Imvubu Newsletter

The amaCirha Chiefdom: Fact or Fiction?

© Hirst, M. Imvubu 18: 1, 6.

In Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People Noel Mostert (1992: 462) makes a surprising gaffe in reference to the clan membership of Ntsikana’s father, Gabha, whom he fails to mention by name (cf. Raum 1968: 396). According to Mostert (Ibid., op. cit.), “Ntsikana came from the most ancient of all Xhosa royal lineage. His parents belonged to the Cira (sic) chiefdom, the oldest historically of all the Xhosa chiefdoms. Its founding chief, Cira, had been overthrown in the remote past by his brother Tshawe, whose descendants subsequently formed the royal dynasty to which Hintsa, Ngqika and Ndlambe all belonged.” Although few historians are likely to find fault with Mostert’s last sentence, the reference to the amaCirha chiefdom is certainly misleading.

Theal (1897: 111-2) records the Xhosa oral tradition about Tshawe’s victory over Jwarha, who supported his half-brother Cirha’s claim as the rightful heir to the Great House against that of the former, in the succession dispute following the death of their father Nkosiyamntu. Soga (1936: 104-6) also mentions the tale, but both his and Theal’s accounts have embellishments of their own. In both accounts the older, more experienced and victorious half-brother was Tshawe. Whereas Cirha was the nominal heir of the Great House and Jwarha the heir of the Right-Hand House, Tshawe was apparently the heir of a minor house (iqadi). It is well known that Xhosa traditional leaders were polygynists with more than one wife who frequently only married the Great Wife, usually a woman of royal status from a neighbouring kingdom who was responsible for producing the heir to the Great House, later in life after other marriages of lesser status had been contracted. One of the problematic consequences of the house system in the succession of Xhosa traditional leaders was that half-brothers of minor political status were senior in age to the heir of the Great House and were therefore in a position not only to contest his authority, but also to usurp it by force of arms. Since Cirha was dependant on the military support of Jwarha in the contest with Tshawe, the suggestion is that Cirha had no retinue (isihlwele) of male followers of his own, who are usually selected from the youths circumcised with the future traditional leader. As frequently happened historically in the succession of traditional leaders among the Xhosa, it is possible that Cirha had not been circumcised at the time Tshawe contested his political authority by defeating Jwarha, and was an infant or minor. The latter would explain why the amaCirha still exists as a Xhosa clan (isiduko) today and why it was never a distinct Xhosa chiefdom in the first place, as Mostert would have us believe. During the minority of the heir to the Great House, the son of the Right-Hand House, in this case Jwarha, would have had the most to gain as regent. Hence, Jwarha’s alacrity to support Cirha’s claim. It is interesting that, in the contest between the rival claimants, Tshawe never appeared to dispute Jwarha’s right to act as regent of the Great House, but challenged the political authority of Jwarha and Cirha in total. Theal (1897: 111) suggests that Tshawe and his followers owed their victory to the fact that they were better armed with iron-tipped spears and javelins (imikhonto) than their adversaries.

Since membership of the agnatic group or clan (isiduko) passes directly in the male line from father to son and so on, a man would have to acquire a social status of some significance in the group and more importantly, have male descendants before his name could be transmitted as the patronymic of the clan. The fact that the amaCirha and amaJwarha are still prominent Xhosa clans today suggests that, at the very least, their founders not only survived the succession dispute to tell the tale, but also had male descendants to transmit their clan-names down to the present. “Because battles were largely fought over questions of political supremacy and because victory was easily computed in terms of cattle captured, precolonial wars among the southern Nguni tended to be relatively bloodless” (Peires 1981: 138).

As to when the foregoing historical events actually occurred, there are few solid facts to go on, apart from a few vague indications in the literature. In a note in which Harinck (1969: 154-5) suggests that J. H. Soga’s dates for the reigns of Xhosa kings be revised, he estimates the dates for the reigns of Xhosa and Togu as c. 1420-50 and c. 1590-1620 respectively. The latter date certainly calls into question Soga’s assertion that Togu was the ruling Xhosa king when the Stavenisse was wrecked on the Mpondoland coast in 1686 (Soga 1930: 101). On Harinck’s reckoning, during the 140 years that elapsed between the reigns of Xhosa and Togu, if Xhosa genealogy is correct and there is no absolute certainty that it is, there were the succession of at least five kings – Malangana, Nkosiyamntu, Tshawe, Ngcwangu and Sikhomo (cf. Wilson and Thompson 1982: 88). One does not need to be a mathematician to calculate that the reigns of the latter were less, on average, than thirty years; and in actuality probably varied in length from case to case. Clutching at these few straws, it is possible to suggest a rough estimate for the period involving the succession dispute between Tshawe and Cirha as sometime between the closing decades of the fifteenth century and the early decades of the sixteenth century.

Ntsikana’s mother was Gabha’s minor wife, Nonibe, but he was placed as the heir of the Great House probably because Gabha’s Great Wife, Noyike, failed to produce a male heir. It would have been impossible for both Ntsikana’s parents to have been members of the amaCirha clan, for this would have amounted to incest in the Xhosa perspective prevailing at the time, a matter about which the Xhosa are extremely fastidious even today and against which there were legal sanctions at the time involving fines payable in cattle to the traditional leader. It is unlikely that a prophet of Ntsikana’s stature would have ever gained the prominence he did among the amaNgqika as a councillor (iphakathi) had he been the progeny of an incestuous marital union.


Harinck, G. (1969) Interaction between Xhosa and Khoi: emphasis on the period 1620-1750. In Thompson, L. (Ed.) African Societies in Southern Africa. London: Heinemann, pp. 133-69.

Peires, J. B. (1981) The House of Phalo. Johannesburg: Ravan Press.

Raum, O. F. (1968) Ntsikana. In De Kock, W. J. (Ed.) Dictionary of South African Biography. VOL. I. Cape Town: Tafelberg, p. 396.

Soga, J. H. (1930) The South-Eastern Bantu. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press.

Theal, G. M. (1897) History Of South Africa Under The Administration Of The Dutch East India Company (1652 To 1795). VOL. II. London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co.

Wilson, M. and L. Thompson (1982) A History Of South Africa To 1870. Cape Town: David Philip.