Mantatisi: The woman history continues to ignore

2009-09-21 13:17

SIR Harry Smith was not

a nice man and as British governor of the Cape Colony between 1848 and 1854 he

did some serious damage to the cause of the indigenous people of the Eastern

Cape and the Free State. He was the one who stole a large chunk of Basotho King

Moshoeshoe’s land north of the Caledon River and gave it to the Boers.

So what was Smith’s reward for this treachery? Well, the Free State

town of Harrismith was named after him, the Eastern Cape town of Aliwal North

was named after a battle he had fought in ­India and the Western Cape town of

Ladismith and the KwaZulu-Natal town of Ladysmith were both named after his

wife. Not bad for one British imperialist.

Shame on Harrismith for not shaking off that disgraceful name long

ago. One of South Africa’s proudest military generals, most cunning politicians

and best strategists hails from that very area and she only has a submarine

named after her – one that is stuck in the dry docks of Simon’s Town.

Her name was Chief Mantatisi, mother of Sekonyela. She was born in

1781 in the Wilge River valley where Harrismith is today and given the name


Her father was Mothaha, chief of the Basia. She married Mokotjo,

chief of the neighbouring Batlokoa, the Wild Cat people, and after the birth of

their first child in 1801, Ntatisi, she was called MaNtatisi. Their son,

Sekonyela, was born three years later.

Mokotjo died when Sekonyela was only nine years old and the boy was

clearly not fit to take over as chief of the clan. So his mother fought off all

rivals and stepped firmly into her dead husband’s shoes as chief at the age of


But from 1822 onwards her life was turned upside down. Following

social upheavals near the east coast, Matiwane led his Ngwane clan into battle

with the amaHlubi of chief Mapangazitha, who fell upon the Batlokoa ferociously.

And so Mantatisi’s life as a warrior chief and military general

started. She led her people in a wild scramble all over central South Africa to

avoid being devoured like so many smaller clans at the time. She conquered all

those who threatened her clan’s existence.

So feared was she that all marauding forces all over the

subcontinent were called “Mantatees”. Fearful and insecure men told the story

that she breastfed her troops herself and commanded millions of bees, which she

sent ahead of her troops to soften their targets. She had a hunchback and only

one eye in the middle of her forehead, the men said.

The truth was that she was exceptionally beautiful, with a regal

posture and was a caring mother. But she wasn’t the last strong woman to be

demonised by weak men.

Why would a town call itself Harrismith if it can call itself


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