Bulletproof: Afterlives of Anticolonial Prophecy in South Africa and Beyond
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University of Chicago Press
Bulletproof: Afterlives of Anticolonial Prophecy in South Africa and Beyond

Bulletproof: Afterlives of Anticolonial Prophecy in South Africa and Beyond

by Jennifer Wenzel
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In 1856 and 1857, in response to a prophet’s command, the Xhosa people of southern Africa killed their cattle and ceased planting crops; the resulting famine cost tens of thousands of lives. Much like other millenarian, anticolonial movements—such as the Ghost Dance in North America and the Birsa Munda uprising in India—these actions were meant to transform the world and liberate the Xhosa from oppression. Despite the movement’s momentous failure to achieve that goal, the event has continued to exert a powerful pull on the South African imagination ever since. It is these afterlives of the prophecy that Jennifer Wenzel explores in Bulletproof.

Wenzel examines literary and historical texts to show how writers have manipulated images and ideas associated with the cattle killing—harvest, sacrifice, rebirth, devastation—to speak to their contemporary predicaments. Widening her lens, Wenzel also looks at how past failure can both inspire and constrain movements for justice in the present, and her brilliant insights into the cultural implications of prophecy will fascinate readers across a wide variety of disciplines.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226893471
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 08/15/2009
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Jennifer Wenzel is assistant professor of English at the University of Michigan.

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Copyright © 2009 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-89348-8

Chapter One


The Cattle Killing and Other Nineteenth-Century Millennial Dreams

By listening to the Word a struggle commenced within me, and I felt as if I had two hearts, the one loving the Word, and the other hating it.


Words do not perish.


We must die to continue living.


"In the year 1856, two girls went out to the lands to keep the birds away from the corn": so we read in a rare account written by a Xhosa witness to the events of 1856–57. It narrates a strange encounter between one of the young women, Nongqawuse, and men claiming to be "people who ... died long ago." Her people initially thought she was "'telling stories'" when she returned home and claimed that the "whole community" would "rise from the dead," bringing with them stores of grain and herds of cattle (71). But her message was embraced with tragic conviction when her father, Mhlakaza (most sources say he was her uncle), and the chiefs and councilors accepted that Nongqawuse had been chosen as a medium. Having complied with demands to kill their cattle, abstain from agriculture, and refrain from witchcraft, "the people died of hunger and disease in large numbers" when the returned people, cattle, and grain failed to appear. The story concludes, "Thus it was said that whenever a person said an unbelievable thing, those who heard him, said: 'You are telling a Nongqawuse tale'" (75). This pithy moral closes the narrative, like an etiologic folktale that explains natural phenomena or social customs. In this case, however, the narrative explains a historical event in which at least 40,000 people and 400,000 cattle died and approximately 50,000 survivors left their devastated homesteads to seek work and food in the Cape Colony. Those who remained were forced into villages, and the amaXhosa lost more than 600,000 acres of land.

This narrative was written by William Wellington Gqoba, who was sixteen years old during what he called the "Nongqawuse period"—approximately the same age as the young woman who shares a name with the catastrophic events of 1856–57. Gqoba wrote his account three decades later, across a cultural divide separating him from Nongqawuse and her followers. He had become a preacher, poet, and journalist, a member of the mission-educated elite beginning to emerge when millenarian prophecies spread among the amaXhosa in the 1850s. From 1885 until his death in 1888, Gqoba edited Isigidimi samaXhosa (Xhosa Messenger), a newspaper published in isiXhosa by the Lovedale mission press. He printed his cattle-killing account in Isigidimi in 1888.

Although Gqoba was affiliated with institutional mission Christianity, his narrative challenged colonial understandings of the cattle killing. Most accounts by nineteenth-century administrators, missionaries, and historians held that the cattle killing originated as a conspiracy among Xhosa chiefs to starve their people, thereby driving them to war against the Colony. Gqoba rejects this colonial consensus about a Xhosa "chiefs' plot," a consensus he fears is generating confusion among the amaXhosa about their ancestors' actions in the 1850s. Dismissing the idea of a chiefs' plot, Gqoba explains that the amaXhosa were faced with two choices: accepting the strangers' miraculous promise or "becom[ing] the subjects of the chief named Satan ... mounted on a grey horse," Sir George Grey, governor of the Cape Colony from 1854 to 1861 (73). The Xhosa predicament is figured as a choice between subjugation to demonic colonial forces and obedience to ancestors making compelling and timely but ultimately impossible promises. In Gqoba's version, the cattle killing was an anticolonial movement, but in the sense of sidestepping colonial domination rather than fomenting a frontal attack. Furthermore, in keeping with his depiction of Grey as Satan, Gqoba described Nongqawuse's followers as amagqoboka, the term for Christian converts: remarkably, given his attachment to mission institutions, his account posits the cattle killing as what Helen Bradford calls an "Africanised Christianity" with an "anti-imperialist theology."

