Central to the final decimation of the Xhosa was their own national suicide. As a pastoral people the Xhosa’s wealth and survival depended on their herds of cattle but in response to a prophecy they began to slaughter them. The prophecy proclaimed that doing this would lead to national resurrection and the invaders being hurled back into the sea. It was clearly a form of collective madness but was seized on with fervour and any who resisted the narrative – the Unbelievers – were compelled to comply.
It would be hard to convey the terrible emotional struggle that the killing imposed. There were sufficient doubts even among the most energetic killers of cattle to create great mental disturbance. There must have been intense regret as one looked at a favourite ox, the winner perhaps of many splendid races, at beloved milking cows, and painful alarm at the sight of the whole herd grazing about the kraal of a deceased chief – meant to die a natural death – all to be sacrificed in faith. It must have been particularly terrifying to contemplate at that marvellous hour, milking time, when the boys went out to their allotted cows, when the swift, purple dusk flickered with numerous fires and the singing that accompanied the hour grew steadily more harmonious and cheerful, anticipatory, as all awaited the evening meal, and then knowing that once carried through to the end there would be an evening when no cows came home, no one went to milk, the milk sacks were empty and all would be waiting, silent, hungry, songless. Not difficult therefore to understand the hesitations, the stopping and starting that marked the initial pace of the cattle killing. Nevertheless it continued and those who seriously believed and killed saw those who failed to do as enemies who compromised their own sacrifice and belief.
The result? Not resurrection, but starvation, death and the defeat of a nation.
Strange how these things can happen.