Female Imbongi Pioneer
Nontsizi Mgqwetho was a renegade and in many ways far ahead of her time. As a poet, Imbongi (praise singer) and political commentator Mgqwetho shattered all the moulds confining black women in South Africa in the 1920s.
We consider the praise singers or Imbongi to be the precursors of our modern journalists. Historically the Imbongi was respected and given the task of both praising and criticising the chief and other leaders. Mgqwetho spoke out fearlessly and her lyrical verse was also published in local newspapers.
In a profile prepared for South African History Online, academic, Jeff Opland writes that Mgqwetho had published 97 poems and three articles for the Johannesburg based newspaper, Umteteli wa Bantu, between 1920 and 1929. Opland describes Mgwetho as the first and only female poet to produce a significant body of work in Xhosa.
According to Opland, Mgqwetho first published her poetry in 1920 with the Johannesburg based weekly newspaper, Umteteleli wa Bantu (Mouthpiece of the People). During the 1920s – after the passing of the Native (Black) Affairs Act, and many other similar laws – there were dynamic debates about the future of South Africa, the need for unity in the face of racial oppression and the fragmentation of black people.
The significance of a black female voice — adding substance to these debates during that era — cannot be understated. In a piece published in Poetry International Rotterdam Isabel Hofmeyr, professor of Literature at Wits University, notes that while these debates were often dominated by males – especially those active in political formations, like the Congress movement, and professionals – Mgqwetho played a decisive role in opening up issues. This was at a time when many female voices were stifled by not having access to education and society’s strong gender bias.
Hofmeyr notes that by using isiXhosa imaginatively, Mgqwetho was able to not only convey her views but also to amplify her voice.
Looking at the life and creative work of this remarkable woman I was reminded of these words by Pumla Gqola in her book, A Renegade Called Simphiwe:
“There is an idealized model of (Black) femininity in post-apartheid South Africa. On the surface, she embodies the transformational promise of a new South Africa: a radical departure from apartheid stereotypes, she is an articulate, independent, ambitious woman with increasing control over her public and financial life.”
Although Gqola refers to Simphiwe Dana here, it is my opinion the latter part of this description could easily have applied to Nontsizi Mgqwetho.
While her work speaks volumes, very little is known of the Mgqwetho’s personal life. Jeff Opland, who is also the editor of the book The Nation’s Bounty: The Xhosa Poetry of Nontsizi Mgqwetho (2007), tries to uncover the mysteries of Mgqwetho’s life by following the footprints she leaves in her poetry.
In the South African History Online profile, he writes:
“In a poem published on 2 December 1922, lamenting the death of her mother, she gives her mother’s name as Emmah Jane Mgqwetho, the daughter of Zingelwa of the Cwerha clan, and associates her with the Hewu district near Queenstown.
Although Xhosa personal praises often employ hyperbole and caricature, some information about Mgqwetho can be gleaned from a poem about herself published in Umteleli on 12 January 1924. She seems to have been arrested, probably for political activity, if we may take literally the lines:
‘What a fool I was sucking up to the whites! / Next thing I knew the cops had the cuffs on me.’ She describes herself as physically unappealing, a bulky woman with ‘matchstick legs’, and may possibly have been unmarried,”
In a classical 1920s polemic, Mgqwetho displays her critical stance when she takes issue with L T Mvabaza, editor of the ANC-founded newspaper Abantu Bantu. Mvabaza accused Umteteli wa Bantu, the paper that published Mgqwetho’s work, of dividing the African people. Mgqwetho responds with this poem published in Umteteli wa Bantu in1920:
Mvabaza, I have long had my eye on you.
Umteteli wa Bantu long saw through you.
You are a sack without water, left to breed tadpoles.
Mvabaza, you are a shifty opportunist carried along on a plate.
When you arrived in Johannesburg, you suddenly became a leader. We have made a bad start.
We seek a ford to cross over.
We are suffering high casualties because of reckless rabble-rousers. Aha! I told you! Agent provocateurs of Jeppe
Who command us to charge
While they stay in the trench.
Africa is perishing because of reckless leaders.
In a piece published on the website for Poetry International Rotterdam, Opland describes Nontsizi as an anguished voice of an urban woman, “confronting male dominance, ineffective leadership, black apathy, white malice and indifference, economic exploitation and a tragic history of nineteenth century territorial and cultural dispossession.”
In the same piece Opland describes how Mgqwetho defied the traditional typecast of the rural male Imbongi by appropriating the role. Opland observes that as a woman Mgqwetho would not have been allowed to do public performances for a Chief. According to Opland, Mgqwetho overcame this limitation by using the newspaper as a platform. Opland writes:
“The newspaper licensed her poetry and afforded her access to a public that tradition denied her. She was free to appropriate the voice of an imbongi, and claimed the imbongi’s right to criticise leaders. Like an imbongi, she drew attention to social ills, and sought to shape attitudes and mobilise action”.