Mgijima, Enoch Josiah
1858 to 1929
Mgijima was the leader of the Israelites whose massacre in 1921 caused a wave of concern throughout South Africa. Edgar writes: 'Almost every African household in South Africa knows about the massacre of the people at Bulhoek in the Queenstown district' (Edgar 1988, 38).
Enoch Mgijima was born in Bulhoek in 1858. He was the third of four sons of Josiah Mgijima, a Mfengu peasant. There were also five daughters in the family. The Mgijima family were part of one of the Hlubi groups that had to leave Natal. The group eventually found a home among Hintsa's Gcaleka Xhosa. According to African custom they were helped to replenish their herds and eventually became an independent group. Josiah and his family followed the Methodist minister John Ayliff, and settled near Peddle and then Fort Beaufort. This was probably in about 1848. Josiah was one of Ayliff's converts and he and his family became members of the Methodist Church.
When Josiah Mgijima decided to move to Ntabelanga, near Queenstown, he was the owner of many sheep, cattle, goats and horses. At this stage he only had daughters and longed for a son. He climbed to the top of Ntabelanga mountain and prayed: 'God you have given me these sheep, cattle, goats and horses but I have no boy among my children.' His prayer was answered; his next four children were sons: Josiah, Timothy, Enoch and Charles.
Kamastone, of which Bulhoek and Ntabelanga were a part, was an overcrowded township where most people struggled to make a living. Schools went as far as Standard 3 and those who wanted to study further, like the sons of Mgijima, had to look elsewhere. All the boys except Enoch went to Lovedale and then to Zonnebloem College in Cape Town. Timothy and Josiah became interpreters, while Charles, before he joined the Israelites, was a court interpreter and a school teacher. Only Enoch, because of headaches which recurred every time he went to Lovedale, never went beyond Standard 3. He became a farmer and hunter. He also became a lay preacher and evangelist in the Methodist Church. Because of his lack of education, he was never able to become an ordained minister.
When Enoch Mgijima began to have visions, he felt that God was calling him to be a leader. This was impossible in the Methodist Church because he could not study for ordination. His millennial visions were not in line with Methodist teaching either.
He had his first vision in 1907 while out hunting for game. He saw three mountains of different heights, which he believed was a sign that some people would receive him immediately, some reluctantly and some with difficulty. He saw an angel who told him about a coming war when only the faithful would be spared (Edgar 1977, 26). Mgijima thought that he was unworthy to be a prophet and called himself a drunkard and a sinner. Three years later he saw Haley's Comet and he regarded it as a sign that confirmed his calling as a prophet. He felt he had to return to the ancient religion of the Israelites. Many people started to follow Mgijima and the Moravian missionaries at Shiloh asked him to preach for them. When, in 1912, their converts began to follow Mgijima they asked him not to return.
Mgijima then joined the Church of God and Saints of Christ. This had been founded in America by an African-American, William Crowdy. He claimed that black people were descended from the lost tribes of Israel. This appealed to Mgijima and he joined the local branch, which had its headquarters in Uitenhage. His contact was John Msikinya, who at one time had also been a Methodist local preacher. However, Mgijima's visions continued and eventually he was asked to leave this church as well. He called the new church that he established the Israelites.
Both visions that led to Mgijima being asked to leave the Church of God and Saints of Christ had political implications. In the first he saw two goats and a male baboon fighting. The baboon seized the goats and took the lead. Mgijima explained that the blacks (the baboon) would fight the whites (the goats) and win.
In 1920 he had a vision of children lying on their backs with their feet in the air. This he later interpreted as the Bulhoek tragedy. Later that year he had a 'call' while sitting on top of Ntabelanga mountain.
More and more Israelites moved to Ntabelange to be near Mgijima. Because the land for houses was on swampy ground, the authorities had given permission for a few houses to be built on the common grazing land which belonged to the Crown or government. Mgijima's own house was on Crown land. As more and more people moved into the area they built temporary huts wherever they found space. The people of Oxkraal complained when their grazing land was no longer available. The farmers complained because they said the Israelites were stopping their workers from working. Then in 1921 the Israelites refused to give their names for the census saying that God knew who they were (Bulhoek 1921, 6).
The 'Mattushek affair' brought matters to a head. Two Israelites who said that they were buying fodder were thought to be trespassing and were shot. One of them, Charles Dondole, was fatally wounded. Charles Mgijima, his brother's right-hand man, was subpoenaed to appear in court but refused. The authorities became angry because the Israelites refused to speak to them. If they tried to approach Ntabelanga, they were turned back by an armed guard. There seemed to be a stalemate.
A massive force of policemen under Colonel Truter was summoned to Queenstown. Both sides prepared for battle and it became apparent that neither side would give in. When the time came, they drew up in military formation. The police and army had guns while the Israelites had only 'broad-bladed assegais, knobkerries and knives', although later some of them were found to have a few guns as well. The Israelites were given the chance to turn back but they answered: "We will fight and Jehova will fight with us' (Bulhoek 1921, 23). Mgijima promised them that the bullets would turn to water so that they would be safe.
The Israelites fought with great bravery, but the outcome was inevitable as they did not have the same weaponry as the police. After the battle it was discovered that Mgijima had been hiding when he saw the tide turning against him. He was taken prisoner, as was his brother Charles. The battle, however, left 163 people dead, 129 wounded and 95 people taken prisoner (Bulhoek 1921, 28). The Times of London described how Mgijima watched impassively while the prisoners were being led away.
There was widespread reaction to the tragedy and it was debated in parliament. The reaction of the white church leaders was interesting in that they showed little sympathy for the Israelites. Bishop Carter from the Anglican Church felt that the massacre was the inevitable result of threatening behaviour against the government. (Cochrane 1987, 128). The Rev. Allen Lea from the Methodist Church saw the Israelites as 'a fanatical politico-religious body from America' which had caused a disturbance. The event had direct bearing on the appointment of a commission to investigate the Independent Churches. The question still remains - why was the position allowed to deteriorate to such an extent that so many people lost their lives?
J. A. Millard
The Bulhoek Tragedy: The Full Story of the Israelite Settlement at Ntabelanga. East London: Daily Dispatch, 1921.
Cochrane, J. Servants of Power: The Role of the English Speaking Churches 1903-1930. Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1987.
Edgar, R. "The Fifth Seal: Enoch Mgijima, the Israelites and the Bulhoek Massacre 1921." Ph.D. Thesis, University of California, 1977.
Edgar, R. Because They Chose the Plan of God. Johannesburg: Ravan, 1988.
Lea, A. The Native Separatist Church Movement in South Africa. Cape Town: Juta, 1925.
The Times. 30 May 1921.
This article is reproduced, with permission, from Malihambe - Let the Word Spread, copyright © 1999, by J. A. Millard, Unisa Press, Pretoria, South Africa. All rights reserved.