The Eastern Cape and the defeat of the Xhosa.

In the early 19th century British and other settles began to covet lands formally declared out of bounds by the Cape authorities to settlement in the Eastern Cape (beyond Port Elizabeth). This led to a series of disastrous wars for the Xhosa peoples and chiefdoms.

Although the Xhosa and their allies were valiant fighters and often inflicted initial defeats on the British, technological superiority, merciless attacks and the destruction of Xhosa food supplies led to the eventual complete annexation of almost all Xhosa lands. 


'The mounting crescendo of killing and conquest reached its conclusion in a war that began in December 1850 and persisted viciously and inconclusively for 32 months. This was Mlanjeni's War, or the eighth frontier war, described by Jeff Peires as 'the longest, hardest and ugliest war ever fought over one hundred years of bloodshed on the Cape Colony's eastern frontier.'

Mostert reminds us that it was the second longest war in South African history - and 'the biggest single conflict between black men and white men south of the Sahara during the nineteenth century.' The Xhosa lost more combatants than the Zulu did a quarter of a century later; but their defeat was deeper, more disabling, and more terminal than any shift in the military balance of power.'


Lessons on the frontier: aspects of Eastern Cape history Colin Bundy Kronos n.30 Nov 2004 pp 11-12. 


The military defeat and territorial exclusion of the Xhosa was followed by the arrival from Europe of a lethal cattle disease (bovine pleuropneumonia) that decimated their most valuable possessions - 80 per cent of cattle were lost. This grievous loss and land annexation led to a messianic belief amongst Xhosa people that a great cleansing and sacrifice was needed to restore order and dignity.  


This led to a frenzied slaughter of 400,000 head of cattle and the mass destruction of grain reserves that caused the death by starvation of 40,000 Xhosa.  These events were cynically exploited by British administrators to by-pass local chiefs and open the way for further white settlement. 


The vast province of British Kaffraria, that stretched roughly from Port Elizabeth to beyond East London and 100-200 km inland - and was later to become known as Ciskei - was incorporated into the Cape Colony in 1866. 


Tiyo Soga, a Χhosa commoner who had emigrated and returned from Scotland as a Presbyterian minister said:


'When a people are not land-proprietors, they are of no consequence in this country and are tenants on mere sufferance' (quoted in Thompson,  2001:80).


This epochal defeat and subjugation of the Xhosa peoples and the later discovery of gold and diamonds in the Transvaal created a historical legacy that has blighted the Eastern Cape and condemned it to a role of economic marginalisation where 'the contemporary realities of poverty, male absenteeism, underemployment and instability are part of the historical legacy'  (Bundy above p.11).


The Eastern Cape became one of South Africa's most impoverished provinces and in the latter part of the twentieth century even the punitive Apartheid laws against the movement of people could not hold back the beginnings of a massive shift of population from the Ciskei and Transkei into the much more advantaged and labour-hungry Western Cape. 


Thus, in the 1980s after repeated battles in the Crossroads informal (and under Apartheid laws - 'illegal') settlement outside Cape Town the government declared a policy in Cape Town that went by the name of "Orderly Urbanisation".


"almost as soon as large tracts of the new settlement [Khayelitsha] became ready in 1985, government decision makers had at last to concede that the Pass Law, one of the central pillars of apartheid, was no longer tenable. That is, the vast scale of poverty, malnutrition, and land degradation in rural Ciskei and Transkei constituted a "push factor"; the increasing demands of the metropolitan economy for labor provided a "pull factor."

International opprobrium for the Pass Law, internal civil unrest, external pressures for divestment, and the government's dependence on overseas loans also played roles. In 1986 the Pass Law was repealed. In the Western Cape, certain other remaining administrative controls regarding employer sanctions and housing were no longer enforced, and then in 1988 the CLPA [Coloured Labour Preference Area] was formally abolished (Western, p.626 )



From 1982 to 1992 the Black African population of Cape Town more than doubled, nearly all the newcomers Xhosa people from Ciskei and Transkei. Concomitantly, from 1980 until 1996, the total metropolitan population of Cape Town more than doubled, to an official figure of about 2.6 million. In 1996 official expectations were that it would double again in the next thirty years p.627



One should recall that the apartheid city itself was not achieved only by brutally imposed remodeling of its previously multiracial areas, which hit Cape Town harder than any other South African city; it was achieved just as importantly by the creation from scratch of new custom-segregated residential zones: Mitchell's Plain for Coloureds, for example, or Nyanga-Guguletu or Khayelitsha for Black Africans. Thus it was at its contemporary spatial peripheries - as well as at its heart with the erasure of District Six - that the colonial city of Cape Town was forced into the mold of an apartheid city. p.633



We may assume, then, that in the new South Africa the validity of that tired tripartite racial division, White-Coloured/Indian-Black African, is ever lessening, whereas new sociopolitical alliances and identities are springing from the melding of economic interest, regional consciousnesses, and cultural characteristics, as well as from what has until now been termed "race."p.634


John Western, Africa Is Coming to the Cape,  Geographical Review,  4 2001.