Reclaiming the Muted Voices of Xhosa Literature: A Personal Testament
Jeff Opland
A proper history of literature in the Xhosa language of South Africa has yet to be written. The majority of the few attempts at a coherent narrative tend to commence with original literature published in book form in the first decade of the twentieth century, usually with H.M Ndawo’s novel Uhambo lukaGqoboka in 1909. My own research has served to extend the range of literary expression in Xhosa backwards, to 1837 in the case of literature in print, with the appearance of the first periodical, Umshumayeli wendaba, and potentially further still in the case of traditions of oral poetry, izibongo. What follows is a brief account of my journey, and its accomplishments in restoring the voices and reputations of major authors overlooked by African literature scholars in the past as well as in the present.
My journey as a scholar began with Arts and Science degrees in English and Mathematics from the University of Cape Town. Attracted by pre-Conquest English literature, I proceeded to MA and PhD degrees; my doctoral dissertation compared the South Slavic, Homeric, and Xhosa traditions of oral poetry, expressing my growing interest in the development of literatures from the oral to the written state. The Xhosa sections drew on fieldwork with Xhosa oral poets, iimbongi, commencing in 1969. The fieldwork and collection of oral poetry, izibongo, were initially designed to shed light on preliterate Anglo-Saxon poetry, but in time my focus shifted to the study and collection of oral Xhosa izibongo in its own right, an enterprise that continued through to 1988. As an adjunct to this research, I began to focus on izibongo in traditional form in published books, and this focus in turn extended in time to the study and collection of Xhosa poetry, and literature in general, in vernacular periodicals. My field recordings of oral performances of izibongo, and interviews with over a hundred iimbongi, together with books in Xhosa and copies of Xhosa literature culled from ephemeral publications, form the core of The Opland Collection of Xhosa Literature.
With the exception of A.C. Jordan’s unfinished series of twelve articles, published in Africa South between 1957 and 1960 under the title ‘Towards an African Literature’, scant attention had been paid to newspapers as a vehicle of Xhosa literature. The copies of newspaper literature in my Collection were culled from surviving Xhosa or multilingual periodicals published between 1837 and the mid-1950s. The field recordings and copies of newspaper literature have been made available to scholars as material for their publications and dissertations and have formed the basis of postgraduate dissertations. However, I came to feel that the unplumbed newspaper literature was of such magnitude and importance that it demanded wider distribution, in a more permanent form. Initially, I began with an account of my 30-year association with the imbongi David Livingstone Phakamile Yali-Manisi, the most powerful exponent of izibongo I had the privilege to meet in the course of my fieldwork. The Dassie and the Hunter: A South African Meeting, published in 2005, included many of my recordings of Manisi’s izibongo, as well as extracts from his published books, but the poems were presented in English translation only. And that cleared the way for the inception of editions of previously unknown or obscure Xhosa texts in my Collection, with facing English translations, which has culminated in the nine volumes of the series Publications of The Opland Collection of Xhosa Literature, commencing in 2015.
Ultimately, it was David Manisi who, unwittingly, initiated my production of editions and translations of Xhosa texts in my Collection. I left South Africa in 1986 to assume a position at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Emigration effectively put an end to my fieldwork, but, if I could not continue to record Manisi’s oral performances in South Africa, I might be able to bring him to the United States to work with me. An application to the Fulbright Foundation proved successful: in January 1988 Manisi commenced a six-month sojourn at Vassar as a Fulbright Fellow. Reunited, we continued our work of transcribing his recordings; together we taught a course on oral poetry, and we travelled to American universities to present lectures on and demonstrations of izibongo. In all, I recorded fifteen new performances by Manisi before his tenure was interrupted by the sudden death of his wife: he returned to South Africa after only four months. Manisi’s American performances provided invaluable data on how an oral poet adapts his spontaneous productions to alien and inhibiting circumstances, indeed, to uncomprehending audiences. So, after his departure, I began to conceive of a book presenting these performances in Xhosa, with English translations, provisionally entitled Manisi on Campus. Progress on that project, however, was interrupted by a more pressing initiative.
