| 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!
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
Zulus 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 brides 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 childs 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.
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 Mandelas
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.
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
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.
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.