8 min read

Shaka Zulu

Shaka Zulu

By Jongisilo Pokwana ka Menziwa 13 March 2021

It is undeniable that there was immediately a confluence of interests at the very moment King Zwelithini was coronated as the Zulu King, with Nkosi Mangosuthu Buthelezi as Traditional Prime Minister. The relationship between Buthelezi and the king was one of contestation from the start and Buthelezi managed to dominate and humiliate the king during the late 1970s. It was for that reason that the title of "traditional prime minister" became hotly contested after 1994. Buthelezi wanted to subjugate the king to his authority.

King Zwelithini on the other hand must have had a keen interest in reimagining and reorganizing a rather fragile, fragmented and fractured Zulu nation which was led by a weak kingdom then, while Buthelezi would use the rebuilding of the Zulu nation as a perfect opportunity for crafting and consolidating his own political base which he would later use to nearly throttle the very birth of the democratic dispensation until an agreement (Ingonyama Trust Act) was reached on the eve of the first ever South Africa democratic and inclusive elections  in April  27of 1994.

It is important to note that the newly crowned twenty-year old King Zwelithini needed Nkosi Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Buthelezi needed the young King. Fifty years on the throne means that the majority of the Zulu people actually do not know any other King other than uBhejane.  The official announcement by Zulu Royal household, of the passing of King Goodwill Zwelithini on Friday 12th March, caught the nation by surprise.

Rumors may have made rounds over the past two weeks leading to the announcement but even that did not prepare the nation for the shocking news delivered in a very brief yet concise statement of the Royal household.Of utmost importance will be to rather look at His Majesty’s legacy, a man who was on the throne for fifty years, and to look at the parallels that we can draw between King Zwelithini and King Shaka who ruled for twelve years, some two hundred years ago (1816 -1828).

To look at that legacy we need to first understand who was Zwelithini.Zwelithini, or uBhejane as the Zulu nation affectionally refers to him, was born in 1948, the same year his father Solomon ascended the throne of the Zulu Kingdom. He must have grown up hearing stories of how difficult it had been for his father, iSilo uBhekuzulu, to ascend to that throne due not only his minority at the death of Solomon but most importantly the huge family disputes which saw his father’s uncle Mshiyeni ka Dunuzulu acting as regent for years.

When King Shaka burst into the Isigodlo, the Great Place of his father Senzangakhona, in 1816, to claim the throne, he had been a key member of the regiments of a mighty Abathethwa tribe’s  Nkosi Godongwana, later renamed Dingiswayo. With new military technics having been developed by the regiments of Dingiswayo, Shaka had been initiated into a strong warrior himself, at the time shy of thirty years of age.

The Zulu tribe at the time was a small and insignificant tribe which was no treat to the regional geopolitics and security. The major players were Dingiswayo’s Abathethwa and the AmaNdwandwe of Nkosi Zwide.

However King Shaka, in a space of twelve years, redefined the political landscape of present day Zululand and he himself became a mighty power, subjugating many tribes and expelling those that refused to surrender to the new order. Thus the Zulu Kingdom was formed and history books will forever be painted with the name of the warrior King Shaka.Fast forward to the year 2021, one hundred and ninety-seven years since the death of King Shaka, now King Zwelithini dies after fifty years at the helm of the Zulu nation.

Since King Shaka there was never any other figure on the throne that could rival his legacy. His half-brothers who ruled in succession, Dingana and Mpande put together we no match for Shaka. Cetshwayo, Mpande’s son ruled for twelve years from 1872 to 1884 and most notably, he was deeply engaged even militarily with anti-colonial struggles, particular reference must be make of the Anglo Zulu War of 1879. No other Zulu king before and after him could achieve what he accomplished, which was to humiliate the British at the Battle of Isandlwana.

He was also the first Zulu king to be captured by the British, after which he demanded a meeting with Queen Victoria. Then his son Dinuzulu must have had one of the most turbulent tenures which included, starting in 1890, a seven years of imprisonment at St Helena Island, with his reign ending in 1913 after yet another four years sentence from a case in which he was implicated to have aided Nkosi Bambata ka Mancinza of the Zondi in famous 1906 Bambata rebellion.

After His Majesty King Dinuzulu it was his son Solomon who ruled for twenty years until 1933, after which fifteen years elapsed before the start of the reign of Zwelithini’s father King Bhekuzulu who ascended the throne in 1948 and ruled until his death in 1968,  leaving the throne to a young Zwelithini, albeit not without a bad family dispute during which Zwelithini had to take temporary refuge in eSwatini, kwaNdebele and some three years in St Helena island, at which time Prince Mcwayizeni acted as regent.

At this point it might assist to pause and refer to what Nkosi Chiliza, the current chairperson of the KZN House of Traditional Leaders, said recently in a newspaper interview about regents, also known as Ibamba-bukhosi in isiZulu. Nkosi Chiliza makes a compelling point about what in my view is a matter that has contributed to the lowering of the dignity of Ubukhosi (Traditional Leadership).

