A headhunter to banish the devil

South Africa's best-known medicine man arrives in Britain on Sunday. His mission: to retrieve the head of his great-great uncle and rid his country of evil. By Robert Block
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If all goes according to plan, some time in the next few days, in the dead of winter, a South African man will arrive at Heathrow airport wearing a short beaded skirt and a tunic made of two leopard skins, their heads intact and mouths open in frozen roars. In his medicine bag there will be, he hopes, a fat personal cheque from President Nelson Mandela to support him during his stay in Britain. And as he disembarks from the jumbo jet, he will begin yelping like a wild animal, wailing and babbling about spirits and headless kings. Chief Nicholas Tilana Gcaleka will have arrived in Britain.

South Africa's most famous sangoma (spiritualist healer) of the moment is expected to arrive this Sunday on the final leg of a much-touted macabre quest to find the disembodied head of his great-great uncle, Hintsa, the paramount chief of the Xhosa nation who was killed at the hands of a British military expedition in the Eastern Cape more than 160 years ago.

Although the death of Hintsa was a pivotal moment in the British Empire's conquest of the Cape, history does not say whether Hintsa was decapitated, and there is no indication whether, if he was indeed beheaded, any remains were sent back to Britain. That body parts were sent back from colonial territories is not in dispute - army surgeons of the era frequently sent home skulls and limbs for scientific study.

Chief Gcaleka (pronounced Gah-lek-ah), however, has no doubts as to the whereabouts of the head and is certain that he, and only he, can find it and return to South Africa a hero, the pre-eminent sangoma of his time.

"We are definitely sure that the head of Hintsa is in Scotland. The soldiers that killed Hintsa were Scottish people. The spirits have told me so. They have even showed me in dreams where it is. I have seen it. Once I get to Scotland the spirits of my ancestors will overpower me and they will take me right to it," the chief says, his eyes bulging as he lets slip a high-pitched yelp, which is, he says the voice of his guiding "hurricane" spirit.

Standing before him it is easy to become caught up in his enthusiasm, mystery and self-confidence. Nicholas Tilana Gcaleka, a former liquor salesman and Methodist minister, is part showman, part snake-oil salesman and part average South African country witchdoctor. But he is 100 per cent convinced that, since 1992, he has been hearing voices ordering him to retrieve his ancestor's head and in doing so to set in motion the spiritual healing of South Africa.

"All the corruption and all the crime and hatred in the country is because of Hintsa," Chief Gcaleka says. "Hintsa's spirit has got no head. He is walking all around the country, fighting with everybody, making big trouble. Hintsa is a bad spirit now; a very bad spirit. He is like a devil. The other spirits of the ancestors cannot control Hintsa any more. He is now the devil of South Africa.

"By bringing back this head and burying it with his body we will be closing the door on the devil in South Africa. Once I get the head that is the end of the story."

But the story of Hintsa's death and Gcaleka's mission is anything but the simple tale the chief tries to make out. The fatal shooting of Hintsa on 14 May 1835 is one of the most controversial episodes of South African history and is shrouded in conflicting accounts of the historical record and Xhosa oral tradition. What is known for sure is that a Cape military guide of Scots descent named George Southey fired a fatal shot while Hintsa was allegedly trying to escape from a contingent of British troops; he had been held hostage by them during the early days of what is known as the Sixth Frontier War.

Hintsa's untimely demise caused a scandal back in London, culminating in an effigy of George Southey being burnt in Trafalgar Square by the London Missionary Society, which maintained that Hintsa was murdered by misguided British colonial policy. The protests led to a court of inquiry which exonerated Southey of any wrongdoing but determined that Hintsa's corpse had been mutilated. But it did not say how or by whom. The evidence - whatever remained of Hintsa's body - was left on the banks of the Nqabara river for his own people to find. Xhosa oral history maintains that the body Xhosa tribesmen found had no head.

The grave of Hintsa is today marked by a large black granite stone erected in 1985. It stands in a breathtakingly beautiful but remote spot about 40 miles south of the Transkei town of Butterworth. On the day that chief Gcaleka and his main adviser, Balizulu Mhlontlo, an 84-year-old aide to the current Xhosa king, Xolilizwe Sigcau, made their last pilgrimage to the site a few weeks ago, a fog had settled over the river valley like a heavy white blanket. It was close to the ground and very thick. But all Chief Gcaleka had to do was step into the high grass and, eerily, the fog pulled back as if it were making way for him. "You see, man. I tell you, the spirits are with me," he said.

He recounted the details of his great-great uncle's death with the expertise of a tour guide. "Hintsa was with British soldiers when he tried to escape to a village near this place," he said. "British people were trying to make Hintsa find cattle that the British said he stole from English people. [Colonel] Harry Smith, the leader of the British, tried to shoot Hintsa but missed. Hintsa fell off his horse and tried to run away when George Southey shot him in the leg and the side. Hintsa came down to this part of the river and was crying, taru, 'Mercy. I apologise,' when George Southey shot him in the head. They then cut off the head of Hintsa and sent it to Scotland.

