Imvubu Newsletter

SEK Mqhayi

© Mpondo, M. 2011. Imvubu 22: 5, 6 – 7.

Samuel Edward Krune Mqhayi was born on 1 December 1875 at Gqumashe village on the banks of the Tyhume river. He was given the biblical name Samuel, as he was seen as a gift from God. His schoolmaster, Rev. Makhiwane was an author and took a personal interest in the young Mqhayi. Tradition has it that Mqhayi was an avid listener to fireside tales told of long ago (amabali). He would even relate such stories to his peers with all the humour in the world. He was gifted. He had a good command of the Xhosa language; his writings filled with humour; his praise-singing littered with emotion, morality and spiritual upliftment. He was a special one. He showed a natural talent for oratory from early on. All his promises proved to be true as he later became one of the household names in the history of the whole continent.


Mqhayi extensively wrote both poetry and prose. His topics included abstract ideas such as truth, hope and love. He excelled in traditional poetry and weaved his people’s customs, legends and myths into poems. He made his debut as an author in 1914 at the age of 39 years, with Ityala lamawele. The book went on to become one of the most cited text in Xhosa literature. In the book, Mqhayi examines the role and execution of justice. In his view, justice and law formed the bedrock on which the foundations of social order are laid.

In his book, Don Njadu (1929), Mqhayi exposes disunity and lack of socio-political advancement among blacks. In the book he made his feelings clear that in the same way in which the British and German nations had achieved unity, the Xhosa, Zulus, Sothos and Tswanas should unite to form one big Ntu or nation. It is clear in this text that Mqhayi is one of those writers who could not remain silent in the face of an injustice. He suggested that the erosion of the dignity of a black person by any factor or element will be put to an end by a united black force.

But Mqhayi never advocated that blacks put political and economic power towards the destruction of the white presence among them, but rather for racial co-operation.

Educator and Historian

Mqhayi was highly critical of the education which his countrymen received. A product of missionary education himself, Mqhayi felt that the type of education offered then was inferior to that of the Masters and these “Masters” were only interested in taking land away from its rightful owners. Mqhayi observed:

Ukuhamba behlolela iinkosi zabo ezibahlawulayo ngomhlaba.

Bahamba nalo ilizwi ukuba lihambe libe yinto yokulawula izi Kumkani nesizwe,

yathi imfuno yayinto nje eyenzrlwe ikuba kuviwane ngentetho.

(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).

-translated by MP Qangubi.

Mqhayi also saw some flaws in the way History was taught. He saw History as looking at the past, comparing it with the present and preparing the mind for the future. History was and will never be to gather facts for the sake of it. Mqhayi wanted 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. He read the history of Tshaka, Mlanjeni, and Rev. Tiyo Soga . He saw in these great statesmen , men of real quality whose works and exemplary behaviour as leaders of different nations made them household names. It is because of the work of the above statesmen that African History is so rich with bravery, humour and love. It is as a result of the actions of these great men that African History is legendary.

Mqhayi is one of the greatest praise singers of all times. He will, forever, be remembered as a protest poet who fanned the fires of nationalist resistance. He roused interest as well as emotions where ever he performed. He was never afraid of speaking his mind. Though he might have appeared to be against the White nations who he saw as land grabbers, he was for peaceful co-existence where there would be no domination by any group. Former president, Dr. Nelson Mandela once recalled his first encounter with Mqhayi while at school as a truly inspirational moment:

“…the sight of a black man in tribal dress coming through that door was electrifying. It is hard to explain the impact it had on us. It seemed to turn the universe upside down. …. He raised his assegai into the air for emphasis, and accidentally hit the curtain above him … He faced us, and newly energized, exclaimed that the incident- the assegai striking the wire – symbolized the clash between the culture of Africa and that of Europe. His voice rose and he said: The assegai stands for what is glorious and true in African history; it is a symbol of the African as warrior and the African as artist. “This metal wire”, he said, pointing above, “is an example of Western manufacturing, which is skilful but cold, clever and soulless. … What I am talking about is the brutal clash between what is indigenous and good, and what is foreign and bad. We cannot allow these foreigners who do not care for our culture to take over our nation. I predict that one day, the forces of African society will achieve a momentous victory over the interloper. For too long we have succumbed to the false gods of the white man. But we shall emerge and cast off these foreign notions”.

How prophetic Mqhayi was in his predictions. The rest is history as most Blacks started engaging in resistance politics which resulted in detention, expulsion from learning institutions, and death in detention. Now all South Africans, Black and White, live side by side building a prosperous future for generations to come.

S. E. K. Mqhayi should be remembered for his inspirational poetry, verse and talks. He was a true patriot and may his soul at ntab’ozuko, just outside Berlin, rest in peace.


1) Manton Hirst, S.E.K. Mqhayi: ‘Xhosa Poet Laureate’ in Imvubu Vol. 16 No. 2, King William’s Town, 2004.

2) Ndletyana, M. African Intellectuals in the 19 th and early 20th Century South Africa. Cape Town, 2008.

3) Patricia E. Scott, Samuel Edward Krune Mqhayi 1875-1945- A bibliographic survey, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, 1976.