06 December 2011

A prophetess declared insane - incarcerated for convenience

Nontetha Nkwenkwe was simply a prophetess who wanted to preach the word of God as she received it. However, the colonialist government felt constipated when her popularity gained momentum - fearing that she would soon become a threat to white rule and established western churches.

Nkwenkwe is said to have led a normal life, fending for her ten children following the death of her husband who was a migrant worker in Saldanha Bay in the Western Cape.

She was apparently a popular herbalist and seer but it was not until the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918 that she received great prominence as a religious figure. The disease claimed thousands of lives and Nontentha also caught it and landed in coma. During this time, she had a series of visions in which, she said, God visited her and told her that the pandemic was sent deliberately as punishment for people's sins, and that the end of the world was near. God, therefore, wanted her to preach this message to His people so they could abandon their sinful ways and repent.

She attracted a considerable pool of loyal and committed followers which was the main reason the officials were uncomfortable about her practices. Though her message was not overtly critical of the government, she was still considered as a potential threat to the order of white rule.

In 1922, the officials decided to remove her from the scene by declaring her mad and committing her in a mental asylum far away from her home. After a short time she was released on condition that she stop preaching. However, she soon resumed her ministry and authorities institutionalised her again.

When her followers kept flocking to the asylum to visit her, officials moved her to a Pretoria asylum, hundreds of kilometres from her home. Here the state psychiatrists diagnosed her as schizophrenic. Although they concluded that she would not be a personal threat to anyone, she was kept incarcerated due to security concerns that her followers could become unsavoury elements of disturbance if she were to be set free.

Her followers organised a "pilgrimage of grace" walk to see her in Pretoria - a two-month walk to the asylum. They were able to see her the first time, but were stopped the second time. She received no further visitors for the remainder of her life, dying in 1935. She was buried by officials in an unmarked pauper's grave in Pretoria. Her family made several attempts to exhume her remains but authorities refused.

Decades later in 1997, her grave was discovered by investigating historians and with the government's co-operation, her remains were finally exhumed in 1998 and reburied near her home in Khulile, Eastern Cape.

Nontetha Nkwenkwe is one of the icons memorialised in the Sunday Times Heritage Project, visit her memorial page here.