Death knocked at the door of the writer Simphiwe Nolutshungu. He unfortunately and reluctantly opened it. That was on 1 October 2023, when the literary community heard of the sad news that forced him to put his pen down for good. Family and relatives gathered on 14 October to pay their respects and to lay him to rest in the Ezibeleni township, just outside Komani (formerly Queenstown).
Poetry and stories dominated, with speaker after speaker celebrating Nolutshungu’s life. “His artistry as a wordsmith started rearing its head while he was still young,” his older brother, Vuyisile Nolutshungu, told the mourners. “Yes, we were dramatic as kids!” Vuyisile said, laughing. “There was this one night when we were told to ensure that we sleep. We responded that we can’t, because the bed rotates. We would sleep only to wake up in the morning with one of us facing upside down, whereas the other faced sideways.” Wow, who does not know the way kids sleep and kick? Although Simphiwe was the youngest, Vuyisile and their sister, Thando, would get into trouble because Simphiwe was an avid reader who would read the Bible from the first page to the last page.
Representing friends who also share a WhatsApp group of which Nolutshungu was a member, Njili said, “Simphiwe was a known comedian at school. He would joke about everyone, and never laugh while everyone else did.” Nolutshungu was regarded as clever in storytelling, writing, poetry reading and analysing. “That got us into trouble because we were seen as lazy.”
Nolutshungu was a character indeed to his friends. He was the first one to buy and wear glasses, which was a big thing back then in Ezibeleni and many other townships. He was the first one to work in an office and to wear a tie, working for Old Mutual, nogal. He was the first one to study at Rhodes University, and then proceed to study and work at the University of Cape Town. That was revered and adored by many in Ezibeleni.
The writer was completing his PhD studies in African languages at the University of Cape Town when he succumbed and left the ups and downs of life. Hleze Kunju, a colleague, described Nolutshungu as a dedicated worker and an exceptional writer. Kunju started with these examples:
- Sneezing in a beaker while men drink – disrespect (Ukuthumela ebhekileni amadoda esela– ukudelela)
- Making one push an idling car – fooling (Ukundityhalisa imoto edumayo– ukundibhanxa)
- Coming out of a loo chewing – madness (Ukuphuma kwindlu yangasese uhlafuna– ukungabhadli)
“These are some of the African proverbs that Nolutshungu penned,” Kunju said, repeating them two more times. Kunju had called Nolutshungu by his clan’s name, Rhadebe, out of respect, back then while Kunju was Nolutshungu’s Master in Creative Writing supervisor at Rhodes University, and one could sense the understanding and the level of respect Kunju had for Nolutshungu. Despite Kunju being younger, Nolutshungu would show the same level of respect and respond, “Mthembu” – Kunju’s clan name.
We quenched our thirst at the well and with traditional beer, well crafted by Nolutshungu’s ink, and Kunju passed the beaker around for all to drink from.
My Xhosa language
I alone will fight until Nxele returns
Dance shakingly till darkness is touched
Feeding my own –
Feeding for African generations
I will stand under the shadow of criticisms
Until the caves light up
Ulwimi lwam lwakwaxhosa (My Xhosa language)
Mna ndedwa ndakulwa kubuy' uNxele
Ndityityimbe kuvakalelwe ubumnyama bam
Ndilondle olu lwam –
Ndilondlele izizukulwana zeAfrika
Ndakuma ke phantsi kwethunzi lezigxeko‐
De kukhanye nasemqolombeni apho
The one I love
Her voice is light
Her presence is refreshing health
Her smile a moon at night
Her heart full of love
Endimthandayo (The one I love)
Ilizwi lakhe kukukhanya,
Ubukho bakhe yimpilo ehlaziyekileyo,
Uncumo lwakhe yinyanga ebusuku,
Intliziyo yakhe izele imfihlo yothando
One could tell that Nolutshungu indeed thought and dreamed in Xhosa and was not ashamed of his language. His pen also depicts a man very much in love with his wife and who cared for his children. However, he did not shy away from writing about death many times.
Death you are a smell suffocating my breathing
Even the grave sneezes
You death are nauseousness
Go then death, leave
Death which death of dying
Kufa ulivumba elitsarh' umphefumlo,
Kutsho kuthiml' ingcwaba
Wena kufa ulizothe
Hamba uhambe ke ngoko,
Kufa okukufa kokufa,
Nolutshungu was fearless with no holds barred, both with pen and as a person. He had already penned a poem addressing his mourners and reminding them about the aftermath of his death.
After that funeral
You mourners that are to bury meNina
You will turn your back on me rushing to town –
Forgotten about me
Emva kwalo mngcwabo (After that funeral)
Nina Kanye bazondingcwaba,
Nizandizela ngomva ukuleq' esixekweni –
Nilibele ke ngam
Despite the fact that his pen seems to be sleeping, it is resting until someone else comes by and picks up where Nolutshungu left off. Stellenbosch University, where Simthembile Xeketwana lectures, is familiar with his work. Umhlobo Wenene FM were not mistaken when they read his book, Ubuze Benimba, on their book-reading programme, Ufundo Lwencwadi. The University of Cape Town student Silulundi Coki, who studied BA Honours and is now completing her master’s degree researching Nolutshungu’s work, is on the right track. It was no fluke when Grocott’s Mail, the oldest community newspaper in the country, published some of his poetry. The I’solezwe lesiXhosa newspaper continued to feed us even during his passing with his creatively provoking short stories column, “Ungangeni Andinxibanga” (Do not come in, I’m naked). His work was rubber-stamped by both the Avbob Poetry Project (1st place in the Xhosa category, 2019) and the SALAs (South African Literary Awards (1st place with his poetry collection, Iingcango Zentliziyo, 2017).
Prove him wrong, then, for what he has written in his poem, “Emva Kwalo Mngcwabo”.
It must be a shame for readers and authors, especially those who are Xhosa, who would deny ever knowing Nolutshungu. English writers, black or white, from Makhanda to Cape Town, will remember his unwavering, rich work, Nolutshungu Avenue, launched at Amazwi (Nelm then) in Makhanda in 2013. His latest, dropped in 2020, was With every drop of my skin. Amazwi is waiting to welcome anyone wishing to read more about this author and his works. The least one can do, as an alternative, is to liaise with what some Xhosa call Gogo (Google), for one of the proverbs says, “A buffalo is asked from those who are ahead.”