We are children of a rich heritage .

by Thabo Mbeki

September 28, 2007.

We are about to conclude our Heritage Month. We put this Month on the national calendar as an important part of what we have to do as a people to fashion our national identity, to formulate an image of ourselves, refusing to be defined by others. We have to do this in the context of our unqualified respect for the fact of our unity in diversity, and our common resolve to achieve national reconciliation, national and social cohesion.

As an important part of this, each of our language/cultural groups should make an effort not only to understand itself, its language, culture and customs, but also the languages, cultures and customs of the other compatriot formations, so that our shared understanding of one another serves as the cement we need to bond our new nation.

Quite correctly, many in our country have expressed concern about the place of the African languages in our society. This relates to such important matters as mother-tongue instruction in our schools, the study of African languages at the school and university levels, publication of books and magazines in the African languages, the further development of these languages for use as media of instruction at higher levels of education, multi-lingualism, the use of indigenous languages in our state institutions, in the public discourse and public communication, and so on.

There is no doubt that as part of the process of our redefinition of ourselves, we must do everything possible to spread knowledge of literature and other material written or recorded in the African languages since this material began to be published in our country from the beginning of the 19th century.

Among other things, this would expose all of us to important lessons about how the traditional value system of ubuntu, and the sense of identity and self-pride among the oppressed, responded to colonial and apartheid domination through the period from at least the 18th to the present century.

It is critically important that we open our ears and our minds to what the victims of this domination, the inheritors of the value system of ubuntu, said with regard to all these matters, in their own languages.


In this context, during Heritage Month I had the privilege to read two important books written by two of our leading scholars of isiXhosa. One of these books is entitled “IzwiLabantu”, written by Profs Jeff Opland and P.T. Mtuze. (Oxford University Press, Cape Town: 1994). The other, written by Prof Opland, is entitled “Xhosa Poets and Poetry”. (David Philip Publishers, Cape Town: 1998).

It may be that on another day we will have the opportunity to comment on “the spirit of the words” contained in the rich poetry and prose reproduced in these and other books.

I have borrowed the phrase, “the spirit of the words/umoya wamagama”, from the doctoral thesis of an outstanding African from the Diaspora, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former President of Haiti, a scholar, our honoured guest.

In his University of South Africa doctoral thesis, entitled “Umoya Wamagama (the Spirit of the Words)”, Dr Aristide, Doctor of Literature and Philosophy, says: “This thesis…endeavours to establish the nature of the relationship between isiZulu and Haitian Kreyòl. As a member of the Nguni group, isiZulu is spoken by Africans. On the other side, Kreyòl is spoken by African descendants of Haiti, the world’s first Black independent Republic…

“Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. These words crystallise the essence of Ubuntu. Its psychological and theological study transcends the literal language. In that regard “UmoyaWamagama” refers to both literal and figurative linguistic expressions. The emphasis however is more on the words which connote additional layers of meaning rather than those which simply denote their meanings.”

Fully to understand and internalise our heritage, we must, as we study our literature written in the African languages, dig deep and follow the lead given by Dr Jean-Bertrand Aristide, to appreciate the “additional layers of meaning (of words, phrases and expressions), rather than (merely) those which simply denote their meanings”.

For instance, towards the end of this Letter, you will find words by S.E.K. Mqhayi, which say: “Hambani, mathol’ eemaz’ ezimabele made.” We translated these as: “And so forward, offspring of the cow of the long udder.”

In this regard, Dr Aristide challenges us to answer many questions, such as – what does the long udder signify? what does it have to do with inspiring soldiers who risk death as they go to war? what links birth to death? is it the case that mothers give birth to sons to provide the nation with armed combatants?

The meaning of the words may seem obvious. But what does the elegance of the proverb hide! What is it in the words, which evokes a sense of wonder, such that language becomes a mirror of the soul! How then do we access the additional layers of meaning in the words we speak, so that we bathe, fully, in the unlimited glory of our heritage!

Tiyo Soga was the first African in the then Cape Province fully to qualify as a trained Christian priest. Accordingly, he falls among the very first of the African intelligentsia that emerged from the schools built for the African youth by the European missionaries.

