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Afterlives of Anticolonial Prophecy in South Africa and Beyond


Afterlives of Anticolonial Prophecy in South Africa and Beyond

In 1856 and 1857, in response to a prophet’s command, the Xhosa people of southern Africa killed their cattle and ceased planting crops; the resulting famine cost tens of thousands of lives. Much like other millenarian, anticolonial movements—such as the Ghost Dance in North America and the Birsa Munda uprising in India—these actions were meant to transform the world and liberate the Xhosa from oppression. Despite the movement’s momentous failure to achieve that goal, the event has continued to exert a powerful pull on the South African imagination ever since. It is these afterlives of the prophecy that Jennifer Wenzel explores in Bulletproof.

Wenzel examines literary and historical texts to show how writers have manipulated images and ideas associated with the cattle killing—harvest, sacrifice, rebirth, devastation—to speak to their contemporary predicaments. Widening her lens, Wenzel also looks at how past failure can both inspire and constrain movements for justice in the present, and her brilliant insights into the cultural implications of prophecy will fascinate readers across a wide variety of disciplines.

328 pages | 6 halftones, 1 map | 6 x 9 | © 2009

African Studies

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

History: African History

Literature and Literary Criticism: African Languages, General Criticism and Critical Theory

Sociology: Race, Ethnic, and Minority Relations


“Taking the Xhosa cattle killing as her focus, Jennifer Wenzel offers something beautifully paradoxical: a new, anti-canonical canon of South African writing. Concerned with historical and literary ‘failures,’ this work is a profound reflection on the fragmentary and spectral (but not therefore any less compelling) nature of echoes, influences, and prophecies. A work of sophistication and intellectual ambition, Bulletproof is a timely and innovative intervention in postcolonial studies.”

Rita Barnard, University of Pennsylvania

“The Xhosa cattle killing that took place in South Africa in the nineteenth century has been the subject of many historical and literary studies, but Jennifer Wenzel’s book is the first to fully represent the significance this singular event has had on the making a culture of letters in Southern Africa. More than an accounting of a millennial event and its cultural aftermath, this book is an incisive, innovative, and tantalizing account of the process by which historical failure engenders a new literature. It is an original and compelling account.”

Simon Gikandi, Princeton University

“This book counts among the very best works of literary history I have read to date. It is strikingly well argued, beautifully written, and highly original in its conception and design. It works its intellectual magic from within the fields of African studies and critical theory, and masterfully rewrites both of these by its insistence that we pay renewed attention to the question of temporality in the making of our arguments. The notion of an afterlife is developed in its secular sense, as unrealized visions of anticolonial projects are considered as unfailures. Wenzel finds a method of reading and by implication a politics which is constituted by a refusal to forget what has never been. The book is a brilliant exegesis on the heterotemporality of past and present. It enables us to rethink in a highly sophisticated way our uses of the term ‘resistance,’ a notion which has underpinned so much of the work generated by postcolonial studies. This is a book which will travel across numerous intellectual fields and bring to life scores of as yet unthought questions.”

Sarah Nuttall, University of the Witwatersrand

"Thoughtful and timely. . . . Bulletproof serves as an eloquent reminder that hope is indeed a resource but one that needs to be mined repeatedly, and sometimes from murky underground places."

Journal of Religion in Africa

Bulletproof offers a genuinely new approach to an anthropology of reading, a work of ambitious scope and meticulous research that examines multiple historical and literary accounts of Xhosa prophecies leading to the 1856–57 cattle killing in the Eastern Cape of southern Africa through the lens of each moment’s cultural and political perspectives. . . . Bulletproof proves an exemplary model of the revelatory insights and innovative methodologies that the most rigorous interdisciplinary work can yield.”

American Anthropologist

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations


A Note on Terminology


1 Writing Resurrection and Reversal: The Cattle Killing and Other Nineteenth-Century Millennial Dreams

2 Spectral and Textual Ancestors: New African Intermediation and the Politics of Intertextuality

3 The Promise of Failure: Memory, Prophecy, and Temporal Disjunctures of the South African Twentieth Century

4 Weapons of Struggle and Weapons of Memory: Thinking Time beyond Apartheid

5 Ancestors without Borders: The Cattle Killing as Global Reimaginary

Works Cited



International Society for the Study of Narrative (ISSN): George and Barbara Perkins Prize
Honorable Mention

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