Records of Nontetha's confinement at Fort Beaufort and Weskoppies asylums
Several harrowing psychiatric reports document Nontetha's confinement at Weskoppies asylum. Perhaps most poignant is the observation that, despite her initial feistiness, after a year inside her fighting spirit seemed to be quelled, as evidenced by a "cessation of hostile violence, diminution of fanatical and religious zeal, and, generally speaking, of a dying down of the mental, emotional and physical activities".
The psychiatric report below - from the office of the mental hospital in Pretoria to the Commissioner of Mental Hygiene - illustrates that Nontetha remained adamant that she had been divinely inspired. There, as at Fort Beaufort, she was described as having violent episodes and of attacking other patients.
It also reveals that Nontetha believed that (the deceased) Queen Victoria was communicating with her. On this theme, Edgar writes: "The image and idea of Queen Victoria was a resonant and powerful one in African thought. Liberator of the slaves, embodiment of British justice, and guardian of equality before the law of all subjects of the empire, Queen Victoria was a potent symbol for Africans who sought greater political freedoms in late nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century South Africa."
The report makes reference to 1922, when Nontetha was diagnosed with "praecox" or "dementia praecox, of the hebephrenic type, a now obsolete term for schizophrenia" (Edgar: 58). However, FD Crosthwaite, the physician superintendent of the Pretoria mental hospital, is of the "opinion that she is probably properly to be placed, as regards diagnosis, amongst the paranoiacs, sub-group 'Prophets, Saints and Mystics' amongst whom visionary experiences are common".
The report is dated June 2, 1930.
With reference to the detention at this Hospital of Female Native patient Nontete, No. 859, I have the honour to report as follows:
At a conference held at this Hospital on May 1st, 1930, Nontete was seen by all the medical staff, who were unanimous in the opinion that the patient was mentally disordered and properly detained in the Mental Hospital on the grounds that the following symptoms have been repeatedly and constantly observed during her detention here:
1. Acute hallucinosis.
2. Delusions of a grandiose nature.
3. Delusions of poisoning.
4. Emotional attitude of religious exaltation with a state of restless excitement.
History and Description of Case
The patient is aged 58 as nearly as can be ascertained. Her physical appearance is consistent with the stated age. She was first admitted to the Fort Beaufort Mental Hospital on the 9th December, 1922. According to the case records whilst at Fort Beaufort she was in a state of religious exaltation, stating that she was directly inspired by God who, himself, appears to her if she makes certain signs. God then enters her blood and puts writing into her head, which she can read and understand. God tells her she must preach.
On January 5th, 1923, she was discharged on three months probationary leave, but on April 8th, 1924, the Magistrate, King William's Town, reported that she was a source of trouble as she spent all her time preaching to the Natives. In consequence of this report she was returned to the hospital when it was found that her mental condition was much the same as at the commencement of her probationary leave. She stated that she was inspired directly by God, that she had to obey him and preach to the natives because all their sins would rest on her if she did not.
She is described as standing and preaching over the fence to nobody in particular, or praying over patients... On one occasion she became so noisy and hostile that she had to be isolated in a special airing garden
It therefore appears that from the date of her admission her religious exaltation has been accompanied by an acute and constant hallucinosis.
Whilst at Fort Beaufort she is described as standing and preaching over the fence to nobody in particular, or praying over patients. She is described as looking into her hands and reading messages that she says are visible to her there. Sometimes she preaches with great vehemence and fervour and shows a militancy in her religious practices. On one occasion, whilst detained at Fort Beaufort, she became so noisy and hostile that she had to be isolated in a special airing garden.
At Fort Beaufort is first noticed the presence of a particular delusion, which takes the form of accusing the doctor of having in his possession a letter which belongs to her. The letter which she accuses the doctor of wrongfully detaining, she asserts comes from England and is addressed to her by the father of Queen Victoria. Until this letter is given to her she will continue preaching and singing.
At Fort Beaufort, also, is first noticed the appearance of delusions of poisoning for she accused the staff of giving her poison in her drink.
On December 4th, 1924 she is noted as saying that Queen Victoria speaks to her and tells her that everything she, Nontete, says is true.
