The Journal of African History

Research Article

‘Soft’ Believers and ‘Hard’ Unbelievers in the Xhosa Cattle-Killing

J. B. Peiresa1*

a1 Rhodes University, Grahamstown

A substantial minority, perhaps 15 per cent of all Xhosa, refused to obey the prophetess Nongqawuse's orders to kill their cattle and destory their cornl. 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.

Footnotes

* The author wishes to acknowledge the financial assistance of the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa. The opinions expressed in this article are his own, and are not necessarily those of the Council.