Nongqawuse, (c.1841–c.1898), was a prophetess of the great Xhosa cattle-killing of 1856–1857. Nongqawuse was an orphan living with her uncle Mhlakaza at the Gxarha River in independent Xhosaland, close to the border of the recently colonized territory of British Kaffraria in South Africa. One day in April 1856, she informed her household that she had encountered two strangers, spirits from another world, who told her that the entire nation would rise from the dead provided that the Xhosa slaughtered all their cattle and destroyed all their corn. The reason given was that people and animals alike had been defiled by witchcraft, and that the living must cleanse themselves from all contamination so that new people and pure cattle could rise.
Nongqawuse’s prophecies were embraced by the overwhelming majority of the Xhosa people. They had been militarily defeated by the British during the long and bloody Eighth Frontier War (1850–1853). Even worse, they had seen their cattle herds decimated by the alien disease of bovine lung sickness, thus giving credence to the prophetic message that “they have all been wicked and everything belonging to them is therefore bad.” A small minority of Xhosa, known as the amagogotya (stingy ones), refused to slaughter, and this refusal was used by Nongqawuse to rationalize the failure of the prophecies over a period of fifteen months (April 1856–June 1857). By the time hope was finally abandoned, the Xhosa had lost over 400,000 cattle, as well as all their corn and seed corn for the coming season. An estimated 40,000 people starved to death, and the survivors streamed into the small colonial towns of the Eastern Cape in search of food and work.
The catastrophe was aggravated by Sir George Grey , the colonial governor, who took advantage of the cattle-killing to break the power of the Xhosa, which had checked colonial expansion for more than eighty years. Grey dispersed the starving Xhosa to slave-like labor among the white colonists and imprisoned the Xhosa chiefs on the pretext that they were trying to incite war against the colony. More than 600,000 acres of Xhosa land was alienated for white settlement in the immediate hinterland of the South African city of East London.
Nongqawuse herself survived, although several of her associates, including her uncle, starved to death. There is every reason to think that she sincerely believed in the truth of her visions and that she herself was unable to account for the failure of her prophecies. Nongqawuse was captured by colonial forces in March 1858, taken to Cape Town, and released under circumstances so obscure that even the date and place of her decease cannot be fixed with certainty. It would seem, however, that she assumed another name and took up residence far from the scene of her prophecies on a remote farm near the town of Alexandria. Though we do have one authentic photograph of Nongqawuse, dressed up in captivity, we have only one eyewitness account of her appearance at the height of the prophecies. She is described as “a girl of about 16 years of age, has a silly look, and appeared to me as if she was not right in her mind … nor did she seem to me take any pains with her appearance” (quoted in Peires, p. 87). This impression of distrait incoherence is reinforced by the only surviving verbatim transcript of her actual words, recorded during an interrogation.
The obscurity in which Nongqawuse lived and died has made it extremely difficult to interpret her thoughts and her motivations. One outcome is that the standard Xhosa explanation of the cattle-killing is that Nongqawuse was directly manipulated by Governor Grey , who took advantage of her youth and her naiveté. Recent research has emphasized the influence of Christian ideas of the resurrection mediated through Nongqawuse’s uncle, Mhlakaza , a frustrated Christian convert. These interpretations have been challenged by the historian Helen Bradford , who argues that Nongqawuse’s insistence on cattle-killing was an assault on the Xhosa system of patriarchy, in which wives were exchanged for cattle.
Bradford further argues that the contamination denounced by Nongqawuse refers to sexual aggression by Xhosa men. It is indeed possible that Nongqawuse was orphaned during the Waterkloof campaign of the Eighth Frontier War (1850–1853), during which numbers of Xhosa women were killed and raped. It must be said, however, that Nongqawuse’s prophecies envisioned the restoration of chief-dominated and cattle-based Xhosa society in all its pristine precolonial splendor rather than something entirely new and different.