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The Story of Nongqawuse in South African Twentieth-Century Fiction



The story of Nongqawuse – a young Xhosa prophetess who in 1856 claimed to be the bearer of a message from the ancestors – was told and re-told orally in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, throughout the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. The Xhosa population were to slaughter their cattle and burn their crops to see the prophecy fulfilled: the ancestors were expected to rise from the dead, to bring with them new, uncontaminated corn and cattle, and to drive the colonial usurper into the sea. The story activated the imaginative and creative energy of twentieth-century writers, to the point of being revisited several times and adapted to different literary genres (plays, poetry, short stories, novels, and films). In this essay, I discuss three narrative retellings of Nongqawuse’s story: Zakes Mda’s The Heart of Redness (2000), Sindiwe Magona’s Mother to Mother (1998), and Mtutuzeli Matshoba’s “Three Days in the Land of a Dying Illusion” (1979). My purpose is to highlight the quality of literary inventiveness and technical experimentation that the dialogue, with a deeply suggestive historical past, is able to bestow on contemporary narratives – also on a kind of fiction, like Matshoba’s, traditionally considered more documentary and didactic than literary and imaginative.
The Story of Nongqawuse
in South African Twentieth-Century Fiction
Giuliana Iannaccaro
The story of Nongqawuse – a young Xhosa prophetess who in 1856 claimed
to be the bearer of a message from the ancestors – was told and re-told
orally in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, throughout the nineteenth and
the twentieth centuries. The Xhosa population were to slaughter their
cattle and burn their crops to see the prophecy fulfilled: the ancestors were
expected to rise from the dead, to bring with them new, uncontaminated
corn and cattle, and to drive the colonial usurper into the sea. The story
activated the imaginative and creative energy of twentieth-century writers,
to the point of being revisited several times and adapted to different
literary genres (plays, poetry, short stories, novels, and films). In this essay,
I discuss three narrative retellings of Nongqawuse’s story: Zakes Mda’s The
Heart of Redness (2000), Sindiwe Magona’s Mother to Mother (1998), and
Mtutuzeli Matshoba’s “Three Days in the Land of a Dying Illusion” (1979).
My purpose is to highlight the quality of literary inventiveness and technical
experimentation that the dialogue, with a deeply suggestive historical past,
is able to bestow on contemporary narratives – also on a kind of fiction,
like Matshoba’s, traditionally considered more documentary and didactic
than literary and imaginative.
Key-words: South Africa; 20th-century fiction; Nongqawuse
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 because there are people about
who deal in witchcraft.
(Peires 1989: 79).
These are the words of a prophecy uttered in 1856 by prophetess
Nongqawuse at the mouth of the Gxhara River, a few kilometres east
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of the Great Kei River, in the land of the Gcaleka Xhosa (present-day
Eastern Cape Province, South Africa). This version of the prophecy
is to be found in Jeff Peires’ work, The Dead Will Arise. Nongqawuse
and the Great Xhosa Cattle-Killing Movement of 1856-7 (1989). Here
Peires provides the most complete historiographical analysis of the
movement to this day and discusses the various nineteenth-century
sources that record the words of a prophecy delivered by a fifteen-
year-old Xhosa girl, Nongqawuse, “on a certain day in April 1856
(Peires 1989: 78)1. What happened next is history: between 1856 and
1857 a large number of Xhosa inhabitants of British Kaffraria and
the still independent territories east of the Kei River slaughtered
something like 400,000 head of cattle, in the hope of seeing the
prophecy fulfilled: the ancestors were expected to rise from the
dead, to bring with them new, uncontaminated corn and cattle, and
to drive the colonial usurper into the sea.
The violence of the Cattle-Killing Movement decreased
significantly early in 1858, leaving a destitute Xhosa population:
tens of thousands of people had starved to death, and an equal
number fled to the Cape Colony in search of means of subsistence
(which mainly meant becoming labourers and servants of the white
settlers). The weakened amaXhosa gradually lost the territories
of their forefathers, and by the end of the nineteenth century the
once independent Xhosaland was annexed to the British colonial
The story of Nongqawuse was told and re-told orally in the
Eastern Cape – “The story itself of course is a story that I’ve
always known, we all know that story, we grew up with it”, said
the novelist Zakes Mda in an interview (Mda 2013a: online); it was
revisited several times in twentieth-century literature and adapted
to different literary genres (plays, poetry, short stories, novels, and
films2). It is a story of extreme violence perpetrated on animals,
1 For an overview of the various phases of historiographical and literary research
on the subject, see Offenburger 2009. Helen Bradford’s articles re-assess the
importance of a gendered perspective and of black vernacular sources (see 1996
and 2007). In 2008 a special issue of African Studies was devoted to the Cattle-
Killing Movement (vol. 67, n. 2). Jennifer Wenzel’s Bulletproof (2009) explores the
literary and cultural “afterlives” of anticolonial prophecies, included the Xhosa
Cattle-Killing Movement.
2 Some examples regarding the genres not discussed here: there are plays in
the story of nongqawuse in south african twentieth-century fiction 193
which had terrible repercussions on the very people who inflicted
death on their livestock; it in turn stems from the violence exercised
by white colonialism on a population that towards the middle of the
nineteenth century was being progressively deprived of their land
and their means of subsistence.
The fictional twentieth-century retellings of the story of
Nongqawuse and the Cattle-Killing Movement present elements
of primary interest, not only because they feed on historiography
– thus contributing to revisiting an astonishing and controversial
episode in the colonial history of the Eastern Cape – but also
because they create a counter-narrative to the discourse of history
through aesthetic means. As literature, fictional rewritings are not
strictly bound to historical accuracy – which, in this case, is difficult
to achieve, given that events have been handed down mainly
through oral transmission. For this reason, twentieth-century fiction
succeeds in providing multiple readings of a complex phenomenon,
embedded in history, politics, literature, and religion (the Xhosa
millennial dream).
The technically innovative nature of post-apartheid South
African fiction is an undisputed topic. Once freed from the “intense
ideological pressure” (Coetzee 1988: 3) that the condition of legal
racial discrimination exercised on artists and intellectuals, South
African writers felt more at ease with literary experimentation,
which, in the main, had been considered rather suspiciously
in strongly politicised times, and which apparently called for
simplification, clarity, and ideological commitment to the cause of
liberation. It is therefore little wonder that a post-apartheid novelist
like Zakes Mda should weave the texture of his third novel, The
Heart of Redness (2000), in a literary mode that dismisses a linear
isiXhosa, like Mary W. Waters’ U-Nongqawuse (1924), and in English, like H. I.
