Man­thatisi, queen of the Wild Cat

In this week’s ex­tract from the rich and en­thralling his­tory se­ries Our Story, we meet our first fe­male leader in 19th cen­tury SA, Man­thatisi of the Wild Cat Peo­ple. This story of the queen and her son Sekonyela is yet to be pub­lished, so con­sider it a te

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48 pages R 100

So it was that as the cold slid down the slopes of the Kath­lamba, the herd boys set­tled the cat­tle in the stone kraal for the night. The cat­tle kraal was large enough for many thou­sands of cat­tle, with the back wall be­ing the nat­u­ral steep side of a hill. Con­tent that the cat­tle would be safe and shel­tered here, and their day’s work done, the boys would (no doubt) run home to warm fires and food. The houses were round and built of stone. The Bat­lokwa were skilled in fash­ion­ing walls from the iron­stone boul­ders – of which there was an am­ple sup­ply in the area – all with­out the use of mor­tar. High on a ridge with steep and rocky sides, the kraal had grown in the more than 150 years that this branch of the Tlokwa had resided there.

Look­ing east, the peaks of the western Kath­lamba were of­ten capped with snow. On the night that I speak of, the white tips of moun­tains may have caught red as fire with the set­ting sun. Some of the girls would have made their way back from the lit­tle spring on the south of the vil­lage. Per­haps peo­ple gath­ered around the fire for a story, just as you have, and laughed with each other be­fore set­tling into their huts. Slowly, the noises sub­sided, the com­fort­ing talk of Man­thatisi’s peo­ple go­ing about their chores, damp­ing the fires, set­tling warm into their karosses – slowly, slowly, the low voices of men and women and chil­dren died down. The sounds of the moun­tain and the bush took over: the call of a jackal in the dis­tance; an owl hoot­ing as it swooped low; the gen­tle shuf­fling and low­ing of cat­tle as they rested.

Then, with­out warn­ing, as the soft and sooth­ing sounds of the early – yet bit­terly cold – win­ter’s night gave way to the wak­ing day, the war­riors of Mpangazitha fell upon the vil­lage of the still-sleep­ing Bat­lokwa. Even though un­pre­pared, the brave war­riors of Man­thatisi ral­lied amid the scream­ing of their fallen broth­ers and fam­ily. There was chaos and blood ev­ery­where, blood red as the ris­ing sun that was fast cov­ered by the smoke of burn­ing huts. Run, flee, this way and that, the peo­ple shouted as they fled their vil­lage. Pro­tected by the war­riors fight­ing at the rear, those of the Bat­lokwa who man­aged to es­cape made their way with their queen to the place of the Ba­sia.

In one night, the world of the Bat­lokwa had changed for­ever. They had lost their homes, most of their cat­tle and pos­ses­sions. Not only that, but many had lost broth­ers and sis­ters, wives and hus­bands, chil­dren and moth­ers. Yes, many had died, some left be­hind to the mer­cies of the in­vaders. Join us, you can stay here, the brother of Man­thatisi may have said. Yet the queen knew that she could not stay with the Ba­sia. Al­ready, there were rum­blings among her peo­ple that they should take the cat­tle of their hosts, and she did not want that to hap­pen. Open war­fare be­tween the Bat­lokwa and the Ba­sia would serve nei­ther clan. Nk­gahle, of the Mok­ga­long Tlokwa, who lived nearby, of­fered sanc­tu­ary and as­sis­tance, but this she also re­fused. She was afraid of los­ing the in­de­pen­dence of her tribe, es­pe­cially since the Mok­ga­long Tlokwa were con­sid­ered the se­nior chief­dom to her Mokotleng Tlokwa. She also had rea­son to be­lieve that Nk­gahle had been in­volved in some treach­ery aimed at de­pos­ing her, and so she did not trust him at all. Be­sides, Mpangazitha was still out there, get­ting fat on the cat­tle and the grain of her royal kraal, and it was a mat­ter of time be­fore he set off af­ter her. The last thing that she wanted was to at­tract him to­wards the peo­ple of her birth, the Ba­sia.

In­stead, she chose to lead her needy fol­low­ers west­wards, and do what the Bat­lokwa – the Wild Cat Peo­ple – were known for: fight. Re­mem­ber that the Ba­sia, Man­thatisi’s peo­ple, like their se­boko – the por­cu­pine – were also known to be unso­cia­ble at best, war­like at worst. In the praise songs of these Peo­ple of the Por­cu­pine, it was said that their shields dried out­side in the field of bat­tle, and not in their huts, where they re­mained wet with blood. A grue­some im­age, in­deed, and it came from the fre­quency with which the Ba­sia en­gaged in bat­tle so that their shields kept drip­ping the blood of their vic­tims. So the Bat­lokwa, who were also in­clined to fight rather than flee, had a leader with war­rior blood in her veins.

This is the time when Man­thatisi be­came both revered and de­monised. Must a strong woman, look­ing af­ter the in­ter­ests of her peo­ple, be­come a one-eyed gi­ant­ess who sent hor­nets in ad­vance of her war­riors? She was not a de­formed and grotesque be­ing, but a large woman, and strong, with the courage and wits that it would take to en­sure the sur­vival of her tribe in ex­traor­di­nar­ily dif­fi­cult times. To win an ex­clu­sive box set of the first 14 Our Story ti­tles, val­ued at R2 500, SMS us on 34217 us­ing the key­word HERITAGE16. In­clude your name, sur­name, email ad­dress and the an­swer to the fol­low­ing ques­tion: Who led the peo­ple that at­tacked Man­thatisi and the Bat­lokwa? Con­grat­u­la­tions to last week’s win­ner, Thokozani Mzekand­aba. AN­SWER: Mditshwa

Man­thatisi took charge in spite of op­po­si­tion to her re­gency

FIERCE AS A CAT The Wild Cat war­riors would pre­pare for bat­tle by rub­bing their bod­ies with a mix­ture of soot and fat

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