Farmer's Weekly (South Africa)
History of Rural South Africa
On the Eastern Cape coast, not far from East London, stands a massive dune rock that has played a powerful, symbolic role in the history of the Xhosa people.
Cove Rock, 15km southwest of East London, was an important site for coastal communities before the arrival of Xhosa or Europeans to the area. This becomes obvious when one investigates the many Khoikhoi middens, with their shellfish remains and pottery shards, around its flanks.
In the 17th century, Cove Rock was christened Coffin Rock by sailors who viewed the ominous, coffin-shaped landmark from the sea. According to the Dictionary of Southern African Place Names, Cove Rock is a corruption of Coffin Rock. The feature is called Gompo Rock in Xhosa.
It was near here that survivors of the wrecked Dutch ship Stavenisse were rescued by the Centaurus in 1687.
But perhaps the most famous event linked to the site involved the Xhosa prophet Makhanda Nxele, whose attempt to summon ancestors from the sea has gone down in Xhosa history and even led to an idiom.
THE POLITICAL PROPHET
Makhanda rose to prominence as a millenarian prophet who fused traditional and Christian principles into an anticolonial narrative. As a young man, he preached to the Xhosa whenever he could, and rose in prominence despite being a commoner. He was eventually elevated to royalty by the celebrated chief Ndlambe, the uncle to Ngqika, paramount of the Rharhabe Xhosa.
Makhanda would go on to play a key role in the Battle of Amalinde, where Ndlambe’s army defeated Ngqika’s in late 1818, a victory that further elevated his political stature.
By April 1819, Makhanda had gained such support that he was able to attack Grahamstown with 10 000 warriors, who almost overwhelmed the small garrison town before the unexpected return of a commando swung the advantage back to the settlers in the nick of time.
The Xhosa withdrew, leaving about 1 000 dead warriors. The brutal battle elicited an immediate reprisal by British colonial forces in what would become known as the Fifth Frontier War.
After the defeat at Grahamstown, Makhanda retreated to Gompo Rock, where he embarked on a new strategy: summoning the ancestors to rise from the sea to wipe the colonial presence from the Eastern Frontier.
The people gathered to watch him accomplish the superhuman feat of jumping from one section of rock to the other, after which he assured them the ancestors would emerge from the sea through the chasm. But Makhanda sat all day contemplating the impossible feat. The crowd became restless, urging him to jump, but to no avail.
As night fell, the Xhosa began lighting bonfires and feasting on their cattle before eventually retreating into the interior, leaving the prophet to contemplate his next move.
Makhanda decided to hand himself over to British colonial forces, but promised he would return to his people. He was, shipped off to Robben Island, however, dying in 1820 in the cold waters of the Atlantic while attempting to escape.
Ukuza kukaNxele (‘The return of Makhanda’) still refers to an event that will never happen.
Gompo Rock has a central place in Xhosa cultural life: not only has an East London township been named after it, but there has been talk that East London itself may be renamed Gompo.
Visits from traditional healers ( igqirha) and church members are common, while a core traditional belief still prevails that the caves carved out of Gompo Rock by wave action are home to the abantu bom lambo, the People of the River.
• Sources: albanymuseum. blogspot.com; Mostert, N.
Frontiers. Pimlico (1992); and Elliot, A. The Magic World of the Xhosa. Collins (1972).