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".

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Buttoned up: Ryan Reynolds with Helen Mirren in ‘Woman in Gold’
filmFor every box-office smash in his Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. Now he says it's time for a reboot
News
people
News
Actress Julianne Moore wins the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award for 'Still Alice' during the 87th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California
people
Sport
Ross Barkley
footballPaul Scholes says it's time for the Everton playmaker to step up and seize the England No 10 shirt
News
'We will fix it': mice in the 1970s children’s programme Bagpuss
science
Life and Style
2 Karl Lagerfeld and Choupette
fashion
  • Get to the point
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

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - CAD Software Solutions Sales

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?