In August 1862, he published a journal called “Indaba” (News). Unfortunately, “Indaba” could not last long and ceased publication in February 1865. In the first edition, Rev Tiyo Soga spoke about the critical importance of having an African newspaper.

He saw such a newspaper not only as a truthful reporter of relevant news to the African oppressed, but also as a vital weapon in the struggle to reassert the identity and the pride of the African people. His words appear in “Izwi…” as follows: (NB: a free translation into English follows immediately after this Xhosa text):

“Thina maXhosa siluhlanga oluthanda kunene, ukuncokola, nokuncokolelana. Ukuhlala kakuhle emhlabeni thina kukuva iindaba. Uthi akufika emzini umfo onazo – umfo oncokolayo, aphekelwe ngende imbiza; kube kuthiwa ke maze adle ahluthe, buthi ubumnandi besisu boyokuvula intliziyo – athi onke amakhwiniba abengaphakathi afe. Zothi ke xa kunjalo ukuya kuphuma kweendaba emlonyeni zenze intambo ibe nye…Wothi akugqiba badumzele bonke, bavume bathakazele. Kube mnandi…Ndithi ke kumnandi namhla, kuba lisizanje elo phepha lakho sizelwa lincoko. Aye phi na ke awakowethu! Wuhlabe ube banzi, alingunge elo ncoko – uthi nantso ke into yenu, mathanda-zindaba.

“Enye indawo ekuyole ngayo, ziza kungena ekhaya nje namhla iindaba, yeyokuba, sithi kwangokuba singamathanda-zindaba aseke amaxokana onke aphelele phezu kwethu. Siginyiswa iintwana zonke ‘ngamahamba-nandaba.’ Umzi ke wonakele ngale ndawo. Singabantu abasileyo. La akowethu, ndikuxelele mfondini weendaba, ngamabandla axoka agqibele…Sizelwa ziindaba nje ke namhla sizelwa yinene…

“Ndithi ke hayi kambe namhla, kuba kwelo phepha leendaba ngathi ndibona isitya esihle sokulondoloza iimbali, neendaba namavo, asekhaya. Izenzo zohlanga zingaphezu kweenkomo, nemali, nokudla…Iingwevu zakowethu – nezaseMbo – mazizityande izisu; ihlanzelwe phandle yonke into. Ithi into eyayiyintsomi ivele – ithi into eyayilibali, nelivo lakudala, ivele – ithi into eyakha yabonwa, yaviwa, yenziwa, ilisiko lohlanga, iphume iye kweso sitya sasekhaya namhla – iye kubekwa khona.

“Besingenazizwe na kudala? Iphi na imbali yazo – yamasiko azo amabi, namahle? BesingenaNkosi na kudala? Bekungekho zidumileyo na? Amavo ezo nkosi zohlanga aphi na? Alele emangcwabeni ndawonye nazo na?…Bekungekho zimbongi na kudala? Bezibonga oobani na? Aphi na loo magama? Kudala bekungathakathwa na? Loo magqwirha amagama awo ibingoobani na? Akukho kuthiwa ambwelwa na; Akukho banokwazi izinto ezinjalo na ezibe zingamasiko esizwe? Bekungaliwa madabi na?…Bebengoobani na abafo abakhaliphileyo? Ziphi na izindwe ezibe zithwalwa yimpi yakomkhulu? Iphi na imbali yamaGhora abethwala eso sivatho sihle kunene? Bekungazingelwa na kudala? Zabe zitheni na izifuba zeempofu nezeenyathi le nto bezidliwa Komkhulu kodwa? Baye phi na abantu bavuse la mavo angaka ohlanga?…Mayivuke imishologu yohlanga lwamaXhosa nolwamaMfengu, ize kusishiya nelifa elikhulu lamavo. Loo mavo ke makaze kubekwa kwesi sitya seendaba zasekhaya.”       

“We the Xhosa people love to converse with other human beings. To live well means to be up to date with the news. When a good conversationalist and visitor who knows new news arrives at any home, he/she is fed very well. Satisfied with the meal, the visitor will communicate the news with great joy. When he/she is done with the story-telling, all will extend their thanks, feeling very happy and contented…

“Today is a happy day because with the birth of this newspaper, we have acquired a good conversationalist. Here is your own product, you who love news. 

