The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging



Military History Journal
Vol 14 No 4 - December 2008

AN AFRICAN MASADA
Nyabela, Mampuru and the Defence of Mapochstad

by David Saks

When the 1880s commenced, with the dramatic defeats of the powerful Zulu and Pedi kingdoms at the end of the previous decade still fresh in the memory, it was clear that the days of African independence in South Africa were numbered. Only a handful of black tribes across the Vaal River had yet to succumb to the military and technological superiority ofthe all-conquering Europeans. In the course of the next two decades, these last outposts of black autonomy would fall, one by one, before the relentless expansion of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR).

The military expeditions through which all this came about were, in general, dreary affairs, with few noteworthy incidents to make them memorable. The Transvaal Boers, intent on reducing their opponents to submission as quickly and cheaply as possible, went about their work with business-like caution, opting wherever possible for methods of systematic attrition over open clashes of arms. For all that, there was a certain grim drama in these little-known campaigns, a sense of tragic inevitability in the skirmishing and sniping before the brooding mountain fortresses where South Africa's last remaining free blacks made their last doomed stand.


Statue of Nyabela at the foot of KoNomtjarhelo
(Photo: By courtesy, David Saks)

The year 1882 began with the Transvaal Boers enjoying their second year of independence, having disposed of their imperial adversaries with remarkable ease in a short, sharp war of independence concluded the previous year. The year ended with the commandos once again in the field, this time against Nyabela's Ndzundza clan. An Ndebele people, the Ndzundza occupied the wild, hilly terrain bordering the ZAR's Middelburg district.

Nyabela's royal headquarters, KoNomtjarhelo, was built by his father Mabhogo (whom the Boers referred to as Mapoch) in the 1830s. Mabhogo commissioned various renowned land surveyors, hunters and military experts, who were subjects of the Swazi King, Mangwane, to layout his capital. The area they selected consisted of ravines and hills, strewn with boulders and honey-combed with intricate caves. KoNomtjarhelo was laid out with large cattle pens, terraced agricultural fields and irrigation ducts fed by water springs. An interlocking system of fortresses, subterranean tunnels, rock barriers and underground bunkers was constructed for defensive purposes. The Ndzundza kingdom comprised 84 km2 and had a population of 15 000 when Nyabela became regent chief in 1875.

During the first four decades of white settlement, the Ndzundza had managed to maintain a fragile autonomy. At first, they were in a client relationship with the new arrivals, paying taxes for the lands they occupied and accepting the writ of the local commandant. In the 1860s, this overlordship was challenged by Chief Mabhogo, who managed to withstand a prolonged war of attrition and eventually compelled the ZAR to recognise his jurisdiction over the lands that his people occupied.

The Boer-Ndzundza truce was maintained during the 1870s, and the two even came together at one stage to fight against Sekhukhune's Pedi further east. It was only after the Transvaal regained its independence in 1881 that the relationship began to deteriorate rapidly. The ZAR was annoyed with Nyabela for asserting his independence (by, for example, declining to pay taxes, refusing to hold a census when instructed to do so and preventing a boundary commission from beaconing off his lands). What eventually became the casus belli was Nyabela's decision to harbour the renegade Pedi chief, Mampuru.

For years prior to this, Mampuru had been engaged in a power struggle with his half-brother, Sekhukhune. In mid-1882, some of his followers attacked the old chiefs kraal and murdered him. On two previous occasions, the ZAR authorities had attempted to arrest Mampuru for fomenting disorder, and this latest outrage was the last straw. Mampuru and his supporters sought refuge with Makwani, one of Nyabela's subordinate chiefs. When ordered to extradite the fugitive, Nyabela made the fateful decision not to do so. Whatever his reasons, it gave credence to rumours that he and Mampuru were jointly plotting to coordinate a general uprising of black communities in the Transvaal against the Boer republic. War was inevitable.

On 12 October, the Volksraad authorised General Piet Joubert to raise a commando. At first, only Mampuru was the target of the expedition, but, at the end of the month, Joubert was also instructed to bring to heel any blacks who had harboured or assisted him. Joubert had little enthusiasm for his latest brief, but this would not prevent him from pursuing it to its conclusion with relentless thoroughness.

Raising enough able-bodied burghers for the expedition was not an altogether easy task. Few relished having to leave their farms for months on end to take part in a dull and prolonged campaign against rebellious blacks, even under a leader as respected and popular as Joubert. Nevertheless, an expeditionary force was duly raised. The white citizens of the ZAR had few civic obligations, but serving on commando was one of them, and most of those called out reported for duty.

