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Mandela's People

I was recently travelling near Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape, guiding a group of Rhodes Scholars visiting South Africa. For many miles we had driven under the great dome of the African sky, foreigners in a land of tough khaki-coloured bush that smothers the turned hills and repeats endlessly to the horizon. I was telling my guests about the traditions of the indigenous Xhosa people, the British settlers, colonial frontier wars and the mysterious mass cattle slaughter of 1857 inspired by the child-prophet Nongqawuse. And there, bang on cue, we passed a group of young teenage boys alone in this wilderness, leaning on bowed sticks, wearing nothing but leather hats, brief loin cloths and a thick crust of white clay on their bodies.

Xhosa boys (‘inkwenkwe’) prepare to become men (‘amadoda’) in a prolonged ritual that involves spreading mud and ochre on their bodies, absolute separation from women, three months of isolation, eight days of fasting, instruction by the elders, the ceremonial sacrifice of cattle and circumcision. As the foreskin is removed the boy is supposed to shout through his pain ‘I am a Man!’

Shaka Zulu

South Africa has eleven major population groups, seven of them black (‘Bantu’). Each of these can be sub-divided into numerous clans. The largest group are the famous Zulu (9 million), with the Xhosa the second (7.5 million), followed by Afrikaners, the North Sotho, Tswana, whites of British descent, the South Sotho, the Tsonga, Swazis, Venda and Ndebele.

The Zulus made history in the ferocious, dramatic empire of Shaka Zulu (the ‘black Napoleon’) that rapidly overcame all resistance to establish paramount rule across Southern Africa in the early nineteenth century. Zulu armies terrified Afrikaner and British forces until finally overcome at the battle of Ulundi in 1879 by the British. The Zulu’s oldest rivals are the Xhosa. The Xhosa are not as famous, but deserve an equal share of history. Although a less martial nation, the Xhosa sustained the longest colonial war in Africa. Between 1779 and 1878 they fought a series of nine frontier wars, first against advancing European farming communities, then British forces.

The strength of the Xhosa and their military power were tested by war, but it was a strange, suicidal frenzy that eventually broke the nation. A young girl called Nongqawuse was gathering water at a stream when she had a vision. She saw two strangers appear among the reeds. They instructed her to carry a message to the people how to save the nation: to win the favour of the ancestors, a sacrifice must be made of all cattle, all stocks of grain must be destroyed and all pots broken. The messengers concluded that by this sacrifice the Xhosa would be reconciled with the spirit world and that on the morning of 17th February 1857 the ancestors would appear with new cattle and overwhelm the British, driving the whites into the sea.

The Xhosa have a strong belief in the supernatural. Although they do believe in a supreme deity (variously known as uDali, Thixo or Qwamata), they have a more everyday concern for the influence of evil witches and, conversely, spiritual healers (‘igqirha’). Their good fortune and vulnerability to evil powers are closely associated with the goodwill of their ancestors. This is gained through sacrifice, respect and obedience. At the time Nongqawuse confessed her vision, the Xhosa were a nation distraught by years of defeat and humiliation, undermined by colonial rule and impoverished by drought and cattle confiscation. They grasped at this message from their guardian ancestors as a promise of redemption.

The Xhosa king, the custodian of tradition and no doubt desperate to repulse the tide of colonialism, decreed obedience to the requirements of the prophecy. Historians estimate that 90% of the people followed the instruction, destroying their stocks of sorghum and millet stored in pits for the winter and slaughtering their cattle. It is hard for us to grasp the enormity of this act. Among the Xhosa cattle are more than simply a vital source of meat and milk. Xhosa men cannot marry without providing cattle to the bride’s family. Prestige and political power are associated with cattle ownership. Religious and social rituals are expressed in cattle slaughter. In short, cattle were the linch-pin of Xhosa social and economic life. And in obedience to a child’s vision of the ancestors, they slaughtered virtually all of the cattle in Xhosaland. It is comparable to melting the family silver and burning down all the churches and banks.

