South Africa’s second coming: the Nongqawuse syndrome

Achille Mbembe
14 June 2006

The deputy chair of the South African Institute of International Relations, Moeletsi Mbeki speaking recently at Witwatersrand University, made an arresting comparison between the current political situation in South Africa and the one prevailing in the period leading to the Xhosa cattle-killing in 1856-57.

The dance of the ghost

By that time, the Xhosa had been involved in nearly a half century of bloody and protracted wars with colonial settlers on the eastern frontier of their homeland. As a result of the deliberate destruction of their means of livelihood, confiscation of their cattle and the implementation of a scorched-earth policy by British colonialists, they had lost a huge portion of their territory and hundreds of thousands of their people had been displaced. As lung-sickness spread across the land in 1854, a number of prophets proclaiming an ability to bring all cattle back to life began to re-emerge.

Then, a 16-year-old girl, Nongqawuse, had a vision on the banks of the Gxarha River. She saw the departed ancestors who told her that if people would but kill all their cattle, the dead would arise from the ashes and all the whites would be swept into the sea. The message was relayed to the Xhosa nation by her uncle, Mhalakaza. Although deeply divided over what to do, the Xhosa began killing their cattle in February 1856. They destroyed all their food and did not sow crops for the future. Stored grain was thrown away. No further work was to be done. Days passed and nights fell. The resurrection of the dead Xhosa warriors never took place.

In his book The Dead Will Arise: Nongqawuse and the Great Xhosa Cattle-Killing Movement of 1856-7, historian JB Peires contends that by May 1857, 400,000 cattle had been slaughtered and 40,000 Xhosa had died of starvation. At least another 40,000 had left their homes in search of food. According to Dr John Fitzgerald, founder of the Native Hospital who witnessed the events, one could see thousands of those "emaciated living skeletons passing from house to house" in places such as King Williams Town. Craving for food, they subsisted on nothing "but roots and the bark of the mimosa, the smell of which appeared to issue from every part of their body."

As the whole land was surrounded by the smell of death, Xhosa independence and self-rule had effectively ended.

Achille Mbembe is a research professor in history and politics at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He is the winner of the 2006 Bill Venter/Altron Award for his book On the Postcolony (University of California Press, 2001)

A slightly different version of this article is also published in the Sunday Times (South Africa)

What's going on?

Not long ago, many thought that South Africa's overthrow of institutionalised racism and its attempt to build a truly non-racial, modern and cosmopolitan society was the best gift Africa had ever given to the world. Less than fifteen years after liberation, it is no longer clear that the country has the moral and intellectual capacity to generate an alternative meaning of what our world might be, or to become a major centre in the global south.

As the former national-liberation movement the African National Congress (ANC) implodes, the stakes are getting higher. The Nongqawuse syndrome – the name for the kind of political disorder and cultural dislocation South Africa seems to be experiencing – is once again engulfing the country. This is a syndrome South Africa has always suffered in times of demoralisation and acute social and mental insecurity. The Nongqawuse syndrome is a populist rhetoric and a millenarian form of politics which advocates, uses and legitimises self-destruction, or national suicide, as a means of salvation.

It is a syndrome many other post-colonial African countries (Liberia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, Sudan) have experienced with tragic effects over the last fifty years.

There are good reasons to believe that the current political disorder in South Africa closely follows the Nongqawuse pattern. There are three ways in which the latter can be recognised.

First, there must emerge a false maprofeti (prophet), generally a person of very humble origins. Backed by a certain level of mass hysteria, the maprofeti then claims that a great resurrection is about to take place. Whenever questioned about the sources of his actions and authority, he invariably refers to the authority of his "ancestors", his "tradition" or his "culture".

Second, the maprofeti usually exhibits exuberant behaviour. Indirectly, and mostly through his silences, he tends to condone the rule of the mob and does not rule out violence itself as a as a catalyst for the great resurrection.

Third, the elite display cowardice in the face of the challenge. As the maprofeti's message spreads fervently among the multitudes of disadvantaged and disaffected poor, the elite keep laughing at, and ridiculing, him. The elite know very well that should things really turn nasty, they could simply pack and leave.

