Lost prophet finally comes home

IT TOOK 70 years for the persecuted Xhosa prophet Nonteta to fulfil her promise to return home to her followers in the rural wilds of the Eastern Cape, and to do so, as she had insisted she would, "with the help of the Americans".

When her bones were lowered into the earth at the village of Mnqaba, and the hills rang with the soulful hymns of a thousand South Africans and a lone American professor, a just end was finally brought to her story.

And another remarkable figure from black South Africa's repressed past was raised from obscurity to claim her historical place.

Nonteta Bungu was born in the mid-1870s, half a century before the Xhosas' greatest hero, Nelson Mandela. By the time she was 40 she had borne 10 children but had led an otherwise unremarkable life.

That changed in 1918, when flu, sweeping the globe, decimated the Xhosas. As Nonteta emerged from bouts of fever, she told told neighbours she was a messenger from God and her divine master was punishing them for their sins.

The Xhosas had a strong prophet tradition. The most famous divine messenger was 15- year-old Nongqawuse, who nearly wiped out her people in 1857 after convincing them that if they killed their cattle and burnt their grain their ancestors would rise up and destroy the white settlers. While she proved more hazardous to her own than to the whites, Nonteta was seen as a dangerous influence by the white establishment.

The authorities, mindful of a confrontation with the state by another prophet, Enoch Mgikjima - which led in 1921 to the massacre of 3,000 followers by government troops.- arrested Nonteta and sent her to an asylum. When that failed to break her sect, she was transferred to a mental hospital in Pretoria, 600 miles away. She died there 14 years later, in 1935. But devotion to her had not diminished. Her followers asked for her body but the authorities said it had been buried and refused to say where.

Four decades passed before the prophesied Americans entered the story. In 1975 a doctoral student, Robert Edgar, in South Africa to study Eastern Cape churches, went to Mnqaba with a few documents about Nonteta he had found in archives in Pretoria. Her followers - numbered in thousands - made him welcome but at the time he did not know why.

He met Nonteta's grandchildren - her children were dead - and spoke to church members who had known her. He was moved by their desire to recover her remains but apartheid regulations made it hard for him to complete his studies, or to discover her fate. "So I put it on the back-burner," said Professor Edgar this week.

There was nothing in the prophecy about an English woman but in 1995 the ball began rolling again when Hilary Salpire, of Birkbeck College's history department, part of London University, found more documents concerning Nonteta during research into the history of mental health in southern Africa.

The year after South Africa's first black majority government was elected, she contacted Professor Edgar and they embarked on a piece of remarkable detective work. By 1997 they had found where Nonteta was buried. It took a year to arrange for her to be exhumed and to return her remains to her followers. "As momentum grew to get the body back it became difficult to be academic about it," said Ms Salpire. Professor Edgar is still choked when he remembers the exhumation, which was watched by Nonteta's grandchildren and members of her church, including Tobi Nokrawuzana, 91, who in 1927 walked to Pretoria with 30 other church members to see their leader. It was a day and a half before an archaeological team located Nonteta's body, and for most of it Professor Edgar was terrified that no bones would be found or that tests would be unable to confirm that they were Nonteta's.

In the end the remains were found and tests confirmed they were Nonteta's. "The church members had told me not to worry," said Professor Edgar. "And that they were sure the bones would be hers. Their extraordinary faith would make you weep. When Nonteta was found, the old woman who had walked to Pretoria peered over the grave and began to cry ... but I think we were all crying. It was the sweep of all those years and her promise to return."

The woman who was dumped, bound in a cloth, in a pauper's grave now lies beneath a magnificent tombstone. The government, which is eager to recover a lost black past and to elevate forgotten or unacknowledged heroes, paid for it.

For Professor Edgar and Ms Salpire, Nonteta's value is that her story illustrates the injustices of the day. Ms Salpire said it showed the paranoia of the state concerning the emerging black-led church movement, during which Africans deserted the old mission churches in droves.

Professor Edgar was honoured at the funeral. He only found out he fitted the prophecy shortly before. He plays down his efforts on the community's behalf, preferring to marvel at the spirit of people who held a vigil for Nonteta "as if she had died yesterday". But at the funeral service the Reverend Mzwandile Mabelu, head of Nonteta's church, made clear it was "Bob" that Nonteta and her people had to thank. The professor's task, he said, had "been great indeed".

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