Why did Nontetha's popularity threaten the establishment?

Unlike 19th-century Xhosa prophets such as Nxele and Mlanjeni, Nontetha attempted to seek some sort of accommodation with the Europeans, and her prophecies focused on the necessity for unity. Despite this they came to be seen as anti-white, and the authorities came up with a plan to silence her.

Robert Edgar and Hilary Sapire's book, African apocalypse: The story of Nontetha Nkwenkwe, a twentieth-century South African prophet, is the only existing text on Nontetha's life and is considered an authoritative one. Robert Edgar, an American, has also written on the Bulhoek Massacre, while Sapire has written extensively on South African history.

Edgar outlines the nature of the prophetess's dreams, as well as her position within the history of Xhosa prophets. Interestingly, she aligned herself with a line of prophets who attempted to seek some sort of accommodation with the European presence in South Africa.

"In her dream she had seen a human face with a beard that encircled jaw and mouth. The face turned into a mountain, Ntaba kaNdoda, a place where the people would be freed of their sins and find salvation. Here she was drawing on a prophecy of the 19th-century Xhosa prophet Ntsikana, who told the Xhosa people that when they were liberated they would gather together at Ntaba kaNdoda," he writes. 

"When Nontetha invoked the image of Ntaba kaNdoda, she was tapping into a long line of Xhosa religious innovators who, responding to the challenge of European intrusion, conquest, and domination of their societies, had crafted messages drawn from Christian and Xhosa symbols and beliefs.

"These religious figures represented two prophetic poles. Some 19th-century prophets, such as Nxele and Mlanjeni, rejected the European presence and used their prophecies to rouse and mobilise resistance. Nxele, Ntsikana's principal rival, envisioned a world in which Mdalidiphu, the God of the blacks, who was mightier than Thixo, the God of the whites, would drive the European settlers from South Africa. Nxele's message won over Chief Ndlambe, who directed Nxele to lead his soldiers against Europeans in the eastern Cape. When Nxele and his army were routed attacking Grahamstown in 1819, he was imprisoned on Robben Island...

"Another who counselled resistance was the wife of Bhulu, a counsellor to the Gqunukwebe chief Kama [...] She prophesied that Kama, who had converted to Christianity in the 1820s, and other African Christians would renounce Christianity and that whites would be 'destroyed' because they had killed the son of God. Africans would then be the 'favoured race' who would have everything once the whites were 'Swept from the face of the earth...'
Nontetha took her inspiration from Ntsikana, who preached a message of accommodation to Christianity and the expanding European presence.

"Although the accounts of these prophets would have been well known to Nontetha, she placed herself at the other end of the spectrum and took her inspiration from a prophet who was Nxele's main rival. His name was Ntsikana and he preached a message of accommodation to Christianity and the expanding European presence [...]

"A counsellor to Chief Ngqika, Ntsikana is recognised as one of the first Xhosa converts to Christianity around 1815 [...] His major contribution was translating Christian ideas and concepts into terms understandable to a Xhosa audience by using terms rooted in Xhosa culture [...]

"He warned that change was inescapable and that the Xhosa had to adapt. At the same time he remained wary of European culture and counselled selective borrowing.

"In a similar way but in a radically different environment, Nontetha's message blended Xhosa idioms as she accommodated the pervasive influence of Europeans."

Edgar argues that Nontetha's prophecies focused on the necessity for unity, but that this was not a racially exclusive concept.

"Umanyano, or unity, was a watchword for Nontetha. Her followers had to respect and remain loyal to the chiefs, but they also were supposed to strive for solidarity with all Africans. While she declared she had no intention of subverting chiefly power, she did criticise their disunity at critical times in the past. This, she claimed, had brought them to their present plight. 'She... said that the Xhosa are divided into various groups; that had to come to an end. A person should not respect just his own chief. They had to be united.'

"Nontetha's emphasis on the unity of all African peoples did not, however, imply that she was anti-white. She asked her followers not to distinguish between blacks and whites and she called upon the chiefs to pray for the unity of all peoples in the world."

Edgar and Sapire detail how she began to attack mission churches, and how her message was construed as being anti-white.

