King in difficult times

2008-11-10 00:00

The year 2008 marks another significant anniversary in the history of KwaZulu-Natal — the trial of King Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo, the embattled successor to King Cetshwayo kaMpande, who defied the British during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. It is the centenary of the commencement of the trial that saw him accused by the Natal colonial government of complicity in the Bhambatha Rebellion, as well as the 120th anniversary of his clash in 1888 with British authority in Zululand in the wake of the Anglo-Zulu War and the Zulu Civil War that followed. The unveiling in September of a statue to the king who was for long denied his role, has brought his life full circle, from trial to resurgence.

Dinuzulu was born at Emangwini from Unomvimbi, Cetshwayo’s first wife. He was only 16 years old when his illustrious father died in 1884. He was described as fiery, intrepid and imperious — very much aware of the legacy he had inherited and his introduction to lead the Sotho faction saw him become de facto successor to Cetshwayo.

Dinuzulu emerged from the furnace of post-war Zululand amid the territorial struggle between Boer, Briton and Zulu. During his reign, the Zulu people were harassed relentlessly and dispossessed of most of the gains made in Zululand during the age of the independent kings. Dinuzulu nevertheless fought on several occasions in defence of his Zulu kingdom, first against his own countrymen, the Mandlakazi, and then the British Imperial authority and finally, colonial Natal.

During the Zulu Civil War, the British did little to halt the bloodshed and Dinuzulu felt compelled to seek the support of the Boers, sealing an arrangement of mutual convenience (May 1884) — land in return for the defeat of Zibhebhu, leader of the Mandlakazi. With their support, he defeated Zibhebhu at Tshaneni on June 5, 1884.

The cost: an ignominious “installation” of Dinuzulu by the Boers as king on May 21. Then the Boers annexed vast tracts of northwest Zululand, which were incorporated into the so-called “new republic”. It was a hollow victory.

The British response to the civil war was to make a patchwork Zululand. In 1887, the British government assumed control of Zululand. There followed a division of the territory into tracts for black settlement (1 570 350 hectares) and white commercial agriculture, such as sugar (1 134 435 hectares).

The British stepped in completely and proclaimed Zululand a British colony on May 19, 1887. In 1888, Dinuzulu resisted this British annexation and subsequent further settlement by white settlers. His resistance was dealt with firmly. After a skirmish at Ceza Mountain in June, a clash at Ivuna on June 23 and another at Hlopekhulu on July 2, Dinuzulu surrendered to British authorities on November 15 and was banished to St Helena until January 1898.

Dinuzulu was widely regarded as a rallying point for the people of Zululand when it came to resisting the poll tax. However, his tacit acceptance of this humiliation, in addition to his own call to pay the resented poll tax and reluctance to advocate open resistance, may have tarnished his position among some Zulus.

During March 1906, Bhambatha sought temporary refuge with Dinuzulu from the colonial authorities. The Bhambatha family version of events at Dinuzulu’s Sotho homestead states that the latter gave the errant chief direct instructions for insurrection. Many considered Bhambatha to be acting with the authority and blessing of Dinuzulu, and, in fact, two of Dinuzulu’s emissaries, Ngqengqengqe and Sukabekhuluma kaGezindaka Sithole (the latter better known by his praise name, Cakijana), were thought to have taken an active part in the fomenting of insurrection.

Once the rebellion had been crushed, the Natal government arrested Dinuzulu. Although he had not taken an active part in rebel military operations or incited insurrection, he was belatedly accused of complicity and high treason, mainly because of his association with Bhambatha, plus the tangled web of rumour and conjecture surrounding his part in events. In part, the evidence used against him was circumstantial, for example the position of the then unofficial Zulu royal house as a rallying point for the uprising, and the physical site of his father’s, grave at Nkandla. The evidence was buttressed by the war cry, “uSuthu”, and the wearing by rebel warriors of the ubuShokobezi, a white cowhide strip, both symbols of the Sotho house and the Zulu military heritage.

At the same time, his previous experience, reinforced by the Natal government’s obvious hard line on the 1906 disturbances, made him reluctant to hand Bhambatha over when the latter approached him. He was in a difficult position. The evidence suggests that, on balance, Dinuzulu, regardless of sympathy with the cause of liberation underpinning the insurgency, would not have again risked confrontation with the might of white rule. He essentially hedged his bets with the powerful colonial government and his own people. His defence argued that, had he thrown his full weight behind the uprising, the insurgency would have been far more extensive.

The Natal government had declined to take military action against Dinuzulu during 1906, lest such action furnish the disjointed insurgency with the unifying gel it lacked. On the evening of December 9, 1907, Dinuzulu surrendered without incident, followed by a formal ceremony the next day.

In his now famous show trial in the Greytown town hall, beginning on November 10, 1908, after a lengthy and protracted preliminary examination, Dinuzulu faced a battery of charges, 23 in all, including high treason, public violence, sedition and rebellion. The cornerstone of the government’s case was Bhambatha’s sojourn at Dinuzulu’s homestead in March 1906 and the support and encouragement for rebellion that supposedly emanated from it.

Judgment was handed down on March 3, 1909. To the embarrassment of the Natal government, Dinuzulu was only found guilty on a handful of the charges. Still, one of these charges was the crucial one of high treason. Despite the shaky evidence against him, consisting, of little more than suspicion and innuendo, Dinuzulu was handed a sentence of four years imprisonment and a fine of £100. He was released in 1910 on the orders of Louis Botha, the first prime minister of the Union of South Africa, and exiled to the Transvaal.

• Thanks to Vaneda Sukhnunan for assistance in compiling this article.

• Mark Coghlan is a historian with the KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Museum Service.

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