Samuel Edward Krune Loliwe Ngxekengxeke Mqhayi was born in Gqumashe in Alice, Transkei, in 1875. He grew up in Centane, in Gcaleka, and died in 1945. The poet’s autobiography, entitled UMqhayi waseNtabozuko, published in 1939, is a rich source of information about this intriguing legend, considered by many to be the father of Xhosa poetry and awarded the honorific ‘the Shakespeare of Xhosa’.
The only son of his family, Mqhayi was dedicated and hard-working. The loss of his mother at an early age influenced his self-determination, which emerges strongly in much of his writing.
A sense of place had tremendous influence on his patriotism. His concern and care for his people show particularly in UMqhayi waseNtabozuko, in which he makes a clarion call for African people to be united.
Contributions to newspapers such as Izwi labantu, Imvo and Umteteli wabantu earned him the title of ‘Imbongi yakwaGompo’ (The Poet of Gompo) and later, ‘Imbongi yesizwe’ (The Poet of the Nation). His poetry also focuses on events and individuals outside of the immediate Xhosa tribe and landscape, transcending South Africa’s borders – hence the designation ‘Imbongi yesizwe jikelele’ (The Poet of the Nation All Over).
In his role as imbongi he represents the eyes and the ears of the people, and utters their sentiments.
In the patriotic and highly emotional poem ‘Ukutshona kukaMendi’ (The Sinking of the Mendi) Mqhayi recounts the events of this disaster which occurred on 21 February 1917 in very picturesque language. Jeff Opland describes the fateful moment of this disaster: “Legend has it that (Rev Isaac) Wauchope went to his death rallying his compatriots to die like Africans, calmly, heroically and without panic.”
The poem which perhaps represents Mqhayi at his best is ‘Aa! Zweliyazuza! iTshawe laseBhritani’. The prince of Wales is praised in the subtlest fashion, but in true imbongi style the poet levels a vitriolic attack on colonial Great Britain: “Hail Great Britain on whom the sun never sets!”
In ‘A! Silimela’, Mqhayi calls on Makinana to go home to rule over his people instead of living away. In the same poem he expresses doubt over the willingness of the British to share with other nationalities like the Germans and the Afrikaners. Once again, Mqhayi emerges as nationalist and patriot.
Mqhayi’s literary contributions are meticulously and comprehensively documented in Patricia Scott’s 1976 bibliographic survey of SEK Mqhayi’s works. His contribution of seven additional stanzas to Enoch Sontonga’s ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’, which he published in Umteteli wabantu on 11 June 1927, is notable. This great hymn was later adopted as a national anthem by many African states.
A teacher and translator, Mqhayi was a prolific reader, journalist and editor. His translation of Kees van die Kalahari as UAdonisi waseNtlango indicates his scholarship and commitment to developing the literature of his mother tongue. In his preface to his poem ‘Imbongi yesizwe’, Jolobe commends Mqhayi for his contribution, acknowledging that Ityala lamawele was a pivotal work that inspired many other writers in the Xhosa language.
Mqhayi lives on in the memory of the Xhosa people. His grave in Berlin, near King William’s town, is a Heritage site.
Jolobe, J.J.R., Umyezo, Witwatersrand University Press, Johannesburg, 1936
Mqhayi, S.E.K., Inzuzo, Witwatersrand University Press, Johannesburg, 1943
Opland, J., Xhosa Oral Poetry – Aspects of a black South African tradition, Ravan, Johannesburg, 1983
Opland, J. and Nyamende, A. (editors), Isaac William Wauchope: Selected Writings 1874-1916, Van Riebeeck Society Second Series, Cape Town, 2008
Qangule, Z.S., A study of theme and technique in the creative works of S.E.K.L.N. Mqhayi, Unpublished PhD Dissertation, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, 1979
Saule, N, Images in some of the literary works of SEK Mqhayi, Unpublished PhD Dissertation, UNISA, Pretoria, 1996