While in America, Manisi displayed an uncanny ability to detect the presence in his neighbourhood of fellow South Africans. When he informed me that Phyllis Ntantala happened to be visiting a relative in Poughkeepsie, I contacted her and accompanied Manisi on a courtesy visit. Ntantala was the widow of A.C. Jordan, a distinguished author and pioneer in scholarship on Xhosa literature. After Manisi’s hurried departure, I resolved to take advantage of Ntantala’s proximity. Together, Manisi and I had transcribed and translated many of his performances that I had recorded, but the overwhelming majority of the Xhosa texts in my Collection remained untranslated. I could work through translations with the aid of a dictionary, but I had little confidence in my ability to detect nuance or to understand the dense and highly idiomatic diction of izibongo. So I approached Ntantala for assistance with translation, she kindly agreed, and a successful application for a grant from the Vassar Committee on Research enabled me to secure and pay for her services.
In 1984, in scanning the Johannesburg multilingual newspaper Umteteli wa Bantu, I had encountered the strident poetry of Nontsizi Mgqwetho and immediately recognized her significance, not only as a dominant poet of the 1920s entirely overlooked by scholars, but also as the first female poet of substance in the history of Xhosa literature; for four years, the thick file of her poetry had been nagging me: ‘You’ve found me, now do something with me’. In Poughkeepsie, Ntantala and I discussed her literal translations of ninety-eight poems; later, five additional poems came to light, which I translated with the help of the celebrated author Peter Mtuze. I found a model for this procedure in the collaboration of W.H. Auden and Paul Taylor in the translation of medieval Norse poems. Further progress on publishing the poetry of David Manisi and Nontsizi Mgqwetho, however, was disrupted by my second emigration, this time to the United Kingdom, in 1991.
I was able to undertake brief trips to South Africa in 1994, 1997, and, ultimately, with funding from the British Academy, in 1999 that allowed me to continue my work with Manisi. As for the poetry of Nontsizi Mgqwetho, guided by Phyllis Ntantala’s literal translations, I produced my own versions, which Abner Nyamende read through, offering me his occasional comments. Although he declined to mention this in his completed thesis, and subsequently denied it explicitly, I had offered Nyamende selections from my file on I.W. Wauchope, unrecognized as a Xhosa author, as material for his PhD dissertation, just as I had previously provided copies of items from my files on S.E.K. Mqhayi for Ncedile Saule’s graduate dissertations. My research trip in 1999 enabled me to spend two weeks of intensive work with an ailing Manisi in Grahamstown in August, in which time we completed translations and annotations of all his recorded izibongo in my Collection, together with some additional published poems. A few weeks after my return to the United Kingdom, Manisi’s daughter called me with the devastating news that her father had passed away on 18 September at the age of 73. His death offered closure and encouraged me to consider expanding the scope of Manisi on Campus to a full account of his career. I had spent two periods in Germany as a beneficiary of an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation fellowship: I made preparations for a third six-month period and left for Leipzig in 2001.
The Dassie and the Hunter: A South African Meeting, published in 2005, takes its title from a letter David Manisi wrote to me:
In 1979 Manisi mailed a poem to me with an accompanying letter. He was entrusting the poem to me, he wrote, knowing that I would make the appropriate decision about it. I would see to its publication if it had merit, or contact him if it gave offence: he expressed this relationship of trust in a Xhosa metaphor, umwewe weembila waziwa ngumzingeli, ‘the hunter knows the dassie’s crannies’. The hunter of the little rock rabbit knows its lair as well as the dassie does itself. There is a simple acknowledgement of congruent interest here: in order to catch his quarry the hunter must know the dassie intimately, and so both the hunter and the dassie come to share knowledge of the dassie’s habits and domestic terrain. There is also an imbalance of power implied in the fact that the hunter perforce achieves this knowledge in order to catch his prey, but through his metaphor Manisi subverts and inverts this power differential. I had hunted Manisi for his poetry, collecting and preserving it; now he was using that established channel to send me his poetry, so that I would see to its publication if I could. (The Dassie and the Hunter 2)
I have accepted Manisi’s claim on me as small recompense for all he taught me. The account of my 30-year association with David Manisi is personal in style, not academic, biographical and necessarily autobiographical. It is the first detailed account of the career of a Xhosa imbongi, a dynamic and charismatic poet, including translations of many of his izibongo, and it paved the way for the editions and translations of Xhosa literature that succeeded it.