E. Dhlomo’s, The Girl Who Killed to Save (Nongqause the Liberator), 1936; among
more recent plays, see Brett Bailey’s The Prophet, 1999. English and vernacular
poems about Nongqawuse are numerous (see Bradford 2007). Leon Schauder’s
short film Nonquassi appeared in 1939; Mda, Matshikiza and Newman’s television
docudrama Day of the Two Suns: The Trial of Xhosa Prophetess Nongqawuse was
distributed in 1999. Harold Scheub’s collection of oral retellings of South African
stories includes two versions of Nongqawuse’s story translated into English (see
Scheub 1996: 304-13). As can be seen from these titles, the name “Nongqawuse” has
different spellings.
194 giuliana iannaccaro
and authoritative narrative of events, setting up a dense dialogue
between present times and the narration of the past. This novel is
the first to be discussed here, for it engages closely with the story
of the Cattle-Killing Movement and the prophecy of Nongqawuse.
The second is Sindiwe Magona’s Mother to Mother (1998), which
dedicates only a few pages to the recounting of the prophetess’s
story; nevertheless, the connection with that past episode of South
African history is pivotal to understanding the perspective in
which the novel is written. Mother to Mother also breaks with the
convention of a linear plot, and some of its narrative strategies are
similar to those adopted in Mda’s The Heart of Redness.
A different question arises in the analysis of the third work
of fiction discussed here. In the 1979 collection of short stories
written by Mtutuzeli Matshoba, Call Me Not a Man, there is
a story entitled “Three Days in the Land of a Dying Illusion”,
where the homodiegetic narrator undertakes a long journey from
Johannesburg to Umtata (the former capital of the Republic
of Transkei, now spelt Mthatha and part of the Eastern Cape
Province). Once he has reached the land of the “dying illusion”,
he recalls the episode of Nongqawuse in a strikingly different
style from the literary mode employed both in the rest of the
collection and in the short story itself. “Three Days in the Land
of a Dying Illusion” thus helps highlight the quality of literary
inventiveness and technical experimentation that dialogue with a
deeply suggestive historical past is able to bestow on contemporary
narratives – not only, predictably, on post-apartheid novels like
Mda’s and Magona’s, but also on a kind of fiction that the last
thirty years of literary criticism have predominantly considered
more as political statements than as artistic expression. Already
from the mid-1980s, doubts regarding the formal value of
Matshoba’s Call Me Not a Man had been raised; he was accused
of not paying enough “attention to the special texture of literary
expression” (Sole 2001: 104)3 in his fiction and of representing
a sort of manifesto of the ideological stances of the Black
Consciousness Movement. “Three Days in the Land of a Dying
3 Here Kelwyn Sole reports the prevalent opinion of critics from the mid-1980s
onwards, but he reassesses Matshoba’s literary value. For a more recent, challenging
interpretation of Matshoba’s short stories see Wenzel 2008: 148-55.
the story of nongqawuse in south african twentieth-century fiction 195
Illusion” seems to tell a different story, though, at least as far as
literary inventiveness and aesthetic form are concerned4.
In discussing these three works of fiction I have decided to work
backwards. This means – as mentioned above – that my essay deals
first with Mda’s novel, published in 2000, and proceeds with the
analysis of Magona’s, which appeared only two years before, in 1998.
Only after examining the two post-apartheid novels do I engage in
the discussion of Matshoba’s “Three Days in the Land of a Dying
Illusion” (1979), written and published in the aftermath of the
Soweto Uprising (1976). This choice allows me to start by pointing
out the full potentialities of an encounter between contemporary
fiction and that specific episode of the South African past, since
Mda devotes the whole book to the intertwining of voices from a
present-day rural Xhosa village and the mid-nineteenth-century
Xhosa community living on the same land. Magona’s novel and
Matshoba’s short story engage with that episode only partially; after
the encounter with The Heart of Redness, a full appreciation of the
aesthetic role and of the significance of that prophecy in other works
of fiction will be possible.
Helen Bradford remarks that the story of Nongqawuse “soaked
up narrative energy” (Bradford 2007: 46). Not only did it generate a
relevant number of retellings, but it also fertilised them by shaping
their narrative structure in fresh and unusual ways. The Heart of
Redness enacts a dialogue between past and present which is
embedded in the structure of the novel itself: on the verge of the
twenty-first century (around 1998), the inhabitants of a Xhosa
village, Qolorha-by-Sea, situated at the mouth of the Gxhara River,
are still deeply divided on the question of Nongqawuse’s prophecy.
They live near the very pool where the young prophetess is said
to have received the first visit from the ancestors; the Believers are
those who still acknowledge the validity of the prophecy, and who
worship the memory of Nongqawuse as one of the many seers who,
4 David Attwell speaks of “a truism in discussions of black South African writing”
since the late 1960s, that is the lack of a “fully fledged experimentalism” (2005:
169). He rejects that generalisation, and identifies a kind of experimentalism “that
is both socially connected and aesthetically reflexive” (p. 179), with particular
reference to Njabulo Ndebele and Zakes Mda. His examination does not include
Matshoba’s narrative modes.
196 giuliana iannaccaro
during the first half of the nineteenth century, tried to improve the
chances of liberation from the colonial threat of an already destitute
population. The Unbelievers, instead, scornfully reject that version
of the story and despise the figure of the young prophet, who,
according to them, actually threw the still free Xhosas into the
clutches of the colonial invader. The division is historical:
[…] the cleavage caused by the great cattle-killing movement of 1856-57
cut right through the heart of the Xhosa kingdom, dividing the Xhosa into
two distinct parties: the majority amathamba (‘soft’ ones) or believers, who
accepted the truth of the cattle-killing prophecies, and the minority amago-
gotya (‘hard’ ones) or unbelievers, who rejected it. The names amathamba
and amagogotya were those used by the people themselves, and every Xho-
sa homestead, in deciding whether or not to slaughter its cattle, was forced
to choose between them. (Peires 1986: 443)
Mda’s narrative thus opts from the beginning for a non-univocal,
dialogical interpretation of the story of Nongqawuse, rejecting the
nostalgic mode and an uncritical recollection of a mythical past –
both attitudes that are left to certain characters at certain moments,
and are mainly presented with mild irony. The third-person narrator
portrays the two factions, and above all their leaders – Bhonco for
the Unbelievers and Zim for the Believers – with a combination of
irony and benevolence. The narrator’s status is ambivalent: he seems
part of the small community of a village he knows very well, since he
shares the cultural background and way of life of its inhabitants; at
the same time, though, he looks at his fellow-citizens’ idiosyncrasies
and often childish attitudes with detachment and with a hint
of amusement. This, for instance, is how he introduces the “war
between the Believers and Unbelievers”:
They are in competition in everything. The early manifestation of this
competition happened a few years ago when the Ximiyas bought a pine
dining table with four chairs. The family became the talk of the community,
since no one else in the village had a dining table those days. But Zim, of
the family of Believers, had to burst the Ximiya bubble by buying exactly
the same dining table, but with six chairs. […] Since then the war between
the two families has become a public one. (Mda 2003: 5)
Apart from the difficulty of getting acquainted with a story set in an
unfamiliar cultural milieu, non-South African readers also experience
the story of nongqawuse in south african twentieth-century fiction 197
a feeling of awkwardness when confronted with all the personal
and family names employed from the start. The initial perplexity is
bound to increase when, a few pages into the book, readers run into
a sudden change of perspective: the story is abruptly moved back
to the mid-nineteenth century, to the world of the Xhosa ancestors
who lived in that region one hundred and fifty years before.
