A Sword Raised Against Bullets

By Simpiwe Piliso

Preserved in a small glass case in the Amathole Museum in King William's Town, a homemade sword stands as the symbol of a religious group's struggle to preserve its community.

The poorly made, jagged-edged sword was used by Israelites, today known as members of the Church of God and Saints of Christ, against policemen armed with machine guns in one of the bloodiest clashes in South Africa's history.

More than 3 000 worshippers refused government orders to move off a piece of land in Ntabelanga, also known as Bulhoek, a holy village near Queenstown in Eastern Cape.

Led by their prophet, Enoch Mgijima, the worshippers were adamant that they would move only if God told them to do so. With sticks, spears and swords, the Israelites charged almost 1 000 armed policeman, who opened fire, killing more than 500 people on May 24 1921. Leaders of the church dispute the 163 death toll as cited in history records.

Last week, the Sunday Times Heritage Project unveiled a memorial to commemorate the massacre. As part of the Sunday Times's 100th anniversary celebrations last year, editor Mondli Makhanya launched a project to commission a number of public memorials to record and recognise some of the remarkable people and events that made news in the last century.

The intention was to create a permanent storytelling trail of memorials around the country, marking some of the compelling moments in the country's history, on the spot where they happened.

Artists Mgcineni Sobopha and Michael Barry collaborated on the artwork that tells the story of the Bulhoek massacre. The artists created a memorial column that illustrates the events of the day on a laser-cut metal panel.

The monument stands outside the church's headquarters in Mlungisi township in Queenstown.

This monument will serve as a constant reminder of the hundreds of men and women who died and sacrificed their lives for what they believed in.

At the unveiling last Sunday, relatives of the slain worshippers and churchgoers quietly related stories of the events leading up to the battle. "This monument will serve as a constant reminder of the hundreds of men and women who died and sacrificed their lives for what they believed in," said Benjamin Ntloko, an evangelist and the oldest member of the Church of God and Saints of Christ.

As he spoke he ran his hand over the metal panel, his eyes fixed on the engraving of worshippers wildly waving their homemade swords and spears, many of which still lie buried in the valley at Ntabelanga. Ntloko's other hand tightly gripped the handle of the only sword to have been retrieved from the battlefield; it is brought to the church from the museum every year.

"This sword is one of the few items we have from that battle... and it's a valued piece of our church's history," said Ntloko, dressed in a white robe and wearing a scabbard for the sword on his belt.

Ntloko, 79, remembers being told the story of the battle, which only lasted about 20 minutes. His father, who was dragged off the battlefield on a flimsy stretcher, survived with seven gunshot wounds and a broken arm.

Other members of his family were less fortunate. Their bodies, which lay scattered across the saddle of the valley, were buried in three enormous graves.

The engraved inscription on the headstone of one of the mass graves reads: "For they chosed [sic] the plan of God, so the world had no room for them." A wall of remembrance alongside the grave carries the names of 213 of the victims. Ntloko's parents were devoted members of the church.

"My memory often fails me... but my earliest memory of the church was when I was about 12 years old, holding onto my mother's dress as we made our way through this massive field to a large mound of sand and rock," he said. Ntloko said he watched his family pray as tears streamed down their faces.

Covered in thick bush, the valley overlooks the gravesite and holy village - the centre of the events that led to the massacre.

- This is an extract from the original article.


back to the Enoch Mgijima memorial page

"You take your orders from the government. I take mine from Jehovah."
Enoch Mgijima
Captured Israelites, 1921
Picture © Museum Africa


Historical documents: Clues to a terrible tragedy

In this lesson plan, learners are encouraged, through their study of historical documents, to explore the reasons for a religious group risking their lives to defy General Smuts's government in 1921. Learners will also be asked to think about why the government and its police used violent force against the so-called Israelites.

Lesson plan
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Archive Photo Gallery
A selection of photographs of the Bulhoek Massacre, courtesy of Museum Africa.
Artwork Photo Gallery
Photographs of the memorial and Church of God and Saints of Christ congregants, taken at an unveiling ceremony.
The Bulhoek Massacre part 1
Extract from a documentary on the Bulhoek Massacre, focusing on the controversy over the number of casualties
The Bulhoek Massacre part 2
In the decades since the Massacre, the church has grown in strength, and today has chapters throughout Eastern Cape