UP remembers Bulhoek Massacre 100 years later

Posted on May 31, 2021

24 May 2021 marked 100 years since the Bulhoek Massacre of 1921 took place, where more than a hundred people were killed by police on a hill called Ntabelanga in Bulhoek, Eastern Cape.

The University of Pretoria (UP)’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship, in partnership with the University of Johannesburg (UJ)’s Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study hosted a virtual commemorative event that explored the event, as well as the socio-political landscape that made this possible.

The event, broadcast from UP’s Future Africa Institute, featured historians, legal experts and commentators all weighing in on the significance of the Bulhoek Massacre, and the impact it continues to have on South Africa today.

UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Professor Tawana Kupe said it’s important to document and remember our collective history as it has an impact on where we are going.

“Given the historic significance of the Bulhoek Massacre, I would like to commend the organisers of this symposium for insisting that as scholars and researchers, we take a moment to remember Bulhoek – lest we forget where we come from. Twenty-seven years since the advent of democracy in our country, it is only correct that we take a longer view, as we reflect on our journey as a country and as a people. My hope is that at this conference, you will not only look back into history but you will also use our tragic past in order to fashion a brighter future for us and for generations to come,” Prof Kupe said.

Robert Edgar gave the opening keynote address, titled The Place of the Bulhoek Massacre in the history South Africa. Edgar made reference to how the battle between the Israelites, the name given to the followers of African prophet Enoch Mgijima, and the police was skewed - in part because of their faith but primarily because the police elected to make use of brute force.  He said this forms part of a history of repression that has characterised SA.

“In the 20 minutes of fierce fighting, some 200 Israelites were killed and nearly 130 injured. The remaining members of the church spent the rest of the day gathering their dead, and tending to the wounded.

“From the establishment of the Union of South Africa in 1910, to the present government, the Bulhoek Massacre was but one of many occasions in which the government has made use of brute force to crush people it regards as its enemies. Examples such as Port Elizabeth in 1920, Bulhoek, Duncan Village in 1952, Ngquza Hill and Sharpeville in 1960, Soweto in 1976, Langa and Queenstown in 1985, Winterveld in 1986, Bhisho in 1992 and Marikana in 2012 are all part of the lexicon of repression in which the state, both before and after 1994, sanctioned its forces to slaughter dissidents,” he said.

Edgar also made a connection between the violence witnessed in the town of Tulsa in the US, and reiterated the importance of keeping these histories alive.

Panashe Chigumadzi, author and PhD student at Harvard University’s Department of African and African American Studies spoke under the title Ascension for a Worldless People: On the global resonance of ‘Jerusalema” in a time of cataclysm.  Chigumadzi made the case for music being, among other things, a way for Black people to find their way ‘home’.

“On the morning of 24 May, 1921, the South African state executed their first police massacre against a Black Jerusalem. 163 Black Israelites were dead in 20 minutes. A century later, Master KG and Nomcebo Zikode’s Jerusalema, the South African song that went viral across the globe in the world-ending times of the COVID-19 pandemic, is the pursuit of sonic ‘homing’ by the son of the people long exiled at home. It is the ecstatic, exilic song of a people who have so ached and struggled for a new home that they have given their lives for it. Jerusalema is an ascendant Afro-Atlantic song, of Zion. And in the portal of global dispossession that COVID-19 has opened, it has resonated with a globe of people homesick for the world,” Chigumadzi said.

The Bulhoek Massacre saw over 100 people murdered by apartheid police. “The Church of God and Saints of Christ”, also known as the Israelites, gathered upon a hill at a place called Ntabelanga in Bulhoek in the Eastern Cape. Their gathering was part of their annual pilgrimage, during the religious festival of Passover, in which they participated during the months of April or May. The numbers of pilgrims gathered at Ntabelanga was larger than it had been in previous years. Several of the pilgrims had arrived much earlier than the day of the Passover festival, camping there for several days and giving rise to rumours that they had moved in to stay permanently at Ntabelanga. This situation unnerved the local South African Union government authorities. By the morning of 24 May 1921, the local police, who had been in panic mode for weeks, were nervous and extremely agitated. The Union police instructed the church members to move out of the land they had occupied. The church members refused to move. By midday on the 24th of May 1921, more than a hundred members of the church had been killed. Many were injured, and others, including the church leader Enoch Mgijima, were arrested.

Visit UP’s Youtube page to watch the seminar.

- Author Masego Panyane

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