Man of myth and legend

2008-09-24 00:00

One hundred and eighty years after his death, the figure of Shaka Zulu still surfaces regularly at the centre of political controversy. In the most recent spat, the vice-chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Professor Malegapuru Makgoba, was taken to task in the press by several angry critics for labelling King Shaka as a classical example of an African dictator (in a speech in which he proclaimed his support for Jacob Zuma as African National Congress president and numbered Thabo Mbeki among the dictators).

At much the same time, controversial Weekender columnist Xolela Mangcu was also being rapped over the knuckles in the press for referring to the 19th-century Zulu kings in general in the same vein. And earlier in the year, the KwaZulu-Natal provincial government caused something of a stir when it announced that it was negotiating with a Dubai-based development firm to erect a massive statue of Shaka — “the biggest iconic statue in the world”, boasted Premier Sbu Ndebele — near the mouth of the Thukela River.

Who was this man whose shadow falls over public affairs in South Africa so long after his own times? Novelists, playwrights, poets, anthropologists and historians have been writing about him in many countries and in many languages for nearly 100 years now. And of course praise-singers in the old Zulu heartland have been declaiming his virtues — and sometimes his vices — ever since he came to power as a minor chief in about 1816. But his life and reign have long been so shrouded in myth that it is very difficult to make an assessment of his career from the existing records.

What we can say, though, is that accounts of Shaka as a bloodthirsty military leader whose armies swept across much of southern Africa in the 1820s are based on uncritical readings of the evidence and are highly misleading. Historians accept that the 1820s and 1830s were years of widespread and often violent upheaval in African communities across southern Africa, but many of them no longer think that this “time of troubles” was caused by an explosive expansion of the Zulu kingdom under Shaka. Instead, they are looking at explanations which focus on the impact which European colonial and commercial expansion from the Cape and from Delagoa Bay had on the politics of African societies throughout the region.

If we still know little about the history of Shaka himself, academic research is telling us more and more of the history of the myths which have been made up about him. A common belief today is that these myths came mainly from European colonisers in the 19th century and their descendants in the 20th century. These colonisers, the argument goes, had every reason to try to portray the black people whom they conquered as savages and their kings as despots.

In this view, black people are seen unproblematically as the bearers of the “true” history of Shaka, a history which has been able to emerge from colonial repression only since the collapse of apartheid. Academic research shows, in fact, that black people too have been telling exaggerated and misleading stories about Shaka since his own lifetime. His supporters liked to puff him up as an exceptional leader, as Shaka the Mighty. His enemies sought on the other hand to vilify him as a tyrannical monster.

Both perspectives, we now know, fed into the writings of colonial traders, officials, missionaries and settlers. Some wrote of Shaka with a certain respect as a great leader who could serve as a model for native administrators in Natal and elsewhere. On the other hand, settlers who wanted to see black societies broken up and black people put to “useful” work often wrote of him as a savage despot.

The positive and negative ideas put into print by white colonisers fed back into the ideas of early generations of mission-educated black writers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Contrary to what many politicians and writers, white and black, have believed, there have never been separate lineages of black thinking and white thinking about Shaka.

Although black writers and white writers have come from very different backgrounds and have brought very different political experiences to bear in their writings, their ideas about Shaka have always been intertwined. For example, the historical writings on Shaka of authors such as Rolfes Dhlomo in the thirties and of Mazisi Kunene in the seventies, which have often been held up to us as examples of authentic Zulu history, can be shown to have been strongly influenced by the ideas of white authors, and they in turn by the ideas of black predecessors.

It is easy enough to understand why many white colonial authors would have wanted to depict Shaka as a monster. And it is easy enough to understand why, as colonial rule became more oppressive, many Zulu-speaking people would have wanted to develop an image of Shaka as a great founder figure, a heroic builder of the Zulu nation who could be looked back to with pride and respect. What is less easy to understand is how Shaka also came to be an important figure in the histories of many non-Zulu-speaking communities across southern Africa when, as the evidence indicates, he was not the great conqueror that he is widely supposed to have been.

To cut a long and complex argument short, in the 1820s and 1830s large numbers of black people in southern Africa went through a profound and often deeply disruptive political and social revolution that had been set in motion by the expansion in southern Africa of colonial frontiers and of international trade.

In many areas, black societies raided and counter-raided one another for cattle and stocks of grain on a much greater scale than before. Whole communities were put to flight and numerous established rulers were killed by rivals. By the mid-1830s, a dozen powerful new states had emerged in place of the hundreds of small, decentralised chiefdoms that had previously existed.

Large numbers of people had to make livelihoods for themselves and their families in new, unfamiliar surroundings under new, upstart leaders of whom they had never heard. These were figures such as Moshoeshoe of the Sotho, Sekonyela of the Tlokwa, Shaka of the Zulu, Sobhuza of the Swazi, Mzilikazi of the Ndebele, Soshangane of the Gaza, and others.

These sweeping events were unprecedented in the lives of most people and they needed to be explained. As in societies everywhere, but particularly in societies without written records, the popular idea was that great historical events were driven by great men. The records show that in the 1820s and 1830s, several newly risen leaders were being widely blamed as the primary cause of the turbulence of the times — Zwide of the Ndwandwe, Matiwane of the Ngwane, Shaka of the Zulu and Mzilikazi of the Ndebele.

By about 1840, the blame was attaching more and more to Shaka alone. This was largely because the other leaders and their followings had disappeared from the political scene. The Ndwandwe kingdom broke up in 1826 and the Ngwane in 1828, and Mzilikazi and the Ndebele moved away far to the north into what is now Zimbabwe after they had been defeated by the Boers in the late 1830s.

Although Shaka was assassinated by some of his brothers in 1828, the Zulu kingdom held together as the strongest state in the region. Over time, its founder gradually acquired a reputation as the man who had started all the trouble. Groups ranging from the Mfengu, or Fingoes, in the eastern Cape to the Ngoni in far-away Zambia and Malawi developed histories for themselves — often with the help of missionaries and, later, anthropologists — which placed their origins in what came to be called the wars of Shaka. Nearly two centuries later, this reputation is still widespread.

For some years now, historians have been unpicking the myths about Shaka which were created by white people and black people in the colonial era to serve their own particular interests. Research in this field is far from finished, and academics — and politicians — will continue to find much to argue about. But the Shaka of the postcolonial future is likely to be a much more complex and interesting figure than the mythologised Shaka of the colonial past.

• John Wright is a senior research associate in history at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg, and a visiting professor in the Rock Art Research Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand. After 35 years of lecturing in history at the University of Natal and the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg, he now lives in Johannesburg.

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