"At first she instructed those of her followers who belonged to mission churches to remain in them. But as her movement gained strength, she began attacking mission churches - and they in turn attacked her - and forbade her adherents from associating with them. A farmer from the Middledrift area, Pearce Kaba, who attended one of her meetings, remembered:

'She condemned the existing churches as the money concerns and being carried on by the white men, as her preachings are that the natives should continue and arrange their own matters without the interference of the white men.'"

Edgar and Sapire note how Nontetha began gaining attention in rural locations near East London, and how her preaching, again, began to be seen as anti-white.
She asked her followers not to distinguish between blacks and whites, and she called upon the chiefs to pray for the unity of all peoples in the world.

"Nontetha first came to the attention of government officials in mid-1922, when she began holding services in the rural locations near East London. Although some commented positively on her preaching against liquor and her calls for black unity, others were alarmed by reports that she was anti-white. The Superintendent of Natives at Newlands, Fort Jackson, branded Nontetha 'an undesirable as her theme is chiefly against the white man'."

In 1922 reports began to circulate (albeit contradictory) that Nontetha was ordering her adherents not to work on the lands or the mines.


Under Observation: Police report

Below is a report by the South African Police divisional inspector for King William's Town, Major T Hutchons, to the SAP's deputy commissioner in Grahamstown, giving information about how Nontetha was being monitored by the authorities. The report is dated April 29, 1923.

Native unrest on the Keiskama

With reference to the attached reports of Sub-Inspector Norman, No 1600(M) Sergt Searle AB and No 1875 (M) L Sergt Wagenaar, JA, I have the honour to inform you that I went into this matter thoroughly with the persons named and the Magistrate and Superintendent of Natives at Middledrift. It appears that the Prophetess Nonteta [sic] or Nonteto first commenced her disturbing influence amongst the natives in May 1922 at the Newlands Location, East London.

She was ejected there and resumed her preaching at Tamacha Location from whence she was placed under restrain in the Mental Hospital, Fort Beaufort on the 6th December 1922. She was released by the Superintendent of the Fort Beaufort Mental Hospital on six months probation early in January 1923 and in February resumed her preaching, being again arrested and confined in the Mental Hospital, Fort Beaufort on the 7th instant.

She is of the tribe of Chief Gangalizwa (Magquakwebes) of Ngabassa Location and gives out that she died and a vision appeared to her telling her to return to her tribe and prepare them for the downfall of the Europeans when they will come into their rights again. She appeals only to the red kaffirs, preaching against their drinking kaffir beer and buying the white man's drink. They have first and foremost to abandon their native dress red blanket and adopt the European attire, both males and females.

She also told her followers that they must not go to the mines to work nor do any manual labour on their lands. This is however disputed by the Superintendent of Native Locations, Middledrift who informs me that since she started preaching the young men and girls of the tribe do the scoffling of the lands instead of the old women. The Chief Gangalizwa and the Petty Chief Tamsanga Lutuli of Ngabassa Location are both favouring and encouraging this woman's doctrine against the tribe.

Up to the time of her arrest (7th instant) she had a following of 150 to 200 men and women and at each meeting the kraals used to supply goats for slaughter to feed her followers, 10 to 15 goats being slaughtered at a time and sometimes a beast. This naturally appealed to a large number of natives who attended the meetings knowing they would be well fed.

Owing to her instruction in regard to clothing the traders have reaped a golden harvest in the sale of men's clothing and women's dress material as also shawls and in a number of instances natives have disposed of cattle to the traders to get the money to purchase clothing.

Since her arrest her mantle has descended on a young man of her following who is continuing the meetings in the Ngabassa Location and on Sunday last there was a large, well-attended meeting at or near Gangalizwa's kraal (Annexure 'A')

From Annexure 'B' they would appear to be interfering with the schools of the recognised denominations, which is liable to cause a breach of the peace. Tamsanga Kama mentioned in this annexure is Tamsanga Lutuli Kama, Petty Chief to Gangalizwa. Gangalizwa is at present on leave in the Albany or Alexandrea Districts and is not expected back until next month.

