The curious case of Enoch Mgijima

Israelites participate in a service at the Church of God and Saints of Christ near Queenstown. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Israelites participate in a service at the Church of God and Saints of Christ near Queenstown. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

'No, no, no. You don't get it, my brother," says the sharply dressed Lwazi Mgulwa, the church elder assigned to chaperone me to Ntabelanga, or "New Jerusalem" as it is known by Prophet Enoch Mgijima's devotees – the "Israelites".

We are talking about the mystical and otherworldly nature in which the Church of God and Saints of Christ interprets its main text, the Old Testament, with a sense of African and Hebrew mythology.

"We are not a democracy. We don't practice democracy here, but theo­cracy," he says.

Talk veers in and out of old Jerusalem, Judaism, the African liberation struggle and fact and fiction.
Although at times it feels like I am in an anthropology class, it also sounds like I'm listening to people talking in tongues: in short, music to my ears … African spirituals.

Recently we were at an all-day service at Tabernacle No5, the Israelites' national centre of worship in Mlungisi township in Komani, Queenstown, where I was able to appreciate a combination of music, spectacle, the performance art of testifying, as well as the colours used in the church as signifiers central to its mythology.

Elders Mgulwa and Xolani Mgwigwi, the pastor in charge of Tabernacle No5, and I are now en route to the church's holy land, Ntabelanga, also known as Bulhoek, where the church's narrative and mythology not only begins but, to this day, seems to be locked – their Zion, to wit.

 

Mgijima’s old barn still stands. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

At 42°C, Queenstown is a furnace as we navigate one pothole after another. This Pesach marks exactly 100 years since the church was founded in the village of Ntabelanga and 92 years after hundreds of its congregants were mown down on the mountain slopes above the village, in what came to be known as the Bulhoek Massacre.

The church was founded by the charismatic preacher on December 22 1912, a few months before the Union of South Africa instituted the notorious Land Act of 1913, the very genesis of the faith-anticipated blood and racial warfare from the get-go.

Birth of a prophet
One of five boys in a brood of nine born to Mayekiso Mgijima and MaKeswa, Enoch Jonas Mgijima came into the world in 1868 in the picturesque village of Ntabelanga just outside Whittlesea, known to Xhosa locals as Wetlisi, shortly before the gold rush.

Whereas his siblings schooled at prestigious institutions such as Lovedale College in Alice, Mgijima shunned formal education because of a massive recurring headache (later believed to be a sign of a diviner's gift) and chose to be a hunter instead.

To this day, legend has it that he was one of the most talented hunters of his time, and was usually seen riding one of his horses atop the mountains hugging the village.

At the heart of the Israelites myth and narrative is the belief held by both his original followers, as well as the current congregants, that Mgijima, then 39 and just another member of the Wesleyan Church, had a life-altering visitation from the Almighty in 1907, in the form of a human figure.

"He was ambling about in his homestead just before dusk," Mgulwa says, "when a mystical figure tapped him on the shoulder and commanded him: 'Follow me!'"

The visitation was followed by a dream in which he grew huge feathers, flew into the sky and finally came across a swarm of locusts the size and ferocity of which he had never seen, and was explicitly told that there would be not one, not two, but three world wars in his lifetime. Although it might have sounded just like speculative hokum, the world was indeed embroiled in two destructive wars that we have not recovered from, and is still gripped in an omnipresent Middle East crisis.

To his believers, Mgijima was not only a man of his word, but of his dreams, too.

Halfway to New Jerusalem I am swamped by the incredulity of it all: direct orders from God, men growing wings, swarm of locusts, premonitions of world wars … Lord O' Heavens, this is too much.

And yet, though I'm traversing the holy space between logic, realism, fantasy and mystique as though I'm a character in the most phantasmagoric of David Lynch's films, I am surprisingly still on my feet.

During the brief time I attended service at Tabernacle No5, I went through what can be called the Israelites experience, through which it's easy to see how one can have your head in the clouds and your feet firmly planted on Earth. Their morning to very late afternoon ­sabbath services are the best example of a life lived in the here and now, as well with hearts and eyes cast towards the afterlife.

 

(Photo: Delywn Verasamy, M&G)

The weekend I went to church, the usually colourfully dressed congregants (pink, red, yellow, brown, white and purple are some of their symbolic colours) were dressed in rather solemn tones. "It's because one of us had passed away, so we are mourning."

The elderly carried off the mourning in black garb (below-the-knee dresses for women and long Dickens-era concierge black jackets and pants for men). The girls wore white shirts and black skirts, and the boys wore white jackets and shirts and grey slacks.

The Israelites don't sing, they rapture and ululate. Their worship is composed of real-life testimonials amid breakbeats of musical rituals featuring flighty saxophone solos and evocative trumpets.

