African Apocalypse — 1999

The Story of Nontetha Nkwenkwe, a Twentieth-Century South African Prophet

By Robert R. Edgar and Hilary Sapire

“This is a fascinating book…raises important questions about the writing of South African history…The significance of this book is manifold. It is a most useful contribution to South African, and Eastern Cape regional, history as well as to the history of religious movements, gender, and psychiatry in South Africa.”

Peter Limb — H-Net Reviews

“Few historians have written with such empathy and generosity of spirt as Robert Edgar…Now he and Hilary Sapire have produced an elegant and gracious book that offers a wonderfully evocative history of Nontetha and of politics and faith in South Africa…African Apocalypse does offer precious material to investigate more subtly and more creatively some of the most basic challenges to the study of South Africa’s modern history. And it does so with grace and empathy. African Apocalypse is as much a book as it is a gift.”

Clifton Crais — The International Journal of African Historical Studies

The devastating influenza epidemic of 1918 ripped through southern Africa. In its aftermath, revivalist and millenarian movements sprouted. Prophets appeared bearing messages of resistance, redemption, and renewal. African Apocalypse: The Story of Nontetha Nkwenkwe, A Twentieth-Century Prophet is the remarkable story of one such prophet, a middle-aged Xhosa woman named Nontetha. After surviving the deadly virus, Nontetha proclaimed that a series of dreams revealed to her that the influenza had been a punishment from God. Consequently, she embarked on a mission to reform her society.

She imposed numerous prohibitions and rules on her followers. In a parallel movement, in 1919, millenarian Israelites congregated in the holy village of Ntabelanga, 100 miles north of Nontetha's area, to await the end of the world. In May 1921, police killed nearly 200 Israelites near Queenstown in a showdown over attempts to expel the settlers.

Accused of sedition by an alarmed government, Nontetha was committed to Fort Beaufort Mental Hospital in 1922. On Nontetha's death in 1935, officials buried her in an unmarked pauper's grave. In 1997, Edgar and Sapire located Nontetha's grave. Of Edgar's efforts to return Nontetha to her home, the New York Times said, “One would not expect, perhaps, that a mild-mannered professor from Howard University would turn out to be the Indiana Jones of South Africa.”

African Apocalypse touches on a variety of themes, including African Christianity, gender, protest, the social history of madness, and the engagement of professional historians in contemporary issues.


Robert R. Edgar is Professor of African Studies at Howard University and the author of An African American in South Africa: Travel Notes of Ralph J. Bunche (1992).


Hilary Sapire is Lecturer in Imperial and Commonwealth History at Birkbeck College, University of London. She is an editor of the Journal of Southern African Studies.

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Paperback978-0-89680-208-7

213 pages

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