Nontsizi Mgqwetho lived on the Witwatersrand goldfields in South Africa, but looked back to her rural background in the Cape Colony, and to earlier, happier times when the independent Xhosa chiefdoms were free of white domination. For nearly a decade, from 1920 to 1929, she contributed poetry to a Johannesburg newspaper, Umteteli wa Bantu, the first and only female poet to produce a substantial body of work in Xhosa.
Apart from what is revealed in these writings, however, very little is known about her life. She explodes on the scene with her swaggering, urgent, confrontational woman’s poetry on 23 October 1920, sends poems to the newspaper regularly throughout the three years from 1924 to 1926, withdraws for two years until two final poems appear in December 1928 and January 1929, then disappears into the shrouding silence she first burst from.
Nothing more is heard from her, but the poetry she left immediately establishes her as one of the greatest literary artists ever to write in Xhosa, an anguished voice of an urban woman confronting male dominance, ineffective leadership, black apathy, white malice and indifference, economic exploitation and a tragic history of nineteenth-century territorial and cultural dispossession.
She finds her strength in her own conception of the Christian God, and in Mother Africa, Nursemaid slain by her sucklings, who, she insists, has no need to respond to appeals for her return since she has never left, steadfastly standing by her disappointing people.
Since the rural praise poet, imbongi, was always a male, Nontsizi would have been barred from public performances in honour of the chief. The newspaper licensed her poetry and afforded her access to a public that tradition denied her. She was free to appropriate the voice of an imbongi, and claimed the imbongi’s right to criticise leaders. Like an imbongi, she drew attention to social ills, and sought to shape attitudes and mobilise action.
The Nation’s Bounty: the Xhosa Poetry of Nontsizi Mgqwetho, Wits University Press, Johannesburg, 2007