In 1914 the South African Church of God and Saints of Christ split, with one group following Enoch Mgijima as Israelites. The Israelites should not be seen as a totally isolated group. They were part of the movement of Ethiopian or Independent black churches in South Africa.
Mgijima was a title-holder of property at Bulhoek and as his following grew, he erected a building, to be used for religious ceremonies, on one of the pieces of land. The building was not used often as it was too small, and was soon replaced by a larger temporary marquee. The space soon became insufficient and Mgijima knew that his Passover celebrations would not be accommodated. He came to an agreement with the local Shiloh Mission Station, who allowed him to host the event on their premises in 1917.
The following year Mgijima was refused the same opportunity because one of his followers had broken one of the mission station’s rules. The rule stipulated that only evangelists could lead church meetings. In an attempt to find another location his lawyer helped him contact the Superintendent of Native Affairs at Kamastone, Mr. G. E. Nightingale, for permission to hold Passover on the commonage at the Kamastone sub-section. Permission was granted on the condition that churchgoers would leave immediately after the celebration. In 1919 the same request reached the Superintendent, but this time he rejected it because of the other lot owners of the Kamastone sub-section’s objections. Mgijima then asked to have his festival at Ntabelanga in the Bulhoek sub-section and was given the go ahead.
At one of his services towards to the end of 1919 Mgijima declared that he had a vision that the world would end in 1920. This caused a pilgrimage of his followers from all over South Africa. About 3 000 people arrived at Ntabelanga and proceeded to squat there, they erected a tabernacle and some huts without registering themselves or paying tax. Mgijima was insistent that the end of the world was at hand and that Jehovah had instructed him to remain there.
In 1920 Superintendent Nightingale came across the squatters while inspecting the location. He contacted Mgijima, who said that these people had not been able to attend the Passover festivities of the previous year and were there to attend a special service. He assured the authorities that everyone would be leaving as soon as Passover was finished. This arrangement was accepted.
Mgijima was in a difficult position. He had called all his followers to Bulhoek to await the end of the world, but they were squatting on British land. He had not explained the real reason for the influx of people to Nightingale, and was now in a position where he could easily lose credibility. He could not send his people away, but had told the authorities that he would. He decided to delay the departure of his group by extending Passover from its normal period in April to the end of May 1920. When word of this extension reached Nightingale, he paid Mgijima a visit on 8 June 1920. Again the prophet made excuses for breaking his side of the arrangement. He said that some of the people were sick, or did not have money to travel to their homes, but that Passover would take place on 18 June, and the illegal squatters would leave Bulhoek after the event.
In July the headman of Kamastone complained to Nightingale that more Israelites were arriving and more houses were being built. This time Mgijima avoided contact with Nightingale. The Superintendent had lost all trust in Mgijima and he tried other ways of removing the squatters from Ntabelanga at Bulhoek.
The Israelites were in an awkward position as Mgijima had convinced them to get rid of all their worldly possessions, in preparation of his envisioned Armageddon. They became desperate and started to steal livestock from farmers and other residents of the area. At this point the Department of Justice decided that law would have to be restored at Bulhoek. A register (list of names) of all the squatters was needed to remove them under provisions made by the Native Locations Act of 1884 for squatting on Crown land, and other provisions under Government Notice for building on the commonage without permission. On 8 December 1920 the Senior Magistrate of Queenstown, E. C. A. Welsh, visited Ntabelanga. He was accompanied by 100 police officers under the command of Major Hutchons from Grahamstown.
All discussions and negotiations with the Israelites failed as they refused to give their names for a register, or to acknowledge the government’s authority. They held that God was greater than man, and that they would listen only to God, as they were occupying His land. The Israelites were defiant and aggressive and confronted the group of police officers, refusing to move or register.
The Israelites could not be forced to register and the police officers retreated to set up camp for the night. The Magistrate and Major both returned to Queenstown, leaving Captain Whittaker in charge of the police force while they waited for further instructions from Pretoria. During that night the Israelites camped a mere 25 yards away from the police and - armed with clubs, assegais and other home-made weapons - began taunting the officers until Whitaker was forced to withdraw or fight. He decided to withdraw and took up a position on a farm near Welkom.
When local farmers and other residents heard about the incident they became extremely worried. Captain Whitaker sent for reinforcements from Queenstown and some volunteers arrived with Major Hutchons. Their strategy called for a defensive position until more men could arrive from Pretoria. The situation was extremely sensitive as the Israelites were religious fanatics and had not been rational when communicating with government officials. Major Hutchons traveled to farmers, head-men and chiefs in the area, guaranteeing their safety, in the hope of preventing them from taking the law into their own hands.
Pretoria refused to send reinforcements and the volunteers returned to Queenstown, the police stayed to patrol the area. The situation worsened on 14 December 1920 after an incident where three Israelites tried to kill a local farmer while they foraged for food. The farmer, John Mattushek, and his servant, Mr Klopper, managed to kill one of the attackers and wounded another. Surrounding farmers feared revenge attacks and moved their families to Queenstown while Mattushek and his servant were arrested and charged with assault and culpable homicide. When the case came before the court in April 1921 the principal Israelite witness did not appear.
Despite the explosive situation, the Native Affairs Department felt that the conflict could be solved in a peaceful manner. National intervention was called upon and a delegation of high-ranking government officials met with Israelite leaders in Queenstown in an attempt to convince them to leave peacefully. On 17 December 1920 the group met, but nothing was achieved.