Death and the "revolution second coming"

Twelve years of limited democracy, wealth accumulation without purpose and unfinished transformation have created the conditions for the emergence, in South Africa today, of all sorts of prophets, healers and swindlers.

A growing chorus of discontent is swelling from the multitudes of disadvantaged and disaffected poor young black men, many of whom firmly believe in the craft of witches and occult forces. How can it be otherwise? Their life expectancy is fast diminishing. They hardly trust the constitution. They deeply resent the new rights granted to women. Often, they will use rape as a means to discipline them while compensating for their own perceived loss of power. With nothing to lose, it is easy for many to choose predatory behavior over political life.

From all corners, they are surrounded by death. In fact, today's Aids pandemic is not unlike yesterday's lung-sickness. Just as yesterday's cattle, today's poor blacks are dying in a particularly horrible manner. They cough and gasp for air. Fluid creeps over their lungs and as the disease spreads, they putrefy from the inside. Unable to eat, they are wasted and die mere skeletons. All over the country, cemeteries are full. Who can reasonably argue that such a frightening scale of death, such a racialised way of dying, does not have radical implications for politics and culture?

This is the context in which a class-oriented millenarianism and nativist revivalism are fuelling mass disillusion, if not outright discontent. The discontent is spearheaded by the trade unions, the ANC Youth League and the South African Communist Party (SACP).

Although of a secular nature, this new millenarianism and nativist revivalism is using the eschatological language of the "revolution second coming" in order to paint as the epitome of the Antichrist one of the most worldly, cosmopolitan and urbane political leaders modern Africa has ever known. Even though the followers of the maprofeti do not believe in the morality of the Christian church – especially in matters of adultery – they are threatening President Thabo Mbeki with God's wrath. They want to exact vengeance, to humiliate him and to punish him for his alleged political sins – a neo-liberal, aloof, secretive and paranoid intellectual who is bent on centralising power and on driving South Africa towards a Zimbabwe-style dictatorship.

In the process, they are not only holding the entire nation hostage in an increasingly nasty and unprincipled power struggle. They are also stirring the darkest brew of South African culture: its addiction to prophecy, consumption and small miracles; it's deeply held phallocratic ethos shared by blacks and whites; the corrosive violence that is tearing apart its social fabric; its xenophobia and, among blacks especially, its rooted belief in witchcraft and evil forces. That this populist, secular movement, has an evangelical flavour while being profoundly anti-Christian is only dramatised by the increasing viciousness of its rhetoric, forged out of the shards of a conservative urban, migrant, lumpen culture whose antics have left countries such as Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Congo, Ivory Coast or Sudan bleeding to death.

The dark night of the soul

The marriage of millenarianism, nativist revivalism and politics is not new in South Africa. For a long time, it was the backbone of white supremacy in this country. The emergence, now, of a "democratic mob" led by self-appointed champions of the poor who claim to speak for the "common man" is itself the result of recent seismic shifts in the realm of South African political culture.

Years of apartheid violence and, more recently, the utter degradation of urban public life have had devastating consequences on the culture of law and civility. Poverty, crime and disease, hunger and pestilence are weakening state and civil institutions while tearing apart the moral roots of civic and ethical life.

Crime, in particular, is fast eroding the hard-worn freedoms. It is lowering the quality of life in major cities, fostering a general climate of fear and suspicion, and damaging the civic and moral fabric of the society to an extent the current government does not seem to be aware of. Violent protests are increasingly the norm, along with the tendency, among many, to take the law into their own hands.

A culture of corruption, impunity and non-accountability is fast becoming the norm. In the aftermath of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), public and private lives are conducted as if forgiveness was an inalienable right. Nobody being responsible for his or her conduct, everybody is presumed innocent until proven guilty. And even when proven guilty, punishment is seen as illegitimate and repentance is unnecessary as long as the belief is that one's crime was the result of a righteous alienation or simply part of one's "culture" and "tradition".

Even more dangerous is the shift away from the project of non-racialism to a re-segregation of the public sphere. To the continuing denial of white privilege, many blacks are responding with an exacerbated sense of victimisation and disempowerment. In the name of the "right to self-definition", they are paradoxically recreating and consolidating the mental ghetto – a lethal device white rule so effectively used in order to inflict on them maximum psychic damage during the times of bondage.

