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Nongqawuse

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Nongqawuse and Nonkosi

Nongqawuse (right) with fellow prophetess, Nonkosi

Nongqawuse (c. 1840s – 1898) was the Xhosa prophetess whose prophecies led to a millennialist movement that culminated in the Xhosa cattle-killing crisis of 1856–1857, in what is now the KwaZulu Natal province of the Republic of South Africa.

In April or May 1856, the teenaged Nongqawuse and her friend Nombanda went to fetch water from a pool near the mouth of the Gxarha River. When she returned, Nongqawuse told her uncle and guardian Mhlakaza, a Xhosa spiritualist, that she had met the spirits of three of her ancestors.

She claimed that the spirits had told her that the Xhosa people should destroy their crops and kill their cattle, the source of their wealth as well as food. In return, the spirits would sweep the British settlers into the sea; they would also replenish the granaries and fill the kraals with more beautiful and healthier cattle. At the time, many Xhosa herds were plagued with "lung sickness", possibly introduced by European cattle, and many cattle were dying already.

Mhlakaza repeated the prophecy to Paramount Chief Sarhili. Sarhili ordered his followers to obey the prophecy, causing the cattle-killing movement to spread to an unstoppable point. The cattle-killing frenzy affected not only the Gcaleka, Sarhili's clan, but the whole of the Xhosa nation, and it is estimated that the Gcaleka killed between 300,000 and 400,000 head of cattle.

Nongqawuse predicted that the ancestors' promise would be fulfilled on February 18, 1857, when the sun would turn red. On the day, however, the sun rose the same colour as every other day and the prophecy was not realised. Initially, Nongqawuse's followers blamed those who had not obeyed her instructions, but they later turned against her.

In the aftermath of the crisis, the population of British Kaffraria dropped from 105,000 to less than 27,000 due to the resulting famine; in at least one case, people were reportedly forced to resort to cannibalism. Nongqawuse was arrested by the British authorities and sent to Robben Island. After her release she lived on a farm in the Alexandria district of the eastern Cape, and died in 1898.

Both Chief Sarhili and Sir George Grey, governor of the Cape at the time, have been accused of engineering the crisis through Nongqawuse. Those who blame Sarhili claim he intended to manipulate the famine-struck into attacking the British settlers. Grey's accusers – most Xhosa people today – believe he used Nongqawuse to deliberately weaken the Xhosa people.

Some historians have looked beyond individual actors and towards the structural influences that caused a desperate and penned-in set of people to embrace a millennialist movement, as many oppressed people have in many other past situations. To support this case, historians have cited the devastating epidemic of lung-sickness and the increasingly successful expansion of white power.

Today, the valley where Nongqawuse met the spirits is still called Intlambo kaNongqawuse (Xhosa for Valley of Nongqawuse).

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