On the 6 April 1921 Smuts sent the newly appointed Native Affairs Commission to Queenstown. Enoch Mgijima sent his brother, nephew and another high-ranking church member to negotiate in his place. They claimed that “they wished to obey the law of the land, but Jehovah was more powerful than the law and they feared to offend him by disregarding his wishes and obeying the laws of men.”
11 May 1921 saw another meeting between the Israelites and the commission and again nothing was achieved. They were simply not prepared to leave; as a result the commission lost a great deal of popularity and support among the non-Israelites in the area.
The members of the commission communicated with the Department of Justice advising that a police detachment be sent to remove the illegal squatters, which they hoped would be enough to intimidate the Israelites and prevent bloodshed. At this time the Israelites were being condemned for their actions from several different angles. On 17 May 1921 the newspapers Imvo Zabantsundu and The Star and the General Council of the Transkeian Territories urged the government to enforce the law at Bulhoek and also passed a resolution criticizing the Israelites. The South African Native National Congress, later the African National Congress, encouraged the Israelites to return to their homes to avoid bloodshed.
The South African government began preparing to use force. The Department of Justice ordered the South African Police (SAP) and the Union Defense Force (UDF) gather a large force to take action. A total of 993 police men and 35 officers from various provinces were mobilized and gathered in Queenstown under the command of Colonel T. C. Truter from Pretoria with support from the UDF and the South African Medical Services. The UDF suggested a fly-by with two aircraft as an intimidation tactic. Although bombs would be dropped they would fall wide to prevent injuries. This plan was eventually abandoned as authorities felt it would only strengthen the Israelite’s resolve and would endanger lives.
The Israelites were well aware of the fact that a force was being assembled against them and also prepared for the confrontation. The men marched and trained every afternoon, after which they slaughtered an ox and dipped their assegai tips in its blood. During the night they left their village and took up strategic positions in the surroundings mountains and hills.
By 20 May 1921 the SAP and UDF force was ready and Enoch Mgijima received an ultimatum. Colonel Truter stated that, as a representative of the government, he had to arrest the men who had warrants against them and he had to ensure that all illegal squatters left the area, as well as destroy all illegal houses. Two days later he received a reply from 2 Israelite messengers who asked to see the military camp in Queenstown, a request that was refused. It was clear that the religious sect was preparing for war and wanted information regarding their enemy.
On 23 May 1921 the Police mobilized and moved to a farm close to Bulhoek. The force was well armed with 3 machine guns and artillery. Some men were left in Queenstown as there were rumours of a possible Israelite attack on the town. During the night the final preparations were made for the operation, and the next morning the government force took up their positions on the hills at Bulhoek.
The Israelites were also readying themselves, about 500 of them were armed with clubs, assegais and swords. Colonel Truter made a last attempt to prevent violence by sending 2 Xhosa-speaking officers to negotiate, but they were told, “from Jehovah, we will not allow you to scatter our people from Ntabelanga. We will not allow you to burn our huts, and we will not allow you to arrest the two men you wish to.”
Soon afterwards the Israelites launched an attack and Colonel Truter ordered his force to advance. Warning shots were fired over the heads of the approaching religious fanatics, but they were not deterred. The troops were ordered to shoot and a large number of Israelites were shot. Some of the wounded got up and continued to charge. One of the commanding officers, Colonel Woon, stated that they were, “the most determined and fanatical I had ever experienced, and it was only by shooting them down that the attack could have stopped.” Approximately 180 people were killed, more than 100 were wounded and 150 were arrested, including Enoch Mgijima and his sons.
Some historians believe that the Israelites were the victims of the segregationist government, as they wanted and fought for, land for the landless and escape from taxes and self-rule without White oppression. Others argue that they were endangering the people around them as well as taking possession of land they did not own. It is difficult to say what alternative the SAP had to the actions they took and the government was criticised for years for their decisions regarding the Israelites.
Sources vary on the number of Isrealites that gathered at Ntabelanga and proceeded to squat there, sources also vary on the exact number of victims of the massacre. Therefore all of the numbers in this piece are approximate and based on numerous sources (below).
- Hermann Giliomee and Bernard Mbenga (2007). New History of South Africa. Tafelberg Publishers, Cape Town, pg 50.
- Cameron, T. (ed)(1986). An Illustrated History of South Africa, Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball.
- Makobe, D. H. (1996). ‘The Bulhoek Massacre: Origins, casualties, reactions and historical distortions’, Militaria 26(1), pp. 22-37.
- Makobe, D. H. (1996). ‘The price of fanaticism: The casualties of the Bulhoek Massacre’, Militaria 26(1), pp. 38-41.
- Makobe, D. H. (1996). ‘Understanding the Bulhoek massacre: Voices after the Massacre and down the years’, Militaria 26(2), pp. 98-105
- Makobe, D. H. (1996). ‘Religious fanatics that became political heroes: The historical distortions of the Bulhoek Massacre”, Militaria 26(2), pp. 106-112.
- Potgieter D. J. (ed)(1973). Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa, Cape Town: Nasou.
- Saunders, C. (ed)(1989). Reader’s Digest Illustrated History of South Africa -The Real Story, Cape Town: Reader’s Digest.
- Wallis, F. (2000). Nuusdagboek: feite en fratse oor 1000 jaar, Kaapstad: Human & Rousseau.