zulu warrior

The Zulu of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa belong to the larger Nguni linguistic group whose origin is lost in an oral tradition that precedes recorded history. The Nguni are divided into two large segments, North and South. The Xhosa, Pondo and Thembu of the Eastern Cape, are major representatives of the South Nguni, while the Zulu, the Swazi of Swaziland and the Ndbele are of the Northern Nguni.

Some of those who settled in northern KwaZulu-Natal doubled back into what is now Swaziland, while those who first entered the Transkei were the forebears of the Pondo. The last to leave the Limpopo settled for a while in what is now the south-eastern region of the Mpumalanga province, then moved on in easy stages into central KwaZulu-Natal. Finding the north-east and north-west already occupied, two smaller groups moved on. One of these, finding the coastal regions of the south settled by the Pondo, kept to the inland high ground, to become the Xhosa. The other of the two smaller groups found a home as the coastal neighbours of the Pondo to become the Thembu of today.

The final Nguni migration populated the heart of KwaZulu-Natal where the small and unimportant Zulu clan was later to succeed the Ndwandwe and Mthetwa empires respectively in the north-west and north-east. Under their famous chief, Shaka, they became the rulers of KwaZulu-Natal from the Tugela River in the south to the border of Mozambique in the north. Shaka was assassinated in 1828 by his half-brother, Dingane. A long line of descen- dants link these historic figures with the current royal house headed by King Goodwill Zwelethini

Before the nineteenth century, “Zulu” was the clan name of the kings of a small kingdom, which was tributary to the Mthethwa kingdom. Beginning around 1815, the Zulu kingdom displaced the Mthethwa kingdom and conquered dozens of other nearby small kingdoms which gradually took on Zulu identity on top of older local identities.

Shaka Zulu
Probably the most famous southern African in history is Shaka Zulu (1785-1828), known for his peerless leadership of the Zulu clan. He was a fierce and militaristic king, contributing to the murder of a million people. Shaka’s mother was a child of a deceased chieftain of the Elangeni clan and her name was Nandi. Shaka’s father was a chieftain of the small, then unknown Zulu clan and his name was Senzangakona. An out of wedlock pregnancy and a failed marriage forced Nandi to return to her tribe, but she was less welcomed there then with the Zulus. Shaka grew up fatherless among people who despised his mother and him. He was made the butt of every cruel joke and ridiculed about his body. He grew up lonely and bitter with his only companion being his mother, whose life also was miserable. The intelligent and naturally sensitive boy knew of his royal blood and the origins of his tormentors. He harbored great hatred for them till his death.

At the age of 23, he was called to serve as a Mtetwa warrior and did so for the next six years. In battle, he found an outlet for his pent-up frustrations and developed his political policy. He saw battle as the one safe method of political growth and was never satisfied with a clan’s submission before being taken to war. He fought for total annihilation. He also developed a brutal and fatal weapon called the ‘iKlwa’.

Shaka worked the Zulu warriors rigorously, treating them as clay for his molding. He punished the sign of slightest hesitation with death, commanded his army to become celibate except for those already wed, placed them under one roof but separated them in specialty regiments, made weapons from scratch and instilled in the warriors the same fighting spirit he had. He spared himself no luxury of a true king. He had now reshaped what had been the unknown Zulus.

The first people he attacked were the eLangeni clan. From them, he only spared those who showed him and his mother kindness. Then he went on and destroyed the Butelezi clan, leaving few survivors. He took the Butelezi maidens and formed them in a seraglio, which eventually numbered to 1,200 women. He never referred to them as his ‘wives’, which is what they would have normally been, but as his ‘sisters’. He claimed offspirng were undesirable because they might someday oppose him, so he would only engage in ukuHlobonga. It is probable, due to his character in every other aspect, that he never managed to consummate a full relationship with any of these women.