I returned to the poetry of Nontsizi Mgqwetho. As a student of Latin, Old and Middle English and Old Norse, I had consulted published translations in producing translations of my own. These ‘cribs’ served as my guides to the sense of the text, freeing me to develop a translation style of my own based on my understanding of the text. I had reworked Ntantala’s versions, I felt, to better reflect Mgqwetho’s anger and rambunctious swagger, as in this extract from a poem entitled ‘Ukutula! Ikwakukuvuma!’ – ‘Silence implies consent’:
Taru! Mhleli ngesituba sezi Mbongi!
Editor, thanks for the poets’ column,
Asinakutula umhlab’ ubolile
we can’t sit silent, the country’s rotten:
Xa ndikubonisa ubume bomhlaba
if I exposed the state of the country
Angabhekabheka onk’ amagqoboka.
the Christians’ jaws would drop.
Ukutula! Ikwakukuvuma
Silence implies consent!
Xa ungatandi ukuhlala ujanyelwa
White eyes sear us on entering a church,
Ungaphendula kwabezinye imvaba
but we’re free to worship someplace else:
Akulunganga ukukonza unomkanya.
it’s no fun to pray looking over your shoulder.
Lemiteto idlula eka Moses
The laws outnumber those of Moses!
Lihasa kuwe eliza ngokutula
They dish out your portion if you sit silent:
Litupa lengwe lanyatel’ esangweni
it’s the tracks of a leopard across your yard.
Kuba ngokutula! Bati uyavuma!
If you sit silent they say you agree.
I had located the corpus of poetry; I sought credit for the discovery. So I acknowledged the contributions of Ntantala, Nyamende, and Mtuze but published The Nation’s Bounty: The Xhosa Poetry of Nontsizi Mgqwetho as edited and translated by myself.
In the meantime, Abner Nyamende had completed his PhD on Wauchope and had approached the prestigious Van Riebeeck Society for the Publication of Southern African Historical Documents about the prospect of publication: we agreed to work on the volume together. Once again, I used Nyamende’s translations as I had used Ntantala’s, as the basis for my own translations, which I submitted to Nyamende for his comments. That process satisfactorily concluded, I sought Nyamende’s assistance in the challenging task of annotation to the Society’s high standards, but Nyamende demurred, citing demands on his time, and he left the completion and submission of the manuscript to me, together with all further negotiations with the Society; the submitted manuscript, as well as all drafts of the proofs, were submitted to Nyamende, who raised no objections prior to publication. Isaac Williams Wauchope was credited as author; his Selected Writings 18741916 appeared in 2008 as ‘edited and translated by Jeff Opland and Abner Nyamende with an introduction and notes by Jeff Opland’, a formulation endorsed by Howard Phillips, Chairman of the Society, who had served as one of the editors. The volume included Wauchope’s subversive booklet The Natives and their Missionaries (1908) in English, together with outspoken Xhosa polemics and revisionist histories that I had located largely in newspapers: writings on religion and mission work, history and biography, politics and social affairs, lore and language, as well as poetry. Known previously to some historians for his involvement in early black political organizations, Wauchope (1852–1917) was established for the first time as a versatile and significant author.
