Indigenous icon Gcaleka dies
Dying wish of traditionalist to have King Hintsa’s skull returned to bury
Nicholas Nawi Tilana Gcaleka, the controversial African spiritual healer and traditionalist who famously went to Scotland to bring home what was thought to be the skull of AmaXhosa King Hintsa in 1996, has died.
Gcaleka, 69, died in an East London hospital on January 8. His family said he was diagnosed with cancer late in 2018.
In March 1996, Gcaleka, also known as Mbambatho, gained international attention when he claimed his ancestors’ spirits had sent him to Scotland to dig up and bring home the skull of Hintsa.
He came back with a skull, claiming it was that of the king, and it was handed to a team of scientists, including paleoanthropologist Philip Tobias, to test its authenticity.
The results, however, indicated the skull was, in fact, that of a middle-aged European woman.
AmaGcaleka-Xhosa’s king Xolilizwe Sigcawu, his council and the royal family refused to sanction burial of the skull because they said it was not the disembodied head of Hintsa. They denounced Gcaleka as “a fraud and charlatan” and the skull was not returned to him.
Hintsa KaKhawuta, the fourth king of the AmaGcaleka-Xhosa nation, ruled from 1820. He was shot dead by British colonialists on the banks of the Nqabarha River near Willowvale on May 12 1835.
His body was dismembered by troops in search of grisly mementos and his head was preserved and taken back to Britain as a trophy.
Gcaleka’s son, Sivuyile Mbambatho, said his father went to his death still furiously demanding that the skull be returned to him to determine spiritually its authenticity.
He wanted the skull to be returned to him so he could call a gathering of amagqirha [diviners or sangomas] to prove its authenticity. He believed the spirit of King Hintsa was in the skull and that this could not be proved by anthropologists, but only by amagqirha since it was a spiritual rather than physical matter.
“Gcaleka came from the post-colonial paradigm and believed in the African way of knowing: that spirits and African beliefs can only be tested through indigenous – not empirical – methods,” said Mbambatho.
Gcaleka often challenged mainstream views about African spirituality and chieftaincy.
He proclaimed himself “Chief Gcaleka” because he believed royal blood ran through his veins not by inheritance but by historical lineage because of belonging to the tribe of royalty – the AmaGcaleka.
“Others interpreted his views as controversial, opportunistic and militant, depending on how one understood his traditional intellectual narrative. Nonetheless, he remains an indigenous icon who not only put the case of King Hintsa on the international map, but contributed to the rewriting and interpretation of South African colonial history, including art,” his son said.
The public spat over Hintsa’s skull was the subject of a controversial stage drama by Brett Bailey. His iMumbo Jumbo production premiered at the National Arts Festival in Makhanda in 1997 and returned in 2003.
In the play, Bailey interprets Gcaleka’s’ spiritually guided mission to retrieve Hintsa’s skull as going against the grain of the rational, secular, westernised world view.
According to Bailey, Gcaleka challenged the thinking that holds that the scientific method is the only way to establish the truth, and labelled those who opposed him as elites, co-opted into modern, western, empirical historical methodology.
At the height of his business success as a liquor distributor and salesman in the 1990s, Gcaleka sponsored schoolchildren with free transport and funded the burial of a destitute family of five who died in a bus accident in Fort Beaufort.
“A big tree has fallen. He was some kind of encyclopaedia of history and African knowledge, and every moment with him was worth it. It’s a great loss to the family. His dying wish was to have King Hintsa’s skull given back to him so he could bury it on his own at his Theko Kona compound in Centane,” said Mbambatho
Gcaleka is survived by his three wives and 12 children. He will be buried on January 19 at Theko Kona in Centane...