History bursts into the narrative in the past tense (the sections
set in 1998 are told in the present tense) through the voice of an
omniscient narrator speaking in the third person and in the
somewhat more elevated style of an official chronicler. Like the
first, this narrator knows a great deal about the history, culture and
everyday life of the amaXhosa, but at the same time is acquainted
with what happens on the other side of the fence, in the headquarters
of the whites. At the time of Nongqawuse’s prophecy, the British
colonial forces were under the command of Cape governor Sir
George Grey. The fictionalised Grey is portrayed by the narrator
as the shrewd man he probably was: one who tried to subjugate the
native populations at the borders of the British colony not only by
force, but also through the gradual substitution of their traditional
leadership with British ‘chiefs’, magistrates and cultural habits5. The
narrator clearly deplores white rule and colonial robbery, but does
not really take sides between Believers and Unbelievers, and reports
even-handedly reasons and faults of both parties. For instance, the
way in which the historical Unbelievers let themselves be drawn into
the colonial net is explained by their desperate hope of containing
the burst of violence that had exploded among their brothers the
Believers, who, in their anti-colonial enthusiasm, were paradoxically
destroying their traditional way of life with their own hands.
The violence implicit in the prophecy is manifest. More than
the very words of Nongqawuse, which are similar to those used
by Jeff Peires in The Dead Will Arise6, it is her uncle Mhlakaza’s
5 Jeff Peires introduces the figure of George Grey in The Dead Will Arise as: “The
Artful Dodger of Governors” (1989: 45).
6 The historical background of The Heart of Redness is largely inspired by Jeff
Peires’ The Dead Will Arise; Mda himself acknowledges his debt to Peires in the
dedication of his novel and in various interviews. Offenburger found the textual
similarities between the two narrations so striking that he accused Mda of plagiarism
(see Offenburger 2008a and Mda’s response, also in 2008).
198 giuliana iannaccaro
explanation of her message to the whole community that gives voice
to aggressiveness:
The existing cattle are rotten and unclean. […] Destroy everything. The
new people who will arise from the dead will come with new cattle, horses,
goats, sheep, dogs, fowl, and any other animals that the people may want.
But the new animals of the new people cannot mix with your polluted
ones. So destroy them. Destroy everything. Destroy the corn in your fields
and in your granaries. Nongqawuse has told us that when the new people
come there will be a new world of contentment and no one will ever lead a
troubled life again. (Mda 2003: 54-5)
“Destroy” is a reiterated keyword, together with “new”, which
expresses the profound need for renovation and even purification
of people overwhelmed, not only by the pressure of a foreign
invasion, but also by a devastating cattle disease, a form of lethal
lungsickness probably brought to the Cape by Dutch ships carrying
contaminated livestock7. In addition, “as if lungsickness was not
enough, the maize in the fields was attacked by a disease that left it
whimpering and blighted. It crept through the roots and killed the
plant before the corn could ripen” (Mda 2003: 51). It is therefore up
to the more authoritative male spokesman of the female prophet to
spread a message of delivery from evil through violence and sacrifice,
and of a millenarian expectation of the healing intervention of the
The Heart of Redness thus combines two narrative strands, linked
by the choice of a non-assertive perspective: both narrators offer
multiple interpretations of events and of personal and collective
choices. Even the recounting of miracles and wonders is meant
to provide an external description of events (often uttered in an
elevated, prophetic tone) which tacitly combines with the temporary
adoption of the people’s point of view on the scene:
7 The epidemic of lungsickness imported from Europe is also historical. See Peires
1989: 70ff, and Offenburger 2008b.
8 On the millenarian aspect of the prophecy, see Peires (1989: 122-44) and Bradford
(2007: 63ff); Offenburger lists a number of works on millenarianism and the Cattle-
Killing Movement from the 1960s onwards (2009: 1440, note 53); Wenzel (2009)
deals with millenarian movements throughout.
the story of nongqawuse in south african twentieth-century fiction 199
The Man of the River appeared at the door of his hut, and after one word
from him people saw the star of the morning coming down from the sky
and placing itself on his forehead. Another word from him and the earth
shook and the mountains trembled. (Mda 2003: 16)9
The ambivalent status of the narration is also discussed by Richard
Samin, who believes that “this novel presents an epistemological
challenge to the inadequacy of dual thinking in post-apartheid South
Africa” (2008: 49): the creation of ambivalent situations undermines
dualistic patterns of thinking and removes “the barriers that exist
between animals and humans, the living and the dead, the wild and
the tame, tradition and modernity” (p. 55).
Tradition and modernity coexist in both narrative strands, and
are also combined in single characters or groups of people. The late
twentieth-century Unbelievers, for instance, who boast of being
on the side of progress and civilisation against backwardness and
tradition10 (all terms whose historical and social implications are
never fully specified by either party), regularly enact a complex
memory ritual entailing dance, wailing and a state of trance. In
that condition of subconsciousness they feel in connection with
the world of the ancestors, and take upon themselves to grieve
over the suffering induced by “the folly of belief of the era of the
child-prophetess” (Mda 2003: 73). The contest between traditional
Believers and progressive Unbelievers is sometimes turned into a
pun or a paradox, as when Bhonco indignantly affirms: “‘I do not
believe in progress,’ he shouts in a pained voice. ‘I am an Unbeliever.
None of us Unbelievers believe! We stand for progress!’” (p. 94).
