To a remarkable extent the Zulus dominated and defined the history of southern Africa in the nineteenth century. And the man who brought this about was the warrior-chief of the Zulu nation, Shaka.

The Zulus belonged to a large ethnic conglomerate, the Bantu. A migratory, cattle-keeping people composed of many subgroups and speaking some two hundred related languages. The Bantu had gradually moved from the north into the eastern portion of southern Africa. A large subgroup of the Bantu, the Nguni, settled in the pleasant coastal strip of rich grazing land between the Drakensberg Mountains and the Indian Ocean, between Cape Colony to the southwest and what would be the Transvaal to the north. One of the Nguni clans was the Zulu, “the people of the Heavens.” But they were neither numerous nor powerful, the entire clan probably numbering fewer than two thousand people in the last years of the eighteenth century.

It was into this setting that Shaka was born about 1787. By the end of his reign Zululand had been extended over an area of eighty thousand square miles, containing nearly half a million people. The slaughter of his enemies and the magnification of his own people were the two parallel accomplishments of Shaka, “the great elephant.”

Shaka’s father, Senzangakona, a young Chieftain of the Zulu clan, is said by the Zulu tradition to have come upon his mother, Nandi, while she was bathing in a woodland pool and, fired by her beauty to have boldly asked for the privilege of ama hlay endlela.   To this, after some banter and mutual teasing, she consented, both parties lost their heads, broke the rules governing casual intercourse, with the result that three months later Nandi realized that she was pregnant. In due course Nandi became a mother. There now!’ they sent word to the Zulu people over the hills; ‘there is your beetle’ (I-Shaka). ‘Come and fetch it for it is yours.’ And reluctantly they came, and deposited Nandi, unwedded, in the hut of Senzangakona and the child was named SHAKA in the year 1787.

The unhappy Nandi was now not only illicitly a mother but, what was worse, within the forbidden degrees of kindred, her mother being Mfunda, daughter of Kondlo, the Qwabe chief, with whose clan intermarriage with the Zulus was taboo. But Senzangakona, being a chief, could do no wrong and without the wedding-feast there being no ceremonial celebration of the coming of a bride already with child, Nandi, doubly dishonored, was quietly installed as the chief’s third wife. Shaka’s first six years were overshadowed by the unhappiness of a mother he adored. At the age of six he went out to care for his father’s sheep, with the other herdboys and in a moment of negligence he allowed a dog to kill a sheep, his father was angry, his mother defended him, and they were dismissed from Senzangakona’s kraal.

Shaka now became a herd-boy at his mother’s in Nguga kraal in ELangeni land, twenty miles away from his father’s kraal. He was immediately subjected to much bullying by the elder boys, and what hurt him more deeply still was that his dear mother felt herself to be disgraced through the dismissal by her husband, and tongues were not wanting to rub this in. Thus, his years of childhood in elangeni land were not happy.

Modern psychology has enabled us to understand the importance in after life, of a child’s unhappiness. Perhaps we may trace Shaka’s subsequent lust for power to the fact that his little crinkled ears and the marked stumpiness of his genital organ were ever the source of persistent ridicule among Shaka’s companions, and their taunts in this regard so rankled that he grew up harbouring a deadly hatred against all and everything elangeni.

‘Never mind, my Umlilwane (Little Fire), you have got the isibindi liver, meaning courage of a lion and one day you will be the greatest chief in the land,’ Nandi would tell him. I can see it in your eyes. When you are angry they shine like the sun, and yet no eyes can be more tender when you speak comforting words to me in my misery.’ So the Zulu chroniclers give her words.

In due course Shaka went to Senzangakona’s kraal and went through the ceremonial rites of but when his Royal father presented him with his umutsha he was ejected with disdain, and otherwise succeeded in getting himself so generally disliked that his early return to his mother became imperative. Shaka had a very definite reason for deciding to continue living unclothed. He wished it to be known that he was now physically adequate. In particular, he wanted all his associates of the elangeni tribe to see and know this, and especially his former tormentors, who would now, if anything, be envious of him.