It's a visual spectacle reminiscent of the Venda snake dance, the domba. Suffused with holy voices and more testimonials, you start wondering which world you are actually in right here, right now. I couldn't tell. Are their beliefs and mythology – on the surface, a body of absurd theories and fragmentary references to biblical history – some kind of spiritual junkyard where anything seems to go, to be taken at face value? I don't know.

Growing up the grandson of a preacher man and a descendant of African healers myself, part of me is reluctant to dismiss other people's narratives as fantastical, just because they don't chime with my Marxist dialectical bullshit. So I nod the head and shut the "eff" up.

The stoy of Imfacwe
Surrounded by blue-grey mountains, misty hills and hillocks, Ntabelanga village is a captivating place, in that National Geographic visual sense. Although it is desolate, pastoral and has a haunted air about it, it also gives off an air of defiance easy to miss in a wink: the sort of place that seems never to shed a tear for itself.

We head to the memorial site, where the members of the church were slain en masse. Mgulwa leads me to an enclosed area at the foot of the mountain.

Two major tombstones are placed above a screed of names, writ like a heroes' roll call on a concrete slab, as you enter the site. A full tutorial commences.

"Although he had his first visitation in 1907, Mgijima officially established the church in 1912," Mgulwa and Mgwigwi take turns to explain. The prophet started building on the visitation only after a man going by the name of John Isaac Msikinya – fresh from theology and anthropology studies at Howard University in Washington DC – came looking for him.

I've heard the same narrative from the oldest member of the congregation, 90-year-old Bishop Joshua Mbayi of Shiloh. "Msikinya was just a messenger and this is the news he came bearing for Mgijima: 'Enoch, secede and do your thing!'"

The instruction came from Pastor William "Saunders" Crowdy in the United States. Crowdy was a run-away slave, a soldier and the founder of the original Church of God and Saints of Christ – the world's oldest black Hebrew denomination.

It was Crowdy's belief that descendants of African slaves, as well as Africans in the mother continent were the last of the tribes of the ­biblical Israel.

And so on December 22 1912, a few months before the introduction of the Natives Land Act of 1913, apportioning 80% of the country's land to the 5% settler population – Mgijima's Israelites were born. The story of the Israelites in this country is also the tale about "the war", the 1921 massacre that they now remember as Imfacwe (calamity).

The story is that soon after he accepted his calling, Mgijima took to spreading "the word" like a duck to a pond.

"As I remember, my parents and other elders spoke about his gifts. The man was a gifted charismatic rhapsodiser," says Mbayi, who was born into the church two years after the massacre and three years before Mgijima's death. "He was also a rhetorician," says Mbayi, metaphorically,  "who could rouse the animals from their sleep and speed up the flow of rivers with his searing and soaring voice."

So magical is the Israelites narrative that simple things such as facts, numbers and dreams just defy our often rigid logic. When they speak, they create some kind of magical sensibility no dialect can easily break down. Although I'm right there in Ntabelanga, I also feel like I'm floating like Colonel Aureliano Buendia in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Macondo village in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Could it be that these people have a key to some kind of incendiary antilogic we need, to make sense of this senseless world? I wondered hard about the curious case of Enoch Mgijima. Yes, he was talented, but how did he become a mythical ­figure? "Our parents told us that the prophet started travelling the country, preaching and restoring African folks's faith in themselves. He was like a missionary," says Mbayi.

 

 

Holy orders: Israelites dance. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Some say that everywhere Mgijima went he preached an embellished doomsday theology, cobbled as much from the Old Testament as from his own rich imagination. Thus it came to pass that after several years of preaching a certain kind of apocalyptic message, his followers not only listened, but actually heard: only the truly devout, "the children of Israel", will be called to the Kingdom of God – cryptic liturgy for eternal joy in the afterlife.

This is also a recurring theme in my conversation with Mbayi. Despite a naughty wink and his sense of humour, he's emphatic as he keeps on reminding me: "Look, some of these things might not makes sense to you, but this is your life; it's not ours." Where's yours, Bishop? "We don't believe in the world you live in," he tells me.

As for Mgijima and the doomsday theory, Mgulwa and Mgwigwi refute the idea of the apocalypse.

"We don't believe that the prophet preached about the end of the world. We also don't believe he told people to come to Ntabelanga to meet the Saviour: people might have decided to be with him the Pesach of that year."

But why? "Every Pesach they congregated there."

Apocalypse now or never: on May 5 1921 "the children of Israel" from every nook and cranny of Southern Africa heeded Mgijima's voice and illegally squatted around the church and the prophet's premises in Ntabelanga in anticipation of the end of days. But to this day, the prophet's followers maintain he said nothing about the apocalypse.

