Virtually nothing is known about the life of the first and only major female poet to write in Xhosa, apart from what is revealed in her writings, almost all of which appeared in the Johannesburg newspaper Umteleli wa Bantu between 1920 and 1929. In a poem published on 2 December 1922, lamenting the death of her mother, she gives her mother’s as Emmah Jane Mgqwetto, the daughter of Zingelwa of the Cwerha clan, and associates her with the Hewu district near Queenstown. Abner Nyamede recognizes in Mgqwetho\’s poetry quotations from the Moravian liturgy: she may well have been educated in the Eastern Cape by the Moravians, probably at Shiloh, which is in the Hewu district.
It is likely that she is also the author of two prose contributions to the King William’s Town newspaper Imvo zabantsundu on 20 May and 14 October 1897, both signed Cizama (coming from Tamara near Mount Coke between King Willliam’s Town and Peddie). In a poem that appeared in Umteleli on 18 December 1920, she criticizes L.T. Mvabaza, the editor of Abuntu Batho, for bragging that he had brought her from Peddie to Johannesburg, so she seems to have lived near Peddie, possibly at Tamara, before moving to the former Transvaal. The first poem that Mgqwetho contributed to Umteleliwas published on 23 October 1920 and was signed with her clan name, Cizama; it was sent from Crown Mines in Johannesburg. Her last contribution to Umteleli appeared on 5 January 1929. Although Xhosa personal praises often employ hyperbole and caricature, some information about Mgqwetho can be gleaned from a poem about herself published in Umteleli on 12 January 1924.
She depicts herself as a fearless and outspoken poet, whose poetry provokes controversy: ‘Your poetry puts aid to pleasantries,’ she writes, and ‘Your poetry goes to the core / And the peaks of the nation swivel / As you sway from side to side.’ As the first female to publish her poetry in considerable quantity, she sees herself as competing against the dominance of male poets: ‘Woman, the winsome song of your voice / Sets Africa’s walls vibrating, / Utterly shaming all the lads.’ In the poem she articulates concerns for black rights, education and morals, especially with respect to young women in the cities, and the erosion of Xhosa customs. These concerns are evident throughout her body of published poetry.
She seems to have been arrested, probably for political activity, if we may take literally the lines: ‘What a fool I was sucking up to the whites! / Next thing I knew the cops had the cuffs on me.’ She describes herself as physically unappealing, a bulky woman with ‘matchstick legs’, and may possibly have been unmarried, although (in the way of Xhosa poetry) the last line of this stanza could be a remark made of her as a girl by a youthful associate rather than her own mature self-characterization: ‘Peace, newsy duck of Africa, / Ungainly woman with ill-shaped frame. / Oh, Nontsizi, African rivermoss, / With bow-legs like yours you will never marry!’
Politically, she adopts a position critical of the African National Congress and its leaders, whom she castigates for fragmenting rather than unifying black opposition, and constantly appeals for black unity in the face of white oppression: the title of the poem published on 19 July 1924 is ‘Strangers strip people selfishly squabbling.’ She defends Marshall Maxeke, the first editor of Umteleli, and celebrates his wife, the civil rights activist Charlotte Maxeke. She praises members of the rural resistance movement known as the Amafelandawonye (‘Die-hards’), and in a prose contribution published on 13 December 1924 records her own involvement in April 1919 in a mass demonstration against passes in Johannesburg. She was a firm supporter of the women’s Christian union known as Manyano an was probably herself a member.
Between 23 October 1920 and 4 September 1926 Umteleli published 95 poems and three articles by Mgqwetho. After a two-year gap, two further poems appeared on 22 December 1928 and 5 January 1929, after which silence and obscurity once again shrouded her career. Her work has only recently been discovered in the pages of ephemeral newspapers, it has yet to be edited and republished in book form, and she is accordingly entirely overlooked by almost all the scholars who have written on Xhosa literature. Mgqwetho’s output ranks her among the most prolific of Xhosa poets, but the measure of her significance is not the quantity of her work.
Although women feature prominently as authors of Xhosa novels, no female has ever published Xhosa poetry of any stature. However, while the circumstance of her gender is of vital interest from many perspectives, that alone is an insufficient measure of her significance. It is by the quality of her poetry that she will come to be judged. Fearless, outspoken, committed, pious, confused, anguished and often despairing, Nontsizi Mgqwetho eloquently articulates in her passionate poetry the political and social aspirations of black South Africans in the 1920s, and their bitter frustrations.