To keep in touch with the movement I have taken on Pearce Kaba as a Detective and one Joseph Ngcongolo from East London has also been sent to Ngabassa's Location to attend the meetings, find out definitely what is really being preached and whether the meetings are still being supplied with meat.
The movement will have to be carefully watched. It would be fatal were the Prophetess allowed out again.

This is a disturbing element amongst the natives and the movement will have to be carefully watched. It would be fatal were the Prophetess Nontenta allowed out again and the Magistrate of Middledrift has requested the Superintendent of the Mental Hospital, Fort Beaufort not to liberate her without giving him prior warning.

The natives are as yet, even in the Ngabasa Location, very divided in opinion as to the Prophetess and this new form of religion, some holding it as nonsense while others think that there must be something in it. She informed her followers that the recognised churches were only money-making concerns and that they must not have anything to do with them. With the incarceration of the Prophetess it may die out but I have instructed Sergeant Searle and L/Sergt Wagenaar of Fort White to keep in touch, by the aid of the detectives named with the movement and keep your office and that of the Magistrate of Middledrift fully advised.

The Magistrate of Middledrift (Mr John Tudor) wished me to bring to your notice the promptness and dispatch with which the apprehension of this woman was effected by L/Sergt Wagenaar of Fort White. Within five hours approximately of the receipt of the telephonic warrant she had been apprehended and escorted into Middledrift, a distance of approximately 30 miles having been travelled on horseback and by cart in the performance of this duty.

I consider that pressure should be brought to bear on Chief Gangalizwe and Petty Chief Tamsanga Lutuli whose encouragement of the movement is only adding fuel to the flames.

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


Confessions of a native detective

Below is the statement of Detective Joseph Ngcongolo - referred to in the Hutchons report above - in which he gives evidence of continued meetings. The statement was taken by a Sergeant Wagenaar on May 13, 1923.

Joseph Ngcongolo states: I am a Native Detective attached to the SA Police, Fort White. On the evening of the 11th instant, I arrived at the kraal of Chief Gangelzwe Kama, where I found the followers of Nonteta [sic], and held their usual meeting. A native man named Lekentaba Inono addressed the gathering to follow the teaching of the Prophetess and join them, this gathering continued until about 10 pm. Immediately after the gathering I spoke to one of Nonteta's followers. I asked him if Nonteta's meetings are still being held after it had been put a stop to by Acting Chief Tamsanga Kama. He informed me that these gatherings had ceased, but were still continued at kraal of Chief Gangelizwe and that these gatherings are only held by night as they are afraid of the Police to hold same by day. I asked if these gatherings still continue at any other place; he informed me that gatherings are being held at the kraal of Joni Zana at Ngolowa Location.

I immediately proceeded to the kraal of Joni Zana arriving there about midnight, and found a large gathering of Nonteta's followers gathered there - about 30 men and women. A man named Yaile Bele was spokesman here; he addressed the meeting telling the people to follow the preaching of Nonteta. He was questioned by a man named Sosini who asked him whether they would not get into trouble by continuing these gatherings in view of the fact that the acting Chief had put a stop to it. He answered 'No we won't get into trouble because these gatherings are also held at the kraal of Chief Gangelizwe Kama, our Chief', but that they had only to be careful and continue to keep the gatherings during night so that the Police do not see them gather. At day break this meeting dispersed.

I then went to the kraal of Chief Gangelizwe Kama, arriving there before sunrise on the morning of the 12th instant, at about 7.30 am. Chief Tamsanga Kama arrived; he first asked me where I came from; I told him that I came from Keiskama Bridge where I had been to fetch money due to me for Doctoring and that I was on my way home. He then asked Chief Gangelizwe's wife who was still holding the gatherings of Nonteta there; she answered him and said that she was, he asked what right she had to continue these meetings after the chiefs and councilors[sic] had stopped it, she answered that she had to be consulted first before a stop could be put to it and even Gangelizwe would have consulted her before he had done such a thing.

