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Our People: Nontetha Nkwenkwe

Updated: Oct 21, 2020

Seer, diviner, religious leader, priestess .... Nontetha Nkwenkwe was one of the Eastern Cape's most remarkable heroines.

But her death - on 20 May 1935 - was also the final chapter in one of the province's most shameful tragedies.

Born in King William's Town in 1870, Nontetha was a widowed mother of 10 children, only five of whom survived.

In 1918, after surviving the devastating flu epidemic that decimated large parts of the province, Nontetha - believing she was spared for a divine reason - became a respected prophet with a rapidly growing following in East London, King William's Town and Middledrift.

And while her message centred on unity among black communities in the Eastern Cape, Nontetha was labelled a subversive, "troublesome" and a threat to the state, and ordered to desists from preaching. When she refused, she was arrested and punitively committed to Fort Beaufort Mental Hospital, and later shipped off to Weskoppies Mental Hospital in Pretoria, in a bid to silence her.

This prompted her followers to embark on a perilous 1000km, 55-day walk to Pretoria to protest her incarceration.

It would prove in vain - Nontetha died of stomach and liver cancer in 1935 and was buried in a pauper's grave, devastating her family and many supporters who never stopped campaigning, over more than 50 years, to have her body returned to the Eastern Cape.

Then, in 1997, Nontetha's story took yet another remarkable turn when two historians researching her death, American Robert R Edgar and South African Hilary Sapire, located her unmarked grave in Pretoria.

The following year, Nontetha was finally brought home - along the same route her followers had walked 63 years earlier - to her final resting place in her home village of Khulile, near Debe Nek, where she was finally laid to rest on 25 October 1998.

Main picture: A bronze statue of Nontetha Nkwenkwe, by artist Lynnley Watson, outside the King William's Town magistrate's court.

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