Similarly, although in a much more tragic context, the nineteenth-
century Believers “watched […] in disbelief” the failure of the
9 See also the description of King Sarhili’s reception of the prophecy (Mda 2003:
10 The term “Redness” in the title of the novel also refers to the dichotomy between
progress and backwardness. Mda explained in a recent interview that the “red
people”, those who wore the traditional Xhosa costumes dyed in red ochre, were
considered backward and uncivilised. On the same occasion he denied having
chosen the title of his novel under the influence of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “It
has nothing to do with Heart of Darkness or anything like that, as some critics have
written.” (Mda 2013b: online).
200 giuliana iannaccaro
The novel also intertwines past and present through the recurrent
names of its characters, a choice which contributes to rejecting a unified
perspective both on the past and on the present. The devious John
Dalton of colonial times, a white soldier loyal to the white oppressor,
is also the one who speaks perfect isiXhosa and acts as interpreter
between the two cultures. His twentieth-century descendant John
Dalton need not retrace the violent steps of his ancestor, although he
retains the capacity to inhabit two worlds. The narrator speaks of him
as one who possesses “an umXhosa heart”, who speaks isiXhosa better
than most of the village people, and who was circumcised according
to custom: “He therefore knows the secret of the mountain. He is a
man” (Mda 2003: 8). The name of Qukezwa, too, recurs in past and
present sections of the book. At the time of the Cattle Killing she is a
Khoikhoi woman who marries the Xhosa Believer Twin. This “yellow-
colored wife” (p. 24) is regarded as an outsider by Twin’s brother and
friends, because she does not belong to their stock. Twin, instead, is
fascinated by the capacity of Qukezwa to immerse herself totally in the
natural environment, by her deep knowledge of the things of nature
and religion, by her faith in the Khoikhoi Gods and prophets that
she worships through deeply-felt rituals. Her counterpart in present
times is also different, a woman who does not conform, who is deeply
connected to the land – to nature and its marvels. Sometimes rash,
childish and full of herself, the modern Qukezwa is far from perfect,
like any other character in the book. She nevertheless fulfils her role as
mediator between nature and human beings, and succeeds in drawing
the protagonist Camagu to embrace the cause of the protection of the
natural environment from the menace of economic exploitation, and
from the less evident violence of a global, neo-colonial imperialism
which has set its sights on the spectacular landscapes surrounding the
village of Qolorha-by-Sea.
Narrative strategies like the intertwining of past and present
events, the ambivalence of open-minded, ironic and sometimes
dubitative narrators, the many-sided recounting of the same stories,
and the employment of the same names for characters who actually
link two periods in history and mark the distinction between them, all
concur in creating an intense and colourful narration, characterised
by the multiplicity of its perspectives11. The novel’s plurality does not
11 On the symbolic value of Qukezwa’s “split-tone singing” in The Heart of Redness
the story of nongqawuse in south african twentieth-century fiction 201
prevent it from suggesting an itinerary to well-being – among the
inhabitants of the same territory and also between them and their
environment; only, this itinerary is characterised by confrontation,
dialogue and the acknowledgment that thinking in stereotypes
and easy classifications leads to paralysis, and to the loss of key
opportunities to make this world a better place to live in.
Sindiwe Magona’s Mother to Mother is set in 1993, just on the
brink of the passage from the apartheid regime to a democratic
South Africa in 1994. This means that the events take place in the
very years that Mda’s novel deliberately left out of the picture: the
“Middle Generation” is sometimes evoked in The Heart of Redness
and its suffering is acknowledged, but the choice to sidestep the
horrors of apartheid is one of the strategies of the book and concurs
in its originality. Magona’s novel, instead, explores the violence of
those years in its manifold aspects: the extreme violence of murder;
the brutality of removing and relocating huge sections of the black
population, cramming them into dreary, unhealthy and overcrowded
townships; the obligations imposed on the black family, torn apart
in order to adapt to the social and economic organisation of white
society; the violence exercised on the young, deprived of their
childhood and of real opportunities to change their lot through
education. Lastly, the fury of words, cries, chants and slogans – the
auditory protagonists of daily life in the Guguletu of Mother to
Magona has recently envisioned a sort of inevitability of violence
for the contemporary South African novel. She defines trauma as “a
morbid condition produced by wounds of external violence” (2012:
93), and since that is the condition of a country traumatised for years
by an inhuman social organisation, it is “little wonder that the South
African novel is preoccupied with trauma. […] trauma is in the blood
for the people of South Africa; they can neither escape nor ignore
it” (p. 93). Accordingly, many of her writings deal with the late- and
post-apartheid condition of the destitute black population of South
Africa, beginning with her early autobiography To My Children’s
Children (1991), through her essays and interviews (see, for instance,
Attwell and Harlow 2000).
to suggest complexity and multiplicity, see Jacobs 2003, Samin 2008 and Schatteman
202 giuliana iannaccaro
Mother to Mother is no exception. In addition, it takes its cue from
an item in the news, which actually took place on 25 August 1993 in
Guguletu: the murder of Amy Biehl, a white American young woman
stabbed to death by a black mob. The girl, guilty only of imprudently
driving a friend home through the township, had gone to South Africa
as a Fulbright scholar to help the country prepare for the impending
democratic elections. In the “Author’s Preface” to the novel, Magona
makes it clear that the official version of events is only part of the
story: “What was the world of this young woman’s killers, the world of
those, young as she was young, whose environment failed to nurture
them in the higher ideals of humanity and who, instead, became lost
creatures of malice and destruction?” (p. v). Magona’s intention in
writing the book was thus to re-tell the story of Amy Biehl’s murder
from the perspective of the Guguletu community, employing the
point of view of the murderer’s mother but without disregarding the
tragedy of the absent mother of the story, the white American woman
who had lost her child. She therefore decided to use the form of the
unidirectional epistolary novel, written from mother to mother: a
structure that allowed her to show the other side of the coin without
losing the emphatic mood that had set her writing in motion.
It is a loosely-constructed epistolary novel, though. The form
of the letter is apparent at the beginning, when the homodiegetic
narrator Mandisa addresses Amy Biehl’s mother to tell her how
she feels, to ask her questions about her daughter, to attempt a
preliminary explanation of her son’s motives – and, lastly, to ask
for God’s forgiveness. After the incipit the narration develops
more as a diary, with each chapter marked by the same date, that
of the murder, and by a specific time in the day. Even the diary
form is only partially maintained: the recounting of the story starts
alternating between the inexorable progression of young Mxolisi
towards murder and Mandisa’s recollections of her childhood.
These recollections become the heart of the story, since they allow
the protagonist to show both what it is like to live and grow up
as a poor black woman in apartheid South Africa, and also where
her son actually comes from – that is, of what social and physical
surroundings he is the product12.
