The Most Destructive Influences on Christianity in South Africa #1: Nongquase the Xhosa Prophetess

The following is an excerpt from Dr Kevin Roy’s book “Zion City RSA” with a few alterations, additions and subtractions by me to make it more suitable for the blogging format. For the full bibliography see the bottom of the article

It was the early 1800’s, the time of Ntsikana (read his story here) a young man named Makanna (also known as Nxele) had heard the gospel from the same man as Ntsikana, but somehow developed a very different theology. Makanna become a prominent stubborn war-doctor, who meshed together the limited knowledge he heard from the bible about the true God with his own pagan beliefs. He ‘prophesied’ that the ancestors would rise from the dead to help the Xhosa drive the white people into the sea.

Nongqawuse_and_NonkosiYears later a young girl by the name of Nongquase and her uncle Mhlakaza designated 18 February 1857 as the day of deliverance and restoration that was ‘prophesied’ by Makanna around 17 years earlier.

This Nongquase claimed to have spoken with the spirits of the old heroes of the tribe, these ‘spirits’ said that they had witnessed with sorrow the ruin of their race through the oppression of the conquerors from overseas; and as they would no longer be silent spectators of the wrongs and insults, it was their intention to come to the rescue and save their offspring from destruction. They would appear once more in the flesh among their people, but they would not do so until the nation exterminated all animals both great and small with the exception of horses and dogs. The corn-pits in the cattlefolds were to be emptied of grain, which must be cast away, and the fields were to be left untilled. As soon as these commands were obeyed, vast herds would emerge from the ground, the country would smile again with corn, and there would be plenty for everyone. There was, in short, to be a resurrection of men and of cattle for their survival. The arrival of the resurrection would be preceded by a terrible whirlwind, which would sweep all unbelievers who had refused to obey the orders of the spirits, and along with them all White men, into the sea.

As with many false teachers before and since, the country soon resounded with stories of wonders witnessed at the ‘prophet’s’ village. There were claims that horns of oxen could be seen peeping from beneath the rushes which grew round a swampy pool near the village of the seer. Others heard of thousands of cattle heards knocking their horns together and bellowing in caverns, impatient to rise, waiting only until all their fellows who still walked the earth were slain; dead men, years in the grave, had been met, sending wretched appeals to their kindred not to delay their coming back to life by refusing to obey the prophet.

Andrew Nhlangwini from the series 'The prophecy of the Cattle Killing of 1856/7 known as the Ibali lika Nongqawuse' oil on canvas

Andrew Nhlangwini
from the series ‘The prophecy of the Cattle Killing of 1856/7 known as the Ibali lika Nongqawuse’
oil on canvas

Soon all over the country, and particularly among the Gcaleka tribe, cattle began to be slaughtered. Traders bought hundreds of hides in a day. Feasts were everywhere, but it was impossible to consume it all. Dogs were gorged on fat beef, vultures were surfeited, whole carcasses were left to putrefy, and the air became tainted with corruption.

After ten months under this terrible delusion the prophetess announced that within eight days all cattle must be killed. The preparations made during these days kept everyone busy. Cattlefolds were immensely enlarged so as to receive the huge herds that were to arise out of the ground. Corn-pits were cleaned in readiness for the abundant corn that would pour in. Huts were re-thatched so as to resist the coming storm. Not even a fowl was left alive to disturb the awaited, awesome morn.

On the eighth day – February 16th, 1857 – heaven and earth, it was said, would come together amid darkness, thunder, lightning, rain and a mighty wind, by which the unbelievers would perish. The sun would rise blood-red and double, and at noon would suddenly descend not to the west but to the east[i].

Eastern Cape King William’s Town

The ‘great day’ came and went, and the jubilant expectation of thousands was turned into the darkness of misery and starvation. It is estimated that some 40 000 people died of starvation while another 40 000 were forced to become labourers in the colony. The population of the frontier areas was reduced to nearly a third of its former number. It was indeed a dark hour for the Xhosa people, but a brighter day was coming. In the years following the disaster of the cattle killing amazing spiritual movements were to advance the cause of Christ among the Xhosa. The gates of hell did not prevail against the building of Christ’s Church.



This paper is an extract from the following book, with a few additions and edits by me: Roy, Kevin . Zion City RSA. The Story of the Church in South Africa.  (Cape Town, South African Baptist Historical Society 2000); Hofmeyr, J. & Pillay, G. J., 1994. A History of Christianity in South Africa. Pretoria: HAUM Tertiary

[i] Davies, H. & Shepherd, R.H. South African Missions 1800-1950 (Edinburgh, Thomas Nelson, 1954), pp.38-41. Abbreviated from Brownlee, Chalmers & Govan.
Main Source: Roy, Kevin . Zion City Rsa. The Story Of The Church In South Africa. (Cape Town, South African Baptist Historical Society 2000)  page 59

  1 comment for “The Most Destructive Influences on Christianity in South Africa #1: Nongquase the Xhosa Prophetess

  1. March 13, 2015 at 11:04 am

    Fascinating. What happened to Nongquase and her uncle Mhlakaza?

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