By the end of October, the vanguard of Joubert's commando, which was about 2 000-strong, began arriving in Mampuru's territory. An ultimatum was sent to Nyabela, giving him one last chance to surrender Mampuru and to undertake to cooperate with the Republican authorities in future or war would ensue. Joubert was anxious that he comply as a military campaign was not likely to be an easy one. For one thing, illicit trading in guns had provided both Nyabela and Mampuru with extensive firearms, albeit of a relatively poor quality. For another, the latter would be defending terrain that was ideal for defence. Any hopes he might have had for compliance were soon disappointed. Nyabela famously answered that he had swallowed Mampuru, and if the Boers wanted him they would have to kill him and take him out of his belly.

The Ndzundza capital of KoNomtjharelo was a formidable fortress. It was here that the Ndzundza had rallied and entrenched themselves to withstand Mzilikazi's reign of terror half a century previously. The stronghold was situated between precipitous cliffs and sheer rock faces on the eastern extremity of a range of heavily forested, boulder-strewn hills. A complex network of caves, grottos and tunnels pockmarked these heights, providing both places of refuge and space for storage to help withstand a long siege. The caves were a remarkable phenomenon, some being so extensive as to enable fighters to disappear into one entrance and reappear from a different one more than a kilometre away. Moreover, to capture the main stronghold, the attacking force would first have to overcome a series of well-fortified hills, most notably KwaPondo and KwaMrhali (called 'Vlugkraal' and 'Boskop' respectively by the Boers; KoNomtjharelo was simply 'Spitskop') which guarded its approaches to the west.

Joubert would ultimately eschew direct attacks against these strong points. The Boers were past masters when it came to storming hills (as they had demonstrated at Majuba and Schuinshoogte the previous year) but in this particular war they could not be relied upon to take too many risks. Already half-hearted about the coming fight, they were liable to desert or simply refuse to cooperate. Instead, therefore, Joubert's chosen strategy was to wear the chiefs down, confining them and their people to their mountain fortresses and allowing starvation to do the rest. This would at least minimise losses among the Boers. On the other hand, it would inevitably prolong the war. It was already known that the Ndzundza were stockpiling their grain in anticipation of a long siege.

Opening shots, November/December 1882

On 5 November, a last-ditch attempt to conclude the dispute peacefully came to nothing and, two days later, the first clash of the war took place. Without warning, a Ndzundza raiding party swooped down from the surrounding heights and began driving the commando's oxen, nearly a thousand head, towards a cave in the mountainside. The Boers were not to be caught napping on this occasion. About 150 of them galloped after the raiders, running them to ground before they reached their destination and reclaiming their cattle. About twenty Ndzundza were killed in the skirmish; the Boers suffered just one, minor, casualty.

The main body of Joubert's commando was concentrated against Nyabela while two smaller divisions were detailed to attack Mampuru. A series of simple stone or earthwork forts were built to seal off the various entrances and exits to the chiefs' territory, hemming them in. This both limited the enemy's access to fresh supplies and protected the white farmers in the vicinity. The forts themselves were tiny, triangularshaped affairs, crudely thrown together in haste. They were nevertheless accorded grand-sounding names, such as 'Fort Potchefstroom' and 'Fort Nuwejaar'. Screened by such defences, regular patrols began scouring the area, seizing what cattle they could while gradually closing in on the capital, but not without loss. On 14 November, five men were ambushed and killed.

Within two weeks of the commencement of hostilities, the KwaPondo bastion was already being menaced. Three cannon as well as a considerable amount of dynamite had since arrived from Pretoria to help reduce the defences. On 17 November, a fort was erected no more than two thousand paces away. While a second fort was being built near the first, the Ndzundza attempted to drive back the besieging force, but were themselves beaten off after two and a half hours offierce fighting with the loss of some forty men. Only one Boer was killed. The Boers brought two of their guns into the firing line during the engagement. Soon after this repulse, Nyabela sent out emissaries to discuss peace terms, but Joubert was only prepared to deal with the chief in person and sent them back. Nyabela declined to present himself, no doubt suspecting that it was a ploy to capture him.

KwaPondo, a semi-circular plateau surrounded by cliffs and strewn with boulders, was subjected to a heavy bombardment on 21 November, but to little effect. The defenders merely jeered at and taunted the burghers from the safety of their breastworks. Joubert's dynamiting operations were also unsuccessful, since the warriors had taken refuge in caves that were in most cases too deep for the blasts to have much effect. Laying the charges was also a dangerous business. On 25 November, the popular Commandant Senekal and another man were lost to sniper fire in the course of those operations.

