As a young boy of four years old, I remember getting my first lesson in African history from my mother, who was born and raised in the Transkei.
Why, I had asked her, do black people all have to work for white people?
It’s because, my mom explained to me, it’s because a long time ago they a little girl said they must kill all their cattle so that the spirits would rise from the dead and drive all the white people into the sea.
So they killed all their cattle, but the no one rose from the dead and the white people stayed. Then the black people had no food and had to come and work for the white people.
This, of course, is the simplified version of the story of Xhosa prophetess Nongqawuse. In 1855, the teenage girl of the amaGcaleka clan began seeing visions at a time when a lung sickness epidemic was decimating the herds of the amaXhosa and the British colonial forces under Sir George Grey where laying claim to the lands across the Kei river.
As described by Zakes Mda in his novel The Heart Of Redness, Nongqawuse encountered two Strangers, who told her to relay the message to her people that their cattle had been contaminated by people practising witchcraft. They should all be slaughtered, and all their granaries burnt to the ground. Once they did this, the dead would arise and cattle would fill the kraals.
The armies of the resurrected would then supposedly drive the occupiers into the sea.
Not everyone bought Nongqawuse’s prophesy, but many did. Between 300 000 and 400 000 head cattle were slaughtered. Conventional wisdom tells us that no new herds appeared, the armies of the dead never rose and the white people remained in charge.
But on further reflection, that might not be strictly true. A theory I recently stumbled across, has made me reconsider my simplistic understanding of Eastern Cape history.
Newspaper reports about increasing rates of white emigration from South Africa have also helped me formulate my new theory.
Bear with me now.
Let’s say the whole cattle killing episode did impoverish large parts of kwaXhosa, and robbed the amaXhosa of their independence, forcing many of them to come looking for work in the Cape Colony.
The Xhosa thus became the first of the South African tribes to enter the capitalist economy. A recent theory holds that this meant they were also the first to organise and form trade unions.
So the Xhosa became more politically savvy and were busily learning the ins and outs of labour and struggle politics while the Zulus were still waging war against the occupying British.
Perhaps this early integration into the colonial establishment – even if it was on a deeply oppressed level – helped lay the foundation of for the organised struggle and the liberation movements flowing from the establishment of the ANC in 1912. Perhaps that’s why Xhosas still dominate the ruling party.
The liberation movements eventually lived up to their names and liberated the country from colonialism and apartheid. South Africa has now been a democracy for more than 12 years.
Sadly, democracy has brought a fair amount of social upheaval. Many white South Africans have found this difficult to deal with. It has been difficult to deal with.
And this has lead to a surge in emigration to popular Anglophone destinations like Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK.
Hotly disputed population statistics seem to show that there are half a million fewer white people in South Africa than there were ten years ago.
At the same time, the SA economy is booming. A rising black middle class now has the income to embark on a consumerist spending binge that shows no sign of abating.
So let’s recap. Nongqawuse predicted that the herds – the wealth of the nation – would return. And she predicted that the ancestors would return and drive the whites into the sea.
If you ask me, that’s exactly what’s happened. Wealth has flowed into the pockets of abantu. And the Xhosa generations that followed generation of the cattle killings learnt the skills of struggle early. Eventually they took power. Now the whites are leaving.
And a lot of that was because of the cattle killings of the 1850s. So my theory is that Nongqawuse’s is not a story of folly and superstition that humbled a proud nation. I think it’s a story of faith that was rewarded, a prophesy that came true. It just took 140 years.