Samuel Edward Krune Mqhayi (1875–1945) is to this day the most influential Xhosa writer, even though a number of his works have been lost or are currently out of print. He was a dominant imbongi, at times an editor of the newspapers Izwi labantu and Imvo zabantsundu, as well as the author of novels, volumes of poetry, translations, monographs, biographies and an autobiography. Some of his writings originally published in newspapers were included in his own works as well as in anthologies by editors such as W.B. Rubusana and W.G. Bennie, yet I was astonished to encounter voluminous contributions by Mqhayi under his own name, or under a number of pseudonyms, languishing unrecognized in a variety of newspapers. It was to Mqhayi that I turned next as requiring most urgent attention.
Well known as a popular author, Mqhayi’s true versatility was not fully appreciated, so I approached Abner Nyamende to ascertain whether or not he was free to work with me again. He was: I commenced sending him copies of Mqhayi’s historical articles for translation. We made steady progress until, yet again, Nyamende felt he could not continue at a proper pace, although he offered to contribute occasionally. The project needed urgent propping up. I managed to secure the collaboration of Nosisi Mpolweni and Koliswa Moropa, both academics, and Luvo Mabinza, a poet, with each of whom I worked independently, securing from them literal translations, which I then revised. I presumed to act in this way, first, to achieve a more fluent and stylish translation and, second, to check the translations I received against the Xhosa-English dictionary published by Albert Kropf in 1899 and revised by Robert Godfrey in 1915, which reflected the more rural vocabulary closer to Mqhayi’s language in time and frequently offered me a range of meanings or interpretations of obscure words or idioms.
The completed volume was published as edited and translated by myself with the assistance of the four collaborators, an agreed precondition of their involvement, as was their share of the royalties. However, after publication, the three academics balked, demanding a contractual agreement with the publisher, Wits University Press, failing which they refused to accept any royalties at all. The publisher refused to issue such contracts; Mabinza subsequently received royalties, Nyamende, Moroka and Mpolweni, by their own choice, did not. The unfortunate wrangling, with colleagues as well as with Wits University Press, left a bad taste in my mouth, which was a great pity: the volume, published in 2009, with an elegant Preface by the eminent historian Jeff Peires, constituted, I believe, a substantial contribution to Xhosa literature as well as to Xhosa history. Presenting sixty-five historical and biographical essays contributed to newspapers between 1902 and 1944, S.E.K. Mqhayi’s Abantu besizwe, ‘People of the nation’, was the first new collection of Mqhayi’s writing to be published in over 60 years.
In 1998 a collection of fourteen of my articles published between 1974 and 1996 appeared under the title Xhosa Poets and Poetry. The publisher, David Philip, was soon taken over by New African Books, and the volume, poorly distributed, soon went out of print. In negotiating the transfer of rights in the publication with New African Books, I met Louis Gaigher, who expressed the opinion that the volume merited republication. It seemed fortuitous that, when I approached the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press to open negotiations about a series of editions and translations of Xhosa texts in my Collection, Gaigher held an editorial position at the Press. Negotiations proceeded well: the Press agreed to launch a new series entitled Publications of The Opland Collection of Xhosa Literature, with Pamela Maseko and myself as General Editors; the possibility of including a second edition of Xhosa Poets and Poetry was accepted. The series would present diplomatic editions of the Xhosa texts with facing English translations to respect the intentions of the authors as far as possible: too many early texts have been presented in the standardized orthography introduced in 1955, thereby eliding significant linguistic information, and far too many early texts have been bowdlerized in republication, subjected to cavalier editorial practices.
For the first volume in the new series, I chose the work of William Wellington Gqoba (1840–1888), an author known largely from his liberal representation in Rubusana’s anthology, but whose full output was unrecognized: Isizwe esinembali: Xhosa Histories and Poetry, published in 2015, assembled all of Gqoba’s clearly identifiable writings: letters, anecdotes, expositions of proverbs, histories and poetry. Wandile Kuse and I commenced work on the translations and when, for personal reasons, he could no longer continue, Pamela Maseko and I completed the task. The initial translations were submitted to me for revision, and my revised versions were in turn submitted to Kuse and Maseko for approval. I then added the annotations and bibliography, wrote an Introduction, submitted the manuscript and dealt with all queries from the press. Proofs were submitted to both Kuse and Maseko for approval. This division of labour has been followed throughout the series. All that has changed, perhaps, is the evolution of my style in revision: apart from checking the initial translations against Kropf-Godfrey’s definitions and seeking a more fluent reading, my revisions increasingly strove for a more compact diction, for a rhythm and cadence more closely reflecting the oral declamations of the imbongi’s poetry, with a penchant for alliteration that echoed the euphonic concords of Xhosa syntax. Proverbial and idiomatic expressions were kept as close to the original as possible to preserve the metaphors rather than glossing them.
