An opportunity lost

2014-03-17 00:00

EACH moment in history, as disgraced former U.S. president Richard Nixon observed “… is a fleeting time, precious and unique. But some stand out as moments of beginning, in which courses are set that shape decades and centuries.”

Ironically, Nixon’s words, uttered upon his inauguration, would set the tone for his own legacy as that country’s first president to relinquish office.

I was reminded of Nixon’s words recently as I considered the decision by the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Arts and Culture, in a move seemingly designed to immortalise these “moments of beginning”, decided to spend almost half a million rand to buy Zulu artefacts from the 1879 battle of Isandlwana.

This was done in the name of restoring the pride of the Zulu nation and we were pleased. Indeed, the move deserved the plaudits it received, as it was aimed at etching an epoch in history where the Zulu impis, armed with just their primitive weapons, defeated Her Majesty’s army.

While no doubt a significant part of my history, I admit that I had not taken that keen an interest in this battle until I was forced to trace the winding branches of my family tree as part of my training to become a sangoma.

It was when I started questioning myself and finding answers about my ancestry that it dawned upon me that the battle of Isandlwana probably changed my family’s history forever.

This was the war that erupted on January 22, 1879, 11 days after the British started their invasion of Zululand, and 20 000 Zulu warriors attacked 1 800 British, colonial and native troops.

History records that the Zulus, who had the advantage of a numerical majority, overwhelmed the British, killing over 1 300 troops, while about 1 000 Zulu soldiers were killed.

Far from being a history lesson to gauge relations between the English and Zulus during the colonial era, this is my quest for the truth about who I am and where I come from. This is important to me as it allows me to navigate my life towards achieving the purpose of my being on Earth.

It was this journey of discovery that led me to discover that of the 1 000 Zulu soldiers killed on that fateful day, my great-great-grandfather, Hhom’hhoyi Ngqulunga, was one of those who lay dead in the fields of Isandlwana.

Before the war, I am told, Ngqulunga, which was his name and the originator of my surname, called a meeting with extended family members and told them that they should not go to the war but instead he would represent the family name at Isandlwana. My interest was further awakened when items belonging to Zulu warriors were sold on auction. I thought that since the government was paying for them, it would at least try to track down family members of the soldiers who were killed in that war, so that the artefacts could be returned. Instead, the artefacts were bought so they can be displayed in a museum to be built in Isandlwana.

I was particularly interested in a necklace made of crocodile teeth, which I believe belonged to Ngqulunga, and which has been kept in the London Museum all these years.

I understand that the problem lies with proving if indeed this jewellery belongs to my family. I know this because as a direct descendent of Ngqulunga, in my training as a sangoma I will have to find a crocodile, which will have to be slaughtered, and make a necklace from its teeth. If soldiers go to war or if people die in any circumstances, their belongings are sent to their family, to restore their pride. Is it restoring pride in our loved ones who died in the war if their belongings are kept in museums as tourist attractions?

We are being made to believe that as this was 135 years ago, the families of those who died in the war are not interested in keeping such artefacts, but I am interested in keeping this necklace at home where it belongs, rather than it being displayed before people who do not understand the traditions that were involved before Ngqulunga could wear such a necklace.

I wish the MEC for Arts and Culture, Ntombikayise Sibhidla-Saphetha, would re-evaluate her department’s decision in a bid truly to honour our fallen ancestors who died defending their land from British invasion.

• Thobani Ngqulunga is a reporter at The Witness.

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