literary tradition where Thomas Pringle and Rider Haggard also belong: individuals who visited the colony for contingent reasons but for a while made their home there and interpreted its pulsions and images 3.
The book is interesting in the present context because it centers around miscegenation as a frightfully transgressive reality in the milieu of South African colonial life in the Twenties. It is organized partly as a journal by one Turbott Wolfe (the writer himself) and a nameless narrator, Turbott's friend, who exchanges letters with him and also relates some aspects of the story or comments on them. Turbott appears in a role similar to that of Conrad's Marlow, for he has gone into the darkness of Africa and has seen the horror written on Kurtz's face. In the opening section there are telling allusions to 'obscurity': "I felt obscured"[...] But Turbott Wolfe seemed so little obscured that..." (Plomer: 1926, 9); "I began to concern myself with the colour of people's skin.", and "The obscurity of the man's behaviour"; "the obscure attractive soul of the African" ( Ibidem, 14-15).
Such 'obscurity' soon turns into outright 'blackness' and becomes the hero's main problem:
There would be conflict between myself and the white; there would be conflict between myself and the black. There would be the unavoidable question of colour. It is a question to which every man in Africa, black, white or yellow, must provide his own answer (Ibidem, 17).
I don't want you to think that I had ever been really out of sympathy with the natives: it was simply that their existence, their blackness, if you see what I mean, had seemed too much for me ( Ibidem, 28).
Slowly a taboo emerges darkly into Turbott's consciousness. He likes to look at the Africans and considers them handsome; he even falls in love with a splendid young girl - but this is a crime in the eyes of the white settlers:
I began to learn the hard lesson that in Lembuland it is considered a crime to regard the native as anything even so high as a mad animal. I began to seek information about the blacks and whites [...] ( Ibidem, 19).
My eye was training itself to admire to excess the over-developed marvellous animal grace of each Lembu individual. [...]I was losing my balance. I remembered that every civilized white man, who considers himself sensitive, in touch with native peoples in his daily life should hold in his heart an image of the failure of Gauguin. Was it a failure? I asked myself [...] . I found myself all at once overwhelmed with a suffocating sensation of universal black darkness. Blackness. I was being sacrificed, a white lamb, to black Africa ( Ibidem, 20)4.
Turbott falls for the beautiful Nhliziyombi who is presented as an epitome of purity itself, intact Africa prior to the contact with Western civilization, missionary work, contaminating experiences. Nhliziyombi's silhouette is somewhat exotic, but also the centre of a new attraction that Turbott experiences as threatening - a maelstrom:
She was a fine rare savage, of a type you will find nowhere now: it has been killed by the missions, the poor whites and the towns. [...] I have seen not a little of the natives, and I have an immense faith in their character. But it is too late now. The missionaries [...] took away everything from the natives - all those vague mysterious savage ways of mind on which their lives were conducted, often very honourably and even nobly, certainly with method, and what on earth did they give them instead? Example?. No. [...].
But I was telling you about the girl. An aboriginal, perfectly clean and perfectly beautiful. I have never seen such a consummate dignity. She was rather tall and rather a light colour. She used to wear a piece of black material embroidered with grass: it was wound tightly round her body just below the breasts, and fell in straight folds to her feet. [...] She was fit to be the wife of an ambassador.
[...] Now to tell you the truth, I had been much afraid of incurring any emotion so violent and unforeseen as that which seized me the very moment I caught sight of Nhliziyombi. [...] From the time that I first went to Ovuzane I had been at pain to control any amorous feeling towards the natives, because I was afraid [...].
As soon as had fallen in love with Nhliziyombi I was afraid of falling in love with her. [...] She was an ambassador of all that beauty [...], that intensity of the old wonderful unknown primitive African life-outside history, outside time, outside science. She was a living image of what has been killed by people like Flesher, by our obscene civilization that conquers everything. I think if you go into the question thoroughly you will find that ultimately, our civilization is obscene ( Ibidem, 30-31).
