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Nongqawuse, a teenage prophet from the Xhosa community in what is now the Eastern Cape of South Africa, made prophecies in 1856. She claimed that spirits had instructed her people to destroy their crops and slaughter their cattle. According to her vision, doing so would lead to the expulsion of British oppressors and the restoration of their livestock, even healthier than before. The Xhosa community trusted her and followed her instructions.

Nongqawuse claimed that the ancestors had spoken to her, delivering several messages to the Xhosa people:

  • The dead would come back to life
  • All currently owned cattle must be slaughtered because they were raised by tainted hands
  • Farming activities would stop
  • New crops would need to be planted
  • New homes, cattle enclosures, and milk sacks must be constructed
  • Doors should be woven with buka roots
  • The people needed to abandon practices like witchcraft, incest, and adultery
  • In exchange, the spirits promised to drive all European settlers into the sea. Also, the Xhosa people would see their grain stores replenished, and their herds filled with healthier and more beautiful cattle

Nongqawuse predicted that the ancestors’ promise would come true on February 18, 1857, marked by the sun turning red. When her prophecy didn’t materialize, her followers initially blamed those who hadn’t followed her instructions. However, they later turned against her.

Chief Sarili visited Nongqawuse and Mhlakaza at the Gxarha River mouth and upon his return, he declared that the New World would begin in eight days. According to him, on the eighth day, the sun would rise red like blood, followed by a massive thunderstorm, and then “the dead would arise”. In the next eight days, the cattle slaughter reached its peak. However, these prophecies, too, failed to come true.

The Xhosa people were not alone in trusting Nongqawuse’s prophecy, even though it may seem absurd today. Unfortunately, her predictions didn’t come true, leading to devastating consequences for her community. The oppression they faced continued for another 140 years.

Throughout history, many oppressed groups have turned to millennialist movements and prophets in hopes of freeing themselves from foreign oppression. These movements often ended tragically.

There are various theories as to why the Xhosa people believed Nongqawuse. Some suggest that they were desperate to rid themselves of their oppressors and were willing to try anything to achieve freedom.

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