Gqoba's narrative also diverges from the causal logic in Xhosa understandings of the episode. Xhosa oral tradition, as recorded in the twentieth century, maintains that the Nongqawuse (the event, as it is known in isiXhosa) was in effect a European chiefs' plot, a hoax perpetrated by Grey to destroy Xhosa autonomy and seize their land. Positing the cattle killing as an alternative to subjugation to the "chief named Satan," Gqoba's account differs significantly from Xhosa interpretations of the Nongqawuse as a deceitful mode of conquest orchestrated by Sir George Grey.

I begin with Gqoba's account not to posit it as authoritative but, rather, because it unsettles these standard interpretations of the events of 1856–57. Indeed, contingent notions of authority and obscured networks of interest that "authorize" cattle-killing narratives are my concern in this chapter as I map intersections between the cattle killing and the technology of literacy. The dissemination of literacy began among the amaXhosa not long before the cattle killing and accelerated as starving survivors sought relief at Christian missions. Gqoba and his newspaper Isigidimi samaXhosa were fruits of this effort. Gqoba's narrative—and its complex textual history—offers an instructive and cautionary example of the transformations and distortions to which texts about the cattle killing have been subject, raising a number of issues at stake in this chapter.

Gqoba published his narrative in two installments of Isigidimi shortly before his death in 1888; an abridged version appeared in Zemk'inkomo magwalandini (There go your cattle, you cowards), a 1906 anthology edited by W. B. Rubusana that reprinted oral praise poetry (izibongo) and prose and poetry from isiXhosa newspapers like Isigidimi. It was this abridged version of Gqoba's narrative that isiXhosa novelist and critic A. C. Jordan translated into English and published as "The Tale of Nongqawuse." Jordan's translation of Rubusana's abridgment of Gqoba's narrative is the only published translation, and this chain of transmission has shaped our understanding of what Gqoba wrote about what he saw in the 1850s.

Rubusana's abridgment omitted much of Gqoba's second installment, and the pithy moral that concludes the story in English does not appear in the original Isigidimi version. Another important omission is the role of sexuality in Nongqawuse's prophecy. In Gqoba's original, Nongqawuse says that the strangers demanded not only slaughter, noncultivation, and the abjuring of witchcraft but also the cessation of illicit sexual practices—forms of pollution that necessitated the destruction of resources "reared with defiled hands." The young female prophet's injunctions against a range of male sexual behaviors addressed links between women and cattle in Xhosa sociosexual economies—an issue long underexplored in cattle-killing scholarship. The exchange, gift, or loan of cattle was necessary for contracting marriages among the amaXhosa; unmarried girls and young women were "'inkomo zomzi' (the cattle of the family) ... through which wealth in cattle comes to the home." Chiefs and senior men controlled access to cattle, which became a site of intergenerational conflict if elders were unwilling or unable to release them for young men to pledge as lobola (bridewealth). Cattle were in short supply in the 1850s, after losses during war, drought, famine, and a lung-sickness epizootic that claimed at least 100,000 cattle by 1856. Chiefs in British Kaffraria lost an important source of cattle when Grey proscribed their authority to levy judicial fines. Cattle shortages—and the consequent difficulty in contracting marriages—had led to a proliferation of illicit sexual relationships, premarital pregnancies, and abortions by the 1850s.

The lung-sickness epizootic provoked a crisis for a people whose identity, social relations, and survival were invested in cattle: this is the lesson of modern cattle-killing historiography. Although many writers address questions of gender in debating whether a young Xhosa woman—or a "crazy-headed girl," as the Xhosa Christian Nkohla Falati dubbed Nongqawuse in 1895—could claim the authority to speak publicly, the role of sexuality in Nongqawuse's prophecy has been obscured. This silence derives partly from the form in which Gqoba's narrative circulates in isiXhosa reprint and English translations. Rubusana's abridgment of Gqoba's account—and thus Jordan's influential translation—omitted any reference to illicit sexuality. In the most widely available version of Gqoba's account, subtitled "The Cause of the Cattle-Killing at the Nongqawuse Period," this cause of the cattle killing remains obscure.

Rubusana abridged Gqoba's text after his death; likewise, Jordan's translation appeared after his death in 1968, in Lotus: AfroAsian Writings, a quarterly published in Cairo by the Permanent Bureau of Afro-Asian Writers. The text that appeared in the April 1972 edition of Lotus represents another transmogrification of Gqoba's account: Lotus attributed this narrative, entitled "FOLKTALE: The Cause of the Cattle-Killing at the Nongqause Period," not to Gqoba but to Jordan himself. It was neither Jordan's nor a folktale; like Nongqawuse, its author was not merely "telling stories." The Lotus "folktale" elides not only Gqoba's authorship but also the rich history of nineteenth-century isiXhosa newspapers. As the editor of Isigidimi, Gqoba filled its pages with "articles on customs, traditions, and proverbs"; transcriptions of izibongo; and isiXhosa poetry modeled after English versification. Isigidimi ceased publication with Gqoba's death in 1888; it was succeeded by Imvo zabantsundu (Native Opinion) and Izwi labantu (The Voice of the People), which, unlike the Lovedale-published Isigidimi, were autonomous from the mission presses. Amidst late nineteenth-century consolidation of British colonial power, these newspapers provided a forum that could "mobilise African public opinion and bring pressure to bear on both colonial and imperial authorities." The construal in Lotus of this cattle-killing text as nontextual—that is, as Jordan's folktale—all but obscures its original status as an interventionist historical document. Gqoba's narrative itself becomes a "Nongqawuse tale"—a thing not to be believed.