This long passage registers the turning point of the enamoured hero's relationship with Africa: here is attraction and enchantment, but also the presence of danger, the vortex of a frightful transgression whose nature soon becomes explicit:
I suppose you mean that I was white and the girl was black. [...] I am too much the humanitarian to be colour-blind. There was no question of pigment (I was in love, remember) but there appeared to be a great forbidding law, like all great forbidding laws, subcutaneous (Ibidem, 33-34).
The taboo - miscegenation - is finally revealed. In Turbott's story the mixing of races blends with the mixing of sexes and increases fear. Turbott's romantic love affair gives way and yields to the more earthly story of a mixed couple formed by a white woman, Mabel, who is depicted as a sort of amazon, an androginous beauty, and the black minister Zachary Msomi. Another character comes into play, Reverend Friston, who supports the mixed couple and celebrates their wedding, but is also jealous of the black Zachary and sinks into a nervous breakdown under the pressure of events. His are the first words of condemnation of the new union, which also has the role of achieving a political objective in the activity of the Young Africa group:
It was one thing to talk glibly about miscegenation, to fool about with an idea, and another to find oneself face to face with the actual happening: it was the difference between a box of matches and a house on fire.
[...] I could foresee the birth of rivalry between those two men: the one black, the other white. I felt myself to be like a scientist who watches some enormity of nature through a microscope - I was an entomologist observing the titanic and elemental lusts of beetles infinitesimal in a tiny battleground, where blades of grass were greater than tree-trunks and the dynamics of sex were rending hearts ( Ibidem, 69).
Then this idea of miscegenation. How can I believe in it? It is a nightmare. This girl could not really mean to give herself to an African. She would be cutting herself clean off her own world. [...] I am afraid of this miscegenation ( Ibidem, 85).
It is interesting to note that the discourse touches upon a scientific view of life where hybridity is synonymous with monstrosity. The fictional commentators seem to oscillate between two opposite poles, the one looking backward, towards evolutionism and the struggle for survival where only the strong resist and win and where we are in a universe of hardness and violence, the other open to the future and envisaging a possible world of harmonic fusion.
The pressure and tension towards such a future are too much for Friston, who gives in under the effect of a powerful African drug and has frightening and delirious visions where the dark cloud of Conradian memory comes back to haunt the crumbling world of the white man in Africa: "HORROR was written in the sun. [...] Oh, you slimy coward! Your God's fear. So is mine. But wait till you see 'HORROR', my child, written in the sun" ( Ibidem, 88).
Yet this same man had had words of peace and love for the couple when he married them, trying to prove that miscegenation could succeed:
We have always insisted that miscegenation is a misapplied term. Here is a chance for these two members of ours to prove that it is possible for two individuals of different races, one white and the other black, to come together happily and successfully in the most intimate of relationships. Let us unite in wishing them every possible good fortune all their days ( Ibidem, 99).
The scene closes with Mabel who goes away "in her springing stride" and assumes the value of a "goddess of the future" - "And her name was Eurafrica". However the readers know that South African colonial society is not yet ready to accept the new vision of life, and this priestess of the future "is going out to suffer" ( Ibidem, 105).
William Plomer intertwines romantic dreams and utopian visions, dark fears and forebodings, projecting them on the screen of the rural Africa he had come to know. He realizes that the project of Young Africa - with its hints of the new political directions started first by the SANC (then ANC), founded in 1912, then by the ICU and the movement inspired by Marcus Garvey through Klement Kadalje - was bound to founder on the rocks of colonial inflexibility and selfishness. And there was that other aspect of the discourse on the native question - sheer and brutal racism as exemplified in an appalling episode related by a white settler, the unpleasant Soper:
One night.. It was a hot summer's night, with thunder in the air, and dark. Man, it was dark that night. Well, these Dutch people had a young governess with them [...] she was living in an outside room [...] it was such a hot night she couldn't sleep, and she came to the door in her nighdress to get some air. Now there was a nigger, Jacop, that used to work as a waggon-driver [...]. He saw the girl standing at the door. Well, you can guess what happened. [...] [He] heard the nigger's voice in the outside room, and looked in - Well, he didn't make a great fuss. He sent the girl to the house [...]. He tied the nigger down to the bed. Then [...] he came riding down to me. Man, d'you know what we did? We castrated that nigger. [...] We kicked the nigger out. Man, talk about rain! I've never seen such rain as there was that night [...].
