Who is Nontsizi Mgqwetho?

I first encountered Nontsizi Mgqwetho when a friend of mine was doing research on the work of Rev Tiyo Soga. She had discovered Nontsizi Mgqwetho's name is a speech delivered by former President Thabo Mbeki in 2011 paying tribute to Rev Tiyo Soga's life (see link below for the speech). My friend and I became obsessed with her writing instantly. The first conference where I presented a paper I spoke about Nontsizi and wrote a paper (which I'm ashamed to admit I never followed up to get published). Ever since then I have thought of Nontsizi was my muse. It was a relief to discover that there was a black woman in the 1920s writing her ideas for others to engage with.

Her work has been compiled from the archives of the newspaper she wrote for into an anthology, The Nation's Bounty: The Xhosa poetry of Nontsizi Mgqwetho. Mgqwetho wrote for the newspaper Umteteli wa Bantu (The People's Advocate, my translation)[1] – a multilingual newspaper edited by Marshall Maxeke. Written in the 1920s, Mgqwetho’s work explores the complexities of identity and experience in an urban space. Her choice to write izibongo (praise poetry) and not iintsomi (folktales) is evidence that she defied the traditional role given to women at the time, as her poetry attempts to address issues in a medium that was occupied for the most part by men. Writing in such a place and time meant that Mgqwetho’s voice emerged amid the labour conflicts on the mines. Little has been documented about Mgqwetho’s work until recently largely due to the marginalisation of women as artists and social commentators in the 1920s. 

Her work was discovered by Prof. Jeff Opland in the archives of the newspaper and was translated with the help of Phyllis Ntantala and Abner Nyamende from the University of Cape Town (UCT). Mgqwetho’s poetry addresses the reality of black people and their quest for identity in a segregated and oppressive society. In order to achieve this she adopts a different persona in every poem – sometimes she adopts the persona of a man, in others a woman, a preacher, a sangoma, iqaba, a Red[2] or a Christian. In her defiance she not only invades a traditional male preserve of newspapers by taking on the masculine role of imbongi (praise poet), she also makes use of Western forms of poetry emptying them of their restrictive nature and filling them with her own experience.

Below is a stanza from the poem with the lines I quote on the blog "asinakuthula umhlaba ubolile". The title of the poem is Ukuthula!Ikwakuvuma! (Silence implies consent) a poem which is very relevant to Africans today.

Taru Mhleli ngesithuba sezi Mbongi                             Editor, thank you for the poets' column
Asinakuthula umhlaba ubolile                                        We cannot sit silent, the country's rotten
Xa ndikubonisa ubume bomhlaba                                  If I exposed the state of the country
Angabhekabheka onke amagqoboka                             the Christians' jaws would drop
Gquba!Ungathuli Mdaka weAfrika                             Dark one of Africa, don't sit in silence
Boguqa bakedame nabalwa nawe                              quell you foes with a roar of defiance!
Lovangeli yabo yokusikohlisa                                      This gospel of theirs,designed to deceive
Mina ingangam ndigaqe ngedolo                                 stands as tall as I do down on my knees

Her are some references which relate to Nontsizi Mgqwetho:

  • http://www.sahistory.org.za/people/nontsizi-cizama-imbongikazi-yakwacizama-mgqwetho
  • http://www.poetryinternationalweb.net/pi/site/poet/item/11262/10/Nontsizi-Mgqwetho
  • http://www.unisa.ac.za/contents/colleges/docs/TIYO%20SOGA%20FINAL%20-%209%20September%202011.pdf
  • http://pzacad.pitzer.edu/NAM/newafrre/writers/mgqwetto/mgqwettS.htm

[1] The common translation, The People’s mouthpiece; it was established by the Chamber of Mines. See Brian Willan (ed). Sol Plaatje: Selected Writings. Wits University Press, 1996, p. 305  

[2] Red is commonly used in the Xhosa form, “umntu obomvu” (a red person). It was initially ascribed to Xhosa people who persisted in using red ochre for their faces and bodies despite the missionaries’ insistence that this was unacceptable. It denotes someone who is either uneducated (by ‘Western’ standards) or rejects colonial norms.


Anonymous said…
In the trubute to Tiyo Soga, Mbeki quotes from an article Soga wrote in 1862 where asks, amonsgt other questions, "Bekungekho zimbongi na kudala? Bezibonga oobani na? Aphi na loo magama?" This piece on Nontsizi, like the Timbuktu manuscrips, answers this question while also casting a bigger spotlight on the intellectual contribution women made in the early years of resistance to colonialism. In essence you are saying to Tiyo, "Zazikho iimbongi zethu kudala, zazi bonga umz'ontsundu, nantsi enye yazo.".
Clea said…
We are teaching one of her poems to the first years at Wits. I am thrilled to be able to do so.

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