King Shaka and Modern History

There are certain individuals in human history who emerge possessing extra-ordinary talents of mind and spirit, which enable them to solve extra-ordinary crises facing society at the time. In folklore, these supremely gifted individuals appear to be sent by the Almighty, or by Almighty Forces, to save the people and society from destruction and lead them in an altogether new direction. For England, such was Winston Churchill in 1940. For Southern Africa, such was King Shaka.

There is documented evidence that a decision was made by the English colonialists in the 19th century to implement a policy of vilification of Zulu Kings, beginning with Shaka; to portray them as devilish, beastly and murderous, in order to mobilize support in British ruling circles for a policy intent upon destroying the Zulu Kingdom. This policy was very successful in falsifying the history and personality of Zulu Kings in the minds of Westerners and of Africans educated by Westerners. New, original research is required to establish the truth about King Shaka.

It was through King Shaka that the Zulu Kingdom became a world historical force. The Heritage of King Shaka, and of the Zulu Kingdom, does not belong to Zulus alone. It is the proud Heritage of all Africa, and of all people of African descent in the entire world.

This Heritage goes back hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years to Inkosi  Mnguni, the historical father of the people who were known as “Abe-Nguni.” We must stress that these people later differentiated into various ethnic communities, many of whom have forgotten their original relationship as members of one family. Folklore has it that Mnguni had four descendants, Xhosa, Swazi, Ndebele, and Zulu, out of which emerged the respective communities and nations. Professor Lamla, of Walter Sisulu University, in his doctorate thesis, confirms that “the original known name of the Xhosa people was Abe-Nguni…The name of chief Xhosa, a descendant of Mnguni, became the tribal name.” Queen Mkabi, wife to Shaka’s father, King Senzangakhona, who lived until 1879, recalls her family history thus: “…they continued to call themselves by their name of origin `Base Nguni’…I think most of the people of Zululand also came from the country of the Nguni people long ago, but they have formed new nations” (KwaZulu). We must stress, too, that linguistic evidence seems to suggest that Southern Sotho- and Northern Sotho-speaking people are most likely descendants of Mnguni. My Lecturer in Sesotho One introduced the course with this significant statement: “The skeleton of Sesotho is Zulu.” The living body, of course, is made up of both bones and flesh. In the history of languages, the flesh consists of similarities and differences that have persisted, changed, and developed in the course of migrations, time, and contact with differing environments and communities. Linguists must follow this line of research. I am struck by the fact that memoirs make no mention of “translator” in the communication, via many delegations, between King Shaka and King Moshoeshoe!

The extra-ordinary challenge that King Shaka faced was the need to build a modern nation, and to secure that nation in the threatening environment of European imperialism. The primary instrument for achieving these ends was, first and foremost, a new army and new military tactics. He was probably the greatest military genius in history to date, whose innovations and tactics in war have been subjects of study in military academies around the world. He made order, discipline, respect, pride, cleanliness, and truth the essence of Zulu culture. He achieved the ideal in military-civil society relations: “The Zulu soldier was not a full-time professional like his British counterpart and the Zulu army was no self-contained institution, separate from civilian life and governed by its own laws, custom and tradition; it was rather a citizen army which placed an obligation of service on every Zulu man for part of his life, but which was deeply rooted in the customs and practices of his culture (Ian Knight, The Anatomy of the Zulu Army). Women were also part of the military system, although they did not go into battle.

Shaka was imbued with a Pan-African and a World-historical consciousness. He instructed the English visitors to his Palace as follows: Tell your King that I say he must unite all the White nations; I shall unite all the Black nations: then we shall form an alliance of peace and fraternity. He chose a delegation, led by the wise and respected Sotobe, to go to England to meet “my brother, Um-George”, on his behalf, and to observe and learn all they could which could benefit his government and the people he led. The great Sotobe and his team actually started on their mission; when news of King Shaka’s assassination reached them, they abandoned the mission and returned home. Keep in mind that a similar mission was sent from Japan to England not long after Shaka had sent his. The Japanese delegation reached their destination. They returned and told Japanese leaders about the Industrial Revolution going on in England. Thereafter, under Togukawa leadership, Japan started the process leading to the Japanese Industrial Revolution and to the industrial power -modern Japan! Could Africa’s greatest revolutionary, King Shaka, have initiated the same developments in Southern Africa, after getting Sotobe’s report about developments in 19th century England? This is speculation which torments the African imagination.