Wait, that's not all. After a time the girl was going to have a child, and the old Romaines kicked her out. [...] She said she wanted to tell us that Jacop had gone past her door that night. She had called him back. She it was, she said, who was to blame. She had asked him to come in. She loved him ( Ibidem, 74-75-76).
Here again the awful taboo comes up, surrounded by ugly violence and suspicion. Sexual encounters are recurrent in 'white' South African literature in order to interpret the anxiety weighing on human relationships and to anticipate threat and revenge.
In Plomer's story the issue is defused by the confession of the white girl who belatedly admits to having invited the black youth into her room, while in Lewis Nkosi's novel Mating Birds written in the apartheid years we never know how things really went, and tend to conclude that apartheid totally obscures the truth of facts and prevents us from 'seeing' 5. Still during apartheid years, Arthur Maimane in Victims told the story of the rape of a white woman by a black youth and the consequences it entailed: the rape was decided on the spur of the moment, born out of idle frustration and hatred, almost to fulfil the stereotype of the black man rapist in a moment of raptus 6.
When there is rape, sexual intercourse takes place forcibly and with violence, so as to impose on the white world the truth that same world refuses to accept, the urge to live together, blacks and whites, and mix in sex but also out of sex. The interdiction forces the victim of segregation to implode into rape and destruction.
One very recent example of rape in South African fiction is to be found in John M. Coetzee's Disgrace, where the daughter of the disgraced professor is gangraped by a group of blacks in a remote farm where she lives alone. Here the drive toward rape could be the fact that the young white woman is a lesbian, and therefore might have challenged the masculine/feminine roles of traditional African culture. Her rape is one more case of what used to be called miscegenation, for she becomes pregnant and decides to keep the child, almost indicating a way out of the predicament construed by the chain of violence with a choice leading to mediation with the blacks who live around her farm. She transforms an act of vicious violence into a purposeful gesture of acceptance leading towards communication, togetherness and hybridity. Yet there is also another possible view of her decision: it is as if she were plunging her whole body into a gulf of ugliness - at least from the viewpoint of her father the professor, a white man. A process of hybridization taking place in such conditions and under such terms appears as surrender and loss to European eyes - that is, to taste and social evaluation derived from colonial standards.
Seen from all points of view, sexual mixing constantly provides the focal point of the chiasm formed by these novels. South African culture finds it extremely difficult to accept the idea of hybridization in a peaceful way; and this might well be caused by a remote heritage of colonial culture and its principle of domination and subjugation which make it hard to accept diversity on an equal level.
Sex, with its twofold interpretation and binary signification - miscegenation versus hybridity - is a crossway where it is compulsory to pass and choose whether to go in one direction or the other. In the past, South Africa chose to take the way leading to segregation and apartheid, and by so doing raped the body of mother Africa and castrated the African man.
If conversely we take into account and examine the black arm of our initial chiasm - the novels by Mofolo and Plaatje - we are confronted with an entirely different meaning of hybridity, not identified with sexual mixing, but directly political, and more broadly speaking cultural.
Chaka and Mhudi are by far the most important among the few first novels written by Africans in the Union of South Africa in the aftermath of the South African war. They are both historical novels set in the 19th century at the time of the Zulu ruler Chaka and after the Mfecane wars. Their two authors, Mofolo and Plaatje, were outstanding intellectuals educated at mission schools inside the country and intent on analysing and retelling the past history of their peoples, although in both cases the historical aim blends with the fictional purpose of telling a story.
