Detained for "Seditious Activities"

Although the authorities and local headmen initially regarded Nontetha as nothing more than a troublesome leader, as her power grew a decision was taken to "pathologise" her as mad. When her vision of a locust invasion materialised, and her followers disobeyed officials by refusing to kill the locusts, the authorities were given legal pretext to disrupt the movement.


"Nontetha was arrested and jailed in King William's Town in late 1922... The government was determined not to let Nontetha resume her preaching right away. Nevertheless, she was not tried for any civil offence; instead she was committed to Fort Beaufort Mental Hospital on 6 December 1922 for 'medical observation'. The hospital released her on 5 January 1923 on six months' probation, on the condition that she refrain from preaching.

"Nontetha disregarded the condition of her release... As stories of her continuing "seditious' activities trickled in, officials recommitted her at Fort Beaufort on 7 April 1923 for an indefinite period.
When it became apparent that African male figures of authority were unwilling or unable to restrain her from preaching, drastic action became imperative

"Nontetha was not the typical asylum inmate. Her initial incarceration was motivated on political grounds, with the intention of dealing her movement a death blow. When it became apparent that African male figures of authority were unwilling or unable to restrain her from preaching, drastic action on the art of state officials became imperative.

"This action was taken in late 1922, when Nontetha was first arrested. We do not have access to records that demonstrate precisely how the decision was made to 'pathologise' Nontetha as mad. We do know that prior to her arrest, in late 1923, the authorities suspected her of being a 'normal' subversive, troublesome leader who was using a screen of religiosity to mask her political aspirations. Neither did any of the local headmen who opposed her presence or African policemen describe her as mad. It would appear that only after she was arrested was the decision taken to have her examined by medical doctors to determine whether she was 'of sound mind'.

"According to her followers, Nontetha, before she was arrested, had predicted that an invasion of locusts would sweep through the region. She proclaimed God had sent them as a punishment and decreed that none be killed. When a swarm of voetganger [pedestrian] locusts descended on the area in September and October 1923, government officials ordered the people to kill them, invoking the Agricultural Pest Act of 1911, which empowered the government to order any citizen to kill insects. When Nontetha's followers refused to kill the locusts, officials had a legal pretext for disrupting the movement."

- Robert R. Edgar and Hilary Sapire. 2000. African apocalypse: The Story of Nontetha Nkwenkwe, a twentieth-century South African prophet, pp. 25, 29, 129


A plague of locusts

Lt Colonel H Kirkpatrick, Deputy Commissioner of Police in the Eastern Cape, reports from Grahamstown to the South African Police in Pretoria on Nontetha's followers' refusal to kill an invasion of locusts. The letter is dated November 13, 1923.

Native unrest: Keiskama: Prophetess "Nontetha"

Further to my minute evenly numbered of 9th instant, I have the honour to inform you that I proceeded to Middledrift on Saturday last and made arrangements for dealing with the followers of Nontata [sic] who had defied the Law, and on Monday the 12th instant surrounded the kraals where they were congregated and arrested some 120 natives. No violence was offered the Police but passive resistance was indulged in, the natives throwing themselves on the ground singing and praying.
Passive resistance was indulged in, the natives throwing themselves on the ground and singing and praying

The Magistrate of Middledrift was present together with the local Chief and Headmen of the Kraals and every opportunity was given them to try and persuade the Natives to submit to arrest without any force being used, but without avail. The Natives absolutely refused to listen to them but continued their chanting and praying, and a certain amount of force had to be used to effect arrests, the other Natives hanging onto the persons of those being arrested by the Police.

However, the whole thing was carried out satisfactorily and the prisoners eventually marched to Fort White in police custody; they are now awaiting trial on a charge of refusing to destroy locusts.

Some 36 of the number had previously been summoned to appear at Middledrift Court but had deliberately disobeyed the order. The remainder had flatly refused to obey the order of their Chief to destroy locusts.

The whole movement is a religious one and is being carried out by the followers of Nontata who is presently detained in the Mental Asylum, Fort Beaufort.

As far as I can gather the local Chief and Headmen are strongly against the movement and are doing their best to discourage it, but having no means of exercising any authority beyond moral persuasion they are handicapped, and because there is no infringement of any law, the followers of Nontata feel they can do as they like with immunity. Their refusal to obey a lawful order of Court was however a serious matter and was bound to have serious consequences hence my determination to check it at once.

I have just received information that all is quiet this morning in that area and will report further should anything untoward occur.

- National Archives, Pretoria; JUS 268 3/1064/18


Enforced locust killing

Below is a description by the acting magistrate of Middledrift, JW Ord, to the magistrate of King William's Town, of what happened when he tried to force Nontetha's followers to kill the locusts. The report is dated October 23, 1923

Followers of the prophetess "Nontetha"

Pursuant to an urgent telephone message that certain natives of Tshefu's Location were refusing to destroy locusts I proceeded at 6 am on the 20th instant to a high and somewhat inaccessible plateau on the Tamacha Hill.

On approaching the few isolated huts, I surprised numbers of natives - all dressed in white - gathering together at a certain spot. As we approached about 40 of them threw themselves in a large circle on the ground and commenced praying and singing. At first they declined to take any notice of my requests but after separating the women (who were the most virulent) the Headmen requested the men to proceed to destroy locusts, which were in enormous swarms around the kraals.
I thereafter noticed five men in white suits led by one also wearing a red handkerchief - going through very weird physical contortions

This they all declined to do in a most emphatic manner. I thereafter noticed five men in white suits led by one also wearing a red handkerchief - going through very weird physical contortions. The five seemed quite irresponsible and unable to control their behaviour. Their actions were those of a man who had taken poison. I ordered that they should be sent into King William's Town for medical examination and observation. At 4.30 pm on the same day I saw them here when three of them were still acting in the same manner. Two seemed to have somewhat recovered. I again saw the five on 21st instant and the three continue their contortions.

These people admit that they are followers of Nonteta [sic] and I am satisfied they are an offshoot of the Israelites, and that the man with the red sash (now under medical observation) is their leader. I understand this man has worked and resided until recently in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

This new outbreak is of very recent origin and had undoubtedly gained many adherents in the 24 hours from discovery until my arrival. The place chosen is a very lonely one and seldom visited. It is ideally situated for any such movement as it controls a view of the whole of the surrounding country.

- National Archives, Pretoria; JUS 268 3/1064/18

back to the Nontetha Nkwenkwe memorial page

"Nontetha is walking in a trance, eyes closed, waiting on the word of God"
Lynnley Watson
Nontetha Nkwenkwe, painted by Lizo Pemba
Picture: Courtesy of the church of the prophetess Nontetha


In this lesson plan, learners are asked to decide whether the prophetess Nontetha was incarcerated because the authorities thought she was mentally ill, or whether they had political reasons for branding her as mad. Learners will be examining a medical report, letters from Nontetha's followers and the response from the Native Affairs Department.

Lesson plan
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Images from Notetha Nkwenkwe's life
A selection of images from Nontetha Nkwenkwe’s life and of the memorial to the prophetess outside the King William’s Town magistrate’s court.
The reburial of prophetess Nontetha
In 1935, the prophetess Nontetha Nkwenkwe died at Weskoppies mental hospital where she had been incarcerated for preaching politically incendiary messages in the Eastern Cape. Fifty-three years later, in 1998, after a long search for her grave, she was re