King Shaka’s foreign relations policy was remarkable, foreshadowing policies of some of the leading nations of the 20th and 21st centuries. His government wanted peace and stability in Southern Africa. There were, at the time, what we may call bandit states, whose leaders lived and sought prosperity through raiding near-by societies and states for cattle, land, and other riches. Shaka wanted these bandit states eliminated, so that order, peace and fraternity could prevail in Southern Africa. He was willing and ready to send his army to do battle for weaker states embattled by such bandit armies. A striking case of that policy was that of King Moshoeshoe’s government and nation, which was under attack from King Matiwane of Amangwane. As soon as word reached Shaka regarding Matiwane’s attacks against Moshoeshoe’s Kingdom, he sent his army towards the land of the BaSotho to eliminate Matiwane’s forces. Indeed, the mission was successful. Shaka’s Commander-in-Chief, the great General Mdlaka, who led the attack, went to report the victory to King Moshoeshoe. An enormous celebration was held at King Moshoeshoe’s palace; King Shaka called his people for another great celebration of the victory at his palace, when the army returned with gifts and words of gratitude from Moshoeshoe.  King Shaka had particularly brotherly relations with King Moshoeshoe as well as with King Sobhuza of the Swazi Kingdom.

Shaka was a remarkable artist, singer, dancer, and composer of songs. This seems to be a trait observable across time in the Zulu Royal Family. Shaka excelled in traditional Zulu dance. The English visitor to Shaka’s palace, Fynn, records a number of times, in his memoirs, instances when King Shaka participated in dancing with the people, and even records the words and stanzas of Shaka’s compositions. You cannot be a genuine, great artist, if you do not use the traditions in the culture of the masses of your people (not of a small section or elite) as building blocks for your art. King Shaka was not alienated from the culture of masses of African people rooted in principles of African civilization. He knew that the priceless riches of African civilization are stored in the souls, minds, and words of older generations. Queen Mkabi testifies to Shaka’s attachment to African intellectuals and African culture as building blocks for sound nation-building: “Undoubtedly he was King, and he gathered round him the best brains in the country…as Dowager Queen I met almost everyone at Isiklebeni…It was in those days that there gathered at our Indlukulu great men, kings and diplomatic representatives from other states, and men of our closer neighbours…men such as Ndlela, the great general and counceller, Nzobe, Dambuza and Sotobe Sibiya, all great councellors, who were trusted by Shaka…in regard to home and foreign affairs, particularly in the difficult days when the white men became a problem. In the meantime they advised the King that not only must the army be built up, but the life and customs of the nation must be perpetuated. The great annual gathering of Umkosi, a feast of the first fruits, must be held when the people gathered in all their festal panoply…when the King was doctored, great dances took place, new laws were proclaimed…The King gladly followed this advice and the greatest gathering took place…His appearance, his participation in the dancing and military manoeuvres, established him beyond question in the respect of his people.” Other notable advisors were Ngomane, and Mbikwane, men very much his senior in age, and Mgobhozi, the great warrior and Shaka’s confidante.

The society over which King Shaka presided, and which he sought to develop, was uniquely African. The Kingdom was an assemblage of Communes (izigodi), founded upon communal property in land, at the top of which was the King (ISilo samabandla onke). Each Commune was equal to every other Commune, in ruling itself, bound by the common allegiance to the unity of the Kingdom personified by the Monarch. The principle of local self-government was strictly adhered to. A combination of Communes had its own Assembly, presided over by an Inkosi of the area. Then there was a National Assembly/Royal Council presided over by the Monarch. Queen Mkabi notes: “Shaka, when at home at his great kraals, held open court daily. Any chief or commoner from the whole of this country was entitled to come into his presence and to listen to the discussions on the business of the state; even to speak if he cared to attract notice…” (KwaZulu)

Women played a significant role in politics and State administration in King Shaka’s time. Female members of Royalty attended and participated in National Assembly debates. Princess Mkhabayi, Shaka’s Aunt, was easily the most influential person in Zulu political history. She ruled the country, when Shaka’s father, Senzangakhona, was still a minor. She was the key person in making the decision that Shaka must be killed. Women played a particularly striking role in the new National Army established by Shaka. Shaka established Military towns (Amakhanda) in all regions of the country. What is striking is that the Heads of these Military towns were, more often than not, women. “The amakhanda were also a crucial part of the new Zulu administration…” The King “frequently traveled between them…during his absence they were administered by a trusted nominee, often a female member of the household.” (Ian Knight, The Anatomy of the Zulu Army) Queen Mkabi records: “…he gave the other queens military kraals where they were the indunas or colonels-in-chief; and he actually gave Mkabayi two kraals…There, with a regiment numbering about 10,000 men, she held the northern frontier against invasion, and was in a position to send troops at short notice in any direction…”  Queen Mkabi was in charge of the troops stationed at Isiklebeni.  Shaka appointed Sotobe “as Induna to me at the Isiklebeni in my capacity as deputy to Shaka in the administration of the original Zulu kingdom.”  (KwaZulu) Was Shaka’s heart particularly tender towards women? Fynn records this remarkable interaction between Shaka and his grandmother, Mthaniya: “When she happened to visit him he frequently washed her eyes and ears which were in a sad state because of her age; he also pared her nails…” When informed of her death, he “remained for some moments in deep contemplation. His feelings then seemed to overpower him. He burst out crying and did so aloud.”