Mofolo, who was writing in the Sesotho language, was keenly aware of the double aspect of his narrative approach when, faced with some objections to the accuracy of certain historical facts presented in Chaka, he replied:
I believe that errors of this kind are very many in the book Chaka; but I am not very concerned about them because I am not writing history, I am writing a tale, or should rather say I am writing what actually happened, but to which a great deal has been added, and from which a great deal has been removed, so that much has been left out, and much has been written that did not actually happen, with the aim solely of fulfilling my purpose in writing this book ( D.Kunene's Introduction, in Mofolo: 1978, xv).
As to Plaatje, he organizes his novel in a hybrid form, compounding the dramatic genre (a play with comic undertones) with the fluidity and intimacy of an oral tale recounted by the mythical ancestor Half-a-Crown. This hybrid style allows him to switch freely and easily between adventurous and fictional narrative and historical report which comes to life in the voice of 'true' witnesses.
The literary approach adopted by the African writers corresponds to the theme they deal with - that is, change and transition in African society in the wake of, or because of, colonial invasion and occupation. But the changes they are interested in are not strictly racial. Neither of them approaches the question of sexual intercourse between (white) Europeans and (black) Africans, nor in the mixed blood offspring of such relationships - although at the time they were writing, South African territory already contained a sizable population of so-called coloured people.
The reasons for this attitude may be various. First of all, the ideology of eugenetics and the concept of miscegenation were typically European constructs, rooted in the philosophy of the period (and before it). Secondly, even if the problem of racial taboo in sexual encounter did exist for them, their Christian education and Victorian upbringing (not exempt from a degree of pruderie) certainly forbade them to mention it, especially considering the fact that both Mofolo and Plaatje published their novels with missionary printers and both had great difficulties in being accepted for publication anyway. To illustrate this Christian approach, Sol Plaatje has Ra-Thaga remark to the Boers who assert they are God's chosen people, "What did Paulus mean [...] when he said to the Galatians, 'There is neither Greek nor Jew, bond nor free, male nor female, White nor Black, but are all one in Christ Jesus'." (Plaatje: 1978, 184).
The theme of the encounter between blacks and whites is present in their fiction, but it is rather a cultural encounter framed within the power relationship created by colonialism, and an encounter which marks the downfall of African systems of government and organization. Not unlike Chinua Achebe, they wonder what the endogenous reasons were for the collapse of local civilizations under the impact of the white presence and invasion.
Mofolo's Chaka is centered around the formation of the kingdom of the Amazulu and the rise and fall of their hero Chaka. Chaka reaches the utmost of greatness but then becomes obsessed with power and a prey in the hands of the doctor and diviner Isanusi who had helped him to 'see' his future potential and achieve kingship. Once he has reached the zenith of power, Chaka cannot control his aggressivity and in order to satisfy his monstruous thirst destroys his own family, army and people, till he is murdered by his own brothers. On the point of death, Chaka addresses his killers with a terrible prophecy:
You are killing me in the hope that you will be kings when I am dead, whereas you are wrong, that is not the way it will be because umlungu, the white man, is coming, and it is he who will rule you, and you will be his servants (Mofolo:1984, 167).
The dying king foresees the future of the Zulus and their land: colonial invasion and subjugation. Such will be the relationship between Africans and Europeans, and those who do not know this and keep fighting against each other are but grotesque puppets of a tragic history which they accelerate with their deeds.
Plaatje's Mhudi is set at a later period and witnesses the arrival of the Voortrekker Boers in the central region of the southern continent where, at a place called Taba Nchu (Black Mountain), they are met by the Barolong and their chief Moroka. The Barolong had been defeated and destroyed by the Matabele (Ndbele) led by Mzilikazi, who is finally overpowered by an alliance of Boers and Barolong.