“Because we are lovers of news, we easily fall victim to hardened liars and rumour-mongers. This has done much damage to the nation. The birth of our newspaper today means that now we will have access to the truth, rather than lies.

“I see this newspaper as a secure container that will preserve our history, our stories, our wisdom. The deeds of the nation are worth more than our cattle herds, money and even food. Let the elderly pour their knowledge into this container. Let all our stories, folk and fairy tales, traditional views, and everything that was ever seen, heard, done, and all customs, let them be reported and kept in the national container.

“Did we not form nations in the past? Did we not have our traditional leaders? What has happened to the wisdom of these leaders? Did we not have poets? Where is their poetry? Was there no witchcraft in the past? Did we not fight wars? Who were the heroes? Where is the distinctive regalia of the royal regiment?

“Did we not hunt? Why was the meat of the chest of the rhino and the buffalo reserved for royalty? Where are the people to teach us our history, our knowledge and our wisdom? Let even the spirit of the departed return to bless us with the great gift of our heritage, which we must preserve!”

This text was written 145 years ago. Yet it is as relevant today as it was then. Its relevance derives exactly from the fact that to guarantee its domination, colonialism and apartheid had sought to wipe out the history, the customs, the self-worth, the identity and dignity of the African oppressed. Tiyo Soga, and John Dube, Pixley Seme, Albert Luthuli, and Steve Biko after them, knew that for the Africans to liberate themselves, they had to regain possession of their history, their value system, their customs, their heroes and heroines, their (oral) literature.

Undoubtedly, there are more African editors in various news organisations in our country today than there were in 1862. These will have to answer for themselves the immensely important question whether they share the liberating patriotism that Tiyo Soga espoused, and how this manifests itself in their work.

What is without question is that the objective that Tiyo Soga sought, for the formerly colonised fully to recover their identity and self-worth, has as yet not been fully realised.


In “Xhosa Poets…”, Prof Opland reports on a conference held in Durban in 1985 on “Oral Tradition and Literacy: Changing Visions of the World”, one of whose organisers was one Edgard Sienaert. One of our poets, David Yali-Manisi of abaThembu, attended the conference and did some recitations in isiXhosa. Sienaert openly questioned the poet’s ability to compose poetry “on his feet”.

Incensed, the poet, David Yali-Manisi, rose and said: (the English translation follows immediately after):

Xa kulapho ke
Nkunz’ edl’ eziny’ iinkunzi dla libhavuma
Wathetha ngentetho yakwaXhosa nakwaZulu
Uyamaz’ uZulu no Xhosa?
Uvela phi na, kub’ ezakowenu ziyabasind’ abakokwenu
Wayeken’ amaXhosa noZulu
Ahlale ngesiNguni sawo
Kuba lo mhlab’ uxakekile
Sasigqibele sibantu
Kodwa hay’ ishwangusha lethu
Lokufika kooyihl’ amadun’ asentshonalanga
Basidlavula besibhulusha
Kub’ amaNges’ asigantsinga
Ay’ amaBhulw’ esiqunyuva
Ay’ amaFulan’ esifulathela
Namhlanje sijanyelwe ngamaJamani.

So then,
Bull that bellows as it devours other bulls
You speak of the idiom of the Xhosa and the Zulu
What do you know of the Zulu and Xhosa people?
Who do you think you are, because your nation cannot solve its own problems
Let the Xhosa and the Zulu be
Free to honour their Nguni culture
Because the land is in turmoil
From time immemorial we have been part of the human race
But mark our great misfortune
When your fathers arrived, heroes to the West
They tore us apart and thrashed us
The English ground us underfoot
The Boers blunted our horns,
The French turned their backs on us
Today the Germans watch us with a baleful eye.

The poet, David Yali-Manisi, echoed Tiyo Soga’s dream that his people should define themselves, rebelling against the image of themselves created by the Other, who is their oppressor. He cried out – we are who we are, and, through struggle, we shall be what we want to be!