The 17th of February came and went. Mass starvation and social breakdown followed. Most estimates indicate that a third of the nation died, between thirty and forty thousand people. Broken and destitute, many Xhosa made their way to the ports, towns and farms of the Cape to seek wage labour. Others arrived at mission stations, ready to adopt the religion and civilisation of the colonists. Thus were the Xhosa the first African nation to be so reduced.

Xhosa Woman

Fissures in Xhosa society now became exaggerated. Xhosa traditionalists became known as the ‘Reds’, referring to their continued use of ochre body paint and red-dyed clothing. They hung on doggedly to traditions and continued to resist colonisation. Those who embraced European culture were called ‘School’.

It was the ‘School’ group, however, that most effectively pursued political liberty. Mission educated Xhosa were prominent in the formation of what later became known as the African National Congress (ANC), in Bloemfontein in 1912. Modelled on the Natal Indian Congress established by Mahatma Ghandi, it embraced non-violence and pursued a peaceful policy of diplomacy and persuasion to call for equal rights with whites.

Six years later a boy called Rolihlahla Mandela was born in Mvezo, a small settlement in the Transkei region of Xhosaland. His father was a chief, and adviser to the King of the Thembu Clan. Rolihlahla was sent to school, where they gave him the western name of Nelson. The name Rolihlahla, however, was perhaps more appropriate: it means ‘pulling a branch from a tree’ or ‘troublemaker’. Having run away from home to avoid an arranged marriage, and sent down from Fort Hare University for his political activities, he made for Johannesburg and through correspondence became a lawyer, and agitated within the ANC for a more aggressive approach to resist apartheid. The rest is history, and well recalled in Mandela’s autobiography ‘Long Walk to Freedom’. He was a product of both the ‘School’ tradition and Xhosa royal tradition. The soaring cries of a spear wielding Xhosa Praise Singer welcomed Dr. Mandela into Parliament as the first black President of South Africa in 1994.

Desmond tutu casts his vote

Another famous Xhosa is Desmond Tutu. He was born near Johannesburg in 1931, where his Xhosa father was teaching in a Methodist primary school. Many Xhosa had made for the wages paid on the ‘Reef’ ever since gold was discovered there in the 1880s. After several years working for the Church in England Tutu returned in 1975 to become the Anglican Dean of Johannesburg and soon hit the headlines with his outspoken attacks on the excesses of the apartheid government. He was demonised by the regime, but won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 and was a champion of mediation and reconciliation in the transition years of the 1990s.

The current President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, is also a Xhosa as are several of his ministers. But, fortunately, the ruling party, the ANC, continue to emphasise non-tribalism in their broad based approach to government.

The Transkei and Ciskei regions of the Eastern Cape remain the Xhosa heartland, but they are poor, denuded rural areas, exploited under the apartheid regime. Since apartheid began to crumble fifteen years ago, many Xhosa migrated to the cities, particularly Cape Town. I have written of Khayelitsha before, where many hundreds of thousands of Xhosa have settled outside the city. In such townships one finds the emphasis upon education and the Church that emerged after Nongqawuse, but equally, a resilient belief in the influence of the ancestors and the importance of traditional rituals. At Christmas, in particular, huge numbers of Xhosa return to the Eastern Cape to join their families and make sacrifices to honour their ancestors.

Nelson mandela casts his vote

Despite poverty and unemployment, visitors to the townships often remark that Xhosa people manage to be so positive and open. Such characteristics are also noted of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. We can only reflect on the experience of a nation that has survived so many hardships over many years, their complex faith and their sense of community: that they are not mere individuals but part of an extended web of loyalty that includes their clan and even their ancestors. They call it 'ubuntu': that one is human only through others, not in isolation. It is a notion of 'brotherhood' that we trust will go on helping Xhosa communities confront continuing challenges.



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