So the picture is that of a fragment of African history where the whites appear as one element among others: not yet masters, not yet colonial rulers. The interchange between the two groups of people is interestingly analysed and presented by Plaatje through both historical episodes of battles and/or alliances, and narrative elements inserted in the behaviour of historical leaders but even more of fictional heroes and heroines, particularly the two central figures, beautiful Mhudi and her husband Ra-Thaga. The latter is attracted by the Boers and strikes up a friendship with young de Villiers and later with his fiancée Hannetjie. Mhudi, on the other hand, is wary of the Boers in general and does not like their way of life. She finds out that they treat their Hottentot servants with wild cruelty (see the episode retold in Plaatje: 116) and experiences on herself their domineering attitude towards Africans, when, while searching for Ra-Thaga, she joins their party and is automatically treated as a servant because she belongs to the 'black race'. From the beginning she had always entertained strong misgivings about these white people, an "inexplicable dread that lingered in her mind" ( Ibidem, 114), and up to the end of the story she does not share Ra-Thaga's confidence in them. The Voortrekkers are odd creatures for the Barolong because of their guns, horses, and flowing beards: and the more they get to know them, the more surprised they are by their customs, as one can see in the humorous episode of the public trial ( Ibidem, 124) where women also take part, to the amazement of the Africans. Of course here Plaatje displays his usual irony and subverts the exoticism of the eurocentric gaze by making the Europeans objects of wonder and ridicule to the Africans.
The only episode where the striking diversity of the whites seems to cause a curiosity bordering on physical attraction among the African women who see them for the first time takes place when the two Boers called de Villiers and Viljoen are sent on a spying expedition and stop at a village inhabited by Bakwena people, tributaries of the Matabele and lead by a chief called Mogale:
Mogale's people had never seen a White man before, and the hut in which de Villiers and Viljoen lay concealed by day was daily besieged by curious Bakwena. [...] Women found all sorts of pretext for visiting Tlou's village; and in order to be admitted to de Villiers' retreat they came loaded with presents of meat and milk and vegetables; others brought wild fruit and honey and de Villers' hostesses and attendants had a royal time. [...] Such donors being privileged visitors used to crowd into the enclosure at the back of the hut where the strangers sat and ask them all sorts of curious questions. [...] When their shyness wore off, their persistent attention became to him so disagreeable that de Villiers pleaded to be spared the gentle solicitude of the Bakwena women; but [...] the fair visitors laden with presents continued to pour into the place and to torment the two Boers beyond endurance. They stroked their hair, they asked them to pull off their shoes and they counted their toes. They remarked on the buttons on de Villiers' jacket and sometimes asked him to unbutton his shirt. Saving him the trouble at other times, they personally did the unbuttoning and, baring his chest, they would ask de Villiers to account for the contrast between his pallid chest and ruddy face ( Ibidem, 120).
The intricate, meandering plot of the novel however does not offer any sexual encounter between Africans and Boers - not to speak of miscegenation. The focus is on the reciprocal respect born out of an acceptance of difference. The Barolong and their chief Moroka had already welcomed some Wesleyan missionaries who lived peacefully within their territory; and in the end made a pact with the Boers in order to overcome the usurper Mzilikazi. Yet it is already obvious that on one side the technology of the whites is more efficient (horses, guns, etc.), and on the other these Boers are ready to trick them and try to get all their land for themselves after the victory over Mzilikazi and his Matabele (Plaatje: 1978, 141-142).
In the end, Voortrekkers and Barolong will each go their own way - for the time being. The special friendship linking Ra-Thaga and de Villiers is sealed by the fact that they learn one another's language and are therefore able to communicate and exchange ideas.
In spite of his exceptional qualities, Sol Plaatje was a man of his time, a Lutheran and a child of the British Empire, as he had shown during the siege of Mafeking (which he described in a remarkable book), where he sided with the British against the Boers. He was the result of the cultural encounter of Africa and Europe at its best: he saw the immense possibilities which a well balanced relationship could bring to all in South Africa. But, as we know, he lived long enough to see the end of his dream after the promulgation of the Natives Land Act of 1913 that expropriated the Africans of their land and he reacted politically by joining the select group who founded the African National Congress (then SANC) in 1912.
