In South Africa’s Second Coming: The Nongqawuse Syndrome, Achille Mbembe explains that “a dozen years after apartheid ended, a dangerous mix of populism, nativism and millenarian thinking is inviting South Africans to commit political suicide” — in a manner reminiscent of the Xhosa cattle-killing of 1856-57:
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.