“Izwi…” reports that in its December 1850 edition, the newspaper, “Isithunywa senyanga”, published a letter by one Mary Ann, an African woman who had been baptised by the Rev John Brownlee in 1823. Having understood that colonialism would destroy traditional African society, May Ann argued that the Africans must reject all notions of racial superiority and inferiority, and strive to build an egalitarian, non-racial society.

Given a “Christian” name to deprive her of her identity, and turn her into a pliable and dehumanised object subservient to colonial domination, like Saartjie Baartmann, Mary Ann was gifted with a prescience far ahead of its time.

She wrote: (a free English translation follows immediately after): “Ubumhlophe, nobumnyama, nobuntsundu asi nto yanto. Asililo ibala elibanga ukuba izizwe zahluke. Into ebanga ukuba izizwe zahluke yingqitano yobulumko, nesihalo esihle, siti esinye isizwe sibe nobulumko obukulu, nesihlalo saso sibe sihle, nezivato zaso…Kokupina okukuhle kwawenu amehlo; nokokuba umntu abe nendlu entle, netafile, nezitulo, nezivato ezimfaneleyo?…Nisiti nje anilithandi elogama lokuba ngu-Kafire (nam andilitandi), lahlani ke obubu-Kafire nitukwa ngabo; nize namkele ubulumko bama-Ngesi…nokufunda kwabo…nendawana zonke ezibonwayo okokuba zilungile, nokokuba zintle emehlweni.”

“The fact that one is white, or black, or brown, amounts to nothing. It is not skin colour that distinguishes nations. What distinguishes nations is the difference in knowledge, wisdom and maturity, and whether they live well, in peace…You, my people, say you hate being called Kaffirs, as I do. Let us therefore advance out of the conditions of life that are cited to denigrate us. Let us have decent and well furnished houses, adequate clothing and food, proper education and access to all the knowledge that the English have.”


However, those who came before us also warned that the world of which Mary Ann dreamt in 1850 would be preceded by a long period of painful colonial domination. “Izwi…” reports that in the April 1883 edition of the newspaper “Isigidimi samaXhosa”, Jonas Ntsiko, “uHadi waseluhlangeni” of Umtata, who foresaw the need to “bury the demon of tribalism” in the face of a common enemy, wrote:

Vukani bantwana
Bentab’ eBosiko,
Seyikhal’ ingcuka
Ingcuk’ emhlophe,
Ibawel’ amathambo
Mathambo kaMshweshwe
Mshweshwe onobuthongo
Phezul’ entabeni.
Siyarhol’ isisu
Ngamathamb’ enkosi,
Ubomv’ umlomo
Kuxhaph’ uSandile…
Yaginy’ okaMpande
Ozitho zigoso;
Yamkhuph’ esahleli:…
Zentab’ eBosiko.

Arise offspring
Of Thaba Bosiu,
The wolf is on the prowl
The white wolf
Hungry for the bones
The bones of Moshoeshoe
Moshoeshoe who sleeps on the mountain.
The stomach is excited
By the bones of the king,
The mouth drips red blood
From devouring Sandile…
It swallowed Mpande
With his bowed legs;
And removed him from his throne:…
Arise you tame animals
Of Thaba Bosiu.


The now little known poet, Nontsizi Mgqwetho, a loyal follower and supporter of the legendary Charlotte Maxeke, was perhaps the most prolific woman Xhosa poet of the 20th century. We must thank Prof Jeff Opland for the work he did to bring out the book, “The Nation’s Bounty: the Xhosa Poetry of NontsiziMgqwetho”. (Wits University Press, 2007).

In 1920, Mgqwetho published a poem in the newspaper, “Umteteli wa Bantu”, which was a scathing polemic against the editor of the ANC newspaper, “Abantu-Batho”, L.T. Mvabaza, who, evidently, had accused “Umteteli…” of dividing the African people. In rage, she spoke of responsible leadership, which should not use the masses of the people as sacrificial lambs.
Mgqwetho wrote: (the English translation follows immediately after):

Kudala! Mvabaza ndakubona
Uyimazi elubisi luncinana

Umteteli wa Bantu
Kudala akubonayo
Uyimvaba engenawo namanzi
Eyode izale onojubalalana.