12 See Schatteman 2008: 282 for a discussion of the formal shifts of genre in Mother
to Mother.
the story of nongqawuse in south african twentieth-century fiction 203
The story of Nongqawuse makes its appearance only towards the
end of the novel, in chapter 10, as part of Mandisa’s recollections of
her girlhood. The suspicion that her son Mxolisi may be implicated
in the murder of Amy Biehl has just begun to take form in her mind;
crushed by events, the protagonist abandons herself to another of
the many memories of her past life that make up the book, and
that mainly deal with the relationship between adults and children.
The chosen relative, this time, is her paternal grandfather, who takes
it upon himself to set things right as far as the truth of history is
concerned: schoolchild Mandisa flatly recites to him what they have
learnt at school about Jan van Riebeeck and his arrival at the Cape
in 1652; to her grandfather’s question on whether her teachers had
told them anything about Nongqawuse, Mandisa replies: “‘She was
a false prophet who told people to kill all their cattle and they would
get new cattle on the third day’” (p. 175). The girl then adds that the
people obeyed “‘Because they were superstitious and ignorant’”.
The old man is filled with indignation: “‘These liars, your teachers’,
he said. ‘But, what can one expect? After all, they are paid by the
same Boer government … the same people who stole our land’” (pp.
175-6). This is the beginning of a conversation between grandfather
and granddaughter that ultimately provides the young mind with
a counter-narrative of history which was to shape her mode of
thinking for the rest of her life. Not only does she learn her people’s
truth regarding the story of Nongqawuse, but she also envisages for
the first time the possibility of entertaining an alternative version
of history, which discloses to her the questionable nature of the
interpretation of events. The old man’s narrative teaches her to look
at the many perspectives from which a story, and history, may be
told: “He explained what had seemed stupid decisions, and acts
that had seemed indefensible became not only understandable, but
highly honourable” (p. 183).
This story in the story in the story – the story of Nongqawuse
within the story of Mandisa’s youth, within the story of the murder
of Amy Biehl – thus seems to be one of the clues to the whole novel.
The final truth that Mandisa wants to pass on to Linda Biehl (the
silent mother in the epistolary exchange) does not really regard the
discovery of the boy’s guilt or the casting of the responsibility for
the tragedy on the superficiality and self-assurance of the white girl.
What Mandisa really discovers, and what she wants to convey, is
204 giuliana iannaccaro
that it is possible to be both guilty and innocent, both responsible
for one’s actions and a victim of the circumstances of one’s dreary
life and inadequate upbringing. Far from absolving her son from his
crime, she blames him sharply instead. Yet individual accountability
for a crime does not mean putting the whole burden of history on
the shoulders of a single person. It is possible to be guilty, and at the
same time to be the product of guilt13.
Once again, the literary choice of coming to terms with an
indefinable historical event, subject to manifold interpretations
but ultimately inexplicable, soaks up narrative energies. Both The
Heart of Redness and Mother to Mother – although very different
in style, subject matter and narrative mode – enact a dialogue
between past and present that results in fragmented narrations
with the partial overlapping of different stories. With the help of
Nongqawuse, the two novels essentially convey a multiple, non-
fixed perspective both on the past and on the present. In the
words of Renée Schatteman: “The Cattle-Killing is transformed
into present relations through its retelling, which grants each
writer the freedom to forgo judgment, embrace irresolution and
seek out transcendent answers or possibilities for contemporary
South Africa instead” (2008: 290).
What happens, then, when a narrative text which is meant to lead
the reader to embrace a specific ideological perspective meets and
incorporates the story of Nongqawuse? This is the case of the last work
considered here, that is, Mtutuzeli Matshoba’s short story “Three
Days in the Land of a Dying Illusion”, included in his collection
Call Me Not a Man (1979). Kelwyn Sole’s article “Political Fiction,
Representation and the Canon: The Case of Mtutuzeli Matshoba”
(2001) is particularly helpful to start looking at Matshoba’s fiction
in a different light from the general critical assessment of his work
belonging to the last quarter of the twentieth century. Sole remarks
13 In the Attwell-Harlow interview, Magona links the Cattle-Killing Movement
to the youth riots of 1976 in Soweto, and in general to the street violence of the
Eighties and early Nineties. She detects a path of collective degeneration in these
movements, which bring the entire community to despair (see 2000: 290). Meg
Samuelson remarks that “the incident of the fatal Xhosa Cattle-Killing of 1857 is
instrumental in understanding Magona’s vision of South Africa, past and present”
(see 2000: 239).
the story of nongqawuse in south african twentieth-century fiction 205
that, from 1984 onwards – after the strong criticism of Njabulo
Ndebele, who “subjected Matshoba and other Black Consciousness
writers to a wide-ranging and influential series of critiques” (2001:
105)14 – the literary fortune of that author as a writer of fiction
decreased rapidly and permanently. The very features of his prose
style which had earned him popularity from 1978 onwards, when
he started publishing short fiction in the weekly newspaper The
Voice and in Staffrider, became aesthetic flaws when literary tastes
changed. Sole points out, however, that the stylistic particularities of
Matshoba’s fiction and even its “idiosyncrasies” (p. 103) had already
been appreciated by early critics of his work. Although fully in
tune with the politically committed black literature of the Seventies
and the Eighties – which sided against the predominant aesthetic
convention of “liberal realism” to embrace instead the new mode
of “populist realism” (p. 104)15 – Matshoba’s stories intermingle
fiction with songs, poems, sound effects, “exegetical statements
and philosophical digressions”, besides writing “in the form of a
dramatic dialogue” (pp. 103-4)16.
My suggestion is that the incorporation of the story of
Nongqawuse within Matshoba’s short fiction brings with it
changes in style and in the use of narrative techniques; moreover, it
broadens the horizon of the short story and employs the dialogue
between past and present as an epistemological tool. Finally, it
renders the whole narration more imaginative and even visionary,
a feature which singles it out from the solid realism of the rest of
the collection.
A first element of distinction is the title: if compared with
other titles in the book, like “My Friend, the Outcast”, “Call
Me Not a Man”, “A Glimpse of Slavery”, and “Behind the Veil
of Complacency”, “Three Days in the Land of a Dying Illusion”
stands out as more imaginative and evocative, not strictly connected
14 Sole mainly refers to Ndebele’s article in Staffrider (“Turkish Tales”, 1984).
15 Sole draws the expression “populist realism” from Vaughan’s 1982 article.
16 Williams 1991 and MacKenzie 2002 discuss the transposition of oral forms into
Matshoba’s short stories. MacKenzie contends that Matshoba’s stories owe much
to African oral culture, but are unsatisfactory “as works of literature” (p. 355, italics
in the original).