The ideological position of these two early African writers, Mofolo and Plaatje, shows that at the time there was still every chance of promoting understanding between the races. But of course black intellectuals had no political power whatsoever, and eventually became obstacles to the creation of a full colonial state, as the history of the ANC and its élites shows all too well. Meanwhile the politicization of race, the creation of a category of whiteness, and the black/white dichotomy generated the culture of apartheid, giving birth to all kinds of ideological monstrosities that would nourish racial prejudices and perpetuate social taxonomies still present today and actively damaging the possibility of finding political solutions to the problems faced by the whole of South African society. Vai alla Bibliografia
Sommario Culture 2002
* This essay was originally presented in an abbreviated version at the conference on "Récit émergeant, récit renaissant, 1859-1939" held at the Université Michel de Montaigne-Bordeaux 3, Bordeaux, France, on January 23-26, 2002.
1 Although the editions indicated above were the first to appear, in this paper references are to later editions: Sarah Gertude Millin, God's Stepchildren, Johannesburg: Ad.Donker, 1986, with a Preface by Tony Voss, pp. 7-17; William Plomer, Turbott Wolfe, ed. by Stephen Gray, with background pieces by Roy Campbell, William Plomer, Laurens van der Post, Nadine Gordimer, Michael Herbert, Peter Wilhelm, David Brown and Stephen Gray, Johannesburg, AD.Donker, 1980; Thomas Mofolo, Chaka, translated into English and edited by Daniel P. Kunene, London, Heinemann,1984; Solomon T.Plaatje, Mhudi, London, Heinemann, 1978, ed. by Stephen Gray with an introduction by Tim Couzens. Millin's book was revised by the author for a later 1924 edition, the one currently used, which became very popular in the United States. Mofolo's novel suffered heavy censorship from the hand of its missionary publishers; the excised parts were never recovered, while Plaatje's, who also suffered censorship, was restituted to its original version when Tom Couzens and Stephen Gray rescued the manuscript after a fire had damaged the storage area of the Lovedale Press and edited the complete version. In this essay I qualify people and books as 'white' and 'black' to design a visible grid of reference relating to its central theme, the crossing and mixing of white/black in miscegenation.
2 Gandhi recruited a batallion of Indian troopers to support the British army in the repression of the Zulu rebellion. Gandhi's group never went into fighting, but only assisted the wounded and dead, both white and black. Later he admitted that he would have never flanked the British expedition had he known that it was not a war but a massacre of innocent women and children.
3 William Plomer then belonged to the group of the famous journal Voorslag, together with Campbell and van der Post; he later moved back to England where he became a leading figure in the world of publishing and literature.
4 The fleeting reference to Gauguin and his Tahiti seems to give a flavour of romantic exoticism to Turbott's story by evoking a vision of happiness and sexual abandonment and easy gratification.
5 See Lewis Nkosi, Mating Birds, London,Constable, 1986, where a young black man waiting to be executed for the alleged rape of a white girl talks to a psychoanalist and describes the ambiguity of the encounter with the girl on the beach divided by a partition so as to separate white from blacks. The man seems unable to make it clear for us whether it was rape or not, for the only way to enter into contact with a white woman seems to be rape.
6 See Arthur Maimane, Victims, London, Allison and Busby, 1976. Here there is no doubt about the fact that it was a rape, yet the reasons for it are complex, as well as the way the woman reacts when she finds out she is pregnant: she keeps the child in spite of her husband and social milieu, who outcast her, while the apartheid system throws her i
nto an impossible situation compelling her and the daughter to move into a coloured section of Johannesburg. The question here is whether the hybrid outcome of the events signify anything for her and the child-apart from sheer survival.