Hoha Mrs M. Maxeke
Mti omde orara wakulo
Bhikica emva kwabavumi
Mrs M. Maxeke
Ze nengcwaba lamagqwira
(Ho, Mrs M. Maxeke,
Tall, bitter tree,
Give us advice
On harvesting crops
Glean in the wake of the reapers
Mrs M. Maxeke
So every witch
Drops down dead)
These are the words of Nontsizi Mgqwetho’s poetry. This is an extract from her poem Iziko le nyembezi (The vale of tears) written in 1921. My previous post was about Charlotte Mannye Maxeke. It therefore seems fitting that I should write about Nontsizi Mgqwetho as the reference in the poem makes me suspect that these two women lived and read about each other’s work in the 1920s. Mgqwetho’s poetry gives us the voice of another Black woman who reveals so much more about Black life in 19th century South Africa.
Nontsizi Mgqwetho wrote poetry for the newspaper Umteteli wa Bantu (The People’s Advocate or The People’s Mouthpiece) in the 1920s: a multilingual newspaper edited by Marshall Maxeke (Charlotte Maxeke’s husband). Mgqwetho’s work explores the complexities of identity and experience in an urban space which provides us with many answers to similar questions we’re still asking today.
Jeff Opland collected her poetry from the newspapers into a more accessible poetry anthology The nation’s bounty: The Xhosa poetry of Nontsizi Mgqwetho. When I came across her work in 2009 I knew very little about Black life in 19th century South Africa. Reading Mgqwetho’s poetry made me question even more the perception I had about Black people’s lives while confronting early settlers and urbanisation. In primary school I was taught about the 1820 settlers in the Eastern Cape and the discovery of diamonds in Kimberley as though the white people arriving in Africa were arriving on unchartered territory. The absence of Black and Khoi San people’s experiences in the early history I was taught meant that my young mind believed that Black people as agents simply didn’t exist until the missionaries and the mining magnets came along and colonised the land and the people already occupying the land. The idea that Black people could have engaged the missionaries as equals and in fact resisted colonial imperialism is a narrative I am still discovering and grappling with.
The idea that a Black woman could have been writing poetry in a newspaper edited and read by Black people is an important consideration; especially when one looks at the content in Mgqwetho’s poetry. One of her her most significant poems is a poem that addresses the spilt of the South African Native Congress (SANNC) as a result of people like Maxeke who had become disillusioned by the work of the congress. Read with modern sensibilities, the thought that the early SANNC could have been fraught with tensions does not sit comfortably with the imagined past of African resistance and Mgqwetho’s poetry allows us to interrogate this imagination as her poetry is evidence of the tensions within early political movements.
The role of women in politics is one that is contested in 2016 as we can see even in a country like the United States of America (with Hillary Clinton contesting the presidency) and even closer to home when the Nigerian president, Buhari, stated that a woman’s place is in the kitchen after his wife made comments about the ruling party in Nigeria however, it seems clear that Mgqwetho’s position as a poet allowed her to make commentary about the politics of the 1920s. The poem below illustrates the contestation about a woman seeing herself as imbongi (a poet) because poets were assumed to be men who could use their poetry to confront their leaders.
Kuba tina simadoda nje asizange
Siyibone kowetu imbongokazi
Yenkazana kuba imbongi inyuka
Nenkundla ituke inkosi
(We as men have never encountered
these female poets in our our homes
Because a poet—a male— rouses the court and censures the king)
Mgqwetho’s poetry can be seen as the earliest form of protest poetry as she wrote many poems addressing the experiences of confronting African modernity in the midst of Black people trying to build resistance movements. Her poetry openly lambastes leaders at the time as well as the complacency amongst privileged Black people who were not willing to confront the complexities of their time. He greatest concern was about speaking up against the injustice she was seeing around her:
Xa ndikubonisa ubume bomhlaba
(We can’t sit silent, the country’s rotten
If I exposed the state of the country
the Christians’ jaws would drop
Silence implies consent!)
Her poetry reveals that she had converted to Christianity which allowed her to be critical of those in the church preaching the gospel as well as those she felt were resisting the gospel to their own detriment. Her allusion to Christianity also reveals an ambivalence where she implores Black people not to forget the ancestoral African traditionalism which was getting lost amongst Black people who were embracing Christianity and modernity. This ambivalence is familiar even in 2016 where religious beliefs are constantly being questioned as a legitimate lens for understanding our world.
One of Mgqwetho’s poems Ingwe idla ngamabala (Spots feed the leopard) questions the political economy of the 1920s. The poem begins with a warning to Black people that Satshabalala tina ngokuswela ukwazi (Our ignorance will destroy us) as Black people were fast becoming landless and moving to the cities and thus being at the mercy of the city economy. Instead of cultivating the land (which was slowly being taken away from Black people since the 1913 Land Act) Black people were selling their maize only to buy it back at a higher price from the shops established by white traders. In the same poem she asks the question Zipina izityebi zelixesha letu (Where are the wealthy today) which speaks to a question of Black ownership and wealth which is yet to be actualised for many black people even in a democratic South Africa. Black people still do not own much of the land in South Africa and with the exception of a few industrialists and entrepreneurs (which we can count by name) much of the wealth in South Africa is in the hands of a few, mostly white people. We are yet to answer the questions posed by Mgqwetho in her poetry about the importance of self-actualisation of black people through economic means. This is further illustrated in a poem directed at workers to unite in the wake of oppressive laws that were being established at the time: Izizwe ezintsundu mazidibane/Livakale ilizwi labasebenzi…Livakale ilizwi labasebenzi/Bawafumane amalungelo abo (Black nations must come together/Let the voice of the workers be heard…Let the voice of the workers be heard/let them reclaim their rights).
I am constantly returning to the words Asinakuthula umhlab’ubolile as though they were a mantra because they are very apt to all South Africans almost a century after Mgqwetho was witnessing an equally fraught South Africa in transition. Reading Mgqwetho’s poetry helps me find a language of resistance and the courage to speak about injustice even when choosing silence seems easier. Mgqwetho’s poetry is a gift to South Africans who are doing the work against injustice we still see so prevalent in South Africa today.