206 giuliana iannaccaro
with the exposure of social injustice17. Its double meaning becomes
apparent when the narrator comments upon the “dying illusion”
concerning the recently established Republic of Transkei (1976), and
the historical “dying illusion” stemming from the failed prophecy
of Nongqawuse in 1857. Already from the title, therefore, the story
succeeds in establishing a relationship between past and present,
which discloses its full aesthetic potentialities with the advancement
of the plot.
However, there are many features that this short story shares with
the others. It may be useful to point them out first, in order to be
able to identify more clearly the ways in which it detaches itself from
the rest of the collection. The use of the narrator is one of them: in
each story of Call Me Not a Man a first-person narrator relates either
what happened to him personally, or what befell someone else –
an incident in another man’s life that he witnessed, heard, or even
overheard from the very mouth of the person involved. In addition,
this narrator is highly intrusive and addresses his readers directly
on a number of occasions: to elucidate a point, to call attention to
a given aspect of the story, to keep the link between storyteller and
audience alive, and also, typically, to instruct readers on the correct
perspective they should adopt to understand things rightly. Part of
the narrator’s task is clearly to educate his readers.
The plausibility of the stories is another stable feature of
the collection. Matshoba’s didacticism feeds on the faithful
representation of black people’s daily life towards the end of the
Seventies in a hostile environment, made up of violence and outright
injustice, but also of the petty viciousness coming from brutal and
corrupt policemen, stingy shopkeepers, ill-natured employers and
indifferent prison wardens. It is no wonder that characters are
represented as realistic and immersed in a realistic environment, even
at the expense of their individuality; the stereotypical description of
people and situations always lurks in the background.
In spite of all this, Sole is ready to reassess the literary craft of
Matshoba the storyteller as far as certain aspects of his narrative
technique are concerned. One of them is the complexity of the
17 Also “A Pilgrimage to the Isle of Makana” distinguishes itself from the other
titles: in Wenzel’s words, “[…] it indicates that [Matshoba’s] temporal and spatial
concerns are more complex than Ndebele allows” (2009: 145).
the story of nongqawuse in south african twentieth-century fiction 207
character of the narrator, who is “nuanced and carefully crafted
[…] he is self-deprecating, ironic, humorous and compassionate,
with an inquisitive, friendly and apparently open-minded streak”
(Sole 2001: 109). If this is true for all the stories of the collection,
once we get to “Three Days in the Land of a Dying Illusion” the
complexity and originality not only of the narratorial figure, but
also of the structure and texture of the narrative become apparent.
Here the protagonist tells his own story in a lively description of
his journey from Soweto to Umtata; although events take place
in present times, the relationship of Xhosaland with its past
is the real focus of interest. Once the main character reaches
Transkei, he is struck by the traditionally-dressed Xhosa women,
who remind him of nineteenth-century history and the legends
of that territory. This intrusive narrator addresses his readers to
justify his “interpositions” and state the importance of the past in
understanding the present:
Please pardon the interpositions, dear reader. I find it hard to look at a
country without its historical background looming over it. Maybe this is
because of my belief that what is today is determined to a great extent by
what happened in the past. (pp. 150-1)
Issues of land and cattle, raised by the passengers on the bus going
to Umtata, link past and present even more clearly. The question
raised by an “indomitable Xhosa woman”: “Where were the men
when the land and cattle were lost?” (p. 156), may well refer to the
nineteenth-century frontier wars against the British, but the question
is immediately applied to the 1970s, to the connivance of the black
leaders who accepted the so-called independence of the Transkei,
thus destroying the last hope of ever developing the economy of
that territory. As soon as the bus reaches Umtata, the narrator feels
carried back to a past age, and the name of Nongqause (alternative
spelling for Nongqawuse) makes its first appearance. He remembers
that the girl’s “tragedy” had occurred in the Transkei:
[…] the vision came back to my mind in clear detail as we hurtled towards
Umtata, for seemingly it is repeating itself during this, my own lifetime.
In order to understand my interpretation of past and present events in
relation to each other, I think it is necessary to review the tale I heard from
my instructional voices. (p. 164)
208 giuliana iannaccaro
The narrator thus has a “vision”, just like the nineteenth-century
Xhosa girl. His recollection of her story is the fruit of a sudden image
which imposes itself upon his mind and asks to be interpreted. This
timeless vision puts “past and present events in relation to each
other”, thus working as an epistemological tool to understand
both; more than in the events themselves, though, the narrator is
interested in his own interpretation of them, which dates back to
his school days. Actually this character, even as a boy, found it hard
to believe the story of Nongqawuse as it was told by the teacher.
Unlike Mandisa in Mother to Mother, who is instructed twice (once
by the teacher, and then by her grandfather) and receives both
lessons passively, Matshoba’s narrator constructs his own version of
the story from an early age – and it is a version full of creativity and
imagination, told in evocative, even prophetic language.
The narrator’s recollection of the way in which he had learnt
about Nongqawuse’s prophecy is told in the form of a dialogue
between the authoritative version of history provided by the
educational system and the young boy’s reception of it. The alternate
use of italics and Roman script helps the reader to visualise the way
in which the schoolboy actualised the teacher’s words as soon as
they were uttered:
The voice could not be wrong. It was the instructor’s and what’s more he
was reading from a book, and never a book was wrong:
Nearly a hundred years ago, a little more than that. You must remember
that. In eighteen fifty-six …
I thought that my father should be about that age. […]
He went on and on about a tale which I found hard to believe. For that
reason I tried to construct my own version of the story: the conquest, the
dispossession and the vision. (Matshoba 1979: 165)
After this introduction, the story of Nongqawuse begins, and the
literary style changes. The intrusive narrative voice disappears, and
the reader is plunged into a more traditional storytelling mode, in
which an omniscient narrator reports in the past tense and in the
third person the thoughts and feelings of his characters. The register
switches from the colloquial, dialogical and sometimes brusque tone
of the first part of the short story to a more elevated, almost lyrical
style. The following passage describes the young maiden when, on
the banks of the river, she abandons herself to the silent pain that
the story of nongqawuse in south african twentieth-century fiction 209
the contemplation of the progressive decline of the land and the
people arouses in her soul:
For some time she did not say anything but surrendered herself to her
thoughts and the feelings of her soul. The feelings brought tears to her
eyes, which overbrimmed and made little streams down the white desert
of her face, the cheeks that were caked with ingxwala, the white stone. (p.
