Hidden piece of SA history comes to light as prophecy is fulfilled

Nontetha Nkwenkwe’s remains are finally given a proper burial at Khulile in October 1998.
Nontetha Nkwenkwe’s remains are finally given a proper burial at Khulile in October 1998.
Picture: Courtesy of Barbara Manning

The amazing story of Nontetha Nkwenkwe is celebrated by the Sunday Times Heritage Project. Janette Bennett reports.

Eastern Cape prophetess Nontetha Nkwenkwe made two predictions after she was incarcerated in a mental hospital in 1922: she told her followers she would not return home in the same way she had left, and said an American would do something miraculous for the church.

And so it would be.

More than 60 years after Nkwenkwe's death in Weskoppies Mental Hospital in Pretoria in 1935, US professor of African history at Howard University Robert Edgar found her bones in a pauper's grave and she was returned to her Eastern Cape home.

This week, the Sunday Times Heritage Project commemorates the woman who inspired the creation of the Church of the Prophetess Nontetha, which still thrives today, with the installation of a public artwork - a bronze by Port Elizabeth-based artist Lynnley Watson - at the King William's Town Magistrate's Court.

It was there, on December 6, 1922, that the prophetess, so "troublesome" to white authorities, began her ordeal of incarceration.

While she was being committed to the Fort Beaufort Tower Mental Hospital for "medical observation", several hundred of her followers, who had braved flood water to get there, chanted and sang outside the court.

Her followers and family never gave up on her. They even walked to Pretoria after Nkwenkwe was moved to Weskoppies to meet her and request her release. And after her death in 1935, they never gave up on bringing her home.

Her following, too, continued to grow. With some 30 000 members today, her church has congregations throughout the old Ciskei area of the Eastern Cape, and branches in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Jeffreys Bay and Knysna.

"We are happy," church secretary Eric Tole said of the installation. "We want the story of Nontetha to be known."

It has indeed been a hidden piece of South African history, but Edgar's quest to find Nkwenkwe's remains turned it into an international news story.

"One would not expect, perhaps, that a mild-mannered professor from Howard University would turn out to be the Indiana Jones of South Africa," the New York Times wrote of Edgar in 1998.
One would not expect, perhaps, that a mild-mannered professor from Howard University would turn out to be the Indiana Jones of South Africa

His quest saw Nkwenkwe returned to her village, Khulile, near Debe Nek outside King William's Town, concluding an incredible journey that spanned a century.

Still awed by her story, Edgar, recently back in the Eastern Cape, said he believed the "spirit of Nontetha" had guided him.

With Hilary Sapire, he wrote the book African Apocalypse: The Story of Nontetha Nkwenkwe, a Twentieth-Century South African Prophet.

Born in about 1870, Nkwenkwe was a typical woman in the "native reserve" that would become the Ciskei homeland. She was a widow with 10 children; five survived childhood. She could not read or write.

After surviving the 1918 influenza epidemic, which decimated her area, she began having visions: God told her the epidemic was punishment for people's sins and that her mission was to reform society. Revivalist movements blossomed as people struggled to make sense of the calamity.

Nkwenkwe attracted a sizeable following in the villages around King William's Town, Middledrift and East London. She "read" messages from God by looking at her hands.

Some government officials welcomed her preaching of temperance. But in May 1921, soldiers shot dead at least 183 followers - the unofficial figures are far higher - of another prophet, Enoch Mgijima, at Bulhoek near Queenstown, when they refused to move off crown land.

"In the context of the Bulhoek massacre, the authorities would be watching any independent religious thinker," Edgar said. "Nontetha was really a victim of Bulhoek."

Her grandson Mzimkhulu Bungu said that some established mission churches, worried about her growing following, had also complained about her activities. Authorities detained her twice for "seditious activities".

It was common practice for authorities to remove "troublesome" people from society by placing them in mental institutions.

After Nkwenkwe was committed to the overcrowded and dismal hospital at Fort Beaufort, followers would walk as far as 80km to the town to consult with her. Authorities, unhappy about this disruption, transferred her to Weskoppies on December 4 1924, telling her family and followers only that she had left the Fort Beaufort hospital.

On November 23 1926, her followers set out on foot from the Eastern Cape on a "pilgrimage of grace". For 55 days, they walked almost 1 000km to Pretoria, where they met her on January 18 1927. Along the way, they were joined by more people, and the movement started growing.

Her family and followers continued to lobby for her release.

A second pilgrimage of grace took place in 1930, but - after crossing the Orange River at Aliwal North - followers were arrested for not having passes.

On May 20 1935, Nkwenkwe died of liver and stomach cancer, and was buried in a pauper's grave two days later. A telegram to her family took months to reach its rural destination. Repeated requests for her body were made, but authorities, it appeared, had lost track of where she was buried; neither were they prepared to open any graves.

Enter Robert Edgar. In 1973, while researching Bulhoek, "I found police files that reported on Nontetha as a 'potential subversive'." He went to the area mentioned in the police reports and "stumbled on" the Church of the Prophetess Nontetha. He met some of Nkwenkwe's children and followers. "I got more of the story, but not the whole story," he said.

Some 20 years later, he was approached by a London University history lecturer, South African-born Hilary Sapire. "In Pretoria, she'd come across a substantial government file on Nontetha. We planned to put together a paper. It got bigger and bigger."
Edgar didn't know then that Nkwenkwe's prophecy had made him part of church lore. People streamed to meet him

The project took Edgar back to Nkwenkwe's area in 1997. Immediately, a church member recognised him. "Bob Edgar," she declared. "What happened? You didn't come back."

He didn't know then that Nkwenkwe's prophecy had made him part of church lore. People streamed to meet him.

"There were still grievances about Nontetha being buried in Pretoria. There were letters, into the '50s and '60s, asking for the return of her remains. They were ignored."

He approached the superintendent of the New Cemetery, the closest graveyard to Weskoppies. He "poked around" the date of her death in burial ledgers.

He was incredulous at what he saw - the name "Nonteto", with a plot number, 99 - "but it was in the middle of a pauper's field".

The superintendent, wielding a map with surveyor's pins, told Edgar he could pinpoint exactly where the plot would have been.

In early 1998, Edgar and Sapire met Nkwenkwe's family. "We agreed; we would try to find her remains."

The Eastern Cape government contributed resources, and archaeologists attached to Pretoria University's anatomy department agreed to be on stand-by. Family and church members and government officials drove to Pretoria to be at the exhumation.

Edgar worried. Four permits were required for exhumation, and he had only some of them.

"I was a nervous wreck. I felt responsible for bringing these people to Pretoria, and we didn't have all the permits. But the Nontetha people stayed calm and prayed. They told me, this will happen."

Minutes before the scheduled exhumation, the final permit was delivered.

"On the first day, the archaeologists went down three feet, and found nothing. On the second day, they reached five feet." They found the remains of two people.

"The body we believed was Nontetha was lying in a blanket on top of a coffin. By then, the blanket and coffin had disintegrated, so her skeleton was on top of the other."

As church members prayed at the grave, the archeologists slowly uncovered the remains. They were those of a female in Nkwenkwe's age bracket and showed traces of cancer. The archaeologists and church and family members were convinced it was the prophetess.

Nkwenkwe was brought home on the same route used in the pilgrimages of grace. And in October 1998, she was laid to rest at Khulile.

A year later, Edgar returned to visit church leaders. A woman in the congregation stood up and told him: "Nontetha told us an American will come and do something miraculous for us. We think you have fulfilled the prophecy."

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