New novel explores Xhosa history, spirituality

Those with an interest in SA history should keep an eye out for East Londoner Russel Bradfield’s debut novel, Shadows and Sky.

Russel Bradfield
Picture: MATTHEW FIELD

The book is a work of historical fiction and follows a pastor’s daughter, Thandi, and a farmer’s son, Mark, as they arrive in present-day Hobbiton-on-Hogsback to serve as volunteers during the school holidays.

After discovering the remains of a Xhosa warrior killed by British colonialists, the pair are forced to grapple with the brutal history of SA and the ongoing legacy of colonialism.

One of Bradfield’s biggest inspirations for writing Shadows and Sky was the 1992 book, Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People, by Noel Mostert.

“What fascinated me is the one little incident in Mostert where he mentions the discovery at Fort Fordyce of some remains of Xhosa people who that had been involved in some fighting around the fort.

“There was brutal fighting there around Fort Fordyce. Some of the people who that fought there, fought in the Napoleonic Wars and they said it was the worst fighting they had ever seen.

“I was fascinated with the idea of these things being discovered years later,” Bradfield said.

The book is based on historical events and involves real historical characters. However, as historical fiction, there are obviously some embellishments for the sake of narrative although Bradfield made sure to stay as true to reality as possible.

According to him, the only truly fictitious part of the story involved a scene between Totane, an assistant of Xhosa chief Maqoma, and George Brown, a European missionary.
In the scene, Brown hands Totane a Bible as a symbol of gratitude for all his help.

While Totane and Brown did exist and while Totane did indeed help Brown, there is no evidence that he was ever given a Bible. This marks the extent of Bradfield’s poetic licence, however.

Working on Shadows and Sky required a lot of research and Bradfield said this took up most of his time. Combined with eight months of writing, he estimated that it took him a total of two years to put the book together.

During that time, Bradfield said his biggest challenge came from trying to write a particularly spiritual scene near the end.

“It took me three days to try and work it out,” he said.

A good part of the challenge came from trying to put into words something that, by definition, is almost impossible to put in words.

Another difficulty came from trying to properly discuss the intersection of traditional Xhosa spirituality and Christianity which is one of the major themes of the book.

“I went into Monica Wilson’s library one day and I found a book there that said ‘All African stories about Africans can be condensed into five different stories’,” Bradfield said.

Wilson was an internationally acclaimed anthropologist from the Eastern Cape who held the position of professor of social anthropology at the University of Cape Town from 1952 until 1973.

“I can’t remember all five, but one of them was ‘missionaries vs the ancestors’.”

Bradfield explores this conflict through Thandi, one of the main characters.

Thandi is the young daughter of a Xhosa pastor. Before her arrival at Hogsback, Thandi shows no interest in traditional culture or history, but her discovery forces her to re-evaluate her position.

“When she reads these stories of what happened, her heart is with the Xhosa people who have been forced out and dispossessed. And yet, her civilisation to a large extent is built around what colonialism brought,” said Bradfield.

Colonialism is also a major theme of Shadows and Sky and the way it intersects with Christianity and the Xhosa faith is of the central plot.

“The conquest [of the Xhosa people] wasn’t just militarily, it was a spiritual issue as well. Missionaries were part of the conquest,” Bradfield said.

“The politicians wanted the missionaries there as spies and there was a lot of pressure on them to be spies. There was also a lot of pressure on them from the Xhosa people because they were not stupid, they knew they were spies.

“The Xhosa people also wanted them there as leverage because if the missionaries were there, [the colonial government] couldn’t come in and mistreat them or massacre them in the same way they could if the missionaries were not there.”

Bradfield also points out that the role of the missionaries during the colonial period was a complicated one. While it is true they were responsible for the erosion of traditional Xhosa culture, they also provided vital education to the Xhosa people and served as an important buffer between them and the colonial government.

Shadows and Sky is available from Christian Booksellers in Ashmel Centre and from Lavender Blue

Finally, one of the biggest themes of the book is how the effects of colonialism reverberate to this day.

Not only does Bradfield explore this through the main characters of Thandi and Mark, he also uses two significant historical figures – the prophets Ntsikana and Makana.

While neither make significant appearances in the story itself, their presence is felt by nearly every single character and their conflicting ideologies inform a lot of the moral core of the book.

Ntsikana, according to Bradfield, played a big role in spreading Christianity to the Xhosa people and preached a more peaceful message of engagement with the colonial regime.

In contrast, Makana pushed a more confrontational message and is
famous for his attack on Grahamstown in 1818 (the city has since been named in his honour). To this day, Makana is still held up as a symbol of rebellion against colonialism.

For Bradfield, the spirit of Ntsikana and Makana continue to influence people to this day. although he he does admit the conflict is somewhat one-sided.

“I think ultimately, if you look over the last 200 years, Ntsikana won more than Makana,” he said.

Bradfield hopes that readers take important lessons after reading Shadows and Sky.

“I want white youngsters who read this book to understand the nature of what faces us, that we can’t pretend that there is no problem and that we can just go on. You can’t wish the past away.

“As white people, we have to understand that there really are issues here. We can’t just put our heads in the sand and say ‘everything’s fine’.

“From the black side, I would hope there is understanding that there are options going forward,” Bradfield said.

Shadows and Sky is available from Christian Booksellers in Ashmel Centre and from Lavender Blue on Old Gonubie Road or e-mail For more information, contact Bradfield on rwbrad@mweb.co.za.

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