When I went to Bloemfontein, a stopover en route to Grahamstown for the National Arts Festival, I went to the Sand du Plessis Theatre to see Grandma’s Song. It was here that I made one of the most interesting historical discoveries of my holiday. The play was broadly based in the present about a young woman who was channelling the prophetic spirit of her grandmother, Mantsope, through song. I slowly learned of one of South Africa’s great women who had previously been completely unknown to me.
The theatrical work, written and directed by the acclaimed Jerry Mofokeng, went on to the National Arts Festival where it went, unsurprisingly, uncommented on. It was neither particularly good nor particularly bad with some lovely singing. All in all the work could be great, but the cast is large and I doubt if the financial rewards would make this viable for future runs. It is the unique Sotho historical cultural treasure which the play unlocked which gave the experience its value for me.
In Women’s Month I get to explore the lives of South African women so here goes …
The overriding character of Sotho history is King Moshoeshoe (c. 1786 – 11 March 1870). Makhetha Mantsopa was one of Moshoeshoe’s sisters, born in approximately 1795. Moshoeshoe, threatened by the talented Mantsopa, banished her from the Kingdom. She fled to an area now known as Modderpoort where she lived in a cave which has been identified as having been inhabited since the Later Stone Age times, a place which is home to ancient San paintings depicting birds and an unusual winged figure with zigzag legs, believed to represent a shaman journeying to the spirit world.
It was in this area where Mantsopa ran into the first Anglican missionaries, The Brotherhood of St Augustine of Hippo in 1886 (the year Johannesburg was founded). The cave in which she lived became a church, known both as the Cave Church and the Rose Chapel. This site was declared a National Monument as far back as 1936, but it has sadly been vandalized.
Mantsopa converted to Christianity and was baptised “Anna” just two days after her brother who was also to have been baptised on the same day died. She died on 11 November 1906, making her well over 100 years old when she died.
Mantsopa continued to mix Christian and traditional African rites, anticipating the worship style of the Zion Christian Church. Today Cave Church which Mantsopa used continues to provide a place of holiness for contemporary ZCC ancestor ceremonies. Particularly, a sacred spring of fresh water at Modderpoort is associated with the Matsopa cult. Pilgrims collect “Matsopa Water” (now bottled) from the sacred spring, well regarded for its healing qualities.
There is great value in theatre makers telling out the stories of Africa. There is plenty of room for this story to be explored in dance, music and theatre. Mantsopa was certainly an interesting woman in South Africa’s rich and diverse cultural history.
This is one of a series of articles about South African women for Women’s Month (August).