Robert R. Edgar, Hilary Sapire. African Apocalypse: The Story of Notetha Nkwenkwe, A Twentieth-century South African Prophet. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2000. xxiii + 190 pp.
Reviewed by Robert Ross (Afrikanistiek, Leiden Universiteit)
Published on H-SAfrica (June, 2000)
This is a splendid book. In a sense, for all that it is no more than 135 pages long, excluding the appendices and notes, it is three books. First, it is a work of religious history. It describes the activities of Nontetha Nkwenkwe, an illiterate monolingual Xhosa woman who, in middle age, widowed and with five children, recovered from the influenza pandemic of 1919. After this, she underwent a transformation, in a way that is totally consistent with the expectations of Xhosa ideas, into a healer and prophet -- she had earlier been a herbalist. As might be expected in the early twentieth century, she did so by developing her particular variety of Christianity, one which held considerable appeal for the largely "red" environment in the neighbourhood of Kingwilliamstown where she lived.
These visions, granted to her in a series of dreams, provided a way for those who, like her, had no accepted the outward signs of European culture, to become Christians. The voices she heard revealed to her a special message to preach the Gospel to the uneducated. This she proceeded to do, in services lasting from two to three hours, exhorting her congregations to give up witchcraft and to unify behind the chiefs. It was a message which was tailored to a specific constituency but, so far as can be seen it was not ethnically specific, anti-white nor, indeed, particularly political.
Nontetha was clearly an inspiring preacher. She quickly gathered large congregations around her, and these coalesced into a church, or rather a denomination, later known as the Church of the Prophetess Nontetha. This has survived to this day, even though, in spite of her stress on unity, it has split into various sections. This, then, is the core of the first story in this book, one of religious innovation. It is in itself not unusual in Southern Africa, but is particularly well documented, on the basis of oral history, a number of Xhosa manuscripts and the records of the South African government. And it is those records which lie at the foundation of the second story.
This second story is about white perceptions and actions, both those of government and of the psychiatric establishment. In the aftermath of the Bulhoek massacre, which in retrospect the authorities had to see as a response to a serious threat to public order, Eastern Cape officials were preconditioned to consider as dangerous a religious movement attracting thousands of adherents and totally outside European control. They could not credibly accuse Nontetha of sedition, and to have done so would have led to a trial which in itself would have been a major occasion for protest. However they had a stronger weapon. They could proclaim Nontetha mad, and thus lock her up, without any process of law, without the opportunity for judicial review and without the prospect of release.
In this, they were aided by the fact that she was a woman. None of her male counterparts were sent to mental asylums. For the colonial authorities and their psychiatric associates, it took little to convince them that a woman leading a religious movement must be mad, as she would not otherwise have left the domestic sphere. That the Xhosa looked otherwise at a widow in her forties, head of a household, was of no importance. So, Nontetha was delivered over to the maw of the psychiatric hospitals, in conditions hardly if at all better than those of a prison.
Here, Bob Edgar's long-term interest in the religious movements of the Eastern Cape came to intersect with Hilary Sapire's research into the history of psychiatry in South Africa. As it happens, a considerable amount of documentation on Nontetha has survived, largely as a result of the furore her followers created in demanding her release. These show how the psychiatric establishment of the 1920s and 1930s proceeded to medicalise her condition, and to press her religious experience into the categories of mental disease which were being expounded. They had absolutely no appreciation of the cultural background of the black majority of their patients. What was clearly an acceptable, if unusual, manifestation of divine powers within Xhosa society came to be interpreted as clinial schizophrenia.
Edgar and Sapire make clear that none of the Xhosa headmen who were consulted on Nontetha ever considered he mad, even when they were opposed to her actions. To the Europeans, with definite opinions as to the "native mind" and a blind faith in their own science, at least as irrational as anything produced by Xhosa religious experience, Nontetha was clearly suffering from mental derangement and had to be kept out of society, for its good, and perhaps even for her own. As a result, she remained in Weskoppies mental hospital, near Pretoria, until she died painfully and alone, of cancer, in 1935. She was then buried without ceremony, in an unmarked pauper's grave in Pretoria's Newclare cemetery. Before her death, there had be several "pilgrimages of grace" as journalists described them at the time, from the Eastern Cape to Pretoria, in order to petition for her release. These suffered harassment, particularly in the Free State, and, though one group did reach Pretoria, they received no satisfaction.
Nor after Nontetha's death, was their request that her body be returned for burial in the Eastern Cape acceded to. So, for sixty years, the matter lay, as did Nontetha's body in her unmarked Pretoria grave. That is, until 1997, when in the new South Africa, Edgar revived the contacts with the church of the Prophetess which had begun two decades earlier. This is the third story, in its way as uplifting as the first and far more than the second. With the help of the superintendant of Newclare cemetery, Nontetha's grave was located. The Eastern Cape provincial administration, the relevant officials in Gauteng and a team of archeologists from the University of Pretoria used their good offices and their skills to aid Nontetha's family and the church she founded to arrange the exhumation of her remains and their reburial at a major celebration at Khulile, near Kingwilliamstown. The historians acted as "facilitators" in this process, and tried to restrict their interventions to this role. For all their attempts, however, it is clear that they had a major catalytic effect in creating what within a small segment of South Africa's population was clearly a major event in the recognition and the reworking of the country's past.
In a sense, this book fulfills the same goal, albeit for a different constituency, namely those who read academic history. Edgar and Sapire have succeeded in the tasks which tye took on with sill and with coimpassion--to Nontetha and her followers, if not to the psychiatric establishment. It is good to see religious, gendered medical and, at a remove, political history se well wound together, with so little extravagance in the claims which are made for any of them. It is a book which deserves to be read, and, but for feelings of indignation, enjoyed.
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Robert Ross. Review of Edgar, Robert R.; Sapire, Hilary, African Apocalypse: The Story of Notetha Nkwenkwe, A Twentieth-century South African Prophet.
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