‘King’s skull’ seized

Xhosa chiefs are not convinced that a skull found in Scotland is that of King Hintsa; they have confiscated it for DNA tests, writes Eddie Koch

The president, the Prince of Wales, the Xhosa paramount chief, the British prime minister, the Eastern Cape premier and a prominent paleo-anthropologist have all been dragged into South Africa’s great riddle of a skull with a hole in it.

Chief Nicholas Gcaleka, a self-appointed sangoma from the Eastern Cape, whipped up controversy when he returned to South Africa from a trip to Scotland early this month with a skull he claims to be that of a Xhosa warrior king killed by British troops at the Cape Colony in the early 1800s.

The aggrieved spiritualist was this week in Cape Town trying to see President Nelson Mandela after an imbizo attended by 30 senior chiefs, including Paramount Chief Xoliliswe Sigcau, confiscated the skull so that scientific tests could be done to establish its true identity.

The chiefs have lodged a wooden box containing the skull for safekeeping at a mortuary in the Transkei town of Willowvale and are busy setting up a panel of scientists who will be asked to establish whether Gcaleka’s claim that the skull is that of the legendary King Hintsa kaPhalo is true.

The sangoma is outraged, saying he was tricked into attending the imbizo at Sigcau’s Great Palace and surrendering the skull to the chiefs. Gcaleka told reporters the chiefs have interrupted his plans to rebury the head on May 12, the anniversary of Hintsa’s death. He claimed British Prime Minister John Major and the Prince of Wales had telephoned him to say they wanted to attend the ceremony — and apologise for the chief’s slaying in 1835.

Mandela’s spokesman Parks Mankahlana confirmed the president had received a letter from the sangoma urging him to intervene in the dispute and the presidency was still considering the matter. But a spokesman for the British High Commission in Cape Town said his office had received no indication that Major or Prince Charles were planning a trip to South Africa.

Transkei lawyer Mda Mda, appointed to represent the Xhosa paramountcy in this matter, told the Mail & Guardian that the chiefs were planning to consult Professor Phillip Tobias, South Africa’s foremost paleo- anthropologist, and other international experts, about setting up a panel to judge Gcaleka’s claims — suggesting the riddle will be solved by a bizarre mix of science and the supernatural.

He said Gcaleka had been to Bisho last week to lobby Eastern Cape Premier Raymond Mhlaba for the skull to be returned and said the chiefs were asking the provincial government not to intervene until expert DNA and forensic tests on the skull had been conducted.

When Gcaleka arrived home last weekend, he showed reporters a skull with a neat hole on the right side which was found near Inverness in Scotland. But instead of opening the way for a ceremony designed to bring spiritual peace to the nation, his efforts had the opposite effect.

Chiefs and other traditional healers in the Eastern Cape claim Gcaleka is a charlatan out only to make money and boost his image as a sangoma healer.

Gcaleka claims the hole in the skull is proof that it belonged to Hintsa. But most Xhosa chiefs and other spiritual leaders have disputed this, saying the skull could not be genuine because Hintsa’s head was blown apart by his captors. Their scepticism is reinforced by reports in a Scottish newspaper that the skull is actually that of an ancient Celtic monk.

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