Gqoba, trained at Lovedale as a wagon-maker, assumed responsibility as editor of the Lovedale Mission’s newspaper Isigidimi sama-Xosa in November 1884 and presided over an efflorescence of Xhosa literature in its pages, mostly written by Gqoba himself. He wrote pious poems and poems expressing condolence on the passing of associates; he displayed a keen interest in folklore and contributed extended historical narratives as well as amusing stories. His major achievements, however, are probably his two poems depicting a debate on Western education and a discussion between a Christian and a non-Christian, subversive in representing both sides of the argument, sometimes forcefully so, as in this extract from one of the speeches:
Mz’ wakowetu okunene Really, my fellow countrymen,
Ngamadoda atetile one by one the men have spoken,
Abebonga amagwangqa. singing praises of the whites.
Kanti noko lon’ ike̒te They maintain discrimination
Noko sebe likanyele is a figment of our fancy,
Liko̒ lona okunene but it really does affect us
Kwinto zonke ngokumhlope. palpably in every aspect.
Fan’selana sekupina Everywhere that people get to
Umnt’ omnyama esebenza, you can find a black man working.
Eko̒lisa, sele qwela, Often, by the end of day,
Won’umvuzo uyintshenu, his pay amounts to nothing,
Okunene kut’we ku̒nu. it’s been completely docked.
Oligwangqa uyinkosi As for the white man, he’s the boss
Nakuw’ pina umsebenzi, wherever people are employed.
Fan’selana esidenge He could be the biggest dummy,
Abantsundu bemqwelile, even though blacks are his senior,
Nange ngqondo bemdlulile, even though their brains surpass his,
Kupelile wozuziswa he alone will be rewarded,
Umuvuzo owangala earning piles and piles of pay
Kwanegunya lokupa̒ta and authority and power
Abantsundu, abamnyama. over those with dark skins, black folk.
(Isizwe esinembali 162–63)
Gqoba’s two debate poems, published for the first time in full translation in this initial volume in the series, were, on their appearance, the longest poems written in Xhosa.
What is now one of the longest poems written in Xhosa was included in the second volume in the series, in which I honoured in part my obligation to David Manisi. As Director of the Institute of Social and Economic Research at Rhodes University, I issued seven volumes in a series of ISER Xhosa Texts, designed to bring into print works unlikely to attract the attention of commercial publishers. Most of the Xhosa literature published under apartheid was designed as required reading in schools or universities, to ensure profitable sales, or reprinted (often bowdlerized) earlier classics by authors such as Mqhayi, Jordan, and G.B. Sinxo. The ISER Xhosa Texts were selected on merit alone and enabled the authors to bypass the stranglehold on publication. Three of the volumes were written by D.L.P. Yali-Manisi, the third of which, Imfazwe kaMlanjeni, was an epic poem on Mlanjeni’s War, a brutal conflict fought by the Xhosa people against colonial forces between 1850 and 1853.