The commando was substantially reinforced in the last week of November, many of the new arrivals being drawn from friendly black tribes in the northern and eastern parts ofthe Republic. In early December, part of the force was deployed against Mampuru, who was still in Makwane's territory. Accompanying the Boers were a large number of Pedi, who had been loyal to the late Sekhukhune and were eager to avenge his murder. On 7 December, this combined force launched a determined assault, only to retire in some confusion in the face of an unexpected counter-attack by over 600 of the Ndzundza. This, the first Boer defeat of the war, was avenged two days later in an early morning raid, during which dozens of Ndzundza were driven into a cave and all but six of them were shot or asphyxiated in the course of being smoked out.

Throughout these dreary weeks of petty skirmishing, raiding and counter-raiding, Joubert continued to draw his cordon of forts tighter. By mid-December, most of the Ndzundza subordinate chiefs had been subdued, and from then on, the attention was focused mainly on Nyabela's capital and on Mampuru. There was somewhat of a lull in the fighting until the arrival of J A Erasmus and 1 500 black levies on 30 December prompted another offensive. Two days into the new year, the commandos attacked KwaMrhali (Boskop) and eventually took it after a fierce firefight. This was one of the few set-piece battles of the war, one more hardfought than the relatively low casualty toll would suggest.

The Boers suffered more casualties nine days later when lightning struck 'Fort Nuwejaar' (Fort New Year), killing one and injuring seventeen of its defenders. Similarly, the worst defeat Nyabela and Mampuru suffered was inflicted not by the burgher force but by its black allies. On 20 January 1883, about 300 of their followers raided the kraals of two loyal tribes. They were promptly set upon by the followers of four other pro-Boer chiefs, hotly pursued and eventually almost wiped out after being trapped on the banks of the rain-swollen Steelpoort River.


Remains of fortifications on KoNomljarhelo
(Photo: By courtesy, David Saks)

Closing in, February/March 1883

On 5 February, Joubert mustered his forces for a determined assault on KwaPondo/Boskop, which had withstood the besiegers for three months. The battle began just before daybreak and raged all morning. The burghers and their black auxiliaries, in the teeth of a stubborn resistance, were forced to clear the stronghold ledge by ledge and cave by cave. Three Boers were killed and a number of others seriously wounded - no tally was made of their black casualties - before the fortress fell. The hill's fortifications were dynamited that same day to prevent the Ndzundza from reoccupying the position.

Now only KoNomtjharelo lay between the commando and Nyabela's capital. Joubert and his war council ruled out storming the position and decided instead to use dynamite against it. This would entail digging a trench up to the base of the mountain, tunnelling deeply under it and laying sufficient charge to bring it all crashing down. It was indeed a bizarre and tortuous strategy, certainly amongst the most curious ever to have been devised in modern warfare.

On 28 February, Commandant Stephanus Roos became the latest Boer casualty when he was shot dead while dynamiting a cave. It was Roos who had led the decisive Boer charge over the crest at Majuba and he died the day after the second anniversary of that famous victory. The nearby town of Roossenekal, established soon after the war, was named after him and Commandant Senekal. Its official name today is Erholweni.

Digging commenced on 2 March. Unusually heavy rains that season had softened the ground, and after only a week the trench had been brought to within 400 metres of its objective. The diggers were harassed constantly by snipers, losing one killed and several wounded during this period. The real threat to the Ndzundza by then was imminent starvation. Four months of relentless attrition had seen their crops destroyed and most of their livestock captured, and their once plentiful food stocks had dwindled steadily. By early April, all petty chiefs had submitted to the invaders. Nyabela was promised that his own life would be spared and his people allowed to remain on their lands if he did likewise. He chose to fight on instead, perhaps still hoping, even at that late stage, to emulate his father's achievement of withstanding a Boer siege some fifteen years previously.

Final Stages, April/June 1883

Fighting petered out in the closing months of the war. Joubert was content to maintain his stranglehold until the inevitable surrender, receiving constant reports that the besieged Ndzundza were close to starvation. Most of the Boers merely lounged around in their forts, kicking their heels and waiting to be relieved. Some worked on the trench, which at least provided something to do. The Ndzundza harried the diggers as much as possible. In the middle of April, they staged a successful night attack, doing considerable damage and delaying operations by at least two weeks

. In the meantime, one member of the commando, evidently a Scotsman by the name of Donald MacDonald, had defected to Nyabela. He had done so, it was believed, because of rumours that the Ndzundza had offered him copious supplies of diamonds (which may have been illegally acquired while working on the Kimberley diamond fields), in exchange for his services. Regardless of whether or not he ever received any diamonds, MacDonald proved to be of some use to his new comrades-in-arms. Amongst other things, he taught them how to catapult large boulders down onto those working below. This tactic was one of the reasons that the Boers introduced a mobile iron fort to assist them with the digging. About two metres long, with two wheels inside and eight loopholes for firing, clumsy and unwieldy, it at least ensured that work on the trench could continue in relative safety.