Matshoba even makes use of the classical topos of the reflection
in the water of the protagonist’s face to suggest the girl’s sudden
awareness of her own feelings through self-recognition (see p. 167).
The girl wishes she could be “a custodian of custom and tradition”
(p. 167), and longs to know what is to be done to save her people.
What follows lies at the borders of plausibility. It is true that the
prophecy stems from the depths of the maiden’s mind – and not
from the voice of strangers magically speaking from a bush or rising
from the water of a pool; but it is also true that she receives it from
two different voices speaking alternately inside her, “as if the two
voices of her mind were holding conference […]” (p. 169). The story
seems to suggest that what Nongqawuse hears on the banks of the
river is, and at the same time is not, the message of the amathongo,
of the ancestors.
The notion of collective sacrifice then makes its appearance,
announced by the second voice:
“To avert the disaster, there must first be a great sacrifice. The people must
sacrifice their very existence. […] When the livestock pens are empty and
the land is parched they will long for all that was lost and they shall be
forced to go over the mountains to reclaim it.” (pp. 170-1)
Among the various historiographical interpretations of the Cattle-
Killing Movement, Matshoba’s version seems to validate the notion
that the Xhosa chiefs used the story of the prophecy to spur their
people to action, relying on the consequences of the collective
sacrifice: starvation and despair18. Similarly rational – and definitely
revolutionary – appears the interpretation of the eschatological
18 For an overall but concise discussion of the historiographical interpretations of
the movement (the “chiefs’ plot” / “Grey’s plot” theses) see Offenburger 2009.
210 giuliana iannaccaro
aspect of the prophecy: the narrator does not really imagine an
uprising of the ancestors to drive the white usurpers into the sea;
it is the people who shall rise like a hurricane and free themselves
from the colonial usurper (see p. 178).
It is clear that Nongqawuse’s story suited the general purpose of
the author of Call Me Not a Man, which was to spur black people
to break their chains by becoming aware of the racial and social
oppression they were subjected to. But instead of using the same
narrative strategies as are found in the other stories (and among
them, the device of an intrusive narrator who explains things clearly
and unequivocally), the relationship between past and present is
exposed in a different narrative style which allows for uncertainty
and doubt and explores the psychological agony of a by no means
typical young Xhosa woman. Far from being represented in
stereotypical traits, both the protagonist and her father Mhlakaza
rise to the status of fully individualised characters.
Despite the political assumptions underlying Call Me Not a
Man, “Three Days in the Land of a Dying Illusion” is differently
constructed and differently told when it comes to the rewriting – and
the re-imagining – of the story of Nongqawuse. Matshoba succeeds
in imbuing his narration with an aura of sacredness and wonder
which suggests the possibility of multiple interpretations of events.
His rendering of this story of violence, just like Magona’s and Mda’s,
is built on the overlapping of different narrative strands which make
use of the past as an epistemological tool to offer new perspectives
on the present. Above all, the story of Nongqawuse opens up the
possibility to explore different aesthetic forms – a possibility seized
not only by the late twentieth-century novels of Magona and Mda,
but also by Matshoba’s strongly political, committed narrative of
the late Seventies. Like the powerfully constructed character of his
Nongqause, Matshoba believed that “the clans should unite – and
actually helped to seek this togetherness by the infinite stretching of
[his] imagination” (p. 173).
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... Nongqawuse had but voiced the unconscious collective wish of the nation: rid ourselves of the scourge … Thus Mxolisi, the killer, became 'the blind sharpened arrow of the wrath of his race' (Magona 1998:210). By including Nongqawuse's prophesy, Magona is able to perform two significant narratorial actions: she can re-enter the history from the colonial voice, which deemed the cattle killing superstitious foolishness, to the African nucleus that respects and reverences the ancestral voice offering a miraculous solution to the white incursion (Iannaccaro 2014). Furthermore, she is able to explain how 'a traumatised history of subjugation had prepared the youth to fight' (Shober 2014). ...
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The recent attention to decolonisation in academia and other facets of the sociopolitical landscape has encouraged many to re-examine their tenets of faith and their methods of incorporating personal expressions of spirituality into their decision-making processes. The significance of faith practices for South Africans as they manoeuvre the challenges of navigating the post-apartheid context has been acknowledged across a number of disciplines, including law, education and healthcare. Yet for decades, South African writers have seamlessly included religious thought and practice into their works, evidencing the subtle influence of faith and tradition in their prose. For many, their religious faith has been vital to their identity development and cultural expression, and synonymous with their liberation. This article examines these metaphoric realities in the cohesive interplay of African traditions and western Christianity in the oeuvre of recognised black South African writer Sindiwe Magona.
Modern Fiction Studies 46.1 (2000) 227-245 Sindiwe Magona's autobiography, To My Children's Children (1990), and her fictionalized account of the Amy Biehl killing, Mother to Mother (1998), provide a rich comparative framework in which to consider the construction of the narrating voice and the addressee. To My Children's Children is Magona's first publication and Mother to Mother her most recent, so, not surprisingly, reading them together reveals a shift in the authorial stance. More interestingly, the juxtaposition of these two texts, poised across the historical rupture of South Africa's transition into a democracy ("this cusp time" [Boehmer, "Endings" 45]), reveals a change in the construction of the South African subject. This latter claim is based on Declan Kiberd's observation that, during the highly charged moment of nation building, "autobiography in [the nation] becomes, in effect, the autobiography of [the nation]" (119). Although Magona's second narrative purports to be historical fiction and not autobiography, there are obvious similarities between the lives of the two central characters, Magona and Mandisa. These similarities suggest that Magona is inserting the details of her own story into Mandisa's narrative in order to reinscribe their meanings and write herself into a new identity more in tune with the discourses of the "New South Africa." The narrating voices and addressees constructed by the two texts are explicitly foregrounded in their titles. The voices that speak both proclaim themselves to be maternal voices, speaking either to Magona's grandchildren -- in the first instance -- or to another mother -- in the second. These two voices differ in important respects, but both ensure that the "I" speaking these stories is presented as having a relational identity ("talking," in both cases, "to" another). This is an identity that has been crucial in defining black South African literature in the wake of the Black Consciousness Movement, which defined attention to the individual as shameful self-indulgence. Thus, the specter of individuality that haunts Magona's writing act is carefully exorcised and the acts of self- (re)construction are camouflaged. To My Children's Children opens by locating the speaking act (recourse is made to the oral, not written, tradition) in the culturally specific role of a Xhosa grandmother. Although there are (repressed) schisms within this voice, it sets itself up as one that emerges from a stable identity. The proclaimed aim of this autobiographical act (telling "my" story) is to conserve, record, and transmit the culture and traditions of "my people"--the amaXhosa -- to her grandchildren (1). Here we see Magona justifying the "private" act of autobiography (writing the self) by turning it into a communal act, locating it within a culturally ordained, "authentic" sphere: orally transmitted cultural values. Thus the constructed voice and its placing of the addressee deflect the individualism implied in the act of writing. That the narrator's voice slips out of its ostensible function as a communal voice (and reveals this to be a rhetorical strategy) becomes apparent when Magona drops the address to the "child of the child of my child" after the fourth chapter, only to hastily recover it in the closing sentence. The maternal identity, I will therefore argue, should not be taken purely at face value but should be read far more ambivalently as a voice torn by competing pressures. On the one hand, Magona is invoking textual strategies in order to write her story within the conventional politics of the time. On the other, we cannot but help see this device of constituting herself as a mother in/of the community as being, at times, a screen behind which Magona attempts the more private act of recuperating a stable individual self. What the voice she constructs claims to conserve is the locus of community as Magona situates this speaking self within "a place to which [she] belonged with a certainty that nothing has been able to take from [her]" (1). This "place" is soon qualified: it "means less a geographical locality and more a group of people with whom [she is] connected and to whom [she] belong[s]" (1-2). This is the world of ubuntu: "a people-world, filled...