He says: Once a family has decided to resort to a Regent, the Regent must not be accorded full status as the actual Inkosi because that causes confusion, as a result of which Regents tend to forget their rightful place. From what Nkosi Chiliza said, flows the crisis we have, where mothers of young traditional leaders, their uncles acting as Regents are all accorded full status and thereby defocusing that particular tribe and consequently the entire institution away from the rightful heir.

I may have been tempted to digress a little but I berg your pardon. So what legacy had Zwelithini left and what are the parallels between him and King Shaka? Firstly, King Zwelithini, just like Shaka, was born out of wedlock and both were somehow only known to a select few confidantes until closer to the time of taking the reins.

While in Shaka’s case it was he who came back and demanded the throne using the spear, in the case of King Zwelithini it remains unclear as to why the other “legitimate” sons of Bhekuzulu were ignored. However, as someone who comes from a royal family myself, I understand that these are the juicy perspectives which are hidden from outsiders and carefully preserved to for the sole access of the “inside ones”, abangaphakathi.

Even Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi will go to the grave with some of these secretes.Secondly, both Shaka and Zwelithini at their respective times of ascending to the throne took over a weak and fragile kingdom. While Shaka was helped by his allies in the country of Nkosi Godongwana (Dingiswayo), Zwelithini relied on his close ally and traditional prime minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi but the irony is that unlike Shaka’s era, the 1968 pair relied to a great extend on a strategy that was three-pronged:

a) Mobilize and unite the Zulu nation under the pretence of resuscitating the Zulu cultural movement of the 1920s which was called Inkatha KaZulu;  

b) Align with the elements of the apartheid government which would assist them in the much desired self-rule in which Zwelithini would be King and Buthelezi Head of Government,

c) Confuse the then exiled ANC into thinking that the (Inkatha) cultural movement would pursue same objectives as those of the then Oliver Tambo let ANC.

Whatever the strategy and tactics, both Shaka and Zwelithini had set their eyes on a mighty and majestic Zulu Kingdom, modelled presumably on the British Kingdom which colonized peoples and puppets around the world tended to aspire to emulate.

Thirdly, both Shaka and Zwelithini proved to be not only great leaders but catastrophic at one point or another. Because of the public profile Zwelithini enjoyed, together with his inflated ego, the politicians did not mind to kneel before him while looking like stooges  as long as they hoped that would give them votes of the Zulus.

An example is the much denied spark of “xenophobic attacks” which ensued after the King’s speech at a public gather in March of 2015. But before that, there was even a more catastrophic period of violence which was centred squarely on the Zulu vs Xhosa “black on black violence”  between 1990 and 1993 which cost 51,000 lives.

To prevent this bloodshed it only needed Zwelithini and Mandela, but the confluence of interests between Zwelithini, Buthelezi and the Apartheid security forces would not allow for a truce because of the promises made by PW Botha to Buthelezi and Zwelithini.

In his old age Buthelezi at times tries today to sanitise his role back in those days but unfortunately for him our memory is still fresh.Fourthly and lastly, at the very least, in the Zulu history of the past three hundred years, Shaka and Zwelithini are the only two monarchs who have achieved the unthinkable in as far as creating an international brand out of a tiny clan into a historic legend.

No other King has archived anything close. Thanks to Zwelithini’s leadership, today all over the world people know about the Zulu Kingdom. While other South African kings are supposed to craft strategies of elevating and exporting their culture, there seems to be a focus on criticising annual budgets allocated to the Zulu Royal household.

This counterproductive approach needs a re-look. South African kingdoms must each demand an equal share to what budget allocation the Zulu monarchy gets, instead of opposing it. There is no doubt that King Zwelithini has managed to emerge as one of the giant figures in the history of the Zulu Kingdom, however my view is that the Zulu Kingdom going forward will not manage to maintain the current majestic outlook.

A typical example of things that will play against the fragility of the kingdom, besides internal contradictions and contestations,  is the matter of Nhlangiwni, Tembe, Ngwane and Hlubi tribes whose question of independence King Zwelithini seemingly wished away. iNkosi Melizwe Dlamini of Nhlangiwni, relative to King Zwelithini himself, passed on seven days before the King and in our culture there is something to ponder on there.

While there may have been strategic stakeholders (community, politicians, government and business) who would have been very loyal to King Zwelithini himself, not necessarily to the throne itself, the period from now into the next two to five years will tell whether these forces will continue on his legacy and protect the Kingdom the way they have done until his passing.

His Majesty King Zwelithini has sufficient praise singers. Mine was to reflect of his legacy and briefly reflect on the Zulu Kings since King Shaka. Like Marc Antony says in the book Julius Ceaser:  

“I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones;

So let it be with Caesar

”Uwile umth’ omkhulu kwiintlanti zakuloBhekuzulu ka Solomoni,Phumla thole leduna leenkunzi zakuloMthaniya, Lala silo sikhulu eyakho indima uyilimile,Nguye lowo ke madoda uBhejane ka NdabaInkosi ethombel’ ehlathini, amanye amakhosi ethombel’ endini.Bhejane phum' esiqiwini kade bekuvalele,Bayethe Ndabezitha, Bayethe Ngonyama!

------Nkosi Jongisilo Pokwana ka Menziwa, from kwaZangashe Komkhulu, writes in his personal capacity.

He is Director of Vusizwe Foundation for Oral Historical Research.