Abantu bayaphela
Kukufunzwa eweni
Kuba abanamnyangi
Obabhulel’ imithi…

Iminyanya yakowethu
Ayibambani neyexelegu
Ndandithetha ukuthi ni
Xa ndandisitsho?

WenaMvabaza uluyenge-yenge
Olweza luphethwe ngesikotile
Lwafika eRhawutini
Lwabona soluyinkokeli…

Sifunze kakubi!
Sifuna izibuko
Abantu bayaphela
Kukufunzwa eweni.

Hawulele! Hule!
Funz’ eweni baseJeppe
Abamemeza ingqina
Kodwa bengayiphumi…

Yatshona ! IAfrika
Ngoofunz’ eweni
Utsho obonga engqungqa
Engcwabeni likayise

Mvabaza, I have long had my eye on you,
Cow yielding dribbles of milk
That barely trickle
Into the milk sack…

Umteteli wa Bantu
Long saw through you:
You are a sack without water
Left to breed tadpoles.

Our people are being sacrificed
Incited by agents provocateurs,
Lacking the wise people who know,
To show them the right way…

The ancestors who guide me
Will have nothing to do with those of a bungler
What then did I mean,
When I said what I said?

Mvabaza, you are a shifty opportunist
Carried along on a plate
When you arrived in Johannesburg
You suddenly became a leader…

We have made a bad start!
We seek a ford to cross over
We are suffering high casualties
Because of reckless rabble-rousers.

Aha! I told you!
Agents provocateurs of Jeppe
Who command us to charge
While they stay in the trench…

Africa is perishing
Because of reckless leaders
So says the poet who performs traditional rites
At the grave of her father.
I have spoken.

Tiyo Soga, David Yali-Manisi, Mary Ann, Jonas Ntsiko, Nontsizi Mgqwetho, and many others, are part of a rich national heritage we must bring to light as we do what we have to do to give birth to a nation.


When he said his farewell to the African volunteers who served in France during World War I, some of whom perished when the SS Mendi sank, S.E.K. Mqhayi said: (the English translation follows immediately after):

Hambani ke, bafondini, niy’ eFransi!
Nikhumbul’ indlala eniyishiy’ emakhaya.
Izihendo zOngendawo ze nizoyise,
Kuba nilapho nje namhla, nibingiwe;
Sinenz’ idini lesizwe sikaNtu.
Hambani, mathol’ eemaz’ ezimabele made;
Hambani, mathol’ oonyonga-nde kukudlelana
Hambani, kuba le nto thina sesiyibonile.
UThixo wakowethu seleyijikele ngaphambili.
Hambani ngemilenz’ engenakhinkqi;
Hambani ngeentliziyo ezingenadyudyu;
Ngomzimb’ okhaphu-khaphu, ngomzimb’ ongenantaka,
Nithi gxanya, gxanya, gxanya!
Nithi ngxi-ngxi, ngxi-ngxi!
Nithi ngxi-ngxi-ngxi-ngxilili!

And so leave our shores, my peers, for France!
Remind yourselves of the poverty you leave behind.
Defeat the temptations of the rootless Satan,
Because you are where you are today as our offering,
You go as the sacred sacrifice of the African nation.
And so forward, offspring of the cow of the long udder;
Forward, calves of teats lengthened by sharing
Advance, because the times decreed that this had to be.
The God of our forefathers has gone ahead of you.
March on, your legs free of cramps;
Move on, your hearts free of the fear of cowards;
With a light step, and bodies drilled for brave deeds,
Advance! Advance! Advance!
Left, right, left, right!
Left, left, left, halt!

More than 90 years ago, the poet laureate, S.E.K. Mqhayi, commanded that those who had the responsibility to fight for peace and freedom had to do so with hearts free of cowardice, ready to make the supreme sacrifice for the poor of our land and the assertion of the dignity of the African people, as true products of the African mother who had freely given her milk even to the motherless calf. This, surely, must be part of the heritage on which we raise our new nation that is striving to be born.

**This article first appeared as part of the ANC online journal, ANCToday’s “Letter from the President”.

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