Whilst here in Pretoria the same phenomena have been repeatedly and constantly observed:
- Religious exaltation
- Restless excitement
- Acute hallucinosis
- Delusions of grandiose nature
- Delusions of poisoning
In addition she says that her body is burnt with fire night and day and that this fire is conveyed to her body by the doctors present at this Conference. She asserts that she is a Prophetess directly inspired by God. She also repeats that the doctor has a letter belonging to her from Queen Victoria. At times she is violent and aggressive and has attacked other patients for no reason, apart from her disordered promptings.
During the past year or so she has become much less vehement and much less militant and for a considerable period of time has shown no aggressive violence
During the past year or so she has become much less vehement and much less militant and for a considerable period of time has shown no aggressive violence. All members of the Conference are agreed that she is mentally disordered and not merely a fanatic. She is undoubtedly the subject of aural, visual and sensory hallucinosis.
Although in 1922, a diagnosis of Praecox, sub-group Hebephrenia, was made, prolonged observation has shown Mannerisms, Psychic Ataxia with senseless incomprehensible conduct to be conspicuous by their absence. Neither have sharp changes of mood been specially noticed.
The emotions would appear to correspond to the ideas, and the states of mild depression that have been occasionally observed are, in my opinion to be ascribed to the thwarted desire for release or may perhaps be only apparent as the result of temporary defervescence of the religious exaltation. The delusional content and field of hallucinosis would appear to be stable and coherent and not the reverse, and, on the whole, I am of opinion that she is probably properly to be placed, as regards diagnosis, amongst the Paranoiacs, sub-group "Prophets, Saints and Mystics" amongst whom visionary experiences are common.
The presently observed modifications in the conduct and behaviour of the patient in the direction of less aggressiveness, cessation of hostile violence, diminution of fanatical and religious zeal, and, generally speaking, of a dying down of the mental, emotional and physical activities, are, in my opinion, to be ascribed to the gradual onset of senility.
It is not to be expected that the delusional beliefs will continue to be held, however, less tenaciously, and a regaining of insight is not to be looked for; so long as mental activities are possible for her; so long will Nontete remain convinced that she is a directly inspired prophetess of God with a message for her own people, which none but she can deliver.
The following questions may arise and I have endeavoured to answer them:
1. Is there any reason why Nontete should not be allowed conditional discharge to specified relatives?
Nontete is not a danger to herself, and there is no reason why she should not be so discharged having regard only to her mental condition.
2. Is Nontete likely to again prove herself a source of disturbance, and possibly, danger to the preservation of order amongst her people, if discharged conditionally?
The answer to this question must be "yes". Not much encouragement would be needed I fancy to rekindle her activities in the direction of her mission, and it is very difficult to estimate the probable strength of the restraining influence exercised by her knowledge of what would happen if she broke the conditions of discharge.
3. Is it advisable to refuse a conditional discharge and to bring the matter to the length of a Judicial Enquiry?
- National Archives, Pretoria: BAO 6605 11/328
In this letter on the question of Nontetha's release, written by the Commissioner for Mental Hygiene, JT Dunston, to Major Herbst in the Department of Native Affairs, he overrules Physician Superintendent Crosthwaite's feeling that the matter should be brought before a judicial inquiry for final adjudication.
Dear Major Herbst
With reference to your semi-official letter of the 19th March last addressed to Dr Mitchell in regard to the case of Native female mental patient Nontete [sic], and enclosing a letter from the Honorary Secretary to the Aliwal North Native Welfare Society, I forward herewith a copy of a report by the Physician Superintendent of the Pretoria Mental Hospital. You will see that he answers the essential questions in the last paragraph of his Minute and although he does not regard Nontete as a danger to herself he is satisfied that she is likely again to prove herself a source of disturbance and possibly a danger to the preservation of order amongst her people.
I feel sure that if she is discharged there will be a repetition of all the troubles, which occurred before she was sent to a Mental Hospital
I would add that I know Nontete personally and am well acquainted with her case and I would express my opinion more strongly than Dr Crosthwaite has. I feel sure that if she is discharged there will be a repetition of all the troubles, which occurred before she was sent to a Mental Hospital. Her hallucinations and delusions have never changed in character. They are only less prominent at the moment because she has not an opportunity of feeding them on the credulity and admiration of her followers.
