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Queen Nonesi, the remarkable AbaThembu regent who fough...

Defend Truth


Queen Nonesi, the remarkable AbaThembu regent who fought 19th-century sexism and manipulated the colonial regime


Langa Mavuso Ah! Zwelidumile is the acting chairperson of the Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders. He writes in his personal capacity.

Thrust into the regency of the AbaThembu people in the mid-1800s, Queen Nonesi led her people through one of the most turbulent periods in Eastern Cape history, including resisting the mass killing of cattle after the prophecies of Nongqawuse.

Even in pre-colonial societies, there has always existed a culturally built hierarchy between men and women, but one which was regulated by traditional checks and balances to impede abuse of power by those in positions of authority, thus ensuring that they ruled by popular mandate.

The weakening of this traditional democracy by colonial influence tipped the scale in favour of autocratic rule by the kings as a result of illegitimate governmental interference in how historically traditional leadership operated. As a result, traditional leadership became a highly contested and tenuous space for males only to participate in. Women’s role and status increasingly became delineated to just child-rearing and issues related to the making of a home, with no real voice in political and governance matters.

This was foreign to traditional African society which attached no importance to gender issues as every individual had a role to play both in the family as well as the larger society.

While not suggesting that the nurturing aspect of women be diminished or abandoned, it is rather highlighted here as being what society has tended to use as the “stereotypical and sole” identity given to women, with little to no room for other characteristics that women are endowed with as forms of their identification. There is no gainsaying the obvious that women, albeit under these imposed limitations, have continued to play leadership roles in the development and liberation of various African societies on different scales of impact.

One such woman is Nonesi, the Great Wife of the 19th century Thembu king, Ngubengcuka Vusani aNdaba, whose first ascension to regency came about under very precarious circumstances.

While the writer has no interest here in merely recounting this great woman’s diverse experiences with the colonial government, as well as that of her own people, AbaThembu, I will highlight two contrasting traits in the queen’s leadership style during her tenures as regent that women today may find useful as they navigate a society that is still largely patriarchal in practice and suggest these traits as a beacon for women who seek to assert their identity as worthy and legitimate leaders in society.

When the queen took up regency, pervasive unconscious institutional mindsets about leadership based on gender biases and stereotyping were rife. This may have led to her appearing timid in dealing sternly with her people, as some in her clan had never fully accepted her as regent and went to join Maphasa in the 1850 War of Mlanjeni.

Fully aware that she had no absolute power over her people, precisely because of these biases, and the fact that her appointment had not followed the traditionally accepted route, which in any case would have selected a male regent, she needed to cajole her people into following her lead. The masculinisation of the leader role, then and now, makes women less effective when appointed into these leadership roles as they are less likely to receive the necessary support and/or respect of those they lead because they are in a role considered to be incongruent with femininity.

Furthermore, many people then, and now, associated leadership behaviours with stereotypically masculine traits such as aggression, dominance, competitiveness, independence and self-reliance; traits that the queen may have seemed to be devoid of in her role as regent.

Even so, she was decisive enough as regent to restrain her people from taking part in the cattle-killing of 1856/7 when this particular prophecy spread like wildfire, promising the sweeping of European settlers into the sea when their cattle were killed. Had she allowed her people to participate, they, as a people, would have been plunged into economic disarray and this would have intensified their dependence on the colonial Cape government not only for military protection, but for survival as well.

It is disheartening that in an era where women are now the economic backbone of many homes and communities, they are still faced with the very unconscious biases that Queen Nonesi faced. In being breadwinners in many homes in South Africa, we find that women are still expected in their homes to be the primary caregivers as well, something that is not an expectation for their male counterparts. We also notice that when women ascend to positions of authority, which are still largely male-dominated both in the public and private sector, it is immediately assumed that it is because of their proximity to men of influence and their competence and skill is considered secondary.

It is also disheartening that they still face forms of resistance and lack of support from their male counterparts because of these problematic, hidden reflexive leader preferences that cause a far greater number of women to shy away from an upward career advancement that will require them to occupy positions that are unconsciously perceived to be best suited for men.

Perhaps we stand to learn from Queen Nonesi that what seemed to be timidity may have, in the long run, been strategically used as a tool to protect her people — the continued alliance with the colonial government which had been initiated by her late husband may have at the time best served the interests of the Thembu people who would have been wiped out had they openly opposed a government which was clearly militarily stronger than them.

The friendship had glaring shortfalls, but for a time it did allow the AbaThembu some semblance of independence. We learn from her that, when necessary, we keep some relationships alive if in the long run they serve the greater good.

The beauty of life is that one can reinvent oneself as often as deemed necessary. She was once labelled “the faithful” who proved her loyalty to her colonial allies by moving with her clan to the border of the Cradock district, and she paid an exorbitant war tribute of 2,000 head of cattle and 150 horses to Gideon Joubert’s commando who claimed that a portion of her people had attacked them.

But when she began to feel the brunt of oppressive land policies that would negatively affect her and her people, she did not hesitate to bring to an end her long friendship with the Cape colonial government. Her appointment, as a woman, by the Cape government was obviously for reasons that were not pure and were manipulated to limit her influence.

But Queen Nonesi resisted an 1864 attempt by the colonial authorities to move her and her people to present-day Intsika Yethu so that their land at Emalahleni could be occupied by white farmers. This resistance saw her being forcibly deported to her brother’s place at Nyandeni, but her work had already been accomplished as she had successfully saved the land of Emalahleni for black people.

There are many other women warriors whose voices ought to be heard, like Princess Emma Sandile of AmaRharhabe and Great Wife to Nkosi Stokwe ka-Ndlela. Princess Emma against all odds became the first sub-Saharan African woman to gain formal education and a deed of ownership of land in her own right — not as an inheritance but as a first-generation owner. More research on our women warriors has to be conducted to aid in the decolonisation of our education.

The current composition of members of the Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders is reflective of the historical participation of women in traditional leadership positions and as such, they hold leadership positions within the House.

In this Women’s Month, we learn from this remarkable woman that when the time comes for us to resist and oppose injustice, for ourselves and our people as well, we should not hesitate to resist it, even if the cost is great to us personally, our choices are unpopular and we seem to stand alone.

When history judges us, it must be said of us that we too were remarkable women who never shied away from shaping our homes and thus our society and industries to be a more equal space for both men and women to coexist.

Wathinta abafazi, wathinta imbokodo. DM


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