The Heart of Redness is a work of fiction and not a history textbook. Historical record is only utilized in the novel to serve my fiction–to give it context, for instance. In the historical segments the fiction centers on the patriarch Xikixa, his sons Twin and Twin-Twin, and his daughter-in-law Qukezwa. All these are fictional characters created from my imagination. But the world they inhabit comes directly from historical record (Jeff Peires' The Dead Will Arise) and from the oral tradition. For instance, when my characters migrate as a result of the lungsickness they are led to new pastures by the stars known as the Seven Sisters, they pray for guidance to Tsiqua and his son Heitsi Eibib and they perform their rituals on the cairns that they occasionally find on the crossroads. This journey is not informed by historical record but by the oral tradition of my mother's people, the Cwerhas of the Gxarha sub-clan, descendant from the Khoikhoi people. But when my fictional characters interact with historical characters such as Mlanjeni, Mhlakaza and Nongqawuse the events surrounding these characters come directly from Peires's book. That is why I have credited Peires in all editions and translations of The Heart of Redness as the sole source for all my material that comes from historical record. However he is not the source for the oral tradition from which I draw. Peires does not deal with Khoikhoi cosmology in his book. Nor does he mention King Sarhili's nature reserve. My source for this was the trader Rufus Hulley who is also credited in my book. It is not an accident that Peires is my sole source of historical record. His book had all the information I needed for the context for my fiction. There was therefore no need for me to replicate his work by going back to his primary sources. Peires had done all the research for me, and for anyone else who wanted to use his book, in a most meticulous manner. My intention in the novel was never to interrogate Peires and his interpretation of the Cattle Killing; it was never to "challenge or revolutionize" (I think I have "revolutionized" enough with my fictional character Camagu, the Aristocrats of the Revolution, and the saving of Qolorha-by-Sea from environmental rape). I was quite satisfied with Peires' version of events not because it presented the sole "truth," but because it served my fiction effectively. I was not creating a scholarly work but a work of fiction. I could have easily consulted other historians who have written on the subject as well, but Peires's work spoke to me because it had the necessary ontological elements in it, and captured the myths and beliefs as I remembered them growing up among the amaXhosa people. One of the strategies of my fiction is the portrayal of local beliefs and myths as part of objective reality. Wendy Faris has observed that "in magical realist narrative, ancient systems of beliefs and local lore often underlie the text" (182). I may add that they are often depicted in a deadpan manner, as if they do not contradict our laws of reason. That is why my Nongqawuse flies with the crows from a river to a distant pool (oral tradition) and Mlanjeni lights his pipe with the rays of the sun and dances until his sweat causes rain to fall (also from the oral tradition, but recorded in Peires). The distinction between The Heart of Redness and the other Nongqawuse narratives that the author cites is that in my novel Nongqawuse is not the central figure but the backdrop. My story is not about her, but about my principal fictional characters, both in the past and the present, whose lives were affected by her prophecies. If Nongwawuse had been the central character then I would have felt the need to "challenge" and "revolutionize." Under the circumstances if I had done that she would have assumed center-stage and would have hijacked the story from Camagu, Qukezwa, John Dalton, Zim, and Bhonco in the present, and from Twin, Twin-Twin, Qukezwa, John Dalton and Xikixa in the...
A substantial minority, perhaps 15 per cent of all Xhosa, refused to obey the prophetess Nongqawuse's orders to kill their cattle and destory their cornl. This divided Xhosaland into two parties, the amathamba (‘soft’ ones, or believers) and the amagogotya (‘hard’ ones, or unbelievers). The affiliation of individuals was partly determined by a number of factors – lungsickness in cattle, political attitude towards the Cape Colony, religious beliefs, kinship, age and gender – but a systematic analysis of each of these factors in turn suggests that none of them was sufficiently important to constitute the basis of either party. The key to understanding the division lies in an analysis of the indigenous Xhosa terms ‘soft’ and ‘hard’. ‘Softness’ in Xhosa denotes the submissiveness of the individual to the common will of the community, whereas ‘hardness’ denotes the determination of the individual to pursue his own ends, even at communal expense. Translated into social terms, the ‘soft’ believers were those who remained committed to the mutual aid ethic of the declining precolonial society, whereas the ‘hard’ unbelievers were those who sought to seize advantage of the new opportunities offered by the colonial presence to increase their wealth and social prominence. The conflict between the social and personal imperatives was well expressed by Chief Smith Mhala, the unbelieving son of a believing father, when he said, ‘They say I am killing my father – so I would kill him before I would kill my cattle.’ Certainly, the division between amathamba and amagogotya ran much deeper than the division between belief and unbelief, and the Xhosa, in conferring these names, seem to have recognized the fact.
That many studies in African and imperial history neglect women and gender is a commonplace. Using a case-study – the British Cape Colony and its frontier zones – this article attempts to demonstrate some consequences of this neglect. It argues, firstly, that it generates empirical inaccuracies as a result of the insignificance accorded to gender differentiation and to women themselves. Secondly, representations of women as unimportant, and men as ungendered, result in flawed analysis of both men and the colonial encounter. This view is argued in detail for two events: an 1825 slave rebellion and an 1856–7 millenarian movement. The article concludes that if gender and half the adult populace are marginalized in this way, the price is frequently interpretations which have limited purchase on the past.