Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 358
The novel Chaka tells the story of the man who brought dozens of chiefdoms together in the early nineteenth-century, creating the Zulu Kingdom/ Empire in contemporary South Africa. Author Thomas Mofolo effectively blends traditional oral history with European literary traditions to create a unique document. It is both a product of its times—probably written in 1910 but first published in 1925—both in terms of the theme and for the influence of Christianity on Mofolo’s perspectives. As a leader, Mofolo shows he gained the native peoples’ support through unchecked cruelty, which combined with lust for power rendered him an unsuitable leader. Chaka is thus a cautionary tale about the abuse of power. Mofolo converted to Christianity and was advised by French missionaries about the book’s publication, which influenced his perspective on religion in traditional African society.
Two primary themes about rulership and power, and the essential features of traditional society dominate the book. They are intertwined in the plot through Chaka’s rise and fall.
The first theme is the danger of blind ambition. Chaka loses his way as he is driven by the lust for power. Far more relentless than any opponent, Chaka is shown as enjoying killing, more so than reluctantly using violence to achieve justified political ends. The basis of his power is his “vaccination in blood” with the Diviner, who tells him to “kill without mercy.” Thus, he is presented as an illegitimate ruler (and, by birth, an illegitimate child). Obsessed with his climb, he instigates bloodbaths to annihilate, rather than merely conquer, his opponents.
A second important theme is political legitimacy. Mofolo casts doubt on the legitimacy of the empire Chaka forged, which could be used as a justification for the colonial takeover. Mofolo presents Chaka as motivated by mystical visions, dreams, and portents. Chaka becomes convinced that it is his divinely-ordained destiny to become great. Similarly, near the end, dreams bring premonitions of his end. The emphasis on blind faith in and emotional connection to the traditional signs and old ways sets up a contrast to a logical understanding of good governance, which would be embodied by colonial rule of law.