‘Our African Shakespeare, our Poet Laureate’

2009-12-07 00:00

REGARDED as one of South Afria’s greatest literary figures, S. E. K. Mqhayi remains under-appreciated because he wrote only in Xhosa. Considered the greatest of all Xhosa praise poets, Mqhayi’s concern for his people and all the people of this country earned him the title Imbongi yesizwe jikelele — poet of the whole nation.

While a few of his works remain best­sellers in Xhosa, many more are out of print, unpublished or lost. Abantu Besizwe (the nation’s people), edited and translated by the renowned scholar of Xhosa literature, Jeff Opland, visiting professor of African language literatures at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, is the first new volume of Mqhayi’s writing to appear in over 60 years.

Opland has published numerous academic papers and books on Xhosa poetry. In 2005, he published The Dassie and the Hunter, the moving story of what happened when he, in his own words “a prosaic Western academic”, met and befriended the late Xhosa praise poet or imbongi, David Yali-Manisi.

This was followed in 2007 by The Nation’s Bounty — The Xhosa Poetry of Nontsizi Mgqwetho. Interviewed about the book, Opland recalled how Yali-Manisi had told him that Mgqwetho was the second greatest poet in Xhosa. Asked who was the first Opland responded: “S. E. K. Mqhayi — he was the Shakespeare of the tradition.

“Mqhayi was the greatest literary figure in the history of Xhosa literature,” writes Opland in his introduction to Abantu Besizwe. “[He was] a predominantly oral poet, and the prolific author of books and newspaper contributions.”

In Abantu Besizwe, Opland has collected 65 historical and biographical essays written by Mqhayi for newspaper publication between 1902 and 1944, each printed as they originally appeared in Xhosa with facing English translations.

The book’s focus is on Mquayi’s historical and biographical prose, says Opland. “It contains articles and essays and concluding poems, often obituaries, about Mqhayi’s contemporaries, Xhosa and Mfengu, black and white, male and female, famous and everyday South Africans.” According to one authority, the book represents an “an immense task of rescue and recovery”.

Mqhayi died in 1945 and was buried at his home on Ntabozuko, Mount Glory, outside the little village of Berlin near East London. Six years later, a memorial tombstone with an impressive obelisk was unveiled bearing the following inscription in Xhosa below Mqhayi’s name:

“Poet of the nation, author of books,

Royal councillor of all the Xhosa people,

Leader, true Christian,

May he rest in peace,

May his spirit live on to lead us.”

In 1976, Opland went in search of Mqhayi’s grave. He found it neglected and forlorn. The experience “served as a source of both anger and inspiration to me over the succeeding years”, Opland recalls, anger and inspiration that has fired a life’s work and led to the publication of Abantu Besizwe.

The eldest son of Christian parents, Mqhayi was born in the village of Gqumahashe near Alice on December 1, 1875. His mother died when he was two. He attended school at Evergreen, 10 kilometres from his home where he was known as Samuel Krune, using the name of his grandfather as his surname. One day at a school celebration, the pupils were all awarded new names. He was given the name Edward and thereafter assumed the name Samuel Edward Krune Mqhayi, the surname of his great-grandfather, a councillor to the Rharhabe king, Ngqika, and who had died a heroic death during Hintsa’s War in 1834.

In 1885, Mqhayi moved with his father to Ngede in the Centane district where for the next six years he “absorbed traditional language, customs and lore”.

In 1891, Mqhayi went to Lovedale College to advance his schooling and became known as a keen pupil and avid reader. In 1894, and in defiance of his missionary teachers, he left school to enter an initation lodge. “He had come to the realisation that his future lay in the service of his people,” writes Opland, “and he felt he could not fulfil that ambition if he were not one of them.” Duly circumcised, Mqhayi was readmitted to Lovedale where, after a strong reprimand, he continued to pursue his Christian inclinations and was later baptised. At this time Mqhayi moved in church circles, becoming acquainted with such famous churchmen as Elijah Makiwane and Isaac Williams Wauchope who died aboard the SS Mendi in 1917.

Mqhayi left Lovedale in 1897 and spent a brief period teaching before joining the newly launched Izwi labantu newspaper in East London as a sub-editor. In 1900, he returned to Centane and lived there for six years as councillor at the Great Place of Khona, eldest son of Maqoma, his grandfather’s chief.

In 1906, Mqhayi returned to work for Izwi labantu in East London where he became concerned “about the injustices blacks suffered under white administration, and he became involved in local politics”.

Izwi labantu closed down in 1909 and thereafter Mqhayi taught in a succession of Anglican schools in Ndlam­be territory until founding a Presbyterian school at Macleantown “where he worked successfully for over 10 years, active in education, community affairs and the temperance movement”.

In 1920, Mqhayi assisted John Tengo Jabavu, who was battling with ill health, to edit the King William’s Town newspaper Imvo zabantsundu. After Jabavu’s death in 1921, Mqhayi resigned and returned to his school in Macleantown. In 1922, he joined the teaching staff at Lovedale but left in 1925, possibly because his “lessons were clearly at odds with the institution and its outlook”.

Mqhayi returned to Ndlambe territory just outside the little village of Berlin near East London where he obtained permission to build a farm on the rocky Tilana’s Hill, which he renamed Ntabozuko, Mount Glory, “hoping that there God would glorify himself through Mqhayi’s efforts to serve his nation and his peoples”.

By this time Mqhayi was a well-established literary personality and living in close proximity to the Ndlambe, Ngqika and Gcaleka peoples. He served as chairman of the Ciskei Native Convention and as councillor to the Ndlambe chief, Silimela Makinana, becoming known as Silimela’s “prime minister”. He was also involved in political and social affairs.

Mqhayi married three times. Predeceased by his first and second wives, he married Princess Winnie Makinana, Silimela’s daughter, in 1939.

Mqhayi died on July 29, 1945, at his home on Ntabozuko and was buried on the slopes of the mountain. Six years later, on March 26, 1951, the memorial tombstone was unveiled. Speaking to the assembled crowd of 500, the then African National Congress president Alfred Xuma referred to Mqhayi as “our African Shakespeare, our Poet Laureate”.

Another ANC president later recalled how Mqhayi had played a pivotal role in his life. In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela recalls how in his final year at school in Healdtown he witnessed Mquayi in action, an event “that for me was like a comet streaking across the night sky”.

Seeing and hearing Mqhayi perform gave the young Mandela a new perspective on the world: “I saw that an African might stand with a white man”, and it also affirmed Mandela’s dignity and identity as a Xhosa.

In July 2008, Opland revisited Mqhayi’s grave. “The area below the grave had been coldly cemented over, stifling the natural growth, and a few family graves had been added. The whole area was hemmed in by a cage of wire netting, topped with vicious loops of razor wire, like so many crowns of thorns ... The inscriptions, in deep shadow, were difficult to make out. But the glorious obelisk rose tall above the well-intentioned desecration, reflecting the sunlight, and Mqhayi’s spirit lives on to lead us, here on his beloved Ntabozuko, as in his peerless writings.”

• Abantu Besizwe — Historical and biographical writings, 1902 — 1914 by S. E. K. Mqhayi edited and translated by Jeff Opland is published by Wits University Press.

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