Known more commonly as S.E.K. Mqhayi, Samuel Edward Krune Loliwe Ngxekengxeke Mqhayi died July 29, 1945. Mqhayi was a Xhosa dramatist, essayist, critic, novelist, historian, biographer, translator and poet whose works are regarded as instrumental in standardising the grammar of isiXhosa and preserving the language in the 20th century. Xhosa is an ethnic group of people of Southern Africa mainly found in the Eastern and Western Cape, South Africa.
Among those who revered Mqhayi’s poetry was Nelson Mandela, who described him as the “poet laureate of the African people.” Mandela was proud that he had not only seen twice in person, but had on one occasion, heard Mqhayi recite his poetry.
Mqhayi’s addition of seven stanzas to “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika”, which was originally written by Enoch Sontonga in 1927, was adopted by several African states as their national anthem including South Africa, Namibia and Zambia.
In reading translations of some of Mqhayi’s work, I found “The Sinking of Mendi” a 1943 poem about the sinking of the SS Mendi during World War I after a collision which resulted in the deaths of 646 men. The dead were predominantly black South African troops from the 5th Battalion of the South African Native Labour Corps on their way to serve in France. Most had never seen the sea before this voyage, and very few could swim.
According to Alan Straton’s article ‘The Cold Sea: Mendi Poems’, “S.E.K Mqhayi who was the Imbongi ye Sizwe (National Bard) of the Xhosa people at the time of the First World War felt deeply about the disaster as he had played a formative role in the recruitment campaign through a poem that he wrote calling men to arms titled, ‘The Black Army’.” Mqhayi intended to keep the “memory of this event alive in the oral narrative of the Xhosa communities in the Eastern Cape during the Apartheid years when black historical events were written out of the history books.”
Oral histories passed down from survivors and witnesses tell that the men trapped aboard the ship as it listed and sank into the fog covered sea were calmed by the words of Isaac Williams Wauchope, an interpreter and former minister, who called out to them:
“Be quiet and calm, my countrymen. What is happening now is what you came to do…you are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers…Swazis, Pondos, Basotho…so let us die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war-cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies.”
The captain of the boat that collided with the Mendi, which sailed away rather than offer aid to survivors, was later found to have been operating recklessly in the thick fog. As he was responsible for the deaths of 646 men, his license was revoked for one year.
Mqhayi also wrote to lament the westernization of Africa as he lived through the culmination and collapse of European colonization of the continent.
“Human movement in search of land grabbing land from chiefs.
Using the word of God as a tool
and instrument to rule kings and nations.
An education so inferior became an institution to prepare slaves
for new masters.”
He saw that the education the missionary schools provided was meant to erase his people’s history and prepare them only to be subjugated and enslaved by ignorance. He understood the importance of his cultural history and advocated for it though his poetry and prose.
Mqhayi ultimately hoped to inspire his people to future greatness by reminding them of all they have achieved in their cultural history, striving for “students of History to have a critical eye on the events that happened thousands of years ago, have a broader perspective of events around him and get armed for what is to happen tomorrow.”
For more on S.E.K. Mqhayi and the Sinking of the Mendi check out the links below.