Tuesday, 13 December 2016


Ian Rakoff

In childhood my older sister and I were horrified by what we saw displayed inside the Natural History Museum in Cape Town. The reality was so shameful that it was brushed under the carpet as fastidiously as holocaust denial. What was alluded to was that the figures came from moulds and were not flesh and blood.
In adulthood I had a telephone conversation with my sister in the States. Her voice changed to a whisper when I recalled those child sized Bushmen in glass cabinets. She corroborated my worst suspicions − at least that was how I interpreted her tone. The figures behind the glass were not clay models. They were stuffed human beings. They were Victorian taxidermy. No wounds were evident on the skin. The victims had staves hammered up their anuses and were left to die slowly. Some considered the Bushmen vermin; others wayward children − more animal than human. They were hunted and slaughtered freely. The museum paid extra for unblemished corpses.
There was little about the Bushmen in our schoolbooks. Yet they were the oldest humans on the continent. In ancient times the impala and springbok herds migrating across southern Africa numbered millions, and the Bushmen were equally present.
Last year an Oxford archeologist lectured on rock art of the Bushmen at the British Museum. I asked about the tableaux of the hunter-gatherers and their families in the Cape Town museum. The speaker knew exactly what I referred to, and he dismissed what I had to say; not even apartheid was that venal. I had not said that the genocide occurred during colonial times and predated apartheid.
I was astonished by the glib explanation. I thought of Roosevelt’s reaction on being told about Auschwitz. He refused to believe it – in the beginning. 
What did appear in our schoolbooks claimed that the tragedy that befell the Xhosa people in 1857 was self-inflicted. If ever there was a Hitler conceit in SA history this was it. The whitewashed version in our history books blamed the Xhosa for the National ‘Suicide’ of the Ama-Xhosa. This was like saying that millions in concentration camps in the 2nd World War killed themselves.
Sir George Grey, governor of the Cape devised the deception. Under the leadership of Chief Kreli cattle and the grain were plentiful. The people were thriving and it was the fallow years during which no warfare could be contemplated. But Sir George had informed the Foreign Office staff that an uprising from the Ama-Xhosa needed to be thwarted.
This was what Sir George concocted. Three men were disguised as goat spirits. The smell of butchered goat was awful and their Xhosa was far from fluent. What color the spirits were was hidden. What mattered was to find the young mystic, give her the message from the ancestors and burn the goatskins.  
Nongqawuse won her acclaim by ridding fields of marauding birds. She had a powerful voice and the bearing of greatness. Her sweet manner made for many friendships. Though only fifteen she had a considerable reputation and following. Walking home she heard her name called. In the shadows of a cliff she saw what resembled three goat-spirits. They told her the Ama-Xhosa were to slaughter their cattle and destroy their crops. The cattle would come alive and so would their ancestors. The sun would rise in the west and they would drive the white man into the sea.
The adolescent girl said no one would believe her. She would come back the next day with her uncles and aunts. After the second visit the family returned to the umuzi to indaba. Why was there a strong smell of goat? Since when did spirits smell? Why was the Xhosa spoken so poor? Specific dates were not common to Xhosa. Nonetheless, their Paramount Chief should be notified.
By the time Nongqawuse reached the imuzi of Kreli she had a gigantic following. The Chief was not convinced but the fervor of the fanatical throng was unstoppable. Kreli stocked up with food withdrew to his stronghold to wait it.
Accordingly, across the land the people slaughtered their cattle and burnt their crops. The next day the sun rose as it always did. The cattle did not come back to life as prophesied, and the crops did not return, nor did the ancestors, and there was nothing to eat anywhere. Soon they were starving and eating human flesh.
The population was decimated by the time Sir George set up soup kitchens; too little, too late and too far away. The power of the Xhosa was broken. However, the Foreign Office in London was appalled by Sir George’s conduct. His correspondence from the Cape Colony was removed from the official records and he was recalled. Subsequently he was posted to New Zealand where he did something similar to the indigenous Maoris.
As ever the sun never did set on the British Empire.  
I  R

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