The war thus degenerated into a tortuous throwback to a medieval-era siege, but there was not even the satisfaction of a big bang at the end of it. Shielded by the iron fort, the diggers managed to reach the base of the hill without further mishap. They commenced tunnelling underneath it, but had not progressed very far when they were held up by a bed of rock. Operations were suspended, permanently, as it turned out.

Even then, the Ndzundza continued to fight back. Early in June, they launched a daring raid on the Boer kraals and netted themselves some 200 oxen, enabling them to hold out a little longer. At the end of the month, they also proved equal to the first and only attempt to take the stronghold by storm. About seventy of the bolder Boers, frustrated by the tedium of the siege, volunteered to rush Spitzkop and get it all over with. They had climbed to within fifteen metres of the crest when the Ndzundza counter-attacked, hurling down a continuous hail of stones and pitching the attackers headlong down the way they had come.

On 8 July, Nyabela belatedly decided to sacrifice Mampuru in the slender hope that this would end the siege. The Pedi fugitive was seized, trussed up and delivered to Joubert, but the offering came too late. The prolonged campaign had cost the ZAR a small fortune (the Volksraad later estimated the war costs to be 40 766) in addition to several dozen burgher lives lost, and Joubert was now bent on forcing an unconditional surrender. This came two days later. Nyabela gave himself up, along with about 8 000 of his people who had stayed by him to the end. As reparations, the entire amaNdebele country was usurped.


KoNomljarhelo, Nyabela's mountain fortress (Photo: By courtesy, David Saks)

The post-war settlement imposed by the ZAR was harsh. The amaNdebele social, economic and political structures were abolished and a proclamation on 31 August 1883 divided 36 000 hectares of land among the white burghers who had fought in the campaign against Nyabela, each man receiving seven hectares. Followers of the defeated chiefs were scattered around the republic and indentured to white farmers as virtual slave labourers for renewable five-year periods. In 1895, this whole country, now called Mapoch's Gronden, was incorporated as the fourth ward of the Middelburg District. From 1979 to 1995, it comprised part of KwaNdebele, one of the 'independent homelands' established during the Apartheid era.

Nyabela and Mampuru were treated as common criminals. They were tried in Pretoria and sentenced to death. Mampuru was hanged, a not undeserved fate, given his part in the murder of Sekhukhune. Fortunately, Nyabela was reprieved after the British government lodged an appeal for clemency on his behalf. Sentenced to life imprisonment, he spent fifteen years in captivity before being released. He died on 19 December 1902 at Wamlalaganye, Hartebeestfontein, near Pretoria.

The 'Mapoch War' had not been of much credit to the ZAR, neither in the manner in which it had been conducted, nor in its aftermath. Even so, it had achieved its primary aim. Another 'troublesome' pocket of African sovereignty had been extinguished and, as a result, European hegemony in the eastern Transvaal was confirmed beyond doubt.

The settlement area of KoNomtjharelo, located about ten kilometres east of Roossenekal on the road to Lydenburg, has long been held in deep reverence and has a deep emotional significance for the amaNdebele, and especially for the Ndzundza. In 1970, a statue of Nyabela was erected at the foot the hill in the presence of his descendant, Chief David Mabhogo, as well as many descendants of those who had fought there.

* * *

Every year on the anniversary of Nyabela's death on 19 December, the amaNdebele gather at KoNomtjharelo ('Mapoch's Caves') to venerate their ancestors and to commemorate the death of Nyabela, the last king to rule over that area, and all other traditional leaders and freedom fighters. At the 2003 Erholweni ceremony, Mpumalanga Premier, Ndaweni Mahlangu, paid tribute to Nyabela and his gallant warriors who fought so determinedly and endured so much to defend their freedom:

'It is fitting that another small step in reclaiming our history is taken not far from where our forefathers fought pitched battles in defence of encroaching colonialism and land theft. Indeed it was here that those who came before us said "no!" to colonialism. Despite being outgunned, they laid down their lives so you and I could be free. They laid down their lives in defence of their dignity, their land and their freedom. Today we meet again in these caves as proud descendants of those valiant fighters - in a different setting, in a different era, to plan for peace and not war; to promote unity and not division; to forge a common nationhood and not exclusive privilege.'

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