As a young woman, Nontetha Nkwenkwe had gained some standing as a seer and herbalist. But in many ways, her life was much the same as that of other rural women of the time, struggling alone in the newly created Transkei and Ciskei reserves.
Her husband, a migrant labourer, died in Saldanha Bay. Nkwenkwe was a widow with 10 children to support; only five survived childhood. She could not read or write. Yet she inspired the creation of the Church of the Prophetess Nontetha that exists to this day.
Robert Edgar and Hilary Sapire tell her story in their book, 'African Apocalypse: The Story of Nontetha Nkwenkwe, a Twentieth-Century South African Prophet'.
In 1918, flu swept through Nkwenkwe's home village, Khulile, near Debe's Nek outside King William's Town. It killed 10 per cent of the people in her area. Nkwenkwe herself fell ill but survived the epidemic.
It was after this that she began having visions: God told her the epidemic was a punishment for sin, and society must change. Her mission was to reform her society. Indeed, many revivalist and millenarian movements sprang up at this time as people tried to make sense of the "flu calamity".
God told her the epidemic was a punishment for sin, and society must change. Her mission was to reform her society
Initially, Nkwenkwe was reluctant to follow her calling. In her conversations with God, she was told that if she did not agree to preach, the task would fall to her daughter, Nokazi. Nkwenkwe wished to spare her daughter this responsibility. She began by approaching traditional chiefs who, after questioning her and consulting their counsellors, allowed her to preach.
She wore a white robe and headdress, and wrapped a white sash around her waist. She carried a black stick. She asked male converts to wear white coats and shoes.
Her services, in the mornings and evenings, lasted two to three hours. Her followers would sit in a semi-circle in front of her. Chiefs sat in the front row, counsellors in the next and adult men at the back. Women stood to one side and children behind her.
At the start of the service, she would lay her white sash on the ground and ask people to kneel on it "for they were going to ask for unity and their hearts had to be as white as the belt", a follower, Jongile Peters at Ndindwa location, is quoted as saying. She would read messages from God by looking at her hands.
She taught her followers to remain loyal to their chiefs but strive for solidarity with all Africans. She asked them not to distinguish between black and white, and to pray for the unity of all people. She extolled them not to drink heavily and she attacked adultery and witchcraft.
"We did not differentiate between Christians and non-Christians. We were interested in her stressing the importance of a person being saved. And when we joined the movement, she pointed out everything we were doing wrong and we definitely stopped indulging in everything which was not acceptable to her," Peters said.
Nkwenkwe's movement gathered strength in the villages around King William's Town, Middledrift and East London. Government officials first noticed her when she began to preach in rural settlements near East London.
It's likely authorities would never have taken action against her; some even welcomed her conservative influence. But in 1921, soldiers killed almost 200 followers of another prophet, Enoch Mgijima, at the Bulhoek massacre near Queenstown.
They feared if they did not remove Nkwenkwe, her movement would grow into a menace and Bulhoek, where Mgijima's followers had refused orders to move off their land, would be repeated.
Nkwenkwe's grandson Mzimkhulu Bungu points out, too, that some established mission churches had complained about her activities. The authorities detained her twice for "seditious activities".
Magistrates had the power to commit people to mental institutions and it had become common practice to remove "troublesome" people from society by placing them in these institutions.
Nkwenkwe was arrested and jailed in King William's Town. Her long and final journey into incarceration started on December 6, 1922, when the magistrate in King William's Town committed her to the Fort Beaufort Mental Hospital for "medical observation".
While she was in court, several hundred of her followers, who had braved floodwaters to get there, chanted and sang hymns outside.
According to Edgar and Sapire, Fort Beaufort Mental Hospital was established in 1894, at a time "when Africans in the eastern Cape were committed to asylums in unprecedented numbers".
Fort Beaufort mental hospital was established at a time 'when Africans in the eastern Cape were committed to asylums in unprecedented numbers
Conditions at the hospital were dismal; it was seen as "a place of confinement for hopeless, incurable cases". It was overcrowded, had "desperately inadequate" food supplies and sanitation, and lacked full-time medical supervision. Later records showed "sheer poverty and neglect".
Nkwenkwe was released from the hospital on January 5, 1923 on six months' probation - on condition she did not preach. She preached, was re-arrested and, on April 7, 1923, was recommitted. Her followers say she had predicted she would be arrested twice.
Nkwenkwe's followers continued to consult with her at Fort Beaufort, often walking the 80km to get there. Hospital authorities were unhappy with this disruption and transferred Nkwenkwe to Pretoria (Weskoppies) mental hospital on December 4, 1924.
Her followers were simply told she had left Fort Beaufort. When her family and followers eventually discovered she was in Weskoppies, its authorities - well aware of "her capacity for charismatic leadership" - barred them from visiting her.
On November 23, 1926, Nkwenkwe's followers set out on foot from the Eastern Cape on a "pilgrimage of grace". They walked 965km to Pretoria, arriving there 55 days later. They marched through the streets, singing as they approached the hospital.
Hospital officials allowed her followers to meet her on January 18, 1927. She was pleased that her people had journeyed to see her because it confirmed that she was not insane. She preached to them and told them to go home to keep the movement alive.
They, however, planned to stay until their prophetess was released. Charged with entering the Transvaal without passes, they were jailed for a month and then sent, under guard, by train to King William's Town.
Her family and disciples continued to lobby for her release, even appealing to the king of England. In 1928, Weskoppies physician superintendent Dr JT Dunston bowed to public pressure and reassessed Nkwenkwe's case.
Although he accepted she did not represent a danger or threat to anyone, "wherever she goes, she will create a disturbance and cause trouble". He denied her release.
A second pilgrimage of grace took place in early 1930. This time, the followers were arrested for not having passes after crossing the Orange River bridge at Aliwal North. They were sent to the King William's Town jail to serve their time.
Nkwenkwe had complained for several years of "burning" sensations - seen as further evidence of her psychosis. On May 20 1935, she died of liver and stomach cancer.
It was not the end of her story.
Two days later, she was buried in a pauper's grave. A telegram had been sent to her family, instructing them to make arrangements to collect her body. It took months to reach its rural destination.
Her family and her followers continued to request Nkwenkwe's body, to no avail. Authorities, it appeared, had lost track of where she was buried. It was only in the 1990s, during a visit by the US historian Robert Edgar, that her grave was found. Edgar traced Nkwenkwe's remains to Plot 99 at the Rebecca Street Cemetery in Pretoria.
Her body, buried with another, was exhumed in July 1998 and returned - on the same route used in the pilgrimages of grace - to her home in the Eastern Cape. Provincial officials played a major role in shepherding the process, as did religious leaders and her family, including her grandson world champion boxer Vuyani Bungu.
According to a church member at the exhumation: "Nontetha told us she would not return in the same way she left."
The Church of the Prophetess Nontetha, with some 30 000 members, today has congregations throughout the old Ciskei area of the Eastern Cape. It also has branches in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Jeffreys Bay and Knysna.
Researched by Janette Bennett with acknowledgements and thanks to:
- African Apocalypse: The Story of Nontetha Nkwenkwe, a Twentieth Century South African Prophet, by Robert R Edgar and Hilary Sapire, Witwatersrand University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-89680-208-6
- Nontetha Nkwenkwe's grandson Mzimkhulu Bungu
- Secretary of the Church of the Prophetess Nontetha Eric Tole
- Barbara Manning, journalist and artist
- Daily Dispatch, June 24 and 16, 1998