Figure 1; King Shaka

Shaka was pleased with his progress, but pondered deeply over the fact that he constantly broke the light throwing assegais with his mighty stabs into the opposing warriors’ bodies. But the custom of hurling an assegai, mostly without any effect, at a distant foe, was to him as though merely throwing one’s weapon away. According to the chronicle, it was then that he conceived the idea of a single, massive-bladed assegai with a stout, short handle. This would mean fighting at close quarters, with deadly physical and psychological effect.

Nandi now sent the boy to her father’s sister, in Mtetwa land, near the coast. Neither Shaka nor his mother was a person of any consequence at this period. Indeed, as destitute vagrants, they were everywhere despised. But the headman, under King Jobe, in charge of the district in which they settled was Ngomane, son of Mqombolo of the Dletsheni clan, and with him they soon became acquainted. He treated Nandi and her son with a kindness which Shaka never forgot, and there in a ‘real home’ surrounded by sympathy Shaka at last had come to rest. The Chief of the Mtetwa tribe, with whom Shaka dwelt, had been Jobe. His sons had conspired against him, one had been put to death and the other, Godongwana, had fled. He changed his name to Dingiswayo meaning ‘the Wanderer’. When Jobe died, Dingiswayo returned and became chief in 1809. He revived the Izicwe (Bushmen) regiment by calling-up Shaka’s age-group, including Shaka. Thus Shaka became a soldier. Shaka’s commander, Buza, and in fact the whole regiment, did not fail to note the prowess of the young warrior.

Like other great conquerors, Shaka began his career by reforming not only tactics, but weapons. His own prowess as an infighter had shown him what was needed, but, as we have seen, he had found the throwing spear dangerously fragile when used as a striking or thrusting weapon. He was determined to get his stabbing blade which, however, had to conform with the very definite specifications formulated in his mind. The Mbonambi clan, south-eastern neighbours of the Mtetwas, were the most renowned blacksmiths and one of their best craftsmen was Ngonyama meaning the Lion, and to him Shaka went with his problem. Shaka now told him exactly what he wanted, and why, and his fervor soon infected the old ‘Lion’, who agreed that none of the existing blades would quite answer Shaka’s purpose.

Sooner than later, the Izicwe regiment was doctored again for war. The following campaign Dingiswayo took personal command of the Izicwe regiment, brigaded with the yengondlovu regiment. The year was 1810 and Shaka was twenty-three years old. After some twenty head of cattle had been killed for the victors and the vanquished, Dingiswayo told Buza, the commander of the Izicwe regiment, to present Shaka to him. He had already had a very favourable report on his first battle, and was greatly impressed by what he had seen that day.

At his first glance into the sharp and intelligent eyes of the huge young warrior, he instantly recognized a leader. After putting a number of questions to him, he was agreeably surprised at the prompt and clever replies. He then questioned Shaka on the matter of fighting without sandals, and with a single stabbing assegai, and conceded that Shaka was right as far as war only was concerned, but for the time being he was content to fight in a less sanguinary way, and to achieve his aims by persuasion with the minimum employment of force. However, after conferring with Buza and Ngomane, he there and then promoted Shaka to Captain of ‘one hundred’, or the equivalent of a leader of two ‘guilds’, and also presented him with ten head of cattle.

Shaka now joined the other two regimental commanders and the headmen who were in attendance on Dingiswayo, and the heads of the contingents supplied by allied tribes. Presently the campaign was discussed and Shaka remained silent whilst his seniors gave their opinions. Infact he said nothing until he was invited by Dingiswayo to speak.

Shaka then said that in the next battle the army should be drawn up with a central head and chest, with half a regiment on each side thrown out as enveloping horns to ensure the complete annihilation of the enemy force. Only thus would they gain the complete submission of the remnants of the tribe, and do away with the periodical reconquests necessitated by the present easygoing methods which had proved to be so futile and inconclusive. Moreover, in future campaigns the broad-bladed, stout stabbing assegai should replace the light throwing spears, and sandals should be discarded to increase the mobility of the warriors.