By 1817, the Zulu territories had quadrupled. In that autumn, word got to Shaka that his stepfather lay dying. He returned to bid him good-bye. He then met with the Mtetwa chief, Dingiswayo, and they decided to engage in a major expedition that would take over much of Southeast Africa. That year, Dingiswayo died and battles between major clans began to take over the Mtetwa Empire. By 1820, Shaka had won and commanded most of southeast Africa and Natal.

In 1824, Europeans had arrived at Natal post and visited Shaka. During this visit, Shaka was stabbed by enemy clans and was treated by the Europeans. Shaka held these Europeans in high regard. He signed over land to them not knowing he had actually given it away. The Europeans aided Shaka in his wars to conquer more of South Africa. While on a hunt with Europeans, word came to Shaka that his mother lay dying. In grief, Shaka ordered several men executed but in the chaos, over 7,000 people died. Shaka practically ordered his clan to death by starvation in reverence to his mother.

After three months, order was finally restored, but the seed of anguish against Shaka had been sowed. Shaka and his army began to go downhill as Shaka seemed to increasingly lose touch with reality. On September 22nd, 1828, this once great ‘king’ and warrior of Africa was murdered. His half brothers from his father repeatedly stabbed him to death. They took the body and threw it in an empty grain pot, which then was filled with stones.

This ended the 12-year rule of ‘King Shaka’. He was believed to be 41 years old at his death. His legacy, to this day, still echoes and lives on.

The Anglo-Zulu War
The war was provoked by an unwarranted act of British aggression. The Zulu kingdom had first emerged early in the nineteenth century, with its heartland lying along the eastern seaboard of southern Africa, north of modern Durban. Within a few years, British adventurers were attracted to Zululand in search of trade and profit, and by the 1840s a British colony - Natal - had sprung up on the southern borders of Zululand. By the 1870s, the British had begun to adopt a ‘forward policy’ in the region, hoping to bring the various British colonies, Boer republics and independent African groups under common control, with a view to implementing a policy of economic development.

The British High Commissioner in South Africa, Sir Henry Bartle Frere, believed that the robust and economically self-reliant Zulu kingdom was a threat to this policy. In December 1878 he picked a quarrel with the Zulu king, Cetshwayo kaMpande, in the belief that the Zulu army - armed primarily with shields and spears - would soon collapse in the face of British Imperial might. The war began in January 1879. Three columns of British troops under the command of Lt. Gen. Lord Chelmsford invaded Zululand. Almost immidiately, the war went badly wrong for the British.

On 22 January, the Centre Column, under Lord Chelmsford’s personal command, was defeated at Isandlwana mountain. In one of the worst disasters of the Colonial era, over 1300 British troops and their African allies were killed. In the aftermath of Isandlwana, the Zulu reserves mounted a raid on the British border post at Rorke’s Drift, which was held by just 145 men. After ten hours of ferocious fighting, the Zulu were driven off. Eleven of the defenders of Rorke’s Drift were awarded the Victoria Cross. The British flanking columns also saw action that same day.

The success at Isandlwana exhausted the Zulu army, however, and Cetshwayo was unable to mount a counter-offensive into Natal. This gave Lord Chelmsford time to regroup. British troops were rushed to South Africa from around the Empire. By the end of March the war was poised to enter a new phase. Lord Chelmsford assembled a column to march to the relief of Eshowe, and directed the commander of the Left Flank Column - Sir Evelyn Wood - to make a diversionary attack. Wood’s men attacked a local Zulu stronghold - Hlobane mountain - on 28 March, but were surprised by the unexpected arrival of the main Zulu army, and scattered. The following day, however, the Zulu attacked Wood’s camp at Khambula, and after several hours of heavy fighting, were driven off. Meanwhile Lord Chelmsford had crossed into Zululand, marching towards Eshowe.

