Maverick Life


Ntsikana and the rise of black theology and working class in southern Africa

Ntsikana and the rise of black theology and working class in southern Africa
Depiction of Ntsikana. Image: Supplied

Colonialism had a concise plan for its colonies and maintenance of the status quo of exploitation and slave labour, even in the face of calls for the abolishment of such inhumane and imperial practices.

The British empire’s colonial plan for southern Africa still reverberates in the modern post-colonial economy and sociopolitical culture of the region. A “willing” black working class developed through the agrarian and mineral revolution of the 1780s, simultaneously using cultural and social misappropriation through religious indoctrination as the elementary tool of trade, which would force a new African identity in a globalising world. I beg to argue: Ntsikana was the Genesis. This year marks exactly 200 years since he died in Thwathwa in 1821.

The son of Gaba was the harbinger of African religious church pioneers who would erupt after his intense influence on the African spiritual religion scene, with an outlook outside of the Western evangelism scope. Among such men were Nehemiah Tile, James Dwane, David Magatla, Robert Mashaba, Makhanda Nxele, Ma Nku, Isaiah Shembe, Edward Lekganyane and Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa. Each contributed, in his own way, to a growth of an African form of Christianity, its core theology and methodology.  

Many strands of African spirituality sprung from his synthesis of Western Christianity and African spirituality. The Ethiopian Church, which is said to have its foundations in the Ntselamanzi region of eDikeni (Alice) (esiJogolweni), is of significance in as far as contributing to black theology of the 1970s in South Africa. 

It was, however, Nxele, Makhanda “the left-handed”, who emerged as his contemporary and biggest critic and anecdotal polar position, as the sociopolitical revolution that was already at play in the early 1800s pointed out.

Ntsikana’s conversion to Christianity is well documented by missionaries and modern academics. What always stands out is his refusal to convert as a boy when a certain Dutchman, Johaan van der Kemp, evangelised in the Victoria East area of the Cape colony, and the eventual will to synthesise philosophies of traditional and Western religious doctrines as an adult. This coincided with the Fourth War of Dispossession between the amaXhosa led by the Rharhabe tribes (Chief Ndlambe, uncle of the then reigning Rharhabe Paramount Chief and son of previous Chief Mlawu, Ngqika, being the leader of the political resistance that soon ensued) and the British (joint forces with Ngqikas’ warriors). 

Image: Supplied

The three frontier wars before the Fourth War of Dispossession from 1811 to 1812 led to amaXhosa being expelled from land they had preoccupied (Zuurveld). Ntsikana’s chief at the time and leader of Western amaXhosa of the amaRharhabe, Ngqika was at loggerheads with his uncle who had been regent before.

It is said that, because of Ngqika’s age at the passing of his father, Chief Mlawu, his uncle, Ndlambe, held the throne as regent. He then stalled the traditional Xhosa circumcision initiation right of manhood, which Nqgika needed to pass to rise to power. Legend has it that the young crown prince Ngqika had a love affair with the monumentally beautiful Princess Thuthula, Ndlambe’s wife. A Helen of Troy kind of epic unfolded. 

British soldiers would often report seeing them in the then ceded neutral territory of the Zuurveld, established through the verbal pact made with Governor of the Cape Lord Charles Somerset and Ngqika. After the war a line of forts was built to hold the frontier, but an attempt to establish a dense Boer settlement behind them failed. 

This pact sanctioned both parties from entering the ceded territory, subject to immediate attack, or capture. The British capitalised on this by stirring up tension between Ndlambe and his nephew Ngqika, using Thuthula as bait. This feud led to Ngqika joining forces with the British against Ndlambe. Subsequently, the agreement between Somerset and Ngqika helped provoke a quasi-nationalist movement among the Western Xhosas, led by the “prophet” Makhanda, which led to a renewal of the civil war between Ngqika and Ndlambe. 

It is at this juncture that the politics of land dispossession and a rising guerrilla-like liberation movement came to be at loggerheads with the development of a black theology influenced by Western religion. Ntsikana, sympathetic to Ngqika’s cause, came into direct conflict with Nxele, who was firmly a pillar of Ndlambe’s nationalistic effort, which in time would seek assistance for the paramount king of all the Xhosa at the time, Hintsa.

The formation of Grahamstown as a token of goodwill towards the British (and Colonel Graham, chief expropriator of the Zuurveld) for expelling the amaNdlambe Xhosa from the Zuurveld in 1812, ushered in a new wave of missionaries in Ngqika’s’ kraal. 

As mentioned in an earlier opinion piece on Benjamin Tyamzashe, the volunteer-based Glasgow missionary station set up in the colony in the early 1800s was responsible for “capturing” a young Ntsikana cum “great diviner”. A certain Joseph Williams was the chief evangelist. He would be a great influence on the Nguni nations as a whole, but initially amaXhosa and in particular Ntsikana and other influential amaXhosa in the royal kraal of the Gcaleka and Rharhabe, who became accustomed to British rule by 1835, upon King Hintsa’s assassination by Colonel Harry Smith.

Nxele and Ntsikana’s clashing outlooks on spirituality and cultural development fundamentally started the stand-off between African Nationalism and European colonialisms. 

Singing of the Ntsikana Bell is a celebration of the heritage of black theology in South Africa. While Makhanda (who also had the pleasure of receiving missionary tutelage by Dr Van Der Kemp, like Ntsikana before, specifically interested in the resurrection of the dead analogies) was the symbol of the old traditional African rituals and customs, as he was a recognised divinely traditional healer among his people, Ntsikana was the symbol of the Christian conversion of Africans. 

