This, the first in a series of six poems (see parts two, three, four, five and six for the rest) shows Anti-Apartheid protest at a very local level. They were recorded on the dates given from the Xhosa poet Melikhaya Mbutuma, imbongi (a composer and orator of poems praising a chief) to the Thembu paramount chief Sabata Dalindyebo.
Under South Africa’s apartheid regime (1948–1994), the country was divided into 13 ‘nations’, namely White, Indian, Coloured, and ten Black ‘Bantustans’ or ‘homelands’. 13% of the land was reserved for Africans (68% of the population) and 87% for the Whites and their allies (32%). To these Bantustans, which were declared independent countries, Africans were over several decades forcibly removed. The Whites continued to employ a majority of Blacks, but as migrant labourers crossing ‘international boundaries’, and with no right to reside where they worked. None of the Bantustans was ever recognised internationally.
Partly because of the scale of the changes and partly because of intense opposition, the policy could be implemented only gradually. It began with the Bantu Authorities Act 1951, giving quasi-dictatorial powers to state-selected chiefs, and it reached a climax with the ‘independence’ of the Transkei in 1976, followed by similar arrangements for the 9 other ‘Bantustans’ (4 in total ‘independent’, the remaining 6 ‘self-governing’).
In the Transkei, the government’s choice was the relatively minor chief Kaiser Matanzima, a graduate of Fort Hare (and ironically a nephew of Nelson Mandela). In 1963 he survived an assassination attempt by the Pan African Congress before becoming first Chief Minister, then Prime Minister, and finally President of the Transkei with his brother George as Prime Minister. One of his principal opponents throughout this process was the Tembu paramount Chief Sabata Dalinyebo, whose line went back to the eighteenth century, and whose imbongi was Mbutuma. These six poems record stages in Sabata’s opposition between 1959 and 1963. They throw light on the imbongi’s position, first as spokesman to the chief whom he accompanies on his daily routines, but then if the chief is failing, as spokesman for the people.
Notably, although these poems protest about the implementation of Apartheid, the word is never used. Nor is there any reference South Africa as a whole, or to international protests. Even the African National Congress is mentioned only in passing. The protest is conducted at the local level, the arguments based on legitimacy, justice, truth, and the will of the people.
This first poem was recited during a visit to the Transkei in September 1959 by Mr de Wet Nel, Minister of Bantu Administration. He came to implement the Bantu Authorities Act 1951, by way of preparing the Transkei to become the first Bantustan.
O Thembu, pardon me for a while; (1)
I wish to fly over like a monkey to the Minister,
The Formidable Honourable Mr. de Wet Nel.
To him I wish to say, ‘Hail! Bringer of Barrenness!’ (2)
He is a bringer of drought in a land of rain.
Come out men and watch the scorching sun;
Be careful to protect yourselves, descendants of Ntu, (3)
lest you get sun-burnt.
I heard a protesting voice, and I concluded a despot is not wanted amongst the people. (4)
Hail! Bringer of barrenness!
Here is the poem in the original Xhosa:
O‑o-o- hayi baThembu ndixoleleni
Ndokha nditsibe bunkawu kuMphathiswa,
Inqeberu endibilili ude Wet Nel.
Ndithi kuye Aa! Zanelanga!
Nguzanelanga kumhlaba wemvula.
Phumani madoda nigcakamele;
Yombathani mzi kaNtu hlezelityabule.
Ndive ngelizwi ndathi ixelegu alifunwa.
“The Role of the Bard in a Contemporary African Community”,
Journal of African Languages VI, 3 (1967), 196–197.
- Thembu: the imbongi’s chief, Sabata Dalinyebo.
- This phrase was prophetic. The Transkei became notorious as an over-populated, dumping ground for ‘surplus people’ not required by the official South African economy.
- Ntu: A mythical ancestor, short-hand for the Xhosa people.
- The Bantu Authorities Act gave the state-appointed chiefs virtual dictatorial powers.