Nongqawuse (Xhosa pronunciation: [noᵑǃʱawuːse]; c. 1841 – 1898) was the Xhosa prophet whose prophecies led to a millenarian movement that culminated in the Xhosa cattle-killing movement and famine of 1856-7, in what is now Eastern Cape, South Africa.

Nongqawuse (right) with fellow prophet, Nonkos
Nongqawuse (right) with fellow prophet, Nonkosi
Bornc. 1841
Gxarha , Centane
Gxarha , Centane
NationalitySouth African
Known forXhosa cattle-killing movement and famine of 1856-7

Personal lifeEdit

Nongqawuse was born in 1841 near the Gxarha River in independent Xhosaland but close to the border of the recently colonized territory of British Kaffraria in Eastern Cape South Africa.[1] She was Xhosa.[2] Little is known of Nongqawuse's parents as they died when she was young. According to Jeffrey B. Peires, Nongqawuse stated in a deposition that "Mhlakaza was my father's name Umhlanhla of the Kreli tribe. He died when I was young." Nongqawuse’s parents died during the Waterkloof campaigns of the Eighth Frontier War (1850–1853).[3]

Nongqawuse is believed to have been quite conscious and aware of the tensions between the Xhosa and the colonial forces.[3] The Xhosa were experiencing an onslaught of attacks upon their community and institutions by British colonial authorities from as early on as 1779. The orphaned Nongqawuse was raised by her uncle Mhlakaza, who was the son of a councillor of Chief Sarili.[4]

Mhlakaza was a religious man who left Xhosaland after his mother's death and spent time in the Cape Colony, where he became familiar with Christianity. He returned to Xhosaland in 1853. Mhlakazi was to have a major influence in Nongqawuse's life acting as an interpreter and organiser of her visions.[4]

Spiritual experienceEdit

In April 1856, 15-year old Nongqawuse and her friend Nombanda, who was between the ages of 8-10, went to scare birds from her uncle's crops in the fields by the sea at the mouth of the Gxarha River in the present day Wild Coast region of South Africa. When she returned, Nongqawuse told her uncle and guardian Mhlakaza, a Xhosa spiritualist, that she had met the spirits of two of her ancestors.[4]

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. Nongqawuse claimed that the ancestors who had appeared to them said;

  1. the dead would arise;
  2. all living cattle would have to be slaughtered, having been reared by contaminated hands;
  3. cultivation would cease;
  4. new grain would have to be dug;
  5. new houses would have to be built;
  6. new cattle enclosures would have to be erected;
  7. new milk sacks would have to be made;
  8. doors would have to be weaved with buka roots and lastly;
  9. that people abandon witchcraft, incest and adultery.[4]

In return the spirits would sweep the British settlers into the sea.[5] The Xhosa people would be able to replenish the granaries, and fill the kraals with more beautiful and healthier cattle. During this time many Xhosa herds were plagued with "lung sickness", possibly introduced by European cattle. Mhlakaza did not believe her at first but when Nongqawuse described one of the men, her uncle Mhalakaza, himself a diviner, recognised the description as that of his dead brother, and became convinced she was telling the truth.[6]

Obeying the prophecyEdit

Mhlakaza repeated the prophecy to Xhosa King Sarili kaHintsa. The cattle-killing frenzy affected not only the Gcaleka, Sarili's clan, but the whole of the Xhosa nation. Historians estimate that the Gcaleka killed between 300,000 and 400,000 head of cattle.[1]

Not all Xhosa people believed Nongawuse's prophecies. A small minority, known as the amagogotya (stingy ones), refused to slaughter and neglect their crops, and this refusal was used by Nongqawuse to rationalize the failure of the prophecies over a period of fifteen months (April 1856–June 1857).[1]


Nongqawuse predicted that the ancestors' promise would be fulfilled on February 18, 1857, when the sun would turn red. Initially, after the failure of Nongqawuse's prophecy, her followers blamed those who had not obeyed her instructions. They later turned against her. Chief Sarili visited the Gxarha River mouth, and spoke with Nongqawuse and Mhalakaza. When he returned, he announced that the New World would begin in eight days. On the eighth day the sun would rise, blood-red, and before setting again, there would be a huge thunderstorm, after which "The dead would arise". During the next eight days the cattle-killing rose to a climax. These prophecies also failed to come true leading to the death of many people.[6]

In the aftermath of the crisis, the population of British Kaffraria dropped from 105,000 to fewer than 27,000 due to the resulting famine. The chief of Bomvana handed Nongqawuse over to Major Gawler and she stayed at his home for a period. One day Mrs. Gawler decided to dress her, along with the Mpongo prophetess Nonkosi, and have their portrait taken by a photographer. This is the widely circulated image of Nongqawuse with which most people are familiar. After her release, she lived on a farm in the Alexandria district of the eastern Cape. She died in 1898.[4]

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

See alsoEdit

  • Bulhoek Massacre
  • Nontetha, Xhosa prophetess
  • Zakes Mda's novel The Heart of Redness
  • Ghost Dance, a millennialist movement that called for a return to a pre-colonial era among Native Americans in the West of the United States, inspired by a prophetic dream



  1. ^ a b c "Nongqawuse - The Xhosa Cattle Killings of 1856". Xhosa Culture. 26 June 2015. Retrieved 20 November 2019.
  2. ^ Ashforth 1991, pp. 581–592.
  3. ^ a b Peires 1989, p. 79.
  4. ^ a b c d e "Nongqawuse". South African History Online. Retrieved 20 November 2019.
  5. ^ Examination of Nonqause before the Chief Commissioner of April 9, 1858, British Kaffraria Government Gazette, reprinted in Grahamstown Journal, 1 May 1858.
  6. ^ a b "The Xhosa Cattle Killing". Siyabona Africa. Retrieved 24 July 2017.


Further readingEdit

  • Mostert, N. (1992). Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa's Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People. ISBN 0-7126-5584-0.
  • Stapleton, Timothy J. (1991). "'They No Longer Care for Their Chiefs': Another Look at the Xhosa Cattle-Killing of 1856-1857". The International Journal of African Historical Studies. 24 (2): 383–392. doi:10.2307/219796. JSTOR 219796.
  • Welsh, Frank (2000). A History of South Africa. HarperCollins.

External linksEdit