S. E. K. MQHAYI
The great Xhosa poet has had a profound impact on the South African poetic imagination in the twentieth-century. His effect on the younger generation of New African intellectuals, writers and artists has been incalculable. Some of the outstanding figures of New African Movement, such as H. I. E. Dhlomo and Jordan kush Ngubane, viewed him as the representative poetic figure in the transition from tradition to modernity. In an obituary, Dhlomo characterized his historical importance in the following manner: "Mqhayi was a pioneer of Xhosa literature and helped to make Xhosa a vehicle of great power and beauty. Thus his contribution was not only to literature but to language. he was the last link, perhaps, between the tribal bard who could extemporise and declaim long lines of poetry at the spur of the moment, and the modern African who only writes his verse. Mqhayi could do both; and even some of his written work is reminiscent of izimbongi [griots]. Never will the writer of these notes forget the deeply moving experience he had each time he listened to Mqhayi composing and reciting poetry all at once. A great artist is more than the Voice of his people. He is their very culture. And Mqhayi is such a man" ("Mqhayi", Busy-Bee [H. I. E. Dhlomo], Ilanga lase Natal, September 1, 1945). In practically similar terms, Jordan Ngubane memorialized Mqhayi in his obituary: "The news of the death of Samuel E. Krune Mqhayi at Ntabozuku has come as a staggering shock on the African people. . . . Mqhayi has been discovered not only yo have been an outstanding poet among the Xhosas, but to have been a son of whom the Zulu, Sutho were rightly proud. . . . In other words, he lit the torch for the younger generation of African writers. . . . His memory should be kept alive in the minds of all African posterity. . . ." ("S. E. Krune Mqhayi", Inkundla ya Bantu, August 31, 1945). The great Xhosa novelist, A. C. Jordan, a direct literary descendant of the founder of Xhosa literary language, saw him as connector between two historical moments: "A lover of the human race, he associated himself with several progressive movements and institutions. He understood alike the illiterate and educated, and as a result, his social influence was very wide. Because of his active interest in his people, his knowledge of their history, traditional and modern, was amazing. . . . And now, as the Meteor slides along and swims into the Dark Cloud that must for ever hide it, let us hope that the younger generation has caught its splendour, to cherish and to carry to the great New Age that Mqhayi must not know" ("Samuel Edward Krune Mqhayi", South African Outlook, September 1945). These three intellectual considerations can be complemented by two outstanding political figures of the present, recalling their experential encounter with Mqhayi in their school-days. Recalling 60 years later, Nelson Mandela recalled in his recent autobiography, the day the great poet visited his High School: "In my final year at Healdtown, an event occurred that for me was like a comet streaking across the night sky. Toward the end of the year, we were informed that the great Xhosa poet Krune Mqhayi was going to visit the school. Mqhayi was actually an imbongi, a praise-singer, a kind of oral historian who marks contemporary events and history with poetry that is of special meaning to his people. . . . Mqhayi then began to recite his well known poem in which he apportions the stars in the heavens to the various nations of the world. I had never before heard it. Roving the stage and gesturing with his assegai toward the sky, he said to the people of Europe---the French, the Germans, the English---'I give you the Milky Way, the largest constellation, for you are a strange people, full of greed and envy, who quarrel over plenty.' He allocated certain stars to the Asian nations, and to North and South America. He then discussed Africa and separated the continent into different nations, giving specific constellations to different tribes. He had been dancing about the stage, waving his spear, modulating his voice, and now suddenly he became still, and lowered his voice. . . . I was galvanized, but also confused by Mqhayi's performance" (Long Walk To Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1995, p. 40-41). Maggie Resha, politically active in Sophiatown in the 1950s and during the Exile Period, a political descendant of Charlotte Manye Maxeke, remembers the visit of Mqhayi to her High School in East London in 1939: "The atmosphere was electric when the poet S. E. K. Mqhayi appeared, walking slowly toward the stand. He wore a beautiful animal skin, thrown carelessly over the shoulder, while the other was free. As he uttered golden words in praise of education and of the school, the people silently echoed his last words in appreciation. I remember very well, to this day, one of the things he said, and which I heard then for the first time: "Uyavuya yena umtu onenyeke ngokuba xa ehleka uhleka nge nyama" (happy is the person who has a hare-lip because when he laughs, he laughs with meat) ['Mangoana Tsora Thipa Ka Bohaleng (My Life in the Struggle), Congress of South African Writers, Johannesburg, 1991, p. 20]. All of these remembraces are of S. E. K. Mqhayi as a poet. His classic book of poetry is I-Nzuzo (University of the Witwatersrand Press, Johannesburg, 1942). Unfortunately, much of Mqhayi's poetry and prose pieces still lie uncollected, scattered in many newspapers and magazines of the early part of the twentieth-century, particularly in Imvo Zabantsundu and Izwi Labantu. But Mqhayi also wrote prose works (autobiography, novellas, short stories, biographies, articles, essays): "Izwe lakwa Ndlambe" (?), "UNtsikane" (?), uSamson (1907), Ityala lama Wele (1914), uSoqqumahashe (1921), IBandla laBantu (1923), Incwadi yoLimo (?), UBomi bomfundisi u J. K. Bokwe (1925), IsiKhumbuzo SikaNtsikana (1926), ImiHobe NemiBongo (1927), uDon Jadu (1929), uAggrey umAfrika (1935), Umhlekazi uHintsa (1937), UMqhayi waseNtabozuko (1939). S. E. K. Mqhayi was also a journalist: having worked for both John Tengo Jabavu's Imvo Zabantsundu and Walter Rubusana and Allan Kirkland Soga's Izwi Labantu. Mqhayi edited the former newspaper for two years 1920-21, the two years just before the death of its founder. Mqhayi seems to have been a protege of John Tengo Jabavu. The centennial of his birth in 1975 was commemorated with a special issue of South African Outlook devoted to him (December 1975). There seems to be only one study devoted to his work: The Form And Themes of Mqhayi's poetry And Prose by Wandile Francis Kuse (Ph. D. doctoral thesis, University of Wisconsin, 1977).