Dingiswayo conceded the advantages in an impi ebomvu (red war, or war to a finish), but emphasized again that he did not wish to destroy, but merely to teach a lesson, whereupon Shaka sharply rejoined, ‘Which will never be learned’. Shaka was now promoted to Commander-in-Chief of all Dingiswayo’s armed forces, and a member of the inner Council. As such, he insisted on visiting each military kraal in rotation to tighten up the discipline and extend the drill with rapid forced route marches. Infact, he constituted himself an Inspector-General of the Forces

Towards the end of 1815 Senzangakona’s health rapidly declined, and early in 1816 he died. Weak and wasted, he had in the end given way to the incessant importuning of his eighth wife, Bibi, to appoint her son Sigujana as his successor. When Shaka and Dingiswayo heard that Sigujana had appropriated the chieftaincy by prevailing upon the dying Senzangakona to nominate him, the former was furious, and the latter much annoyed, as he had not been advised or consulted

Dingiswayo now summoned Shaka and told him to take over the chieftaincy of the Zulu clan. He put at his disposal the 2nd Izicwe regiment subsequently known as ‘Ngomane’s Own’, which had recently been formed under Shaka’s energetic recruiting policy for the expansion of Dingiswayo’s armed forces. He also provided him with an imposing staff, headed by Ngomane and Dingiswayo’s own nephew, Siwangu of Mbikwane. At the head of this triumphal and irresistible force Shaka entered his father’s Esi-Klebeni kraal the home of his childhood days.

Ngomane now advanced to address the headmen of the Zulu clan, who, each with their following, had been assembled for the occasion. ‘Children of Zulu! Today i present to you Shaka, son of Senzangakona, son of Jama, descended from Zulu, as your lawful chief. So says the “Great One” Dingiswayo whose mouth I am. Is there anyone here who can contest the righteousness of this decision? If so, let him stand forth and speak now, or hereafter be silent. ‘No one speaks,’ said Ngomane, ‘then salute your chief!

Expansion of power and conflict with Zwide

As Shaka became more respected by his people, he was able to spread his ideas with greater ease. Because of his background as a soldier, Shaka taught the Zulus that the most effective way of becoming powerful quickly was by conquering and controlling other tribes. His teachings greatly influenced the social outlook of the Zulu people. The Zulu tribe soon developed a warrior outlook, which Shaka turned to his advantage.

Shaka’s hegemony was primarily based on military might, smashing rivals and incorporating scattered remnants into his own army. He supplemented this with a mixture of diplomacy and patronage, incorporating friendly chieftains, including Zihlandlo of the Mkhize, Jobe of the Sithole, and Mathubane of the Thuli. These peoples were never defeated in battle by the Zulu; they did not have to be. Shaka won them over by subtler tactics, such as patronage and reward. As for the ruling Qwabe, they began re-inventing their genealogies to give the impression that Qwabe and Zulu were closely related in the past. In this way a greater sense of cohesion was created, though it never became complete, as subsequent civil wars attest.

A muster and dance of Zulu regiments at shaka’s kraal as recorded by European visitors to his kingdom in 1827

Shaka still recognized Dingiswayo and his larger Mthethwa clan as overlord after he returned to the Zulu but, some years later, Dingiswayo was ambushed by Zwide’s Ndwandwe and killed. There is no evidence to suggest that Shaka betrayed Dingiswayo. Indeed, the core Zulu had to retreat before several Ndwandwe incursions; the Ndwandwe was clearly the most aggressive grouping in the sub-region.

Shaka was able to form an alliance with the leaderless Mthethwa clan and was able to establish himself amongst the Qwabe, after Phakathwayo was overthrown with relative ease. With Qwabe, Hlubi and Mkhize support, Shaka was finally able to summon a force capable of resisting the Ndwandwe of the Nxumalo clan. Historian Donald Morris states that Shaka’s first major battle against Zwide, of the Ndwandwe, was the Battle of Gqokli Hill, on the Mfolozi river. Shaka’s troops maintained a strong position on the crest of the hill. A frontal assault by their opponents failed to dislodge them, and Shaka sealed the victory by sending his reserve forces in a sweep around the hill to attack the enemy’s rear. Losses were high overall but the efficiency of the new Shakan innovations was proved. It is probable that, over time, the Zulu were able to hone and improve their encirclement tactics.

