Remembering the war

2009-01-21 00:00

THIS year marks the 130th commemoration of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. It is worth noting that some 40 Boers from Utrecht, led by an angry Piet Uys, joined and fought on the side of Britain, making it one of the most racially motivated wars in history. It is also worth mentioning that, although there has been a tendency in past commemorations to highlight the Isandlwana leg of the war, the war itself was fought on many other sites, including twice at Nyezane, as well as Ntombe, Hlobane, Khambula and Ulundi.

To focus almost exclusively on one leg, while understandable as a result of the excitement that it brings, runs the risk of denying South Africans an opportunity to understand the scale and cruelty of this war, and the destruction of defenceless rural black people that it left in its aftermath. Commemoration of war is no celebration.

There should be a built-in motive in all commemorations to redress and heal and to educate about the virtues of peace, reconciliation and dialogue.

War cannot be fun.

When, in 2006, the government commemorated the 1906 poll tax uprisings, the same principle of honouring every battle site of the war and the fallen was applied. Today, three years later, families who lost loved ones during 1906 are still coming forward to stake their claim and come to terms with their loss. The 1879 war should be no different and its commemoration should assist families in reconstructing their broken family histories.

It is also significant to note that the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War took place at about the same time that the British were involved in conflicts with the abaPedi as well as the Xhosa. In the case of the latter, the British had been waging frontier wars and looting land and cattle over the preceding 100 years. It was a season of attack and subjugation.

There was a bigger well- recorded agenda of creating a colonial federation in southern Africa which the architects of the war were pursuing. This agenda was typical of colonial greed. King Cetshwayo and his people, very reluctant to go to war and seeking a diplomatic solution, happened to be in the way of realising such an agenda. In the eyes of the major instigators, Lord Carnarvon and his henchmen, the Zulus had to be attacked.

Nevertheless, once war was declared at the expiry of the war ultimatum on January 11, 1879, the king had to assemble his armies, who dutifully obliged and gallantly defended the land and the king. For its part, the government has honoured the chief commander of the Zulu army, Ntshingwayo kaMahole Khoza, by renaming the former Chelmsford Dam near Newcastle after him.

Tribute should also be paid to the many poeple whom Cetshwayo later described as having been “terribly exposed” — commanders such as Mkhosana kaMvundlana of the Biyela, Vumandaba kaNtethi of the Biyela, Mavunangwana and Godide of the Ntuli, Somopho kaZikhala of the Mthembu and many others who, forced to go and fight an unnecessary war, did their best to keep the house of Shaka alive.

The 1879 Anglo-Zulu War, itself concluded an era of armed political expression among black people in this province and elsewhere. The 1880s saw King Dinuzulu, while battling to consolidate internally, attempting to apply diplomacy to the English and the Boers who were relentlessly seeking his land and the liquidation of the legacy of his forefathers.

The Anglo-Zulu War itself defeated Shaka’s objective of diplomatic relations with the British. Having received the English settlers well in 1824, he had sent an envoy, Sotobe ka Mphangalala of the Sibiya, in May 1828 to meet with King George IV, and establish such relations. That was never to be.

The following decades were to see the formation of the African National Congress and the transformation of the methods of struggle. A long-winded struggle for liberation — characterised first by petitions, then campaigns, and from December 16, 1961, a modern armed struggle, with the formation of the ANC’s Umkhonto weSizwe — was to ensue and was only concluded on April 27, 1994.

However, like the Pedi resistance and the nine frontier wars of the Eastern Cape, as well as the many wars of resistance that were fought all over the country from 1652, the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War is in the direct line of struggle history and marks the conclusion of a phase when traditional leadership took a leading role in the defence of land and property. In its 2009 election manifesto the ANC has identified the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 as one of the historical episodes to be commemorated this year.

On the Day of Reconciliation last year the provincial government held a seminar, which was attended by about 1 000 delegates, including the leadership of the faith and traditional leadership sectors. This seminor was held to formulate a framework for the commemoration of our past conflict in a manner that promotes reconciliation, dialogue and social cohesion. This approach to commemoration will be concreted with the founding of the proposed Centre for Reconciliation and Dialogue, to be housed at Stainbank Farm in Durban.

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