Xhosa izibongo, like praise poetry elsewhere in Africa, is a genre distinct from narrative, but Manisi, unlike most iimbongi, displayed a flair for narrative poetry, whether improvised in performance or written for publication. Even Mqhayi, the greatest of all iimbongi, failed to express himself poetically in explicit narrative. Manisi was thus, to my knowledge, the only practising imbongi to produce narrative poetry by choice, and this unusual circumstance seemed to justify a volume devoted to his poetic narratives. Iimbali zamanyange: Historical Poems, the second volume in the series, edited and translated by myself and Pamela Maseko, with a Foreword by Peter Mtuze, contained eight of David Manisi’s narrative poems, oral and written, including his rousing frontier war epic Imfazwe kaMlanjeni, in which, following his account of hostilities, Manisi turns to reflection and, in the manner of the imbongi, exhortation:
Iinto zalo mhlaba ngamajingiqhiwu,
Life on earth has its ups and downs,
Zaye zixaka kambe nabazaziyo.
perplexing even the sages.
Namhl’ asisebantu siziimbacu,
Today we’re not a people, we’re drifters,
Imbandezelo nenzim’ isambethe;
swathed in oppression and hardship;
Lingaphum’ iKhwezi siqeshiwe,
we’re at work before the morning star rises,
Saye siya kubuya ngocolothi;
we return in the evening twilight;
Sinyathel’ izindlu zeentakazana,
we tread on the nests of little birds
Sityumze naloo mantshontshwana –
and so doing crush the fledglings,
Asiboni sithwabaz’ emnyameni …
sightless, we fumble about in the dark …
Iinzima zisibandezele,
we’re weighed down by our afflictions,
Iintlungu zisongamele.
overwhelmed by manifold torments.
Azi xa kunje nje nje ngoku
Now the state of affairs is unbearable,
Kothi kuphi kube kuyini na?
how long shall we suffer like this?
Yini na le bantwana bohlanga!
O, you children of my nation!
Yini na cwamb’ oluhle logaga!
O, you beautiful cream of the soil!
Zinzwana neenzwakazi zomthonyama!
This land’s lovely men and women!
Bantwana bakaMthetho kaMthetho!
Children of the Law of Laws!
Ibuyambo bantwana bakokwethu,
Challenge your thinking, compatriots,
Masiwalahl’ onke la manyingilili,
let’s scrap all these fads and fashions,
Siphuthum’ ukulunga nokulungisa,
and retrieve our worth and justice,
Siphuthum’ ukundila nokundileka,
and retrieve our grace and gravity,
Siphuthum’ isidima nokuzakha,
and retrieve our honour and dignity,
Njengoko kwakunjalo koobawo bethu.
as it was in the days of our fathers.
(Iimbali zamanyange 175, 181)
Mqhayi can be established as the author of the first Xhosa novel, now lost; John Solilo can be established as the author of the first volume of original poetry. Copies of Solilo’s pioneering collection Izala are now lost, but, by extreme good fortune, while I was working with Peter Mtuze on Solilo’s poetry, Mtuze discovered that, before copies of the book disappeared, Godfrey Vulindlela Mona had made a photocopy, which he kindly passed on to us. The third volume of the series, John Solilo’s Umoya wembongi: Collected Poems (19221935), with a Foreword by Ncedile Saule, contained the sixty-four poems in Izala and twenty-eight more, ninety-three poems in all by a poet almost entirely overlooked by historians of Xhosa literature. One of Solilo’s poems in the volume is a tribute to his contemporary S.E.K. Mqhayi, and it was to Mqhayi that we next turned for the fourth volume in the series.
Characteristically, as an imbongi Mqhayi produced poems, both oral and written, on occasions of significance. Peter Mtuze and I assembled sixty poems by Mqhayi, constituting a chronicle of the nation, that were published, with a Foreword by Barney Pityana, Mqhayi’s grandson, as Iziganeko zesizwe: Occasional Poems (19001943). As I noted in the blurb for the back cover,
Wars feature prominently in these occasional poems – the Boer War, the First World War, the invasion of Abyssinia, the Second World War – as do political deputations to England, visits from British princes and the death of British kings, the appearance of Halley’s Comet and meetings with Ministers of State. Running through the collection is Mqhayi’s proud and fierce determination to maintain an identity rooted in custom and history in the face of territorial dispossession, the loss of title deeds and the vote, and the steady erosion of human rights.
