‘This is the voice of contemporary South African fiction’—Joanne Ruth Davis reviews Mphuthumi Ntabeni’
The 14th May is a solemn day of remembrance for my people, amaMfengu, when our tribe was scattered from the banks of Thukela (Tugela) River on the foothills of Ukhahlamba (Drakensberg) Mountains to be beggars all over the Southern Africa. Ironically I've just finished writing, for BKO literary magazine, a long review of Sol Plaatje's historical novel, Mhudi, which narrates the story of how amaNdebele were scattered to present day Zimbabwe by the same Mfecane wars that dispersed my people to the Eastern Cape. AmaNdebele were able to maintain their tribehood with a new capital in Bulawayo. We were never able to recover in real sense of nationhood since we were emaciated by the time we reached the Eastern Cape, Lesotho, Swaziland, etc. Most of us became vassals of amaXhosa in the Eastern Cape until in the arrival of white settlers when in it we saw opportunity of freeing and developing ourselves.
Every year amaMfengu recall their loss into becoming the Jews of Africa on the 14th May. Most interesting to me is how people who lose their land anchor find the best way to recover their identity and maintain it is by turning to the book. Because, in Southern Africa, amaMfengu were the first to take into Western education seriously, and made a connection with it as a gift no one can ever deprive you of. Growing up, in our households, the notion of education was not just associated with socioeconomic development, but with gaining a sense of self development and advancement of your own self consciousness. Hence, when amaXhosa as a nation were almost vanquished by Nongqawuse's suicidal tendencies (amaMfengu did not participate) amaMfengu emerged as the last hope for the emancipation of black people in the Eastern Cape. They bought and owned land then, which they successfully farmed, and therefore could politically participate and vote in the Cape Colony where some of them, like Jabavu almost became members of parliament until the formation of the Union and the 1913 Native Land Act took those privileges away from them and all black people. They then took to the pen, some becoming reverends and newspaper editors to fight a new political order with the pen they saw as being mightier than the sword. To organise themselves, on the socioeconomic front, they formed what became known as the South African Native Congress, which eventually became more political after the Native Land Act and was eventually known as the African National Congress (ANC). The rest, as they say, is history.
Anyway, a solemn and most prosperous celebration of the Day of Remembrance to all amaMfengu out there, and the nations, like amaXhosa, who took us in and integrated us at the hour of our greatest need. In these parched times you can't say we didn't teach you any thing since we brought you not just iron smith skills, but taught you also how to brew umqombothi. Hence your saying: Uywala beMfengu abupheli ekoyini. [A Mfengu's keg never dries.]
Allow us to quietly murmur in sadness, just for the day:
Andisoze ndiye kwaZulu kwafel' umama notata…
Abasifuni kwaZulu, abasifuni kwaGcaleka…
Ngu mkhonto kaTshaka
Owachith' umuzi kabawo
Wabinz' intliziyo kaBawo