Nontetha, the Martyr. (2002 in Review)

By Sesanti, Simphiwe | New African, January 2003 | Go to article overview

Nontetha, the Martyr. (2002 in Review)


Sesanti, Simphiwe, New African


Ever heard of Nontetha Nkwenkwe, the black South African woman who braved government censure to fight for freedom for her people, and as a result was officially declared "insane" in 1922 and hospitalised by the government?

There is something called moral victory. This occurs when those who uphold justice and the truth suffer physical defeat in the hands of those who represent falsehood and injustice. The vanquished fall with a sense of pride knowing that they are morally superior to their conquerors. One of the greatest known African martyrs, Steve Bantu Biko, must have had this concept in mind when he wrote in his book, I Write What I Write, that: "It is better to die for an ideal that will live than to live for an ideal that will die."

This was exactly the case with one remarkable black South African woman, Nontetha Nkwenkwe, about whom a book, African Apocalypse, by Robert R. Edgar and Hilary Sapire, has been published.

Born in 1875 in Toyise in the Eastern Cape, Nonthetha was committed to Fort Beaufort Mental Hospital on 6 December 1922, released on 5 January 1923 on six months probation, and re-committed on 7 April 1923 for an indefinite period.

The book exposes the ruthlessness of the racist white South African government which declared Nontetha mad, not because she was really insane, but because they hated her teachings. This woman who could neither read nor write, caught the attention of the South African authorities when her movement attracted many followers. She preached that the "natives should arrange their own matters without the interference of the white men".

In mid-1922, Fort Jackson, the superintendent of Natives at Newlands, branded Nontetha "an undesirable as her theme is chiefly against the white man".

A white trader, Sidney Jakins, warned that Nontetha's movement "has the religious aspect merely as a blind" and that its aim "is for the downfall of the Europeans". This fear of the revolutionary spirit of Nontetha became a fever, catching many white South Africans. A report from Pretoria ruled that Nontetha's religious aspects were "cloaking a more serious objective, for information has been received that her followers discuss the overthrowing of the Europeans by a combination of the black races and the coming of the American Negroes".

So they began to plot against her! By arresting and confining her in a mental institution, the authorities believed, as one white magistrate put it, "the fact that the priestess has been declared insane, [it] will do much to extinguish the faith of the red adherents". …

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