Places: Chaka

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1925 (English translation, 1931)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical realism

Time of work: Early nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*South Africa

*South ChakaAfrica. The interior of what is now the Republic of South Africa provides a realistic backdrop for the quasi-historical story of the rise and fall of the Zulu founder-king, Chaka (also known as Shaka) in the early nineteenth century. Thomas Mofolo depicts South Africa as a relatively wild country, in which the influence of the European settlers is not yet pervasive. The narrative focuses on the northeastern corner of the country occupied by the Zulu, the richest and most agriculturally advanced area of African settlement. Most of the novel takes place here, but comparisons to the poorer regions serve as an internal frame of reference to show how fertile land gives rise to a more warlike people than the regions where finding food is a more pressing concern.


*Kafirland. Mofolo’s term for the northern part of Natal Province more generally known as Zululand Africa. (“Kafir” derives from an Arabic word for “infidel” that white South Africans transformed into a pejorative term for Africans.) Kafirland lies between the Indian Ocean to the east and a mountain range traversed by rivers to the west. The region is depicted as lusciously green and fertile, without the life-threatening droughts found elsewhere. This part of the country is relatively densely populated and has given rise to large, numerous, and prosperous villages. In the novel, Kafirland is also a place of pervasive witchcraft. Masters in the art possess special knowledge of medicines for enchantment, bewitchment, murder, and killing enemies, as well as love potions. During his rise to power, Chaka relies heavily on witchcraft.

Many natural geographical features in Kafirland are imbued with supernatural powers and linked to magic phenomena. An example of a special feature of the landscape being singled out to explain a magical occurrence occurs at an unnamed spring by a tall tree, where Chaka meets a mysterious man who calls himself the diviner. This man seems able to read Chaka’s mind; together, he and Chaka come to wield great power. The novel’s straightforward narration of these events bestows on its landscape a supernatural element of mystic proportions.


Qube. Kafirland village of Nandi, Chaka’s mother. It consists of many individual kraals–as the walled enclosures built around individual houses are known in South Africa. The huts provide shelter to people and domestic livestock, and their walls are intended to keep out human and animal intruders. Because his mother’s village lies so close to the wilderness of the African bush, young Chaka is able to distinguish himself as a hunter. He begins building his reputation by killing a lion that enters his mother’s kraal. Through the well-developed communication system that links the villages, his fame spreads more quickly than it could in less densely settled parts of the country.

*White Umfolosi River

*White Umfolosi River (ewm-foh-LOH-zee). River of the water-snake that flows through Kafirland after rising near what is now Vryheid in Natal. As the Umfolosi runs through the countryside on its course to the Indian Ocean, its water and fish enrich the surrounding land. Because of its central role in sustaining life in Kafirland, the Zulu bestow special legends on it and its water. As with other natural features throughout the land, outstanding geographical features are imbued with supernatural powers and linked to magic phenomena. When Chaka bathes in the river, a huge water snake appears before him. Because he does not flinch, a great future is predicted for him.


*Dingiswayo (deen-gih-SWAY-yoh). Zulu capital that shares its name with a chieftain who invites Chaka to fight alongside him against neighboring rulers. Dingiswayo rules his capital village with peace and only fights to protect his people. Measured against other settlements, Dingiswayo is a comparatively civilized place. There, Chaka is treated with love and kindness. When he succeeds Dingiswayo as ruler, he gives his people the name “Zulu Amazula” (Heaven and the People of Heaven).


*Umgungundhlovu (ewm-gewn-gewn-DLOH-vew). New capital village built by Chaka. Mofolo depicts life in settlement in a manner reminiscent of life in the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta. Like the rulers of the warlike Spartans, Chaka decrees that the purpose of all human activity must be war. His capital is walled, and its guards are forever vigilant in their effort to watch all entries and exits to and from the city. In the middle of Umgungundhlovu is a courtyard in which state functions are performed as declared, ordered, or commanded by Chaka. This courtyard sees the manifestation of Chaka’s power.

The capital is also the place where Chaka has thousands of his own warriors gratuitously killed for what he deems cowardice. This place becomes a sight drenched by unquenchable blood-lust. The sheer magnitude of violence and blood that occurs in this place is extremely disheartening. The capital of Chaka is not like the capital of Dingiswayo.

BibliographyDathorne, O. R. The Black Mind: A History of African Literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1974. Discusses Chaka as a product of tradition and African oral history. Argues that the work is more than the mere debunking of myth about the Zulu leader.Gerard, Albert S. Four African Literatures: Xhosa, Sotho, Zulu, Amharic. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971. Gerard discusses Chaka within the context of the religious beliefs (that is, Christianity) of the author. Biographical information about Mofolo is provided.Ikonne, Chidi. “Thomas Mofolo’s Narrator.” In Aspects of South African Literature, edited by Christopher Heywood. London: Heinemann, 1976. Ikonne’s criticism deals primarily with narrative techniques in the novel; he finds a “double narrative” running throughout.Kunene, Mazisi. Emperor Shaka the Great: A Zulu Epic. London: Heinemann, 1979. Written as a narrative in poetry, this poem details biographical elements and stands in contrast to the novel.Wauthier, Claude. The Literature and Thought of Modern Africa: A Survey. Translated by Shirley Kay. New York: Praeger, 1964. Discusses the historical figure, Shaka, in the light of Mofolo’s literary creation. Gives particular attention to paganism in the novel and to the character of Isanusi.
Categories: Places