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".

Sport
The giant banner displayed by Legia Warsaw supporters last night
football
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
News
news
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
people
Arts and Entertainment
Tulisa as a judge on the X Factor in 2012
tvLouis Walsh confirms star's return
Life and Style
fashionClothes shop opens on Bill Clinton Boulevard in Pristina
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Life and Style
life
News
Melissa and Joan Rivers together at an NBC event in May 2014
peopleDaughter Melissa thanks fans for 'outpouring of support'
Life and Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Nursery Room Leader

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: JOB DESCRIPTION - NURSERY ROOM LEADER...

SAS Developer - DI Studio - Banking

£450 - £500 per day: Orgtel: SAS Developer, Chester, Banking, DI Studio, £450-...

Recruitment Consultants - Banking & Finance

£20000 - £30000 per annum + OTE £40 - £50K first year: SThree: SThree Group an...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel you sales role is li...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone