Israelites (Enoch Mgijima)

A religious group in South Africa known for its dramatic confrontation with the government in 1921.

Religion: Christianity
Denomination: African Independent Churches
Founder: Enoch Mgijima
Founded: Late 19th century
Location: South Africa
Other Names: Israelites (Mgijima)

The Israelites, led by Enoch Mgijima, were a religious movement that emerged in the early 20th century in South Africa. They gained notoriety following a violent confrontation with the South African government in 1921, known as the “Bulhoek Massacre.” The Israelites, not to be confused with the broader Jewish or Black Hebrew Israelite movements, were a unique sect with distinct beliefs and practices.

Origins and Leadership

Enoch Mgijima, born in 1867, was a South African prophet who founded the Israelites. He had initially been a member of the Wesleyan Methodist Church but broke away to form his own group after claiming to have received divine revelations. Mgijima’s teachings attracted a significant following, particularly among the impoverished and dispossessed black South Africans.

Beliefs and Practices

The Israelites, under Mgijima’s leadership, believed in the imminent return of Jesus Christ and the advent of a new age. Key elements of their belief system included:

  • The adherence to Old Testament laws and practices, including the observation of the Sabbath on Saturday.
  • The expectation of a cataclysmic event that would lead to salvation for the faithful and punishment for the wicked.
  • The adoption of distinctive dress codes and communal living, which set them apart from the surrounding communities.

The Bulhoek Massacre

The Israelites came into conflict with the South African government due to their establishment of a communal settlement at Bulhoek, in the Eastern Cape Province. The government, viewing the settlement as illegal and a challenge to its authority, issued an ultimatum for the group to disband and leave the area.

When the Israelites refused to comply, the government dispatched a force of police and soldiers to Bulhoek on May 24, 1921. The confrontation turned violent, resulting in the deaths of over 180 Israelites and the wounding of many others. Mgijima and several of his followers were arrested and later convicted of sedition.

Impact and Legacy

The Bulhoek Massacre had a significant impact on South African society and is remembered as a tragic example of the government’s harsh treatment of religious and ethnic minorities. Enoch Mgijima’s movement, while largely dispersed after the massacre, left a lasting mark on the religious landscape of South Africa.

The incident highlighted the tensions between the South African government and indigenous religious movements, as well as the broader issues of land rights and racial discrimination in the country.