S E K Mqhayi: Piercing Curtains of Modernity

1 December 1875 – 29 July 1945
The poet who rescued a swathe of our cultural legacy from obscurity.

The man is a voluminous writer. He is dramatist, essayist, critic, novelist, historian humorist, biographer, translator and poet at the same time. I put “Poet” last in the list not that poetry is the least of his accomplishments but for emphasis’ sake as that is what the man really is. Every day of his life the public is thrilled by his sublime productions through the press, through his books and other publications.

Guybon Bundlwana Sinxo
- The Bantu World, July 20, 1935

At a time when Africa’s rich oral tradition was battling to keep pace with modernity, a remarkable 20th Century poet rescued a swathe of our cultural legacy from obscurity.

As a schoolboy, the late Nelson Mandela had the honor of meeting the striking S E K Mqhayi. Madiba recounts the experience:

“The sight of a black man in tribal dress coming through that door was electrifying. It is hard to explain the impact it had on us. It seemed to turn the universe upside down. He raised his assegai into the air for emphasis, and accidentally hit the curtain above him. He faced us, and newly energised, exclaimed that this incident – the assegai striking the wire – symbolized the clash between the culture of Africa and that of Europe.

His voice rose and he said: ‘…the assegai stands for what is glorious and true in African history; it is a symbol of the African as warrior and the African as artist.”
The Young Mandela by David James Smith, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

True to the curtain encounter, Mqhayi wielded his artistry as a formidable weapon. He was a pioneer of indigenous languages. As a linguist and key thinker of the early 1900s, he embarked on the arduous project of standardising the grammar of isiXhosa. As a storyteller and provocative journalist, he established himself as a raconteur of our fears, our histories and our aspirations.

Mqhayi’s poetry and prose was his hallmark as a most unusual Imbongi, praise singer, poet and keeper of history. He explored the complex nature of history, morality, justice, truth and, of course, love. But his artistry delved much deeper.

Customarily, the role of Imbongi focused mainly on the local tribe and community, praising or criticising the power structures to promote the welfare and morality of everyone. But he did not limit himself to these traditional issues or to only chronicling history. He also expressed his opposition to the settlers, colonialism and its attendant injustices.

For Mqhayi to do this effectively, the use of the emergent print industry was essential. So in 1897 Mqhayi, Allan Kirkland, Tiyo Soga and others launched their own newspaper, Izwi Labantu (Voice of the People). The paper was a direct competitor of John Tengo Jabavu’s Imvo Zabantsundu.

Mainstreaming African Languages

Mqhayi and his contemporaries accused Jabavu’s publication of adopting a “reactionary political line”. In addition, Mqhayi argued for the primacy of isiXhosa. Jabavu believed that English was central for his newspaper to assert a notion of modernity.

This was the beginning of Mqhayi’s commitment to promoting African languages, not only for literary expression, but also as an integral element of an emergent political consciousness that opposed colonial values.

For Mqhayi, the survival of African languages in modernity was important to dislodge the hegemony of English. Izwi Labantu was filled with provocative writing on language and culture. The paper, and Mqhayi’s work in general, helped to ensure that isiXhosa survived and thrived, beyond it’s mother tongue status. Izwi Labantu was an act of political and cultural resistance.

Ityala Lamawela (The Lawsuit of the Twins) often described as a defense of traditional pre-conditional law, was Mqhayi’s first novel.

Ityala Lamawela (The Lawsuit of the Twins) often described as a defense of traditional pre-conditional law, was Mqhayi’s first novel.

In one of his seminal works of prose in Izwi, Mqhayi observed:

“Ukuhamba behlolela iinkosi zabo ezibahlawulayo umhlaba. Bahamba nalo ilizwi ukuba lihamba liba yingcambane yokulawula izikhumbani nesizwe, yathi imfuno yayinto nje eyenzelwe ukuba kuviwane ngentetho.”

Translation:

Human movement in search of land grabbing land from chiefs. Using the word of God as a tool
and instrument to rule kings and nations. An education so inferior became an institution to prepare slaves for new masters.

Translation by Mncedisi Qanqubi (2012)

Before Mqhayi’s birth, his father Ziwani Krune Mqhayi and mother Qashani Bedle prayed diligently for a baby boy. Their prayers were answered and they named him “Samuel”. It is Hebrew for “asked of God”. The name expressed their gratitude for answered prayers.

Both Ziwani and Qashani Mqhayi had a common wish for their son, Samuel. They hoped that he would “train for holy orders” and become a priest. Little did they know that Mqhayi’s life would take a very different turn.

The Eastern Cape region was home to intellectual greats like Tiyo Soga, Tengo Jabavu, Mpilo Walter and Benson Rubusana. Mqhayi learned from them and carved a niche for himself as poet and intellectual. Together they were the pioneers of a milieu that had a profound impact on our cultural life. They were a counter force for the aggressive attempts of the settlers and foreign missionaries to obliterate African traditions.

Oral tradition & modernity

Mqhayi developed his passion for poetry and storytelling through the fireside tradition of amabali –- tales of long ago. As a young boy growing up in the village of Gcumashe, on the banks of the Thyume River, Mqhayi listened intently as the elders shared stories about the struggles and triumphs of Xhosa greats like Hintsa kaKhawuta and Gcaleka kaPhalo.

It was the rich indigenous history of amaXhosa that inspired Mqhayi to discover and hone his passion for the oral tradition as a medium of storytelling. His influence on storytelling and the oral tradition continues to inspire us today. In 2010, Mqhayi was given the Chairpersons’ award posthumously by the South African Literary Awards for his life work. Mqhayi, known as Imbongi Yesizwe Jikelele (The Poet of the Nation All Over), was being honoured for his ability to chronicle stories of South Africa’s diverse people and even beyond our borders. In his work, Mqhayi persistently called for African people to be united.

Mqhayi is recorded as the first Imbongi with a published literary collection. A monument stands in his honour just outside Berlin, East London. It reminds us the Mqhayi was no ordinary Pioneer.

He kept piercing the curtains so that we never ever lost sight of our past and it’s rich traditions.

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