Another decisive fight eventually took place on the Mhlatuze river, at the confluence with the Mvuzane stream. In a two-day running battle, the Zulu inflicted a resounding defeat on their opponents. Shaka then led a fresh reserve some 70 miles (110 km) to the royal kraal of Zwide, ruler of the Ndwandwe, and destroyed it. Zwide himself escaped with a handful of followers before falling foul of a chieftainess named Mjanji, ruler of a baBelu clan. He died in mysterious circumstances soon afterwards. Zwide’s general Soshangane (of the Shangaan) moved north towards what is now Mozambique to inflict further damage on less resistant foes and take advantage of slaving opportunities, obliging Portuguese traders to give tribute. Shaka later had to contend again with Zwide’s son Sikhunyane in 1826.

Shaka granted permission to Europeans to enter Zulu territory on rare occasions. In the mid-1820s Henry Francis Fynn provided medical treatment to the king after an assassination attempt by a rival tribe member hidden in a crowd. To show his gratitude, Shaka permitted European settlers to enter and operate in the Zulu kingdom. This would open the door for future British incursions into the Zulu kingdom that were not so peaceful. Shaka observed several demonstrations of European technology and knowledge, but he held that the Zulu way was superior to that of the foreigners.


The word mfecane is derived from Xhosa terms ukufaca “to become thin from hunger” and fetcani “starving intruders.” In Zulu, the word means “crushing.” Mfecane refers to the wars of Shaka which occurred during the 1820s and 1830s. It is also known by the Sotho name difaqane. Euro-centric historians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries regarded the mfecane as the result of aggressive nation building by the Zulu under the rule of Shaka and the Nbebele under Mzilikazi.

Such descriptions of devastation and depopulation of Africans gave white settlers an excuse for moving into the land which they thus considered empty. Additionally, as the Europeans moved into new territory which was not theirs, it was a time of transition during which the Zulus took advantage. That said, the Zulu expansion and the defeat of rival Nguni kingdoms would not have been possible without Shaka’s dominant personality and demanding military discipline.

More destruction actually was initiated by those people that Shaka defeated, rather than by his own forces and this was the case with the Hlubi and the Ngwane. Devoid of social order, the refugees pillaged and stole wherever they went. The impact of the Mfecane extended far beyond South Africa. People fled from Shaka’s armies as far away as Barotseland, in Zambia, to the northwest and Tanzania and Malawi in the northeast.

Shaka created an army of 40,000 fighters, separated into age groups. Cattle and grain were stolen from the communities that were defeated, but the attacks were booty for the Zulu soldiers to take what they wanted. All the property from the organized raids went to Shaka. By the 1960s, the mfecane and Zulu nation building were being given a positive spin considered more as a revolution in Bantu Africa, where Shaka played a leading role in the creation of a Zulu nation in Natal. Moshoeshoe similarly created the Sotho kingdom in what is now Lesotho as a defense against Zulu incursions.

The causes of the mfecane were emerging by the end of the eighteenth century, when population levels increased rapidly, and ecological resources were sometimes scarce. Communities that previously had often spread across the countryside or had repeatedly divided and moved along the frontier became more settled and more concentrated. The introduction of corn from the Americas through the Portuguese in Mozambique was one major reason for this trend. Corn produced more food than indigenous grasses on the same land, and thus could sustain a larger population. Trade in ivory with the Portuguese in Delagoa Bay was another factor that induced people to settle just south of Mozambique. Moreover, possibilities for population movement had become much more limited by the end of the eighteenth century because land was in short supply. Bantu-speaking farmers had reached the margins of arable land on the edge of the Kalahari Desert in the northwest and in the mountains on the southern border of the Highveld, and people settling in the area found their access to water more and more limited.