Any extension of Mqhayi’s canon is significant. This volume allowed me to exemplify further my conviction that no proper assessment of Mqhayi’s unrivalled contribution to Xhosa literature can be undertaken until all his published work is restored to the public domain.
The time had come, I felt, to set the authors in the series in context, and to respond to the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press’s interest in producing a second edition of Xhosa Poets and Poetry. Volume 5, therefore, with a Foreword by Russell Kaschula, was devoted to a second edition ‘updated and revised’, and Volume 6, Xhosa Literature: Spoken and Printed Words, with a Foreword by Peter Mtuze, contained fourteen of my articles and unpublished conference papers. That done, I returned to a project begun some forty years previously that assembled Robert Godfrey’s contributions to The Blythswood Review, the organ of a mission college: Volume 7 in the series, published as Lexicography: Notes on Xhosa Lore and Language (19091934), contained Godfrey’s informal articles on folklore (children’s games, riddles, proverbs, taboos) and the Xhosa language (flora and fauna, the year, place names, John Bennie, grammar). The bulk of each section was made up of Godfrey’s exploratory notes on bird names and bird-lore that contributed to his book Bird-lore of the Eastern Cape Province and an invaluable assembly of additional entries for his proposed third edition of Kropf’s dictionary, a project that failed to come to fruition.
Peter Mtuze and I once again collaborated, happily, to produce our third volume for the series, Iimbali zamandulo: Stories of the Past (18381910), with a Foreword by Jeff Peires. Nothing in the course of developing this series has offered me greater pleasure than my collaboration with Mtuze, especially during face-to-face sessions barnstorming over the meaning of a word or the implication of a phrase in a joint search for the most apt translation. The volume consisted of forty-four historical testimonies by Xhosa writers providing ‘fresh insights into the history of the Xhosa-speaking peoples, providing their own perspectives on their own past’, as my blurb put it. It was intended as a corrective to colonial histories that talked down to the Xhosa experience. Some of the texts had been cited by historians, but none of the Xhosa texts, many of them contributed to newspapers and thus intended for a Xhosa-speaking audience, had been definitively translated, let alone assembled.
The most recent contribution to the series to date is the one that perhaps I am most proud of. Jonas Ntsiko (1850–1918) is a name only occasionally mentioned, most frequently through a misrepresentation of A.C. Jordan’s translation of a brief extract from one of his poems. Very little was known about him; celebrated in his day, none of his work was in print: ‘Jonas Ntsiko is a ghostly presence, defined by his absence, an ancestral shade invoked by no one’ (Hadi waseluhlangeni xxv). Educated at an Anglican school in Grahamstown, he spent three years studying at St Augustine’s mission college in Canterbury; on his return to South Africa in 1871, Ntsiko was ordained as a deacon but never promoted to the priesthood. He spent ten years in church service before his licence was withdrawn, and he retreated, blind, to serve out his days as an interpreter to a rural magistrate. After his return to South Africa, too, he began contributing to Isigidimi sama-Xosa articulate, polemical articles on social and church affairs, many under the pseudonym UHadi waseluhlangeni, the national harp. His contributions ceased abruptly in 1884, at about the time of his dismissal by the church, but resumed after a decade’s silence and continued until two years before his death. Hadi waseluhlangeni: Collected Writings (18731916), with a Foreword by the celebrated novelist and historian Marguerite Poland, includes seventy-two previously unknown items by Ntsiko, as well as two substantial essays on his life and career.
The tenth volume in the series, Mqhayi’s Izibongo zoogxa: Poems on Contemporaries (19021944), edited and translated with Ntombomzi Mazwi, with a Foreword by the historian Andre Odendaal, has been submitted and will soon go into production. A selection of David Manisi’s poems, intended as Volume 11, is in progress.
