On an April morning in 1856, as girls frightened birds away from the crops on the banks of the Gxarha River, Nongqawuse, 15, and Nombanda, 10, were delivered a message by two strangers who appeared out of nowhere. The message, according to Jeff Peires’ seminal work The Dead Will Arise, went something like this: “Tell that the whole community will rise from the dead; and that all cattle now living must be slaughtered for they have been reared by contaminated hands… There should be no cultivation, but great new grain pits must be dug, new houses must be built and great strong cattle enclosures must be erected” to prepare for the coming of plentiful crops, cattle and the Xhosa ancestors who would drive the White invaders into the sea.
Since the arrival of the first European settlers in the 1770s, the Xhosas had seen their land seized, their cattle stolen and their people subjugated and killed. By 1856 they had already fought eight frontier wars and watched as their cattle became contaminated with lung disease that had been inadvertently introduced by the settlers. Mhlakaza, Nongqawuse’s uncle, didn’t take the message seriously at first. But when he recognized one of the “strangers,” based on the girls’ description, as his own brother, Mhlakaza started slaughtering his cattle and telling others to do the same.
The movement, which began as a trickle, turned into a deluge after the great chief Sarhili traveled to the Gxarha, where “the same voices that spoke to Nongqawuse spoke to him as well,” according to an oral source from the time. Over 15 months, the Xhosas massacred 400,000 cattle and destroyed countless acres of crops. Tens of thousands of people died of starvation, with many more fleeing their homes, which allowed Cape Colony Gov. George Grey and the British colonists to finally wrest control of the fertile territory they’d been lusting after for decades.
Peires debunks the British theory that the cattle killing was a Xhosa conspiracy to bring about war, but he also refutes the commonly held Xhosa belief that Grey somehow orchestrated the bloody movement. Which is not to say that Grey didn’t encourage or capitalize on it. “We can draw very great permanent advantages from the circumstance, which may be made a steppingstone for the future settlement of the country,” Grey wrote in a letter. Arguing that the movement was a “logical and rational response” by a nation that could see no other alternative, Peires rejects the prevailing colonial description of the episode as “the national suicide of the Xhosa,” insisting that “the Nongqawuse catastrophe was as much a murder as it was a suicide.”
The prophecy “tapped into a deep reservoir of desperation,” explains Adam Ashforth, a professor of African studies at the University of Michigan who has written on the topic. Acknowledging that the cattle killing was “unusual in the extent of the sacrifice,” Ashforth says that it was “not unusual in itself.” Similar millenarian movements among people who rally around often apocalyptic religious prophecies were seen throughout Africa during colonial times. In 1905, for example, the Maji Maji rebellion in German East Africa (present-day Tanzania) involved an African spirit medium giving his followers war medicine that he said would turn German bullets into water. And as recently as 2011, Ashforth points out, people suffering from all manner of diseases flocked to a remote Tanzanian village to be “cured” by a retired Lutheran priest who claimed to be acting on direct orders from God.
More than 150 years later, the Xhosas have never fully recovered from the cattle-killing catastrophe. True, Nelson Mandela, a Xhosa born 100 miles east of the Gxarha, was elected in 1994 as South Africa’s first democratic president, but the Eastern Cape remains the poorest province in the country. What’s more, the horrific event paved the way for Christianity to take hold in the area. Seeing the Europeans’ dominance, the Xhosas inferred that “White people had access to a very powerful god,” says Ashforth, and decided that they “wanted a bit of that too.” They were hardly alone: In 1850, according to Ashforth, almost no one in southern Africa, excluding the Europeans, was Christian. By 1950, he says, almost everybody was.
The cattle killing became imprinted on a psychologically scarred nation. “Few people who hear the story of Nongqawuse,” writes Peires in The Dead Will Arise, “ever forget it.” The tale, says Ashforth, “emerges at different times and in different ways and is told for different purposes.” Historians, politicians and tribal leaders have at various times used the parable of Nongqawuse to warn against the fickleness of youth, the folly of women, the dangers of superstition and the evil of George Grey and the Whites.
Even today, commentators are quick to blame problems besetting South Africa on the so-called Nongqawuse syndrome. A quick Google search turned up articles describing the leaders of all three of the country’s largest political parties as “Nongqawuse figures” — and not in a good way.