The confusion in Lotus over Jordan and Gqoba, or the elision of sexuality in Rubusana's abridgment, may seem to be minor philological details. Yet the issues that they raise—orality and literacy, as mediated by the Lovedale mission press; voices from beyond the grave, whether heroic ancestors' or published authors'; narrative authority, inflected by competing gender ideologies; translation and the scholarly hegemony of English; international anti-imperialist movements and their limitations; the tension between literature and history, or between explaining a proverb and accounting for the death and dislocation of thousands of people—are central to my consideration of the immediate aftermath and continuing afterlife of the cattle killing. I read the cattle killing in terms of the literary, ideological, and material consequences of the dissemination of literacy in southern Africa in order to ask, what difference does literacy make in telling cattle-killing stories? That Nongqawuse has been both scapegoated within and erased from the historical record suggests the epistemological conundrums at the intersection of textual transmission and ideological interpretation. That an 1888 isiXhosa newspaper article appears in 1972 as a folktale told by a dead man illustrates how speaking and writing the words of others, whether one calls this prophecy, ventriloquism, plagiarism, citation, or translation, constrain the uses to which the cattle killing has been put since "Nongqawuse" returned with her tale in 1856.19 However much one might want to counter versions of the past accreted in the colonial archive with oral and/or indigenous understandings, the examples of the isiXhosa anthology Zemk'inkomo magwalandini and the anti-imperialist journal Lotus signal the difficulty of establishing impermeable distinctions between indigenous and colonial, literary and historical, oral and written.

Literacy was a crucial engine of the civilizing mission, a project undertaken by missionaries and colonial administrators to make of the amaXhosa a new people. I argue that we must understand Nongqawuse's millennial vision within the context of this competing millennial dream. The structure of prophecy can illuminate the import of literacy in the colonial encounter; the narrative plots and rhetorical figures through which the cattle killing was written into the archive reveal tensions between these competing dreams of the future at work in the eastern Cape. Authors treat the prophecy's magical aspects in metaphorical terms that expose their own implication in the material predicament of the decimated Xhosa.

I bring the tools of literary analysis to readings of historical documents in order to understand how stories written about the cattle killing are imbricated within the broader trajectory of Xhosa subjugation. The texts I examine in this chapter are nineteenth-century accounts written by colonial administrators, European missionaries, and Tiyo Soga, the first ordained Xhosa Christian minister. Reversing the logic of Nongqawuse's prophecy, Tiyo Soga describes literacy not as a challenge to Xhosa tradition but, rather, as its transmediating sustenance. Tiyo Soga's metaphorical recuperation of the cattle killing contrasts with accounts by European missionaries and administrators, in which the literary trope of peripety, or reversal, figures the Europeans' presence among the famished amaXhosa as providential. Eliding the technology of literacy on which they depend, these accounts are framed as stories that lavish figurative detail on anticipated visions in which their authors could not have believed. In a context where the dissemination of literacy was a key modality of colonial conquest—what Adam Ashforth has called "both a product of domination and form of domination"—these texts' engagements with questions of representation, narrative structure, and metaphor invite us to rethink the relationship between literacy and the cattle killing's aftermath.


Nongqawuse's followers were not the only people dreaming of different futures in the 1850s. Cattle-killing prophecies divided the Xhosa community in two, but both "submissive" believers and "unyielding" unbelievers were looking for change: the believers were "hoping for the regeneration of an old world, and the [unbelievers] grasping eagerly at the new." That is, believers awaited the restoration of autonomy, resources, land, and loved ones lost in nearly a century of colonial encroachment and armed conflict, while unbelievers saw future possibility in a nascent mercantile economy where cattle and grain were commodities rather than communal resources to be shared out by chiefs. Although believers and unbelievers disagreed most urgently over whether to kill cattle, their divergent visions of the future involved deeper questions. The unbelievers' embrace of innovation, as opposed to the believers' desire for renovation, was informed by (although not identical with) the hopes of Christian missionaries and colonial administrators to make of the amaXhosa a new people.


Excerpted from BULLETPROOF by JENNIFER WENZEL Copyright © 2009 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations


A Note on Terminology


1 Writing Resurrection and Reversal: The Cattle Killing and Other Nineteenth-Century Millennial Dreams

2 Spectral and Textual Ancestors: New African Intermediation and the Politics of Intertextuality

3 The Promise of Failure: Memory, Prophecy, and Temporal Disjunctures of the South African Twentieth Century

4 Weapons of Struggle and Weapons of Memory: Thinking Time beyond Apartheid

5 Ancestors without Borders: The Cattle Killing as Global Reimaginary

Works Cited


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