African Poems

Oral Poetry from Africa

Tag: Xhosa

The Cattle Killing

The subject of The Cattle Killing is one of the most baffling and controversial events in African history. In the spring of 1856, a teenaged Xhosa girl called Nongqawuse went to fetch water from a pool near the mouth of the Gxarha river. On her return, she told Mhlakaza, her uncle who was a diviner, that she had spoken with a group of the ancestors. They had promised that if the Xhosa killed their cattle and burned their crops, British settlers at Cape would be swept into the sea, and the ancestors would return to life, bringing fresh, healthy cattle and abundant stocks of grain. Mhlakaza told this to Sarhili, the senior Chief of the Gcaleka, who believed the prophecy and ordered compliance. No one knows for sure how many cattle were slaughtered – perhaps 60,000, perhaps 400,000…

A mighty bell is six o’clock

A Xhosa song about working in the gold mines of Johannesburg. These short work songs are sung rhythmically by a group of miners to make the work easier. Rhini, Qonce and Tinarha are the Xhosa names for three of the local gold mines.

A mighty bell is six o’clock:
I went to Rhini and found the men…

Anti-Apartheid Protest Poems (part six)

The last in a series of six poems from the Xhosa poet, Melikhaya Mbutuma. This was recited in March 1963, one month after the fifth poem (see also parts one, two and three and four for the background).

This final poem blames Matanzima directly for the desperate state of the Xhosa nation. Fulfilling his role as an imbongi, “as a spokesman of the nation”, Mbutuma denounces the illegitimacy of the regime, with its government-sanctioned violence and corruption. But he also criticises the widespread lawlessness and civil disorder, before turning on his own paramount chief Sabata, attacking him for his drunkenness. “I know these truths”, he says, “can be a cause for my arrest and prosecution”.

Despite frequent harassment by Matanzima’s police, Mbutuma survived and in 2002 owned a shop and a taxi service in Engcobo. Sabata, meanwhile, was arrested in 1979 and the following year deposed as chief. He fled to Lusaka, Zambia, where he died in exile in 1986…

Anti-Apartheid Protest Poems (part five)

The penultimate in a series of six poems from the Xhosa poet, Melikhaya Mbutuma. This was recited in February 1963, two months after the fourth poem (see also parts one, two and three for the background).

Much of the poem is a response to pamphlets produced by Thembekile Enock Tshunungwa (b.1923), a teacher and businessman, who had been an ANC organiser and one of the 156 defendants in the 1956 Treason Trial. Acquitted in 1961, he allied himself with Matanzima, publishing versions of Xhosa history which attributed the divisions in Xhosa society to the 1856 Cattle Killings and not to any actions by Matanzima. Mbutuma partly concedes this, but angrily disputes the historical details, including Matanzima’s legitimacy…

Anti-Apartheid Protest Poems (part four)

The fourth in a series of six poems from the Xhosa poet Melikhaya Mbutuma, this was recorded five months after the third poem (see also parts one and two for the background and parts five and six for the rest)…

Anti-Apartheid Protest Poems (part three)

The third in a series of six poems, this poem is set a year later than the second poem (see also part one for the background and four, five and six for the rest).

In 1962, the South Africa government published a constitution for an ‘independent’ Transkei, with Kaiser Matanzima as Chief Minister. For Mbutuma, a fierce traditionalist, his country is at a crossroads.

Anti-Apartheid Protest Poems (part two)

The second in a series of six poems (see part one for the background and three, four, five and six for the rest) from the Xhosa poet Melikhaya Mbutuma, imbongi to the Thembu paramount chief Sabata Dalindyebo (). This poem jumps forward twenty-one months…

Anti-Apartheid Protest Poems (part one)

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…

It All Started with the Conversion

An extract from a Xhosa Praise-Poem addressed to Kaiser Mantanzima by the Praise-Singer Phakamile Yali-Manisi. It explains the present disastrous position of the Xhosa people as a consequence of the alliance between the missionaries and Sir George Grey, Governor of Cape Province 1854-61, in seizing Xhosa land and destroying the Xhosa economy.

African Poems