Published in 1925 in Sotho and in 1931 in English, Chaka was one of the first significant novels written by an African native to receive widespread attention and readership in Europe and in the United States. With this book, Thomas Mofolo provided the English-speaking world with a depiction of African life, culture, tradition, and mind-set before the coming of Europeans.
Unlike many African novels, Chaka is set in the eighteenth century, before the Europeans came. European forms of government and religion were not part of African life in the time in which the novel is set. Mofolo, himself educated by Christian missionaries, writes of a time previous to his own African existence, but he does so with a voice of authenticity and sincerity.
The story reveals much about human nature within a localized African setting. The soul-devouring nature of evil, the motive for revenge, the matters of love and war, the fall of a hero—all of these universal human stories are detailed in an African context.
As a result of circumstances of birth, Chaka is set apart from his family and his inheritance through no fault of his own. When he gives himself over to the evil of the sorcerer Isanusi, however, he morally takes things into his hands and assures his descent into evil. He slowly abandons all reason, love, and goodness in his life. He does so always for selfish reasons. In the beginning, it is reasonable and human that he would want to gain the throne that is rightfully his own and that he is denied. His descent into evil, however, begins with his pact with the sorcerer and is confirmed in his actions, which become increasingly selfish and despotic.
As Chaka descends morally yet rises in power, he becomes given to atrocities, even killing members of his own family. He murders the most faithful of his servants and warriors; it is suggested that he participates in cannibalism and unspeakable sexual acts. His greatest violation, however, is his lust for blood: The more people he kills, the more it is necessary for him to kill again to feel that his life has direction. He conquers and controls more of the world than he can ever even see, yet he remains dissatisfied.
In Christian terms, Mofolo is writing about a character who sells his soul to the devil. No Christian elements, however, enter the story. The coming of the whites is mentioned in only one instance, and their influence is totally absent in the work. Chaka is nevertheless comparable to other figures in literature who sell their souls, Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, for example. Chaka knows what he is doing when he is visited by Isanusi and enters into the agreement with him. Similarly, Isanusi knows exactly what he is doing and proceeds to tempt Chaka in his moral descent.
Mofolo records the story as history, making it read as factual biography. Elements of the supernatural, such as works carried out by Isanusi and his two agents Ndlebe and Malunga, are rendered in a matter-of-fact manner that never questions their credibility. The narrative itself is almost never interrupted with authorial intrusions. Nevertheless, the author is aware of the ignorance of Western readers (and twentieth century African readers) of the beliefs and culture of the eighteenth century Zulus. Accordingly, he weaves explanations and comments into the story.
The novel contains no preachy, moralistic attitude or outlook. It is clear to everyone that Chaka is evil long before his death. He dies, miserable not so much for his sins against human nature and whatever gods there be but because he cannot find pleasure in anything except blood and death. His own family and warriors kill him in his illness. He is too weakened to fight for himself, and he succumbs to death willingly.