Soft believers and hard unbelievers in the Xhosa cattle-killing

Peires, J.B. (1986) Soft believers and hard unbelievers in the Xhosa cattle-killing. Journal of African History, 27 . pp. 443-461. ISSN 0021-8537



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A substantial minority, perhaps 15 per cent of all Xhosa, refused to obey the prophetess Nongqawuse's orders to kill their cattle and destroy their corn. This divided Xhosaland into two parties, the amathamba (‘soft’ ones, or believers) and the amagogotya (‘hard’ ones, or unbelievers). The affiliation of individuals was partly determined by a number of factors – lungsickness in cattle, political attitude towards the Cape Colony, religious beliefs, kinship, age and gender – but a systematic analysis of each of these factors in turn suggests that none of them was sufficiently important to constitute the basis of either party. The key to understanding the division lies in an analysis of the indigenous Xhosa terms ‘soft’ and ‘hard’. ‘Softness’ in Xhosa denotes the submissiveness of the individual to the common will of the community, whereas ‘hardness’ denotes the determination of the individual to pursue his own ends, even at communal expense. Translated into social terms, the ‘soft’ believers were those who remained committed to the mutual aid ethic of the declining precolonial society, whereas the ‘hard’ unbelievers were those who sought to seize advantage of the new opportunities offered by the colonial presence to increase their wealth and social prominence. The conflict between the social and personal imperatives was well expressed by Chief Smith Mhala, the unbelieving son of a believing father, when he said, ‘They say I am killing my father – so I would kill him before I would kill my cattle.’ Certainly, the division between amathamba and amagogotya ran much deeper than the division between belief and unbelief, and the Xhosa, in conferring these names, seem to have recognized the fact.

Item Type:Article
Additional Information:Jeff Peires lectured in History at Rhodes University from 1977 to 1988
Uncontrolled Keywords:corn; factions; political power; prophecies; resurrection; creation; regeneration; ancestors; Mfengu; Gcaleka Xhosa; Ndlambe Xhosa; Frontier Wars; War of Mlanjeni; colonial; precolonial; British Empire; British Kaffraria; Sir George Grey; Bushmans River; Mbashe River; Eastern Cape; South Africa; Nongqawuse
Subjects:Y Unknown > Subjects to be assigned
Divisions:Faculty > Faculty of Humanities > History
ID Code:1318
Deposited On:02 Apr 2009
Last Modified:06 Jan 2012 16:20
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