by Mike Oettle
THE preaching of the gospel at the kraal of the Xhosa chief Ngqika, in the Kat River Valley, resulted in the conversion of just one man, the minor chief Dyani ka Tshatshu. It was a bitter disappointment for Dr Johannes van der Kemp, who stayed just one year, 1799-1800, before packing up and returning to the Cape Colony.
But at least two other men were profoundly affected after hearing the Good News, and the consequences of their fascination with the stories of Jesus and His Father – whom the amaXhosa called Thixo – were quite dramatic. Both would be called prophets, but only one would, in the end, serve God.
Their names were Ntsikana ka Gabha and Makhanda (Makana) ka Balala. But the Xhosa, for reasons of superstition, disliked saying Makhanda’s name, and instead called him Nxele, meaning left-handed. The Boere called him Links, which the British pronounced as Lynx.
At first it might have been said that Nxele was the man on whom the gospel had made the greatest impact, since James Read senior records that Nxele influenced several other Xhosa to become Christians. However, Read might have confused the two prophets. Yet it’s certain that Nxele’s grandson Galada was to become an Anglican priest under the name of W J Gawler.
At any rate, Nxele later turned against Christianity as a reaction against British aggression, and began preaching a new god, Dalidiphu, who he said was more powerful than Thixo and was the god of the coloured people. Thixo, he said, was angry with the white people and had driven them from their home country into the sea, which was why they were trying to make their home in the black people’s land.
Ntsikana was baptised by the Rev Joseph Williams of the London Missionary Society – the sole conversion he achieved after establishing the first permanent mission to the Xhosa near Fort Beaufort in 1816. Williams died in 1818.
Xhosa legend has it that Ntsikana was called to Christ even before Williams arrived. It is said that he saw a light strike his favourite ox, and later that same day he was prevented three times from attending a tribal dance by a whirlwind. He then ordered his family away from the dance and went to wash the ochre from his face in a brook, saying: “People should pray (rather than dance)!”
Ntsikana also became convinced that polygamy was sinful, and endowed his second wife generously when he sent her away from his homestead.
As a councillor to Ngqika, Ntsikana advised his chief not to quarrel with his uncle (and former regent) Ndlambe. But Nxele had meanwhile been whipping up the amaNdlambe against Ngqika for his own purposes and in the war that followed in June 1818, the amaNdlambe and their amaGcaleka allies soundly defeated Ngqika’s son Maqoma.
Ngqika then appealed for British aid in restoring him to his paramountcy. A British expedition left the amaNdlambe themselves unharmed, but burned their huts and took 23 000 cattle.
Having already achieved a Ndlambe-Gcaleka alliance, Nxele then began preaching revenge against the British. They had, he said, already crossed the Swartkops and Sundays rivers, and now they wanted to cross the Great Fish. He told the people of muti he could make that would render bullets as water, and of a divine plan to drive the British back into the sea. He assembled the people at Gompo (now called Cove Rock), near the Buffalo River, and told them that their ancestors would rise from their graves and join in the war to expel the white people from the land.
The anti-Christian prophet became a man of importance: he was the only commoner Xhosa in his time to be acknowledged the status of a chief.
Nxele’s great achievement was an attack on the garrison village of Grahamstown on 22 April 1819 by the largest Xhosa army ever assembled – at least 10 000 men. Nxele personally commanded part of this horde. Defending the village was a garrison of just 232 soldiers with a mere five cannon, fortuitously aided by a 130-strong party of Khoikhoi buffalo hunters who had arrived from Theopolis, the mission station in Lower Albany.
The day is noteworthy for the bravery of a soldier’s wife named Elizabeth Salt, who walked unharmed through the naked throng of men armed with spears to deliver gunpowder to the East Barracks. Even in their lust to kill white men, she knew they would not harm her, a woman.
But despite the overwhelming numbers of the attackers and their courage in spite of being mowed down by the score by musket fire and cannon shot, the day belonged to the British. Just 2½ hours after the attack began, the Xhosa broke and fled, leaving about a thousand dead and only three British dead and five wounded.
Only monuments and two placenames remind us today of the Battle of Grahamstown: the Xhosa name for the town proper, eGazini (place of blood), and the hill overlooking the town from the east, Makana’s Kop. The municipality encompassing Grahamstown, the Albany district and Alicedale is now called Makana, too.
Nxele surrendered to Andries Stockenström at Trompettersdrif on 15 August and two months later was taken to Robben Island. He drowned during an escape attempt in 1820, aged perhaps 30, at the most 40.
Ntsikana did not outlive his fellow prophet; they died in the same year. He had lived about 60 years, and a year before his death had been expelled with Maqoma and the amaNgqika from the Kat valley. His final home was in the Thyume valley, at Thwathwa, now called Menziesberg.
But his memory is honoured among the amaXhosa, whom he taught Christian hymns he had composed himself – for all that he was illiterate. Among the songs in the amakwaya (choir) tradition that he composed are his bell hymn, which calls people to worship; there is the Life Creator hymn; and one sung as a round or rondeau. Best loved is Ulo Thixo omkhulu ngosezulwini (“He, the great God in Heaven”). Dr O F Raum of Fort Hare University calls this “ ‘a strange and wild chant’ of which, however, the theology is unimpeachable”.
The Christian laws given to the Xhosa at this time are a subject of dispute, since it is uncertain whether they all came from Ntsikana or whether some were from Nxele. These include prohibitions on theft, polygamy and black magic, and on what was defined as adultery – the traditional pre- and extra-marital sexual relations which, sadly, are still common in Xhosa society, even among nominal Christians, after nearly two centuries of Christianity.
It is known that the two prophets were in public dispute over doctrine before the Battle of Grahamstown.
Ntsikana also prophesied that roads and planks would make their appearance in Ngqikaland, that an unknown people with pierced ears (the amaMfengu, or Fingo) would enter the land, and that a war between the races would result in a sharing of the land between the enemies of the amaNgqika. All this came to pass.
Ntsikana was the first among the Xhosa to have a coffin made for himself. The first Xhosa evangelists, Charles Henry Matshaya and Robert Balfour Noyi, conducted his burial.
Of Ntsikana’s children, his son Dukwana made a name for himself as a printer, evangelist and churchwarden at Lovedale.
To this day Ntsikana is remembered among the amaRharhabe, or cis-Keian Xhosa. Until quite recently Ntsikana’s Day, traditionally held on Holy Saturday, was their national day. However, Ciskeian President Lennox Sebe abolished it because it allegedly caused divisions between Xhosa and Mfengu. (The Mfengu national day is Mqwashu Day.)
Now that the Republic of Ciskei has passed into history, perhaps Ntsikana’s Day will again be celebrated between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
 In Southern Africa, the word lynx is applied to an African cat, the caracal or rooikat (Felis caracal). Overseas, it is more likely to be applied to the larger (but still medium-sized) Felis lynx, native to Europe, Asia and North America. Both species have pointed ears.
 Ngqika was not in fact paramount chief, or king, of all the amaXhosa – this status belonged to the chief of the amaGcaleka. However, Ngqika’s grandfather Rharhabe had succeeded in being recognised as a sort of sub-paramount of the Xhosa west of the Kei. This was the status Ngqika wanted to hang on to.
 With the exception of the chiefs of the Gqunukhwebe, all the traditional chiefs of the amaXhosa are (or are believed to be) descendants of the royal house, the amaTshawe.
 Writing in The Dictionary of South African Biography.
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