24 May 2012

May 24 marks 91 years since the Bulhoek Massacre

Members of the Church of God and Saints of Christ raise their spirits around the cenotaph created by Mgcineni Sobopha and Michael Barry to commemorate the Bulhoek Massacre. Picture: Gary Horlor © Sunday TimesOn May 24, 1921, police killed over 180 people who had gathered at Bulhoek, near Queenstown to pray. They were followers of a prophet, Enoch Mgijima and called themselves ‘Israelites'. Their sin for the bloodbath was to occupy land which they had been instructed to vacate.

Oral history from members of the church claim that the actual number of people who died during and after the bloody massacre was 800, with more than 100 seriously injured.

Enoch Mgijima, as a prophet and leader of the Israelites, had told his congregation that he had a vision that the world was coming to an end. This prompted thousands of followers to gather at the said site to pray but without any authorisation from the state to build a tabernacle. Their "squatting" was protested by white and black locals but the Israelites refused to move. Mgijima received official letters demanding that he and his followers vacate the land but he refused.

On the day of the massacre, an army of 800 police were sent to drive out the Israelites who refused to vacate the land. Who fired first was never determined, with both sides claiming they merely retaliated. The crossfire lasted 20 minutes and left the area ravaged.
The massacre is commemorated annually by the Church of God and Saints of Christ, as the Israelites are now known.

Land struggles are still an ongoing issue in South Africa with many still living in informal settlements, an environment unfit for human habitation - they are subjected to fire outbreaks and a rapid spread of contagious diseases among other challenges.

According to statistics released by Statistics SA in 2010, more than 1.2 million people were still living in shacks (informal settlement), this figure does not include those renting in backyards of other people's properties, suggesting the figure could be much higher if that segment was included.

Enoch Mgijima is one of the icons honoured in the Sunday Times Heritage Project.

Visit the SAHA / Sunday Times Heritage Project website to learn more about the Bulhoek Massacre and the memorial to Enoch Mgijima.