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OUR PEOPLE: The father of Xhosa poetry, S.E.K. Mqhayi

Updated: Jul 3, 2020

‘Our Shakespeare! Our Laureate!’ eulogised former ANC President Alfred Xuma when he unveiled S.E.K. Mqhayi’s tombstone in 1951. And the young Nelson Mandela, seeing Mqhayi in action at Healdtown in 1938, compared the experience to ‘a comet streaking through the night sky’.

Samuel Edward Krune (S.E.K.) Mqhayi was a Xhosa dramatist, novelist, historian, biographer, translator and poet whose works are regarded as instrumental in standardising the grammar of isiXhosa and preserving the language in the 20 century.

Known as “the father of Xhosa poetry”, he was born on 1 December 1875 near Gqumahashe into a Christian family – his father, Ziwani Mqhayi was known as “a leading man in his church, famous for his counsel, his preaching, and his singing".

When Mqhayi was nine years old, he moved with his father to Centani to stay with his uncle Nzanzana (the headsman of the area) during the witgatboom famine of 1885. Mqhayi recounts the six years he spent in Centane as having had a significant impact on his writing.

“In those six years I learned much respecting Xhosa life, including the refinements of Xhosa language…” he wrote.

“If I had not been at Kentani [sic] for those six years, it seems to me as if I would not have been any help to my nation … it was the means of getting an insight into the national life of my people.”

Mqhayi qualified as a teacher and under the patronage of Walter Benson Rubusana, he taught in and near East London, and at Lovedale. He also helped to edit two local newspapers, Izwi labantu and Imvo zabantsundu before retiring to devote himself to social upliftment schemes, to writing and translating.

In 1905 he was appointed to the Xhosa Bible Revision Board, and he later helped codify Xhosa grammar and standardize Xhosa orthography. After completing this work, Mqhayi devoted most of his time to writing.

His first published book, U-Samson, was a version of the biblical story of Samson. In 1914, he published Ityala lamawele ('The Lawsuit of the Twins') an influential isiXhosa novel and an early defence of customary law and Xhosa tradition.

Mqhayi added seven stanzas to Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika which was originally written by Enoch Sontonga in 1927.

A work of fiction, U-Don Jadu (1929), describes a utopian multiracial state that combines elements of Western society and Xhosa culture. Mqhayi’s autobiography, U-Mqhayi wase Ntab’ozuko (1939; “Mqhayi of the Mountain of Beauty”), gives a vivid picture of late 19th-century Xhosa life.

His autobiography is titled UMghayi waseNtab'ozuko (Mghayi of Mount Glory).

A youthful Nelson Mandela, who considered him “a poet laureate of the African people” saw Mqhayi at least twice in the flesh, and once, to his infinite pleasure, heard him recite.

Mqhayi won the 1935 May Ester Bedford Prize for Bantu literature.

His collected poems, Inzuzo (“Reward”), were published in 1942.

Mqhayi died in 1945 and was buried in Berlin near King William’s Town.

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