Our Story

A series collects and retells the story of the ancestors of all South Africans.

Ancestral Voices

A recently discovered collection of writing of South African culture and history.

SA Heritage Publishers, in cooperation with the University of Pretoria, has come across rare writings in seven of SA’s indigenous languages. The writings cover history, divination, traditional medicine, agriculture, and village and hut construction.
Their translation will be a cornerstone in the preservation of the history and culture of our people. They arguably represent the greatest indigenous language historical and cultural treasure that our country possesses.
#Trending will be bringing you a translation over the four Sundays in Heritage Month

    In its research for stories to be included in South Africa’s leading heritage series Our Story, which City Press has been running extracts from for the past few months, SA Heritage Publishers discovered a collection of writings that can only be described as a treasure trove of South African culture and history.
    The collection is made up of 891 writings in seven indigenous languages – siSwati and isiNdebele were not written languages at the time the works were compiled – written between 1930 and 1950 by 187 writers, in their mother tongues.
    It is estimated that there are between 15 000 and 20 000 typewritten A4 pages in the collection.
   The authors range from the well-known author and journalist RRR Dhlomo to a number of named but unknown South Africans. Many were educators. All of them were obviously anxious to preserve the history and culture of their people for future generations. You, the reader, are but one of the generations for whom they wrote.

How far back do the writings take us?

    The author of a Sesotho sa Leboa work of 1939 tells us that he wrote it after an interview with the oldest man in his community, then estimated to be 80. So the elderly interviewee was born in about 1850 and if he retold stories told to him by his grandfather, he would have been told stories of his people going back to the late 1700s!
    A Xitsonga author, NJ Mabale, writing in 1942 and living in present-day north-eastern Limpopo, says he was born in Masia village during the reign of João Albasini, also known as Jawawa or Jiwawa.
    Albasini, a man of Portuguese descent, died in 1886. As well as covering the history of the local Vatsonga and Vhavenda, Mabale tells us that he worked on the Robinson mine in Johannesburg when it was still a small village. From there, he went to Kimberley, where he worked on the diamond mines and was paid an amount of £2 (R45 at today’s exchange rate) a week.

What subjects are covered?

    Only a fraction of the works have been read, but, judging by what has been read and the titles of all the works in the collection, there is no doubt that they contain a wealth of information.
    The writings cover agriculture, traditional medicine, village and hut construction, divination, cosmological understandings of the people, history, folk tales, traditional law, cultural activities and much more relating to a large number of southern Africa’s ancestral people.

Structure of the writings

The majority are handwritten and were then typewritten. SA Heritage Publishers is in the process of transcribing these and then translating them into English to ensure that they can be accessed by the majority of South Africans. Only half of the original works have been scanned, so this campaign will be a long-term exercise.

February 28 1939




A little time has passed since the newspaper announcement that anyone with knowledge about their family or nation could write to the government.


So then…


    I, Ephraim Shezi, from the home of my father, Mntwabantu Shezi, desire to set forth my knowledge about our nation of Shezi, known as the people of emaChubeni, whereas our second surname is the people of Shezi. My intention is not to glorify our nation by writing about it and sending it to you; however, there are deeds which it accomplished in the past which need to be known across the land.
    Sigananda was the eldest son of Zakufa, and became inkosi at the same time that Dinizulu assumed the throne of KwaZulu. At that time the land clearly belonged to the whites because they were passing laws about it. One law caused the most disturbance, the one of tax. After the defeat of KwaZulu, the whites said that a tax of 7/- per hut was payable, which Shepstone said would eventually end. Shortly thereafter, people were called to Eshowe and told that they must hand over 14/- per hut, and they asked what was going on because Shepstone had said it would end. The answer was: “Where is this Shepstone now?”, and so they gave up and paid the tax.
    After the Boer War, the white Natal government created a new law for extracting tax, payable per head. This caused great dissent among the Zulu nation. Some said that it should be paid, others said one should never have to pay for all the heads. This was discussed at many meetings in various places. Many valleys decided to pay it, where others opted to listen to inkosi Dinizulu.
    Rebelling against the tax, Bhambatha and his impi arrived at Ngome forest, dressed and armed for war, ready to fight in the white man’s country. Sigananda sent to Nkosi Dinizulu to ask his opinion, since people were unwilling and Bhambatha was starting a war and on the run. The inkosi’s answer was: “The tax should be paid in full,” that even he was paying it, and that “Bhambatha should not be sheltered and should be handed over to the whites”.
    Nkosi Sigananda did not agree, nor did his council, made up of many men from the Macubeni region.
    When the whites came for Bhambatha, they sent runners ahead to Sigananda saying he should take out the madman and bring him to them (by which they meant Bhambatha) and that “the tax should be paid”. Sigananda made not even one small indication that he agreed.
    The whites brought their impi, terrible for the people because of their weapon which fired using a machine, ‘igogo’ in isiZulu, from all sides – one up the Nsuze River, one near Kranskop, another near Qudeni and yet another descending along Nomangci. Sigananda’s and Bhambatha’s regiments gathered, bivouacking in the Mome Valley.
    At 4am on the day of the battle, Mehlokazulu kaSihayo roused the impi, formed a half-moon with the whites inside it, ordering the Mavalana-Ntab’engenaliba regiment to form the vanguard.
    But they did not know what lay ahead of them.
    The whites struck them with volleys which were like walls against which no person could stand, with flight impossible because of the gunfire on all sides. The whites and the turncoats of Mr Mfungelwa Ntuli and Hashi Biyela killed many in a terrifying way, the majority of whom were from here, the nations of the forest.
    Ndabaningi from eMacubeni survived. Mehlokazulu kaSihayo fell there, and so did Mavukutu. With Bhambatha, there is some dispute; some say he did not die but survived. Sakijana kaGezindaba was overcome. This was the final decisive battle of what was known as Impi kaBhambatha, fought at Nkandla in the amaChuba territory.
    Sigananda remained in the forest. The whites tortured his brother, Mbonambi, telling him to go and take his brother out of the forest, which he refused. Then they said that the whole land was surrendering and he should come as well. Sigananda emerged from the forest and went to the court at Empangeni.
    He was arrested as a criminal, with these words spoken:
    Yes, Sigananda, you were armed and engaged in armed conflict against the government
The answer:
    No, you told me to do so; that I should arm, capture the madman and bring him to you. As soon as I took up arms the government attacked me.
The whites:
    You are lying, Sigananda. You armed the people and you attacked the government.
The answer:
    At which place did I attack this government, since there are corpses at my homestead at Halambe?
The whites:
    Why did you not leave the forest and come here to the court?
The answer:
    I went to leave and your boys fired at me, so I returned to the forest. I meant to speak with you amaPhothwe.
    Sigananda swore this, and they put him into stocks. There he sat, and he did not live more than a day there.


The conclusion of the letter:
    The Shezi nation is honest, loyal, courageous and trustworthy. It never tried to change allegiance by discarding the kingdom under which we lived, the state of KwaZulu, even though it was being attacked by enemies both white and black. We, the people of eMachubeni, have no black mark. I am writing this document here in Nkandla, but a response could be sent to Durban to the address at the beginning.


I am yours humbly,
Ephraim Shezi

The only information provided on all the authors is their initials and surnames. Thankfully, a number wrote their first names and addresses on the handwritten manuscripts. SA Heritage Publishers has pored over 450 manuscripts to identify and list the details on those works scanned thus far. These are listed on a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet that you can access on the City Press website in the online version of this article. Please pass this information on to anyone you know who shares an author’s surname. If you, or they, are related to the author, please contact info@saheritagepublishers.co.za