Acting Chief Tamsanga Kama said to her 'Do you know that I was left by Chief Ganglizwe Kama to act for him during his absence?' She said 'Yes, I know but you should have first consulted me before you had done anything in the matter.' Chief Tamsanga said 'According to our native custom, we do not consult women in matters of this nature' ...
I received information that meetings of Nonteta's followers are still being held at kraals of Ntosine Sabeko at Ngcabassa Location and at the kraal of Xeko Mpendu at Ngcabassa Location; all these places continue to hold these meetings owing to the lead given at Chief Gangelizwe's kraal.

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


Unstoppable faith

According to Edgar and Sapire, the authorities hoped that Nontetha's movement would lose momentum in her absence. But her followers continued meeting and her assistants continued her work. Here, Simon Maneli, the headman of the Ngcabassa Location, in King William's Town, makes a statement referring to various "seditious meetings" being held by Nontetha's followers.

On Friday the 11th inst, I called a meeting of Nonteta's followers at my kraal. I told them that their alleged Prophetess (Nonteta) is a mad woman and that she had now been removed to the asylum for the second time and after they had all agreed to put a stop to the matter and the Chief had reported to the government that this matter had been put a stop to, which report was made by me on behalf of Chief Tamsanca Kama, and asked them what they were doing to restart the matter and if they are bent on to bring trouble upon Kama's people, as these meetings which they pretend to be religious as merely as a blind, as you Nonteta's people discuss secretly certain seditious subjects, ie that the black race must combine to throw over the Europeans, (2) that the existing churches are money-making concerns under the control of the Europeans (3) the existing Bible is a fraud (4) that the American Negroes are coming who will cut the throats of the Europeans and converted natives who are converted under the existing churches; these are the things that will cause trouble and is causing trouble.
I told them that their alleged Prophetess (Nonteta) is a mad woman and that she had now been removed to the asylum for the second time

The Chief Tamsanga Kama had ordered that all these seditious meetings must cease, what power have you Nonteta's followers to oppose his order? They did not reply to this and went to their respective homes. I was under the impression that the matter will cease, but I found that they are still holding their meetings secretly at night.

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


Undercover meetings

This extract from a police report to Pretoria, entitled "Communism in the Union of South Africa", dated June 7, 1923, suggests that Nontetha's activities were "cloaking a more serious objective".

Re: Communism in the union of South Africa

I have the honour to submit, for the information of the Minister, my twenty-seventh report on the above subject:


Cape Eastern Division

Since the beginning of the year, the preachings of a native woman known as Nonteto [sic] have caused a certain amount of unrest in the Eastern districts of the Cape Province. Nonteto, who belongs to the tribe of Chief Gangalizwe, Ngabassa Location, claims to be a prophetess, and has a fair following in the King William's Town area.

She was first arrested towards the end of 1922 when hundreds of her followers endeavoured to trek to King William's Town to attend her trial. Heavy floods, however, reduced these numbers, but on the date of Nonteto's appearance in Court, about 150 native assembled near the Court house, chanting hymns and uttering prayer.

Nonteto was ordered to Fort Beaufort Mental Hospital for observation and was released from that institution, on six months' probation, in January last. She seems immediately to have recommenced her preachings, and on 7.4.23 was again sent to the mental hospital, where she still is.
She seems immediately to have recommenced her preachings, and was again sent to the mental hospital, where she still is

Nonteto's form of religion is somewhat secret and believed to be hostile to Europeans. She is reported to have advised the natives not to go to the mines, or plough their lands, as judgment day is coming. She encourages, however, the slaughter of stock and all her meetings are attended by the killing of sheep and goats, which, of course, has provided food for her followers and at the same time enhanced her popularity.

Nonteto condemns Churches of the European denominations and advocates that the natives keep to themselves in matters of this nature. The religious aspect of Nonteto's activities are regarded as cloaking a more serious objective, for information has been received that her followers discuss the overthrowing of the Europeans by a combination of the black races, and the coming of the American Negroes.


- National Archives, Pretoria: JUS 289 3/1064/18, part 3

- Robert R. Edgar and Hilary Sapire. 2000. African apocalypse: The Story of Nontetha Nkwenkwe, a twentieth-century South African prophet, pp. 12-14, 19-20, 22, 26-27

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