Makhanda Nxele. Remember that name.

Questions linger whether the inciting incident where people were forcibly removed from Clifton beach last month was an instance of racism masquerading as concern about crime or simply a misunderstood but legitimate response to crime. There are also questions whether the subsequent cleansing ceremony itself was properly done according to African customs, or whether it is an instance of the weaponization of African culture for the sake of protest. For now, let us look past these questions, to another facet of this drama which hasn’t really gotten much attention – what was said during the cleansing ceremony.

Nxele, and his response to brutality

This brings us to Makhanda Nxele. We did say to remember that name.

During the ceremony, one of the things that was said was that the sheep would “drink the waters of Nxele”, and the spirit of Makhanda was called upon to cleanse this land of racism and for the return of the land to its rightful owners, the black people.

Who was Nxele, and what did he stand for? In Nxele’s time, the pressing questions relating to the white people the Xhosa encountered were “Who were these white people? What did they want? What should be done about them?” In what is a gross oversimplification, Ntsikane and Nxele embodied two broadly divergent strands of thought around these questions.

Nxele, who was a diviner/prophet among the Xhosa, witnessed several atrocities such as the brutality visited upon the Xhosa in the Fourth Frontier War of 1811-1812. The British hired hundreds of men and 600 cattle to trample the vegetables and crops of the Xhosa, for example, intending to starve them out and essentially eradicate them. This form of total war was foreign for the Xhosa and even for the Boers alongside whom the Xhosas lived in a delicate coexistence at that time. Instead of the usual local practice of the losers being absorbed into the victor’s society, the Xhosas experienced profound rejection at the hands of the British, as one scholar noted. The implication was that the (British) foreigners did not want to coexist with the Xhosa.

On the back of such negative experiences, Nxele formulated a synthesis between Christian and traditional Xhosa religious elements. Thixo, the God of the whites, and Mdalidiphu, the God of the blacks, were in conflict with one another. As Nxele saw it, ‘the whites had killed the son of their God, who had punished them by expelling them from their own country into the sea, whence they had now emerged in search of land. But Mdalidiphu was more powerful and would push the whites back’ into the sea.

Exchanging like for like, after an 1818 British attack instigated by Ngqika (a Xhosa chief with support from the British), Nxele led 10,000 warriors and attacked Grahamstown in May 1819 in broad daylight. He was defeated, surrendered himself 3 months later in the hope of ending hostilities, but was exiled to Robben island. He and some compatriots attempted to escape from the island, but drowned at sea on Christmas day 1820.

The ‘turn’

In 1948, the year Apartheid was instituted, Alan Paton wrote in his classic Cry, the beloved country that a time shall come when South African white people will turn to loving their black neighbours in their midst, but it might be too late – black people will have turned to hate. Has the white South African ‘turn’ toward love happened en masse yet? In his book Knowledge in the blood, Jonathan Jansen speaks to this, noting that while there’s a spectrum of responses white South Africans have toward our racially divided past, many have not shown up to the party of a reconciled South Africa. The task of restoring dignity to all and rectifying systemic issues that were inherited from our joint apartheid past is one that requires us all to participate.

The tide is turning; read the signs, people.

It used to be almost sacrilegious to critique Nelson Mandela and the stalwarts of the old guard that facilitated the transition to democracy. There is now no shortage of people willing to openly criticize Madiba, saying he sold black people out by seeking peace at the expense of (redistributive) justice and the land. To continue deflecting protestors’ concerns by using the age-old “Let’s address how you’re protesting first before talking about the issues you raise” (a tactic used, by the way, by the old apartheid government as well as critics of the Civil Rights movement in the US) only compounds the anger and delays getting to the work of building a meaningful consensus.

This brings us to the ceremony at Clifton Beach on December 28th. The sheep itself was a red herring from the beginning. The real matters at stake were spotlighting racism and the connected issue of land, and proposing the spirit in which (or through which) these issues will be addressed. Makhanda Nxele is a name you should remember because of what he endured and came to stand for, and because of what the invocation of his name and spirit on Clifton Beach 4 might signal – a shift in the desired outcomes of protest away from reconciliation with the other towards eradication/expulsion of the other. How do you deal with racism and the negative pressures it exerts on others? The cleansing of racism from these shores can happen in at least two ways – either the racists change their hearts and ways; or, alternatively, the racists must be driven away and into the sea to drink the waters of Nxele. Invoking the name of Nxele, as we see it, advocates for the latter approach. This, we fear, is the dreaded ‘turn’ Alan Paton spoke about 70 years ago.

Charting a different course

As Christians, we get taking care of creation; after all, God commanded it. But we don’t believe in pursuing that goal as a substitute for, or at the expense of, loving our neighbors as ourselves, which is what primarily focusing on the sheep and not the people and the issues behind it all does. This misplaced focus has been a remarkable missed opportunity to address key South African concerns. Additionally, as taxing as it is on our souls, we’re not called to drive our enemies or those that persecute us into the sea. We’re compelled by the Spirit in us to work for and favour meaningful reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5) that takes a firm accounting of and doesn’t whitewash the past or ignore its reality with us now.

It’s hard to get there though, when as a nation we don’t share common knowledge about the past; when some seemingly celebrate colonialism and think we were all better off under it, or retain a baaskaap mindset, our progress will necessarily be limited. A bit of historical and self-awareness will go a long way in our country. A passing acquaintance with South African history would have shown quickly why a crowd composed mostly of black people being pushed off Clifton Beach by a mostly white private security team with the help of the police force triggered a deep racial memory of similar events in our not too distant past. Or why vocal protests and the defense of the sheep in lieu of concern over the loss of black life seemingly confirm latent racism. At a certain point, the line between historical & cultural insensitivity and racial provocation becomes blurred and difficult to parse.

It’s time we learn from history and stop inflicting the same wounds upon one another. If we don’t collectively remember the past rightly in our assessment of where we are today in South Africa, how we got here and what our mutual responsibilities moving forward are toward one another, we may very well find that the ‘victims’ of yesterday’s oppression become the ‘perpetrators’ of a new oppression tomorrow.

This article, co-written by Dambudzo Mushambi and Dr. Vuyani Sindo, originally appeared on the Janana blog and is used with permission.

Dambudzo is the co-founder of Janana. Dr. Vuyani Sindo is a senior lecturer in New Testament, Pauline Studies and leadership development at George Whitefield College, Cape Town.