Chief Mdange is Dead: A frontier mystery

23 min readFeb 8, 2022
Photo by Federico Bottos on Unsplash

The last wisps of fog vanished over the Amathole Mountains as the morning sun rose high above the peaks. Birds chirped and insects buzzed around the blooming yellowwoods that covered the gentle slopes. Eastwards, a faint rumble could be heard as the Gxulu River sprang to life at the heart of the mountains and gushed down towards the valley. The channel widens at the foot of the mountain and the river meanders westwards like a great serpent in search of the nearest village, rising and falling with the changing plains. As it approaches the solitary town of Qobo Qobo, however, the river is swallowed up by the silver waters of the Keiskamma, which turn the course south towards King William’s Town. Amidst the rolling hills and stretching plains through which the Keiskamma flows lied the Great Place of King Mgolombane Sandile, paramount chief of the Amarharhabe people, where this tragic story starts.

As you travelled down the Keiskamma River for the first time, you were struck by the imposing grandeur of the king’s homestead. Large kraals fenced with thick mimosa thorn-branches stood proudly next to sweeping gardens of maize, melons and tobacco, where the king’s cattle grazed after the winter harvest. Facing these in a semicircle were rows of no less than seventy huts, their thatched domes resembling a great cluster of beehives on the hilltop. Outside one of these sat the king with fifty of his councillors, discussing the latest news in the eastern frontier.

‘Serves them right,’ one of them said. ‘They knew that no good could come of it.’

‘Our people are desperate,’ cried another. ‘That should not invite ill-treatment upon them.’

This was an open Council, and even we, the king’s servants, had been permitted to attend. The cattle killing movement had left a great many families in Ngqikaland destitute. With their fields and cattle gone, parents had watched in mounting horror as their children died of starvation. The land was dead. In desperation, many turned to the colony and forsook their homesteads to work in the farms. The previous night, however, news had reached the king’s court that nearly a month ago, a few of…


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