"The British must apologise for what they have done and we must accept their apology. Then we must bring the head of Hintsa back here."

But first Gcaleka must get to Britain. Already his original departure date of 25 January has been pushed back, first to 31 January and now to 10 February. The problem is that while he has managed to generate a great deal of publicity, he has so far been unable to come up with sufficient funds for him and his entourage of praise-singers and flunkies to make the trip.

Initially, several South African companies promised him money but when it came to the crunch most backed off. "In the end, most of the companies decided they did not want to be associated with this venture," says Bruce Pringle, an estate agent from Port Elizabeth who has been helping Chief Gcaleka to raise funds.

Mr Pringle is a descendant of British settlers who participated in the so-called Kafir or Frontier Wars against the Xhosa through the last century and is himself a believer in the spiritual world. Unlike him, however, many South Africans are reluctant to donate money to such a grisly spiritual quest which they feel is at best dubious and at worst makes black South Africans appear primitive and superstitious.

There is another, less voiced reason why many white-owned companies have shied away from backing the chief. The death of Hintsa is a part of history that many English-speaking white South Africans would prefer to be forgotten. The British, on the whole, like to think of their historical involvement in South Africa as having been benign and put most of the blame for the country's bloody past on the Afrikaners. Hintsa's death and Chief Gcaleka's quest stand as an uncomfortable reminder of the truth.

Given his problems finding money, it looked as if the chief's mission would have to be put on hold. Then a story surfaced that the head of Sandile, a later and equally prominent Xhosa chief decapitated by the British, had been found buried near a garden wall on the Hilcot country estate near Cheltenham in Gloucestershire. And then came the news last week that seven well-preserved heads of South African bushmen had been discovered by a South African artist in the basement of the Natural History Museum in London.

Chief Gcaleka was more adamant than ever that the trip could not wait. In desperation, he says, he appealed directly to Nelson Mandela, himself a Xhosa of royal descent, and claims that the President has promised 50,000 rand (just under pounds 10,000) of his own money. And so the trip is back on for Saturday.

So far, the President's office has refused to confirm or deny the report. But there are reasons why the President may have decided to help Chief Gcaleka.

In the almost two years since the end of apartheid and Mr Mandela's election as President, several South African ethnic groups have been waging campaigns to reclaim the remains of ancestors known to be in different museum collections around the world. The growing clamour to give their relatives a dignified burial has been an unwitting and unanticipated by-product of South Africa's democratic transition, as the country's formerly oppressed black majority asserts its rights to reclaim its history.

Of all the campaigns to reclaim these grisly trophies of colonialism, none has captured the popular imagination of the public like Chief Gcaleka's quest. During his trip through the Transkei a few weeks ago, Chief Gcaleka stopped for petrol in Butterworth and was mobbed by people who wanted to catch a glimpse of the man who has vowed to right what they see is a historical wrong.

The expectations that Chief Gcaleka's trip has raised are so high that Jimmy Matyu, a Xhosa journalist in Port Elizabeth, says that he is afraid that, should Gcaleka return without Hintsa's head, many people may demand the chief's in its place. Already, Chief Gcaleka's own organisation, the Eastern Cape Traditional Healers' Association, of which he was president, has thrown him out, pending the outcome of his quest.

"They want to see that he is speaking the truth," says Mr Matyu. "They want to believe. If he comes back without the head there will be big trouble. People are watching him. He is playing with fire."

In Scotland, Chief Gcaleka's hunt baffles military men and museum curators. The Army questions his insistence that Hintsa's head lies at Fort George, near Inverness - headquarters of the former 72nd and 75th Highland regiments who fought in the campaign in which the king died. Junior officers at the fort have conducted a thorough search but nothing has turned up. Ministry of Defence historians have checked their records, too. Army officials say the chief is welcome to visit any barracks north of the border in his quest, but they insist that the trail is cold.

Chief Gcaleka remains undaunted. He has already gathered some unlikely and important supporters in his search, which has made a big impression on many people.

Two weeks ago, he met Ted Southey, the great-great nephew of the man who killed Hintsa. Mr Southey, although a South African for generations, still resembles an old-fashioned British gentleman, with his red face, handle-bar moustache and khaki shorts. Standing on the steps of the house at Mr Southey's Strathfillan ranch in the heart of the Eastern Cape, both men were greatly moved by their common bond which stretches back 161 years. "This is absolutely incredible," said Mr Southey. "The way history just goes round and eventually comes full circle. Anything I can do to help please let me know."

Chief Gcaleka, in full leopard skin splendour, nodded and yelped a spiritual greeting.

"Whatever happens now, I want it known I am not fighting George Southey and his family. As of today, the Xhosa people don't need an apology from the Southeys. Just by giving me your hand you have already apologised and by taking your hand I have accepted.

"I can feel that Hintsa is happy. Now our spirits will fight together to get this head and bring it back to South Africa."