"People came to pray, to be with their prophet. What's wrong with that?" Mbayi asks me.

In May 1921, the weeks flew by and there was still no sight of "the Saviour".

Waiting for God became the ultimate test, not only of their faith but of their earthly characters as well. Soon they ran out of food, water, and whatever other items of sustenance they'd brought with them. Things fell apart.

A battle is brewing
At this point, according to records in the South African History Archive, the Union sent one of its police commanders, General Theo Truter, to the area. He promptly dispatched a letter instructing Mgijima to urge his followers to disperse. Mgijima flipped and sent this reply: "Dear Commander. You take your orders from the government, I take mine from Jehovah."

The government believed the Israelites had invaded the land illegally. Mgijima believed that the Hlubi chiefs had granted him permission to temporarily accommodate his congregants on their land. The government would have none of that.

The stage was set for a massive confrontation. Today if you talk to villagers for long enough and with patience, they will sketch a picture of the neurotic nature of the Union's authorities. They will tell you that General Jan Smuts planted snitches all over the place. In Ntabelanga, a farmer known as Mutticheck was one of them.

Led by Colonel Johan Davey and General Koos van der Venter, the troops promptly arrived and stationed themselves at two strategic points in the Ntabelanga mountains: Ingxingwa Ye Nkunzini, the Bulhoek valley, and Ingxingwa ka Stivini, Steven's Valley.

It is instructive that the troops settled on the exact spots on the mountains that Xhosa folk refer to as ingxingwa; both the loose and literal translations of the Xhosa word mean "crossroads" and sometimes "unyielding obstacle".

After two Israelite negotiators, Victor Ndlangisa and Edward Mpatheni, failed in their pursuit of an amicable solution, deadlock ensued. Seeing no change in the government's attitude, the "passive resisters", or Mgijima's fanatics if you will, promptly assumed strategic positions facing the army. Who but the staunchest of believers could face gunpowder with nothing but sticks and stones? The church says 200 of Mgijima's followers were shot and killed during the two-day siege and more than 500 were wounded.

In hindsight, what transpired in Bulhoek that fateful May set off several carbon copies of resistance massacres: Sharpeville in 1960; Soweto on June 16 1976; Winterveld in 1985; Bhisho in 1992; and hey, weren't the 34 miners cold-Glocked in Marikana thought to be blind believers in some higher powers?

Back in Ntabelanga, Mgijima and his council were subsequently arrested and shipped to Kimberley, where they were charged with treason.

He only served three years and came back to lead his congregation in 1924, continuing with his mixed messages of redemption, revelation and the question of land dispossession. Although the world did not end, Mgijima remained defiant to his very last day.  

Instead of being rejected as a liar and fantasist, the gruesome mass killing served to invest him with even more emotional heft: a victim and hero who stood up to the white man and his evil ways.

Gone but not forgotten
One day, four years after his release from prison and accompanied by his confidant and horse-cart handler Adonaija Ntloko, Mgijima, coming from an all-day service in a village called Hackney, pronounced "Hegeni" by the locals, decided to take a dip in the river before proceeding on his way home.

As with the mystique and mythology of Old Testament prophets who were said to bath naked in a river before their "departure", Mgijima's act would later be remembered by his congregation as a sign that he was done with this world.

He arrived at his homestead on March 5 1928, where he proceeded to go to sleep, never to wake up again. He was a full 60 years old when he left behind a wife, Tiyiwe Nondzaba, known by her married name "Mampumalanga the first", and a brood of seven children: Sony, Innis, Zantsi, Mzanywa, Bumba, Topi and Mlauli.

The elders take me to his grave, which, other than an iron-bar frame and a tombstone erected by the provincial government, is not extraordinarily distinct from the resting places of many common men and women in the Ntabelanga cemetery.

In a few minutes we arrive at his old house. It's a modern-looking structure, and behind the original stable are large stones originally used for the foundation of his house. His granddaughter, Poppy Mgijima, is busy building a corrugated-iron room that doesn't look an inch more spacious than a tool shed.

"I can't afford anything bigger," she shoots in answer even before I can ask the question.

I amble about the yard alone, trying to figure out where exactly this man have had his face-to-face with God? And then give up as soon as the thought comes up. It's my omnipresent heathen dialectic … something that has nothing to do with Mgijima.

Something I must face one day: is there a God and if so, to what extent does he care for his children of a darker hue?

We leave for home. The question plays itself in repeat mode in my head: How should we remember Mgijima? Charlatan, fanatic or hero?

Senior rock critic at Rolling Stone, Bongani Madondo's next collection of essays, Sigh the Beloved Country, will be published by Jonathan Ball later this year

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