The subject of Nongqawuse is still a much-debated topic in contemporary South African society and I will probably be criticised for dealing with her in the way that I have. For some time I had been drawn to the story about the girl-child prophetess Nongqawuse and the visions she had seen sitting beside a dark pool, which led to the terrible cattle killings that took place in the 1850’s in the Eastern Cape.
Nongqawuse was not a naive girl from an irresponsible people. It’s important to place her in the context of the political landscape of the day. At that time, the relations between the Xhosas and the white settlers were hostile. The 1835 border war had left the Xhosas economically, politically and psychologically devastated. The Xhosa people became landless as vast tracts of land were given to white farmers and military officers. Xhosa people had no rights at all and their customs were systematically undermined in the midst of dislocation and oppression.
In 1854 Sir George Grey was appointed governor. He pursued a policy of “civilising” the Xhosas in British Kaffarria and in other parts of the Cape Colony. Civilisation meant the drafting of Africans into the Cape Colony labour market. The cattle-killing episode should be viewed against this background. Nongqawuse was also not the only prophet of her time. There were other prophets who were stirring the anxieties and hatred of the Xhosa people against the white settlers. Their message was brutally similar: a national sacrifice in order to drive the whites from Xhosa land. But what was it about the young girl, Nongqawuse, that made her words the most potent of all the prophets? How was this slip of a girl able to convince kings and elders to wilfully slaughter their cattle, which would bring about the ruin of the Xhosa people? In all my research I could not find a satisfactory answer and that was why I was drawn to her story. Sadly, however, the national sacrifice brought about by Nongqawuse’s words did not produce the desired results. The British colonial authorities and the pro-colonial church in Xhosa Land used the cattle-killing incident to prove that the Xhosas needed colonial rule and gave the white people ample reason to believe that they had a “civilising mission”. Xhosa kings lost their moral and political authority and more people were driven by hunger to the Cape Colony farms.
All of this laid the foundation for the years of oppression that was to follow.
Michael Williams, Librettist
The company sings of their fears of the storms that await them at the Cape of Good Hope and how they will yearn for their land of the midnight sun. The slaves sing of their misery and are berated by Tabakali, the seer, for their belief in witchcraft. Jula steps forward and speaks of the vision she has had while they were crossing the water to the ship: The Ancestors have not forsaken them. There will come a time when their enemy will be driven into the sea. They must fast in silence. All cattle with yellow tongue, must be destroyed for the dead are watching and waiting to come to freethem from tyranny.
Jula has returned to her people in southern Africa and has told them of her vision and its implications. All the cattle have been slaughtered, the crops burned but still the Dead have not risen to vanquish the enemy. The Believers wait in a state of trance. King Hambo is worried and calls upon Tabakali and asks her why the spirits have not risen as Jula said they would. Tabakali accuses some of the people for not believing in the vision and names Balintulo as an Unbeliever. King Hambo demands that Balintulo slaughter his cattle but the young man refuses. Jula enters and reminds the people what needs to be done. The Praisesinger believes that Jula’s vision is a call for war against the settlers. The people are encouraged by the words of Tabakali and the Praisesinger and turn on the Unbelievers. King Hambo orders that Balintulo’s cattle are destroyed. Balintulo is left alone with Jula and implores her to listen to reason but she refuses to admit what she is saying is untrue. Jula sees the army of the Dead who will rise and bring freedom to her people. Balintulo reminds her of their promise of marriage but he is unable to persuade her to retract her vision. Jula communes with the spirit world and is lost to him. Balintulo’s ox is slaughtered in a ritual slaying and the people gather again to wait for the dead to rise. The Dead do not rise and slowly the people all die from starvation. Jula is revealed. She holds onto the last bit of hope she has that one day her people will be free.
Norrlandsoperan, Umeå, Sw eden
Stockholms kulturhuset, Stockholm
Norrlandsoperan, Umeå, Sw eden
Artscape Theatre, Cape Town, South Africa
IN THE PRESS
PERSUASIVE AND OF HIGH QUALITY TO THE END
INSPIRING AND HIGHLY ACCLAIMED
THE BEST NEWLY COMPOSED OPERA FOR 20 YEARS
Magical act with a unique inspirational figure – The grand premiere of Mats Larsson Gothe’s African Prophetess is a sterling choir experience
Rhythmical and dramatic, with a directed choir and soloists, we may well raise the question of whether this opera may be Larsson Gothe’s foremost work to date.
The undulating song and complex rhythmicality of the music enjoyed an inspiring and highly acclaimed performance by the Cape Town Opera
They sing with marked intensity, command a broad vocal register and create deep character interpretations, and the icing on the cake is their skillful control of even the subtlest nuances.
Cape Town Opera’s Siphamandla Yakupa, with her magnificent soprano voice, and Mandisinde Mbuyazwi, with his powerful baritone, were joined by other talented soloists in a compelling and impressive vocal performance.