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South African Voices

South African Voices: A Long Time Passed (2006)

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South African artwork



Beginning in the late 1960s and continuing into the 1970s, I made a number of research trips to southern Africa, hoping to gather a representative collection of oral tales, histories, and poems from among the Nguni peoples: the Xhosa and Zulu in South Africa, the Swati in Swaziland, and the Ndebele in the southern part of Zimbabwe. I encountered a wealth of oral traditions, met hundreds of storytellers, mythmakers, poets, and historians, and was allowed by these enormously talented raconteurs and poets to tape many of these works. In the end, I had taped and filmed over 7,400 pieces of oral tradition.

Of the many artists whose productions I witnessed, one of the most brilliant and talented was Nongenile Masithathu Zenani of the Transkei. Her home was on the slope of a lazy hill some thirty miles from the Indian Ocean in Gatyana District in the Transkei; she was about fifty years old when I first met her, a member of the Gcaleka state of the Xhosa nation. She had become a traditional doctor some years ago, and she was a successful if somewhat forbidding one. She was also an expert creator of Xhosa iintsomi, fantasy stories in the oral tradition.

Her neighbors considered her a difficult woman, and she was feared by some, insulted by others. But Mrs. Zenani was in no way cowed by their attitudes toward her. This tall, erect woman, her face a mask of disdain, regal in her bearing, was seemingly bored with and contemptuous of the members of her audience. She would pull her red ochre blanket around her, ignoring the audience and its banter, and she would proceed to detail the colorful world of the intsomi. She was not always given to broad outward dramatic gesticulation, and one was apt to miss the extra-verbal elements of her production if one did not watch her carefully. One might also fail to note the developing and warming closeness between the artist and her audience during the process of the performance, and the skill with which Masithathu Zenani exploited the considerable tension that arose between her and its members. Slowly and calmly, she moved into the narrative, usually a long one, pronouncing the opening formula in a yawning, casual manner, concealing the seriousness with which she was about to create her images. She initially provided motivation for the crises that lay in the future, avoiding the eyes of those in her audience, seeking beyond them for the ancient motifs and the creative tools that would conspire to create her work of art. Her art was subtle, and understated even when it was most bombastic. Her face and body were constantly in harmony with the developing production: a slight grimace, a flash of fear, anger, joy. Her hands worked softly, calmly, deftly, molding the performance, giving a nuance to this character, adding depth to that one, her red cape shimmering slightly and continually as her body moved rhythmically to the poetry of her narrative.

She had known these stories for years, she told me. She learned them in no formal way, for the intsomi tradition, with its dependence on the ancient motifs for transmission through the generations, required no apprenticeship. She learned her craft the way all performers do; she heard an image here, another there, she witnessed a performance presented by an aunt, by a grandmother, an old friend of her parents; she picked up a detail here, a stylistic device there. She found elements of production that she appreciated when she was a member of an audience, that she cherished and remembered, then made her own. Masithathu Zenani was an amalgam of all the performers she had met; her narratives had their roots in the countless productions she had seen, as a child and as a mature woman. But she was more than that, of course; she wanted one to know that she was also an artist, that she had great ability to work with these intsomi images, to transform them into unique, glimmering, evanescent moments of color and movement. Under her guidance and control, the images became reflections of her society and of her own opinions and thought. Her own personal sorrow and her pride in her medical profession were frequent themes in her performances.

She utilized the finite number of images in the intsomi tradition as a poet uses language. She was faithful to the traditional images, to a controlling metaphor that stressed a society of order, of an equilibrium best exemplified by symbols of nature, but she was in no way confined by them. Her art demonstrates how wide indeed are the curbs of the tradition, how a competent artist can make the tradition work for her. Like any poet or artist, she was tied to the artistic traditions of her time. Her basic equipment consisted of the ancient mythic images, and her genius was in the way that she brought them together, into new combinations; more than that, she gave the images new interpretations — a deepened tragedy, a novel ribaldry, a splendid insight. Even her many detractors, those who disliked her personally, were silent, emotionally involved in the intsomi image when she was in the midst of her performance; many of them participated against their wishes, taking their cues from this artist who had ultimate control over the production, and so they became psychologically and rhythmically a part of the performance. Intsomi productions are not simply for children, and Masithathu Zenani's audiences were most often composed of adults, for hers were adult performances. Many of the men who criticized the intsomi tradition because it had, they argued, relevance only to the oral-aural societies that were rapidly giving way to the new institutions of literate cultures would nevertheless participate in the performances. They, too, had heard the narratives many times, but in form and development of theme they knew that there are few artists of the stature of this one.