Declining rainfall in the last decades of the eighteenth century, followed by a calamitous ten-year drought that began about 1800, caused massive disruption and suffering. The adoption of corn as a major staple gave this drought an even greater impact than those of the past because corn needed much more water than local grains in order to produce. When the rains failed, therefore, the effect was devastating. People fought one another for meager supplies of grain and cattle, hunted down whatever game they could find, and sought out any remaining water supplies in a desperate attempt to survive. Warfare erupted, and two kingdoms the Ndwandwe under the leadership of Zwide, and the Mthethwa under Dingiswayo battled for control of resources. Both kingdoms became more centralized and militarized, their young men banded together in age regiments that became the basis for standing armies, and their kings became more autocratic as they fought for survival. The Ndwandwe appeared victorious in 1818 when Dingiswayo was killed and his forces scattered, but they were soon overcome by Shaka, founder of the Zulu state.

During most of the 1820s, Shaka consolidated his power through a series of wars against neighboring peoples. His armies raided for cattle and food; they attacked any who challenged the authority of the Zulu monarch; and they extended the limits of Shaka’s realm north to the borders of present-day Mozambique, west across the Drakensberg Mountains, and south to the margins of the area that would later become the Transkei homeland. He also welcomed British traders to his kingdom and sent diplomatic emissaries to the British king.

As a result of the mfecane, a series of states formed throughout southern Africa as people banded together to secure access to foodstuffs and to protect themselves from Zulu marauders. Although the mfecane in many ways promoted the political development of southern Africa, it also caused great suffering. Thousands died because of famine and warfare, and thousands more were uprooted from their homes and were forced to travel great distances, many to become refugee laborers in the Cape who sought work at any wage. Perhaps the most significant result in terms of the future was that large areas of South Africa were temporarily depopulated, making it seem to Europeans that there were unclaimed lands in the interior into which they could expand.

Death and succession

Dingane and Mhlangana, Shaka’s half-brothers, appear to have made at least two attempts to assassinate Shaka before they succeeded, with perhaps support from Mpondo elements, and some disaffected iziYendane people. While the British colonialists considered his regime to be a future threat, allegations that European traders wished him dead were problematic given that Shaka had granted concessions to Europeans prior to his death, including the right to settle at Port Natal (now Durban).

Shaka had made enough enemies among his own people to hasten his demise. It came relatively quickly after the death of his mother Nandi in October 1827, and the devastation caused by Shaka’s subsequent erratic behavior. According to Donald Morris, Shaka ordered that no crops should be planted during the following year of mourning, no milk (the basis of the Zulu diet at the time) was to be used, and any woman who became pregnant was to be killed along with her husband. At least 7,000 people who were deemed to be insufficiently grief-stricken were executed, although the killing was not restricted to humans. Cows too were slaughtered so that their calves would know what losing a mother felt like.

The Zulu monarch was killed by three assassins sometime in 1828. September is the most frequently cited date, when almost all available Zulu manpower had been sent on yet another mass sweep to the north. This left the royal kraal critically lacking in security. It was all the conspirators needed they being Shaka’s half-brothers, Dingane and Mhlangana, and an induna called Mbopa. A diversion was created by Mbopa, and Dingane and Mhlangana struck the fatal blows. Shaka’s corpse was dumped by his assassins in an empty grain pit, which was then filled with stones and mud.

Shaka’s half-brother Dingane assumed power and embarked on an extensive purge of pro-Shaka elements and chieftains, running over several years, in order to secure his position. The initial problem Dingane faced was maintaining the loyalty of the Zulu fighting regiments or amabutho. He addressed this by allowing them to marry and set up a homestead which was forbidden during Shaka’s rule and they also received cattle from Dingane. Loyalty was also maintained through fear as anyone who was suspected of rivaling Dingane was killed. He set up his main residence at Mmungungundlovo and established his authority over the Zulu kingdom. Dingane ruled for some twelve years, during which time he fought, disastrously, against the Voortrekkers, and against another half-brother Mpande, who, with Boer and British support, took over the Zulu leadership in 1840, ruling for some 30 years. At the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879, the Zulus would become one of the few African peoples to inflict a defeat on the British Army.



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