Who is a Zulu?

2008-10-15 00:00

Zulu Identities — Being Zulu, Past and Present, edited by Benedict Carton, John Laband and Jabulani Sithole, assembles just about every scholar — over 50 — who has researched and written on matters Zulu, each furnishing a chapter from his or her particular speciality.

The book’s various sections provide perspectives on Zulu history and culture from the Iron Age to the mid-20th century as well as politics, tradition, healing, spirituality, even soccer, and a final section addresses the “Future of Zuluness”.

Zulu Identities could be read as a response to the Zulu identity created by the KZN Tourism authority and the provincial heritage body Amafa that depicts Zulu ethnicity as a fixed group identity, cast in stone since the time of King Shaka ka Senzanghakona — a view, as one of the book’s contributors, John Wright, senior research associate in history on the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, points out, that takes “no notice of the argument ... that ethnicity is never a fixed, primordial form of identity, but one which is always a product of historical processes.”

According to Sithole, a lecturer in the history department on the Pietermaritzburg campus, “people have different conceptions of what it is ‘being Zulu’; … what it meant in the past, in the present and in the future. In the book we wanted to take to task the idea of ‘Zuluness’ and what people meant by it at different times.”

Sithole’s co-editor, Carton, an associate professor in the department of history and art history at George Mason University in the United States, says the intention was to create a substantial work “with an overarching theme with which the authors could engage”.

“The book is built on path-breaking scholarship and gives voice to a significant number of new scholars. Scholars who have emerged post the liberation struggle — the products of a deracialised school system. There is a great deal of very interesting scholarship emerging and that influenced the chapters on Zulu history.”

The advent of democracy in South Africa has given scholars a chance to breathe, says Carton. They can avoid being labelled African National Congress or Inkatha Freedom Party. Sithole agrees: “Post-democracy has provided the space to write. The most liberating aspect was being able to ask questions of a certain nature and not being boxed in. The ‘new South Africa’ has opened up spaces to talk about the question of Zulu identity that wasn’t possible in the past.

“To assemble the book we figured out who was working on what and then approached them,” says Sithole.

Carton, along with Zulu Identities’ other editor, John Laband, a professor in the department of history at Wilfred Laurier University, Canada, and well known for his many books on the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, had direct links with British scholars. “In the U.S., I was aware of interest in South Africa and South African politics in the U.S., Canada, and the UK,” says Carton who acknowledges that a significant number of the book’s contributors are from overseas. “But they all did their fieldwork and built up relationships here.” Carton, author of Blood of Our Children, a seminal study on the Bambatha Rebellion, is no exception. “I’ve spent almost 20 years to-ing and fro-ing between the U.S. and South Africa;

on occasion living here for years at a time. My children’s first language

was Zulu and Pietermaritzburg is home.”

According to Sithole, the convergence of editors and scholars that Zulu Identities represents comes at just the right moment. “Firstly, there were flaws in the previous studies of ethnicity and identity because of different historical approaches,” he says. “We are plugging the gaps that arose out of the approach of our colleagues in the past.”

Secondly, he cites the question of nation-building. “We talk about building a nation but nobody is saying what nationhood consists of. What are the understandings of identity that enable you to belong to a nation? If you speak to people they will say they belong to the Zulu nation or to the Thembu nation. It seems there are multiple nations within a nation, so what is it that you want to construct?”

Thirdly, Sithole notes various initiatives by family groups attempting to understand their history. “Take the Sitholes, if you investigate their origins and how they relate to the Zulu kingdom, what do you find? For example, there are concentrations of Sitholes in the Sani Pass area. They fled from Shaka in the early 19th century.”

Such a background makes this branch of the Sitholes outsiders and naturally raises the question posed by Sithole: “When is a Sithole a Zulu or a Zulu a Sithole?

“History is written by the victors,” cautions Sithole. “Mangosuthu Buthelezi is close to the Zulu royal family today, but it was not always so,” he says, citing the contribution to Zulu Identities by Mbongiseni Buthelezi, currently a Fulbright scholar in the department of English and comparative literature at Columbia University in the U.S., which examines the changing relationships between the Buthelezis and the Zulu royal house.

And what of the Mkhize, the Ngcobo, the amaHlubi, the amaNgwane, the Nhlangwini and the amaThonga who, in 2004, applied to have their claims to kingship recognised and denied ever being subjects of the Zulu king or part of the Zulu kingdom? This in a province which is dubbed the Kingdom of the Zulu by the provincial tourism body. “Zulu and Zuluness is a winning brand,” says Carton. “But branding is something for quick consumption. I have nothing against that, but is Zuluness something that can be understood quickly?”

Clearly the answer is no, questions of being Zulu and Zuluness are complex and that complexity deserves to be acknowledged. Zulu Identities does just that.

• Zulu Identities — Being Zulu, Past and Present, edited by Benedict Carton, John Laband and Jabulani Sithole is published by the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

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