In her use of the various traditional elements of intsomi production, Mrs. Zenani suggested the possibilities of the art form. One of the most direct and obvious ways in which she distinctively developed her intsomi images was through her use of detail, particularly in the delineation of character. Her eye was generally on the character rather than the action, the latter being important only in so far as it reveals character. In fact, she seemed to enjoy seeing a human in an utterly incongruous situation — putting him there and then carefully detailing the way he reacted.

Her concern was for character, for verisimilitude of character and motivation of actions. Through the use of details, Masithathu Zenani developed a character's plight, but she wove into her performances a wit and an intellectual depth that took the familiar images and motifs to new levels for her audiences. Through details, she enhanced the unreal. The bizarre elements of a plot were made the more bizarre because of the concentration on the atmosphere of realism elsewhere. This was one of her primary artistic techniques: she achieved humor, surprise, and terror by means of this detailed and curious juxtaposition of the real and the fantastic. She cast the fantastic in a known milieu, providing detail after detail about the realistic activities, most of which the audience knew well. This artist communicated her fascination with what occurs when the unknown penetrates the real. She grafted onto her immediate society the activities of the intsomi, no matter how strange they might be, and she was thereby able to support the basic and controlling metaphor of the tradition.

Masithathu Zenani was greatly concerned about plausible motivations for all actions in her performance. Nor did she simply depend on the members of the audience and their intimate knowledge of the intsomi images to provide that motivation for her. Her narratives were carefully constructed, and actions were consistently correct within the developing plot and the frame that it sets up. But the Xhosa intsomi is not developed by means of details. The structure of the performance depends on the basic building unit of the narrative, the mythic image. The story has as its dynamic center this mythic image often in the form of a song or chant. The movement between conflict and resolution takes place structurally through the rhythmical ordering of this basic internal image. The mythic image and associated details and image segments combine to form a readily expansible image. But repetition is never gratuitous: it is never simply repetition, it is rhythm, it has aesthetic value, for repetition is deeply involved in the form of the intsomiThe images are paralleled, the one set reflecting the other, commenting on it, symbolically clarifying it, and so metaphor is achieved.

The Xhosa intsomi is the objectification of ancient songs, chants, and sayings, the creation of a dramatic narrative whose conflict and resolution are derived from these remembered mythic images that are plotted during performance. The intsomi is performed potentially by every member of Xhosa society — there are no professional entertainers — and various people approach the venerable images in various ways. Storytellers link the traditional motifs, patterning them as they work the emotions of the audience into the form of the story. Performers incorporate many non-verbal elements as well, developing unique styles of performance, reining in and channeling Xhosa song and dance to deepen the form of the narrative.


In the transcriptions that follow, I have made every attempt to record the stories and histories exactly as they were performed. Because the stories and histories were clearly viewed as works of unbroken continuity, I have not attempted to break them down into paragraphs, but have allowed the words themselves to provide shifts, continuity, emphasis. The only attempt that I have made to interject typography into these texts has to do with pauses, which I have indicated with ellipses. Longer pauses are noted in the endnotes. False starts are indicated by a dash: e—.

Regarding the numbers that accompany the titles (and these are titles that I have given to the stories: Masithathu Zenani did not title her performances): 1S refers to my first research trip, in 1967-1968, 2S refers to my second, in 1972-1973, and 3S is a reference to the third trip, in 1975-1976. The numbers following 1S and 2S refer to the chronological sequence of the stories that I collected. I have also included the performance number and section as these appear on the voice tape.

Many of the English translations of stories in this volume can be found in Nongenile Masithathu Zenani, The World and the Word (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992).


[1] This introduction is derived from “The Art of Nongenile Masithathu Zenani, A Gcaleka Ntsomi- performer,” African Folklore, ed.Richard M.Dorson(Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1972) 115-142.

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