The recent founding of the Native Club or the strident calls to black intellectuals to go back to "traditionalism" are but two examples of the nativist revivalism engulfing the country. Having lost political power, many whites have retreated into safe enclaves, hoping to one day leave for Australia instead of fully exercising their citizenship and creatively renegotiating the terms of their belonging to the new nation. Further evidence of nativist reassertion are the ongoing controversies concerning the use of Afrikaans at the university of Stellenbosch and the opposition, including among white liberals, to any kind of economic redress after so many centuries of looting, exploitation and theft.

If, historically, white nativism has always been about racial supremacy and the defence of immoral privilege, black nativism has always been a by-product of dispossession. As a form of cultural and political protest, the task of nativism is generally to create a common language of grievance. Because nativism is never attached to any concrete social or political programme of reform, it can never be a progressive force. In practice, it always tends to repeat the sorry history it pretends to redress. A real danger for South Africa today is that the country may be sliding back into a situation where, once again, the language of racial destiny becomes so all-encompassing as to render impossible other ways of connecting the various fragments of the nation.

The overwhelming presence of death and rape, especially in black people's everyday life, only serves to dramatise this predicament. Black life in South Africa today is almost as cheap as it has been since the early years of conquest. Weekly funerals have become the dominant way in which time is remembered – Aids death, death on the road, death on a train, random death in the hands of criminals, death from tuberculosis and malnutrition, and more and more cases of outright suicide in the townships and squatter camps. An obscure desire for suicide – the Nongqawuse syndrome – is at the heart of the new marriage of millenarianism, nativism and politics. It is such obscure desire that is manifested in the act of taking a shower after sex with an HIV-infected person in the hope of reducing the risk of contamination. The same suicidal behaviour is what is at work in the way in which our government is dealing with the Aids pandemic.

Many poor whites are growing resentful. White professionals who genuinely want to belong are called "settlers". At the same time, many young blacks are angry. They feel victimised by their own government. They still cannot get even the crumbs from the gluttonous feast going on around them – the economy growing at more than 3% a year; the minister of finance triumphantly announcing tax breaks; the governor of the Reserve Bank gloating about the low level of inflation. In the middle of the huge commercial emporium South Africa has become, their own experience is still one of joblessness, hunger, pestilence and disease. Who is to be blamed if they conduct their lives with a deep suspicion that, after all, liberation might have been but a cynical ploy to keep them where they have always been?

Such is the context that has created a desperate yearning of salvation by some heroic maprofeti eager to get back his machine-gun at a time when other nations compete with their knowledge and technologies.

We have therefore entered a very dangerous moment. But South Africa is still a democracy. There is still room to manoeuvre and there are still choices to be made. What is alarming for many is that the scope for choice is gradually being eroded by those intent to re-segregate the public sphere and to constrict what it means to be South African and African in today's world.

The questions are therefore urgent:

  • how to foster a genuine commitment to the democratic premise that common men and women have something valuable to contribute to the formation of public opinion?
  • how to contain populism in the safer channels of electoral politics?<?li>
  • how to recapture the ideal of non-racialism and attend to all South African citizens, black and white, in a resolute attempt to build, for the first time on this continent, a truly modern and cosmopolitan society?

The current political arrangement in South Africa is no longer serving this goal. The so-called "tripartite alliance" (of the ANC, the SACP, and the Congress of South African Trade Unions [Cosatu]) has outrun its usefulness. It is now becoming a major factor of instability for the country. It would be in South Africa's national interest for it to disband. Fractions of the Communist Party, the trade unions and the ANC Youth League should form their own political party and contest elections in their own name. A new political mainstream committed to a liberal constitution, to an explicitly social democratic agenda and to an Afropolitan cultural project should emerge.

In turn, constitutional reforms should be introduced. Their aim would be to give back to the people as a whole (and not to a party) the right to elect their president. As in every other major democracy, members of parliament and other representative bodies should be elected by their constituencies and should be accountable to the latter. More whites should leave their hiding places and exercise their rights as full citizens of a democratic country – and, if they so wish, as "Africans" in their own right. That is how South Africa will make the necessary escape from millennarian thinking and begin to carve a new democratic future.

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