Whenever, rarely, I field social enquiries about my work, I often have recourse to analogy: it’s like knowing about Victorian English literature but suddenly, miraculously, coming across the unpublished writings of three obscure sisters from rural Haworth and introducing the Brontës to the world, or knowing about Shakespeare’s plays but suddenly coming across his unknown poetry. I recall the distinguished novelist Gcina Mhlophe reading the Xhosa texts at a launch in London of The Nation’s Bounty and thrilling at the restoration of Nontsizi Mgqwetho’s voice. Excitement, of course, was tinged with pride and, in time, gratification at the public recognition of my work: five of the volumes in the series have won South African Literary Awards in the category Literary Translations, and I was accorded the National Order of Ikhamanga. ‘His work exhumes stories of the dead and brings them to life so that the living can continue to learn’, according to the citation. Pride and gratification however, were accompanied by puzzlement at the indifference of professional Xhosa literature scholars, most of whom studied under apartheid, despite the efforts of Pamela Maseko to celebrate the revelation of the hitherto muted voices, a puzzlement moderated by the openness of a younger generation of scholars, who have grown up after the demise of apartheid, who study the writings of Mgqwetho and teach Gqoba’s poetry. And my puzzlement calls to mind a prescient izibongo performed by the imbongi D.L.P. Yali-Manisi on 10 May 1979 in which he referred to me as Umthandi wamaXhos’ engamazi, ‘a lover of Xhosa who doesn’t know him’, continuing by citing the revered prophet Ntsikana: Uhlanganis’ azibel’ imihlamb’ isalana, ‘who gathers and brings squabbling flocks together’, before addressing me directly.
Watheth’ isiXhos’ ungenguy’ umXhosa,
You speak Xhosa though not a Xhosa yourself,
Wawashwankathel’ amaXhos’ uwaxhom’ uwaxoza,
you shape the Xhosa, lift and peel them:
Wod’ ube ngumXhosa na?
would you ever be a Xhosa yourself?
(Opland: Xhosa Poets and Poetry vi).
Auden, W.H. and Paul B. Taylor. Norse Poems. London: Athlone Press, 1981.
Godfrey, Robert. Bird-lore of the Eastern Cape Province. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1941.
Mqhayi, S.E.K. Abantu besizwe: Historical and Biographical Writings 19021944, Jeff Opland (ed. and trans.) Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2009.
Opland, Jeff. The Dassie and the Hunter: A South African Meeting. Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2005.
——— (ed. and trans.) The Nation’s Bounty: The Xhosa Poetry of Nontsizi Mgqwetho. Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2007.
——— Publications of The Opland Collection of Xhosa Literature. Pietetmaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press:
——— Volume 1: Gqoba, William Wellington. Isizwe esinembali: Xhosa Histories and Poems 18731888. Jeff Opland, Wandile Kuse, and Pamela Maseko (eds and trans.), 2015.
——— Volume 2: Yali-Manisi, D.L.P. Iimbali zamanyange: Historical Poems. Jeff Opland and Pamela Maseko (eds and trans.), 2015.
——— Volume 3: Solilo, John. Umoya wembongi: Collected Poems 192435. Jeff Opland and Peter T. Mtuze (eds and trans.), 2016.
——— Volume 4: Mqhayi, S.E.K. Iziganeko zesizwe: Occasional Poems 19001943. Jeff Opland and Peter T. Mtuze (eds and trans.), 2017.
——— Volume 5: Opland, Jeff. Xhosa Poets and Poetry Second Edition, Updated and Revised. 2017.
——— Volume 6: Opland, Jeff. Xhosa Literature: Spoken and Printed Words. 2018.
——— Volume 7: Godfrey, Robert. Lexicography: Notes on Xhosa Lore and Language. Jeff Opland (ed.), 2019.
——— Volume 8: Iimbali zamandulo: Stories of the Past. Jeff Opland and Peter T. Mtuze (eds and trans.), 2019.
——— Volume 9: Ntsiko, Jonas. Hadi waseluhlangeni: Collected Writings 18731916. Jeff Opland and Pamela Maseko (eds and trans.), 2023.
Wauchope, Isaac Williams. Selected Writings 1874-1917. Jeff Opland and Abner Nyamende (eds and trans.) Cape Town: Van Riebeeck Society, 2008.