The clash was intensified by the fact that Ntsikana still believed in Mdalidiphu (Xhosa Supreme Being figure), even as he also recognised the European God (Thixo). This would be in direct contradiction with the politics and land dispossession and cultural infringements of not just the amaXhosa, but all African nations in the face of imperialism. It also gave life and direction to what would be the new black working class, and eventually black elites who would inform the liberation movements and sociocultural advances of Africa in the 20th century, at the expense of traditional rule, being subdued by 1853.

Ntsikana was an integral part of this development; he was the primary interpreter of the gospel into an African spirituality that spoke to amaXhosa, without converting to Christianity. Without a doubt, Ntsikana and Ngqika’s efforts were undermining all that stood for amaXhosa sovereignty, independence and traditional cultural identity. 

Depiction of Ntsikana. Image: Supplied

The very fabric of Xhosa nationalism was on the verge of a total overhaul and destruction. Ndlambe and Makhanda Nxele were to be the antithesis of this potential cultural demoralisation. Their cause was maintaining sovereignty.  

The often said to be mysterious Battle of Grahamstown in 1819 during the fifth frontier war, also known as Battle of Egazini”, put these two forces in opposition, Xhosa culture and philosophy; Makhanda fighting alongside amaRharhabe Chief Ndlambe, and Ntsikana by default aligned with the paramount chief of amaRharhabe Ngqika. It was a brief but fierce and deadly war, with Makhanda prophesying that the British bullets would turn into water against the 10,000 warriors he commanded. And even though the amaXhosa seemed to be winning, the myth or legend of a French woman who smuggled through the amaXhosa frontline with concealed reinforcement ammunition to the depleted British army barracks manned by British-aligned Khoi of the region, supplemented the upper hand and killer blow to the Africans.

In similar ways, the amaZulu nation, in 1828, suffered the loss of the assassinated King Shaka, who had a similar outlook on British colonialism as Ndlambe and Nxele: Independence.

By 1880 the last amaZulu king recognised by the British had been dethroned and exiled, deeming British Governor to Cape (Sir Bartle Frere) at the time as the Chief of all Chiefs. Similarly, in 1835 when the paramount amaXhosa king fell, independence of rule of the amaXhosa was subdued, right until the eighth frontier war of 1850-53, where Harry Smith dethroned all Xhosa kings completely, also as then-governor marking himself “Inkosi enkulu”, answering only to the Crown. This destroyed amaZulu and Xhosa nationalism, to the present day; leadership is contested at every turn, not before churning thousands of young men and women, ushering them from barbaric rural life into the working class of South Africa’s industrial development at the time, through migrant labour systems attached to hut and poll taxes.

Before the turn of the 20th century, Cecil John Rhodes and migrant labour through British Protectorates were introduced in southern Africa. Together with Rothschild funding, by 1900 he had set up the most influential global diamond-mining company to date, De Beers. 

Scores of workers flocked to the mines: Christianised, colonised, disposed and landless. Not only amaXhosa, but men from all over what was Nyasaland in East Africa and the great lakes of Tanganyika and Central Africa. These Africans became a willing workforce in slave-like conditions. Those who were exempted from migrant labour were educated and turned into a working class of English-speaking Africans in ties and Victorian dress. The educated would end up being the political voice of the uneducated migrant labourers. 

The formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910 and the passing of the Land Act of 1913 sandwiched the formation of black nationalist movements by men who had not only been evangelised, but who were themselves clergymen of the Scottish and British missionary churches. Some had even been ordained as preachers in British congregations in Europe. 

They would in turn form the new black working class and elite, which would be the voice of the marginalised in the South African Parliament under the Bhunga council (African voice still considered customary, and not civilised). The African National Congress was born from this history in 1912; formed by dethroned chiefs and Christian converts who had become professional teachers, publishers and clergymen.

Steve Biko with United States Sen Dick Clarke, chairman of the Senate subcommittee on Africa, who flew from Lesotho to East London to meet Mr. Biko. (Photo by Gallo Images/Daily Dispatch)

Black Nationalism was officially formalised with men and women from the “Bantu” reserves flocking to the institutions of colonial conquest, primarily the church, then primary schooling, migrant labour systems and other public institutions designed as tools of globalisation and marginalisation of Africans. Tiyo Soga, Walter Rubusana, John Tengo Jabavu, AC Jordan, Gertrude Nhlabathi, SEK Mqhayi, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, Phyllis Ntantala-Jordan and Stephen Bantu Biko are just some of the men and women who emerged as the most galvanised products of the black theology and nationalist philosophies that would be adopted by this new black working class.

The pan-Africanism of Sobukwe and the Black Consciousness of Biko, one can argue, because of the popular American Negro Pan Africanists of the late 1890s, W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey together with the civil rights movements of the 1940-60s, emerged as the spirit of Makhanda Nxele again. 

Even though these men were highly educated and Christianised to an extent, their nationalist theories were coined off the backdrop of Makhanda Nxele’s resistance to colonialism, by not letting go of the principles of African spirituality which informed the politics of the disposed continentally. This would land him in Robben Island – one of the first traditional envoys of amaXhosa to be expelled to the island. King Langalibalele of amaHlubi would follow suit and most of his subjects turned into British collaborators protected by the Kaffrarian administration.

It is thus fitting to note the role Ntsikana played in this trajectory. Whether as a pioneer or the victim, he gave rise to black theology and an elite black working class in southern Africa, a feat never forgotten. DM/ML

Sibusiso Lundi Mnyanda is a publisher, historian and Ubuntu Beats Radio FM Broadcaster in Johannesburg. He is a contributor to the online magazine.

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