Nongqawuse and the Great Xhosa Cattle-Killing: A sell-out or symbol of innocence?


Directed by Dutch filmmakers Eric van t’Wout and Nelleke Zitman, Nongqawuse and the Great Xhosa-Cattle Killing explores the slaughtering of isiXhosa cattle that took place between 1856 and 1857. It seeks to discover the unanswered questions about the prophetess Nongqawuse and the infamous crisis that has become a unique part of Xhosa history.

The documentary starts off with introducing Nongqawuse, a young woman who is undergoing ukuthwasa – training to become a sangoma. After going down to the Gxarha River to fetch water one day, she returns and tells her uncle that she met three spirits, whom she believed to be her ancestors. They told her that the Xhosa people must kill all their cattle and burn their crops so that the British settlers would be driven out, be healed of their sicknesses, and be replenished with fuller granaries and healthier cattle.

Photo: Supplied/National Arts Festival
Photo: Supplied/National Arts Festival

Only a few cows are killed as the Xhosa people are hesitant to slaughter their only source of food and wealth. Nothing changes, however, and Nongqawuse goes back to the river to consult the ancestors: with Nongqawuse declaring that the small killing was not enough, an estimated number of 180 000 cows are eventually killed in order to fulfill her prophecy. As a result, poverty and famine strikes the Xhosa people.

This creates a division among the Xhosa: the amaqaba – believers of Nongqawuse – and the non-believers, or amagqobhoka. Nongqawuse herself is arrested by the British authorities and imprisoned on Robben Island.

Nongqawuse and the Great Xhosa Cattle Killing presents different opinions on the major historical incident. There are still questions regarding the spirits or voices that Nongqawuse claimed to have seen, namely how they came to appear to her, if they really did exist, or if it was the plot of the white colonialists in order to gain power and control over the Xhosa people.

Professor Jeffery Peires guides viewers through the documentary and offers them different possibilities, as well as providing insights into the colonialists’ movements into Xhosa land and the imposition of imperial rule. It’s an important, thought-provoking and insightful addition to the body of isiXhosa history, and it’s strongly recommended for people both young and old to view this documentary.

The film will be screening again on 7 July at 9pm and 8 July at 7:30pm at the Ntsikana Room at the Monument.

By Sinethemba Witi