The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People


Author; Noel Mostert

Reviewed by; Kin Bentley, December 2016

For far too long the Zulus have been held up as the great warrior nation among South Africa’s indigenous tribes.

This is largely due to the scale of Shaka’s vision in uniting disparate tribes under his despotic rule exactly 200 years ago and his subsequent use of his military power to crush all those whose path he crossed during the mfecane.

The Zulus’ reputation as the great warrior race is also largely a product of the great battles they fought against the British in the second half of the 19th century in which numerous Victoria Crosses were awarded (23 in the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War alone).

But as this book makes abundantly clear, those relatively brief battles between Zulu and Brit pale in comparison with the 100 years of struggle, including nine designated wars, between the British forces (supported by conscripted Boer and British colonists, Khoikhoi and Mfengu) and the Xhosa tribes on the eastern frontier of the Cape Colony.

Mostert’s book is deemed a “gentleman’s history” because he is not an academic historian. But it has been found by academics to cover all the bases and to be factually unimpeachable. Far more than that, though, it is immensely readable. Mostert, who was educated in South Africa but left soon afterwards, is a brilliant wordsmith.

A book running to 1 281 pages could easily leave one wishing it would end. Quite the reverse is true here.  One wolfs down these pages of facts simply in order to find out what happens next. Was it possible that successive Cape governors, mostly military commanders and veterans of the Napoleonic wars under Wellington, could have had so little insight into the suffering they were inflicting on the indigenous people of this land?

It took the missionaries of the London Missionary Society – courageous men like Dr John Philip, Dr Johannes van der Kemp and James Read – to ensure that the politicians back in London were kept abreast of the ongoing systemic maltreatment of the Khoikhoi and the various Xhosa tribes.

The frontier wars were all about land, and cattle. For the various Xhosa tribes cattle formed the basis of their culture, extending back into the mists of time. But to run such large herds you need access to pasture all year round. In the Eastern Cape that meant moving between summer and winter grazing, because unlike in Zululand, edible grass was not available all year round in places like the Zuurveld.  And it was here, later called Albany, that the 1820 British settlers introduced a new dimension to the dynamic already developing between the eastward-moving trekboers (Dutch Africans) and the Xhosas.

Mostert starts his story by taking the reader back to the voyages of discovery, led by the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and British, upon whose empire the sun would never set.

I am deliberately skimming over names and dates because this book is so dense with factual information that to start delving into particulars would be to open a Pandora’s box of ongoing conflict. If there is one thing that features throughout this work, it is mankind’s unceasing proclivity for violent confrontation.

It began not long after the Dutch arrived in the Cape in 1652, continued for 100 years on the eastern frontier until 1879, and was kept simmering with tit-for-tat cattle raids in between. It is characterised by often horrific brutality, especially that orchestrated by Cape governors seeking to punish recalcitrant chiefs – and the occasional act of incredible courage and compassion.

I have long deplored the call by black South Africans to see the names of places like Grahamstown, King William’s Town, Cathcart, Fort Beaufort, Macleantown and so on changed. I am still of the belief that they should remain – if only to serve as reminders of just what happened in the “contact zone” between Graaff-Reinet in the west and Mthatha in the east. Virtually every town name in this area – and indeed across much of South Africa – has deep historical significance.

There was one senior British official on the frontier called Colonel Charles Lennox Stretch. It takes no stretch of the imagination to think that the parents of the Ciskei strongmen, Charles and Lennox Sebe, took their first names from this unusually liberal and pro-Xhosa official. He was so unlike, for instance, another senior frontier official, Henry Somerset, son of governor Lord Charles Somerset, who played a long and bloody part in this region’s history. Yet it seems even he had his redeeming features.

Another prominent player was Andries Stockenstrom, who was given a knighthood by the British for his services to the empire, but was long torn between his devotion to his Boer kinsmen and his deep sense that the treatment of the Xhosas and Khoikhoi was immoral and unsustainable.

As this book’s title implies, it was here in the Eastern Cape that the frontier between western and African sensibilities clashed continually. This led, crucially, to the desperate 1856-1858 cattle-killing tragedy, which saw the death by starvation of tens of thousands of Xhosas. Mostert covers this event in great detail, noting how British military leaders tried to convince themselves this bizarre behaviour was a bid to unite all the Xhosa tribes in a final bid to expel the whites from Xhosa territory. Others, notably missionaries, did all in their power to persuade Xhosa chiefs not to follow the young prophetess Nongqawuse’s devastating instructions.

