Robert R. Edgar’s work is well known to scholars of South African history and African Christianity. Extremely generous with his time and assistance to students and colleagues (including me), he has helped several generations of South African scholars to better knowledge of their work. In one way or another, much of what we know about South Africa in the early 20th century bears a debt to his writing. In The Finger of God: Enoch Mgijima, the Israelites, and the Bulhoek Massacre in South Africa, Edgar continues, as he acknowledges, with his research into the historical setting and prophetical background of, and the reasons for, the Bulhoek Massacre of 1921
On May 24, 1921, on a small piece of land just outside Queenstown in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, white state troops opened fire on and gunned down black Israelites, the followers of the prophet Enoch Mgijima. The figures vary, but somewhere between 160 and 200 people were killed. The Israelites, who were armed with wooden sticks and spears, faced a force of over 800 armed with machine guns and small arms.
The Finger of God takes this massacre as its central focus. Rather than focusing solely on the massacre, Edgar’s account of the event begins in the late 18th and early 19th century and concludes in the early 2000s. It begins by detailing the century or so buildup of racial and colonial tensions among groups of isi-Xhosa-speaking Africans. Edgar takes the reader on a journey through the first sustained contact between Africans and Europeans on the colonial frontier of what is today the Eastern Cape. He writes about the introduction and spread of different interpretations of Christianity, one derived from Protestant missionary activity, another derived from a more apocalyptic vision rooted in the social and spiritual chaos resulting from colonialism.
Moreover, in both traditions, African converts built on earlier precolonial histories of spirit guidance to shape visions of faith suited to a tumultuous frontier context. As Edgar notes, “prophetic movements have left an indelible mark on South Africa’s historical landscape” (2). He pays particular—and necessary—attention to the role of prophets in black Southern African society, including Mgijima, the leader of the Israelites. Another thread concerns the rise of a prosperous black peasant class. Mgijima was from a family of missional-educated Africans, a class whose earlier prosperity as peasant farmers had been broken by successive waves of racist legislation. Also of importance is the emergence of African-initiated churches, firstly those churches that broke away from the more historic mission churches, and secondly those that eschewed Western models of churchly life. This impulse was behind the rise of millennial Christianity in the Eastern Cape, and the particular events that resulted in the massacre in May 1921.
The book begins in the late 19th century with a chapter describing Edgar’s decades-long research for the book, then proceeds to the events before and after the Bulhoek Massacre. It describes Mgijima’s departure from his mission-oriented Christian beginnings and his attempts to find a spiritual home, first in the Church of God and the Saints of Christ, less well known than similar African American churches that had begun evangelization in South Africa towards the end of the 19th century. By 1916 Mgijima and his extensive following had split from the parent church over his violent prophecies about the end of tyrannical rule (63). As Mgijima articulated an increasingly millenarian politics, the Israelites (as members of Mgijima’s church called themselves) gathered more followers, often landless folk with few other options, and they eventually came together at Ntabelanga, outside Queenstown. A series of disasters had inspired Mgijima’s millennial visions: these included the East Coast Fever of 1912, the Great War, the great flu epidemic of 1918 (1000 people died of this near Queenstown alone), and severe drought in 1919. The state offered no solutions to the poverty and difficulties brought about by these disasters and general socio-economic decline. Mgijima’s prophecies were seen from the outset as predictions of all these disasters and offered a solution people could believe in. By 1921 the community consisted of over 300 houses and 750-1000 people. The group centered their practices on a Tabernacle—an enclosure with its own Ark of the Covenant. The stage was now set for a confrontation between the white inhabitants of the region, state officials who wanted to curb the spread of Ntabelanga, and the Israelites, with events culminating in 1921.
Edgar’s treatment of the Israelites, however, does not end with the massacre. He also describes the afterlives of the Bulhoek Massacre. In the years following the massacre, news of the violence spread widely through an increasingly anti-colonial African population across the continent, serving as a somber reminder of the violence done to followers of Christ who took a different path. It was subsequently remembered in a range of official proceedings, in writing and in museum exhibits, and more sympathetic renderings of the massacre emerged after the democratic shift in 1994. It still receives attention today, including in recent commemorations of the anniversary of the massacre in 1921.
While the book details the history behind the massacre and the events of the massacre, a different reading is also possible—as an account of the methods and practices of a historian. It is both a general history of land dispossession in South Africa and an overview of Edgar’s own journey as a historian. While he recounts the movement of Hlubi-speaking people into exile from their former land in what is today KwaZulu-Natal, on the eastern frontier of the Cape Colony, he also describes his own geographic movement as a historian across the South African landscape, beginning in the early 1970s (Edgar’s wry voice is beautifully on display in his acknowledgements). Some of this movement is described in chapter 6, including his search for the Lost Ark of the Covenant, the Israelite spiritual treasure that disappeared after the massacre. Of special importance to new generations of historians, he shows the value of a long gaze on history, of immersion and continuation with a subject, of “slow-cooked” rather than fast food history. Read this book—both as an exercise in how to be a historian, but also for its tender and acute reading of South Africa’s difficult past.
Natasha Erlank is a professor of history at the University of Johannesburg.
Date Of Review:
March 21, 2023
Robert R. Edgar, Professor of African Studies at Howard University and Stellenbosch University, South Africa, is the coauthor of African Apocalypse: The Story of Nontetha Nkwenkwe, a Twentieth-Century South African Prophet, among other books.
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