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Heritage Month: Remembering the warrior of the War of Mlanjeni and other heroes


Langa Mavuso Ah! Zwelidumile is the acting chairperson of the Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders. He writes in his personal capacity.

We have to learn from the past in order to prepare for our future. One leader we can learn from is Chief Maqoma, who used his expertise as a general and strategist to lead a guerrilla war in the forested mountains and valleys of the Waterkloof to defend the land of his forefathers against the skilled colonial army of Britain.

In this month of September, Heritage Month, we should ask ourselves the following questions: What have we done to elevate our heritage, culture and customs? What is Heritage Month without the land of our forefathers? What is heritage and freedom without the recognition or acknowledgement of the heritage sites and past leaders associated with traditional leadership and early intellectuals that worked closely with them for that matter? 

These questions came to mind as a result of my visit to the grave of King Ngqika in Mkhubiso and the grave of Chief Maqoma in Ntaba kaNdoda. Both of these sites of historical importance are in a state of decay as if we are not in government, to the extent that my team of heritage experts and researchers were in disbelief that the 1994 dispensation gave us freedom.

I began to explain to them that government does not have economic power for the elevation and preservation of our heritage; however, later on I asked myself: if government does not have enough resources to preserve our heritage, why is it so easy to commemorate the life and contribution of modern political leaders more than those who initially started the struggle against colonialism and land dispossession?  

In the jubilation of 1994, people were happy and proud to be South Africans as the month of September was declared Heritage Month, for heritage is loosely defined as “what we have bequeathed from our forefathers and what we are transmitting to future leaders”. However, with the benefit of hindsight and the knowledge of current dynamics, we must critically interrogate the above questions.

To respond to the first question, we must note that the customs, livelihoods and the integrity of Africans are linked to the land – the land that feeds us and where the sacred graves of our ancestors are found. The plants that are for our nourishment and livestock survival are products of the land. On the land, tribes and nations exist. The land is where the rivers that irrigate our plantations and quench our thirst flow.

The land is what connects us with our ancestors such as Chief Maqoma, the warrior of the War of Mlanjeni, formerly known as the Eighth Frontier War. During the War of Mlanjeni (1850-53), Maqoma used his expertise as a general and strategist to lead a guerrilla war in the forested mountains and valleys of the Waterkloof to defend the land of his forefathers against the skilled colonial army of Britain.

The great Chief Maqoma led the people during the most difficult times of our history (1856-57), when leading was not fashionable for material gain and selfish interests. Evidence suggests that the War of Mlanjeni was the most difficult of the Frontier Wars. These wars led to Chief Maqoma being among the first to be incarcerated on Robben Island together with notable figures like David Sturman, Makhanda, Xoxo and many others, but sadly the full story of the infamous island ostracises these warriors of our struggle for total liberation.

So what good is our heritage commemoration without the land? What good is the Robben Island story of liberation without these warriors. Are we not distorting our own history?

These wars of land dispossession were fought over a period of 100 years in defence of our land and a thorough research study needs to be conducted so that we can declare the historic sites where these wars took place. That way we will be able to produce content that will build on the promotion of self-pride and economic growth, something the failed Liberation Route project could not do. The commemoration of the Eighth Frontier War this year should prepare our minds for such an initiative.

The Eastern Cape prides itself on its unique social history that could be used to boost heritage tourism and assist in decolonising our education system. So it becomes important to invest in our heritage landscape, for when building a new nation it is not the material things that should matter so much, but the values upon which the new society is built. Failure to restore, maintain, preserve and promote our sites of historic importance defeats the very purpose of preserving our own heritage.

The missionary schools that produced our early intellectuals are in a state of decay and yet we in the Eastern Cape are pushing the Home of Legends concept – what a contradiction.

Until we fully understand that our social history heritage has the potential of bringing economic development and knowledge production to the Eastern Cape then we are going to be a shadow of what we once were as a province. Let us use this month to conduct a self-reflection, an inward-looking process. Failure to restore our own pride and dignity is going to belittle us further as a province.

Let us then use the memory of our warriors to rebrand and reposition our province as a centre of excellence – after all that is what we were bequeathed by them, and as this generation, what are we transmitting to our future generations? All the social ills facing our country could be something of the past if we value our own history, for we have to learn from the past in order to prepare for our future.

I hope that our Heritage Day celebrations are not just going to regurgitate past promises by those entrusted with the responsibility of serving our province, lest history judge them harshly. DM


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  • David Bristow says:

    We had to endure year after year after year learning about the Voortrekkers. So it’s a travesty that today the Eastern Cape, or Frontier, Wars are not widely known and taught to youth and adults alike. That 100 year period is the most pivotal in the history of this country and forming of a divided society.

    • Rod H MacLeod says:

      Wars and their outcomes are recorded in history for propaganda – and the victors get to write the propaganda according to their requirements.

      Langa Mavuso has a point that strikes the heart – true heroes are forgotten in the expedience of pushing a propaganda line. For this reason, the stories and roles of heroes like Maqoma the Chief will be subordinated to those of the Rivonia trial and subsequent struggle heroes because the current ANC leadership prefers it that way.

      The Xhosa Nostra has a cynical vested interest in being perceived as the sole source of struggle heroism.

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