Which brings me back to my original point. Unlike Shaka’s Zulus, the Xhosa were not a single, united, warlike nation. Indeed, they were a loose confederation of tribes under a paramount chief, based in a remote part of the then trans-Kei, who had little actual control over the lesser chiefs. So when various pretexts were created for the British to drive the tribes out of areas like the Amathole mountains, Waterkloof, the Tyumie River valley and Fish River valley bush, the strategy of tribes like the Ngquika was to resort to what was virtually guerrilla warfare. They simply outlasted the British, war after war, and would probably have continued to do so had the “national suicide” not occurred.

Mostert delights in following the fates of certain individuals, on all sides – Xhosa, Khoikhoi, English settler, Trekboer, British governor. But it is the pivotal role played by the missionaries which are of special interest.

They risked the ire of their white compatriots as they tried, decade upon decade, to spread Christianity deep into the heart of Xhosa territory. They never made too many converts, but their legacy was to be found after the cattle-killing debacle when, through institutions like Lovedale, the Xhosa people increasingly provided the intellectual elite in this country. From these mission schools emerged the likes of Tiyo Soga, JT Jabavu and later Nelson Mandela.

A fascinating aspect of this story is how in the late 19th century the Cape Colony had become something of a template for developing British colonies and even the United States, its non-racial qualified franchise offering real hope to the indigenous people that, through endeavour, they could reach the very top, and have a vital stake in their country’s future.

That reality was catastrophically undermined and destroyed in talks leading to the Union of South Africa in 1910, in which Britain sold out to the now-wealthy Transvaal.

Mostert traces with particular distaste Jan Smuts’s role in ensuring that the Cape’s non-racial franchise was not transferred to the other components of the Union – the Transvaal, Orange Free State and Natal. Ultimately, as white rule hardened, even the black Africans and “coloureds” in the Cape who qualified to vote would lose their political rights.

Even the rapid industrialisation which followed the Second World War was not enough to make the white leadership see sense. As black urbanisation increased, instead of boosting the three white “native representatives” to 10, as requested, Smuts dug in his heels. Ironically, Mostert notes that had he done so he might not have lost the 1948 election to the Nats – by a narrow five seats. With the United Party likely to have won the “native” seats, Smuts would have won by two seats.

The rest, as they say, really is history.

But Mostert, who was in the country doing research when the Soweto uprising began on June 16, 1976, also saw the centuries of struggle in the eastern Cape coalesce in the shape of a new radical young activist. Steve Biko was introduced to him by then Daily Dispatch editor Donald Woods. He would meet and be incredibly impressed by Biko, and was still in the country doing research when news arrived of Biko’s death at the hands of the security police on 12 September 1977. He attended the funeral in King William’s Town. This was the same town where he had followed the peculiar path taken, more than 100 years earlier, by controversial Cape governor Sir Harry Smith, who spent most of his time waging war and ridiculing chiefs on the frontier.

This book was first published in 1992, just as non-racial democracy was about to be achieved in South Africa. It remains as relevant, if not more so, today.

It should be required reading for all, young and old, who would hope to make sense of our current situation.

You cannot bear a grudge against any party in this epic, unique history of ours after reading Mostert’s passionate and well-reasoned views on how the various actors behaved.

Even the most racist white colonist would confess to feeling shame at the treatment of some of the great Xhosa chiefs – people like Maqoma, Sandile and Sarhili. Many of these leaders would end up on Robben Island, a century before the likes of Mandela and Robert Sobukwe were similarly placed out of sight, but never out of mind.

That said, one prominent settler, Robert Godlonton, editor for many decades of the Graham’s Town Journal, seemed never to overcome his hostility towards the Xhosa. However, one cannot judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Like any newspaperman, he was no doubt reflecting the views of ordinary settler folk who lived lives of almost unrelenting conflict with the Xhosa warriors.

Mostert’s book deserves to form the basis of a concerted effort to establish and market the Eastern Cape as by far the most important destination for heritage tourists in South Africa. All it requires is for the powers that be to embrace our history and to turn it into a tourist product. I foresee visits, especially, to all the forts and towns where remnants of that history are still to be found.

I know some good work is already being done in this regard, but far more can be achieved.

With the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the British settlers just four years away, what better peg upon which to hang such an enterprise? 

Because, from whatever angle you choose to view these things, the settlers played a pivotal role in the unfolding drama.