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The Zulu Nation - A brief history

The Zulu are a proud tribe native to the KwaZuluNatal province of South Africa. Historically the Zulu were a mighty warrior nation and are believed to be descendants of the patriarch Zulu, the son of a Nguni chief in the Congo basin in central Africa. Apartheid textbooks taught that South Africa was virtually empty of human habitation when colonised by the Dutch in 1652. The reality is that the Zulu people began to migrate towards their present location in Natal during the 16th century.

A crucial turning point in Zulu history occurred during the reign of Shaka as king of the Zulu’s from 1816 to 1828. Prior to his rule the Zulu’s consisted of numerous clans that were related but disorganised. Shaka was a mighty and fearsome warrior and united the clans into a single powerful tribe. He introduced a new system of military organisation and revolutionised his army’s weaponry and military tactics. He introduced new battle formations that left his enemies outflanked and confused. He was a strict and brutal disciplinarian, soldiers were required to remain celibate and a violation of this rule was punishable by death. Shaka increased the power of his tribe. Conquered clans and tribes were incorporated into the Zulu nation and in eleven years he increased their number from 1500 people to 50 000 warriors alone.

From the time of Shaka onwards, the Zulu's fought many wars to keep from being dominated by the British settlers. The final Zulu uprising before succumbing to the British was lead by Chief Bambatha in 1906. From then on the tribe that had once been master of much of the eastern coastal regions and interior of South Africa, was subjected to an increasingly harsh series of racist laws that led to poverty and disempowerment.

Shaka, King of the Zulus

Long ago, in 1789, in the rolling green hills of Zululand, a Zulu woman called Nandi gave birth to an unwanted and illegitimate child. The child’s father, Senzangakona, from the clan of Zulu, wanted nothing to do with them and the tribal elders sent a message to Nandi saying “the girl has a beetle (shaka) in her belly”. Nandi was relegated to the lowly position of third wife. When Shaka was six years old he allowed a dog to kill one of Senzangakona’s sheep and from that day forth, Shaka and Nandi were cast out by the Zulu clan.

In shame, they were forced to return to the clan of Nandi’s family. Shaka hated living with his mother's family, they were treated as outcasts and he continuously suffered the cruel, taunting of the other children who referred to him as “the fatherless one.” The family were forced to move around from clan to clan until they found a degree of acceptance by the Mtetwa tribe. Shaka grew to young manhood herding sheep and cattle. He showed extraordinary bravery in protecting the animals under his care, and one day killed a leopard single handedly using two throwing spears and a club.

At the age of twenty-one, Shaka became a soldier and distinguished himself in battle under the Mtetwa chieftain Dingiswayo. Shaka proved to be an excellent military strategist and introduced changes in battle methods that were to be a great success. Dingiswayo was a good leader of his people, and under his protection, Shaka grew into a rich and important person. One day Senzangakona came to pay homage to Dingiswayo and was gratified to find that his son had become a great man. He promised Shaka the chieftainship of the Zulu clan after his death. However Senzangakona bowed to the pressure of his wives, and after his death, Shaka's young half-brother, Sugujana became chief. When Shaka heard the news he broke into a great rage and killed the new chief in battle. Shaka dressed up in his glorious and fearsome battle costume of blue monkey fur and genet tails, and with his own Mtetwa regiment by his side, became king of the Zulu’s.

Shaka set to building a mighty new kraal, it was called Bulawayo, “the place of killing.” Nandi was brought to live there in a sumptuous royal kraal of her own. A great feast was held in honour of the new capital and the hills rang out with the roar of the royal salute, “Bayete, Nkosi! Bayete Nkosi!” Shaka marched in revenge on his mother's Mlangeni clan who had treated them so cruelly in his youth. Victory came easily and Shaka developed a taste for the power of battle.

Shaka continued to revolutionise the Zulu army. He introduced new weapons, new regimental structures and battle formations. He was a cruel and strict disciplinarian. Soldiers caught disobeying his rules were immediately put to death. He forced his regiments to run barefoot over fields of thorns so that their feet became hardened and they could move more quickly in battle. Shaka scored victory after victory. Each clan that was conquered was assimilated into his tribe and the Zulu’s became a great and powerful nation ruling over vast tracts of land in the southern coastal and interior regions of what is today known as KwaZulu Natal.

In 1825 the British arrived at Port Natal. Shaka invited the two British commanders, Fynn and Farewell, to his kraal where he entertained them with a majestic display of his power. Shaka granted the British full possession of Port Natal, and in return the British plied him with gifts of brass bars, beads and blankets. The British at that time were forced to respect the power of the Zulu and there was no trouble in Shaka’s lifetime.

After the death of his mother Nandi in 1827, Shaka became increasingly paranoid and unpredictable. Ironically, unbeknown to him, members of his inner family circle were hatching a plot to destroy him. In September 1828, Shaka was assassinated by his half-brothers Dingaan and Mhlangana who stabbed him to death with their spears. He was buried the following day together with personal possessions and Dingaan become king.

From then on the Zulu Nation began its decline. Shaka may have been an unpredictable and bloodthirsty tyrant but he increased the power and glory of his tribe and will always hold an important place in the history of both the Zulu's and South Africa



 

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