On 2nd April he broke through the Zulu cordon around Eshowe at kwaGingindlovu, and relieved Pearson’s column. The defeat of the Zulu king’s forces in two actions, at either end of the country, and within days of each other, demoralised the Zulu, and proved to be the turning point of the war. Lord Chelmsford reorganised his forces, and in late May was poised to mount a new invasion of Zululand. This, too, began badly, when, on 1 June, the exiled Prince Imperial of France, Louis Napoleon, who was serving with the British in an unofficial capacity, was killed in a skirmish.

Nevertheless, British troops continued to advance towards the Zulu capital, Ulundi, which they reached at the end of June. On 4 July Chelmsford defeated the Zulu army in the last great battle of the war. Ulundi was put to the torch, and King Cetshwayo fled. Chelmsford resigned after the victory at Ulundi, but it took several weeks for the British to suppress lingering resistence in the outlying districts. King Cetshwayo was eventually captured and sent into exile at Cape Town. The British divided his country up among thirteen pro-British chiefs - a deliberately divisive move which led to a decade of destructive civil war.

White colonization began in the 1830s, when the Zulu kingdom was still quite new. White conquest took decades. Many chiefdoms remained in the independent Zulu kingdom while others came under the British colony of Natal. Many people and chiefs only recently conquered by the Zulu kingdom fled into Natal, rejecting political Zulu identity, although retaining cultural affinity. But as all Zulu-speaking people came under white South African rule, and as white rule became more oppressive, evolving into apartheid, the Zulu identity and memories of the powerful independent kingdom became a unifying focus of cultural resistance.

Under South African rule, the term “tribe” referred to an administrative unit governed by a chief under rules imposed by the white government. Tribes were thus not ancient and traditional, but modern bureaucratic versions of the old small kingdoms. Yet the Zulu people or nation was also referred to as a tribe by whites. Thus the Zulu “tribe” was composed of several hundred tribes.

With apartheid, the government fostered ethnic nationalism or tribalism to divide Africans, claiming that segregated, impoverished land reserves ("homelands") could become independent countries. Conversely, when the African National Congress (ANC) formed in 1912, it saw tribalism -divisive ethnic politics- as an obstacle to creating a modern nation. But it saw diverse linguistic, cultural and political heritages as sources of strength. The new nation had to be built by extending and uniting historic identities, not by negating them.

Since the 1980s severe conflict between followers of the ANC and followers of the largely Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) has killed tens of thousands of people. Sometimes portrayed as reflecting primitivism and ancient tribal rivalries, this violence illustrates how “tribe” misleads.

Most of the conflict has been Zulu people fighting other Zulu people in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. There are complicated local causes related to poverty and patronage politics, but the fighting is also about what Zulu ethnic or national identity should be in relation to South African national identity. Zulu people are deeply divided over what it means to be Zulu.

In the early 1990s the violence spread to the Johannesburg area and often took the ethnic form of Zulu IFP followers vs. Xhosa ANC followers. Yet this was not an ancient tribal conflict either, since historically the independent Zulu and Xhosa nations never fought a war. Rather it was a modern, urban, politicised ethnic conflict.

On the one side, the IFP has continually stressed its version of Zulu identity. Also, since the ANC has followers in all ethnic groups, as the 1994 elections showed, neighbourhoods with many Xhosa residents may have been specifically targeted in order to falsely portray the ANC as a “Xhosa” organization. On the other side, the ANC at the time tried to isolate the IFP in a way that many ordinary Zulu people saw as anti-Zulu, making them fearful. As has been recently confirmed, the apartheid regime’s police and military were actively involved in covert actions to instigate the conflict.

The IFP relies heavily on symbols of “tradition.” But to see that as making Zulu identity “tribal” obscures other realities: the IFP’s modern conservative market-oriented economic policy; the deep involvement of all Zulu in an urban-focused economy, with half living permanently in cities and towns; the modern weapons, locations and methods of the violence, and the fact that even as the IFP won the rural vote in the most recent elections, a strong majority of urban Zulu-speakers voted ANC.