With regard to the letter addressed, I presume, to Mr Sephton by Mr Charles Crabtree, I would make the following remarks in regard to -
(2) Expert medical advice has been taken and it has been found necessary still to treat Nontete as mentally unsound.
(5) The deputation mentioned has already been allowed.
(6) The relatives of Nontete can write at any time to the Physician Superintendent of the Pretoria Mental Hospital for a report on her progress.
- National Archives, Pretoria: BAO 6605 11/328
A kindred plea
A letter to the unidentified editor of an unidentified newspaper was written by DW Ntsikana, grandson of the prophet Ntsikana. Ntsikana forwarded his "article" to Prime Minister JBM Herzog. It is a typical example of a challenge to the government's rationale for confining Nontetha to a mental hospital. The letter was written at King William's Town on December 10, 1927
• View an: image of the first page of the letter.
Enclosed I beg to hand you the copy of my article. Kindly see to it. I am anxiously awaiting for a reply. Kindly note the above address is correct. I am, your obedient servant DW Ntsikana, Old Green River, King William's Town.
Why should Nonteta be incarcerated in the asylum?
Dear Mr Editor
Being a minister of the Gospel I am wondering whether the readers of your paper will not be taken back at my views concerning Nonteta.
All the time I have been searching for reasons for the arrest of Nonteta. I was under the impression that she was guilty of disturbing the peace. I find that it is not so. There has been no headman, or chief who has given her up to the authorities for either insanity or disloyalty as is customary, neither do her religious followers find a reason.
On studying her life closer I find that she had marvellous and remarkable powers of converting natives, the people [?] her name with gratitude, and her congregation grew by leaps and bounds, much to the exasperation, disgust and annoyance of other religious missionary bodies whose success is very slow.
During her short working period she made many converts. Natives ceased their Kafir beer traffic, stealing and robbing were put by, all this to the advantage of ourselves and the government.
I think I can say wrong information was given by other ministers concerning Nonteta as their congregations were fast diminishing and a steady stream was flowing to Nonteta's open gatherings. I am perfectly certain that these people cannot be blamed for changing and forming their opinions, and can certainly belong to any faith they choose.
Her people recently went to Pretoria to visit her, and there she was allowed to preach to her followers. Surely this is not the action of a lunatic. Grant that she did not hold the qualifications for carrying on this work, but there is Enoch Megijima and Limba both belong to the Seven Day Adventists which has branches in Cape Town, Queenstown, Port Elizabeth, East London, King William's Town, and Transkei, who say that their qualification is the Bible and hold no certificates.
I see no reason why these people should not be allowed to enjoy freedom of worship. Are not such absurd religions started and practised by Europeans in Europe such as the Canopists, Spiritualists, Theosophists, Zoroastrians?
As a person who enjoys the freedom of the Union Jack I see no reason why I should be scorned at for my opinion, and likewise I see no reason why these people should not be allowed to enjoy freedom of worship. Are not such absurd religions started and practised by Europeans in Europe such as the Canopists, Spiritualists, Theosophists, Zoroastrians? Is it customary under British jurisdiction to imprison women without cause, although Nonteta enjoys far more freedom and respect than did the Dutch women and children in the concentration camps during the Boer war? I thank Mr Nonxoloba for his views on this subject in the Imvo.
I trust therefore, that you will consider the circumstances in as favourable a light as possible, and use your influence in Nonteta's interests, and by so doing you will place her under a great obligation. I should, therefore, esteem it a great favour if the government would release Nonteta and grant her permission to carry on her good and successful work. This fact, in itself, would surely indicate that the reason for my writing this article is not a paltry one. You all must pray over the matter and whatever you decide is perfectly alright. You will agree with me brethren, that Nonteta as a preacher of the Gospel she has to preach as the Holy Spirit directs her.
In conclusion, I may remark, in the body of my article I agree with Enoch Mgijima and Limba, there are no credentials mentioned in the Bible. In the scriptures it is written: "Go ye therefore, and reach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" Math 28:19; Mark 16:15.
What do the ministers say about this? Nothing I suppose. They are quite comfortable on their sofas. Live and let live.
- Letter. National Archives, Pretoria: BAO 6605 11/328