Shaka was a striking model of a male, tall, dark brown, with a fantastically athletic figure: “He was certainly a magnificent-looking man with great mental powers…how charming he could be! What a lover he would have made had he ever gone courting!” (KwaZulu). We are told that Lenin’s personality was totally dominated by the revolution. He was married, but never had a child. Shaka’s personality was totally dominated by what he felt in the marrow of his bones, mind and soul to be his mission: to right the wrong he and his mother suffered in his youth, fused with the forging of a new nationalism and mighty State to meet the historical needs of Southern Africa at the time. Central to this mission was the creation of a new Army and new Military tactics. “He was a fighting man from first to last” (KwaZulu). The Poet, Mazisi Kunene said of him: “He was possessed by the spirit of a fighting bull.” Nevertheless, he had tender moments, as we have shown above. He had sexual relations with women, although these were strictly subordinate to his mission. He subordinated even marriage and family life to the mission. Only after the mandatory performance of national duty were young men and women allowed to marry. As a soldier on endless duty on his mission, he sacrificed stable sexual ties with women, marriage and children, in his personal life. Kunene, in Emperor Shaka The Great, which he based strictly on oral history and documents, mentions a certain “Pampatha, his lover” in Shaka’s life before assuming power. There are also some whispers about a union, or unions, arranged by King Shaka between a young woman, or women, and his brother Mpande. In one such instance, the story goes that the lady was already with child, after congress with His Majesty (see works by R. R. R. Dhlomo). There is also a rumour in oral history, mentioned also by Kunene, of a pregnancy of one of Shaka’s women when he was King, which was hidden by his mother Nandi. The story goes that a male child was born, and was sent away for safety. The child, and grown-up person, was never traced in our history.

Perhaps the last words should be about Shaka and his mother, Princess Nandi. In her motherly moments, she lovingly called him “Mlilwana”. The great Poet, Mazisi Kunene, referred to Nandi as “his twin spirit in the Zulu sense.” When she died, he seems to have lost his inner balance. Shaka did not have a normal home and normal childhood. At this most formative stage of personality, he followed his mother as they lived the life similar to that of refugees. Undoubtedly, that must have left an impress on his personality. As a child rejected by his father, and injured twice-over through the father’s rejection of his mother, and driven to live the life of a refugee, he also missed that crucial experience of a young person in line of succession to the Monarchy: being specially groomed, advised, taught, and molded by old men and old women on how to be a ruler. But then, this applies to normal circumstances. In those grave times of life or death of societies, a huge vacuum opens up for a great, revolutionary force to assume leadership of society.

The great German writer, Goethe, as he observed Napoleon and pondered over similar personality forces in history, spoke of a “Daemonic force”, in the creative sense, which fuels the personality of great men and women in history. Such leaders are not made to order. Shaka was a great revolutionary force that erupted to fill that huge vacuum for visionary and brave leadership at the grave moment of life or death for Southern Africa. To a large extent, he shaped what today we call South Africa; what today we call Zimbabwe; what today we call Mozambique; what today we call Malawi, Swaziland, Zambia, Lesotho, Botswana, and much more. The historical father of people known today as Shangaan was King Zwide’s general Soshangane and Zwide’s son, Shemane; Mzilikazi ka Mashobane left Shaka’s Heritage in what is now Gauteng and Mpumalanga, before proceeding to create the Kingdom of the Ndebele in Zimbabwe; while another general from Zwide’s army, Zwangendaba, founded the Angoni Kingdom in today’s Malawi. There were breakaway Generals in the wake of King Shaka’s supremacy, such as Mzilikazi; The defeat of Zwide’s Ndwandwe nation by King Shaka, and their incorporation into the Zulu Kingdom, resulted in the flight of many of the leaders of the Zwide State, with their followers, in the northern direction, to areas now known as Gauteng, Mpumalanga, Limpopo, and North West. In modern times, we move as individuals; in pre-modern times, we moved as communities and states. The time before, and during, Shaka’s reign, was an Age of large-scale migrations and consolidation of communities and States. Mazisi Kunene writes of “roaming groups such as the Ntulis, the Matiwanes, the Phephethas” who, together with Shaka’s rise, were instrumental in these migrations and consolidation of communities and States. AmaBhele (Ntulis), AmaNgwane, AmaZizi (Mbeki’s ancestors?) and AmaPhephethes (Vilakazis), and other communities, moved in significant numbers to what today is Eastern Cape and to other regions of Southern Africa, and often changed names. Zulus migrated as far as modern Tanzania, Central Africa, and parts of West Africa. Shaka reshaped the consciousness of entire Africa and of entire Humankind. That is the Heritage bestowed upon us by King Shaka. May we use it wisely.

The Poet, H. I. E. Dhlomo, sang: “And those whom in pride we adore, Moshoeshoe, Hintsa, Khama’s strain…Hannibal, Aggrey –these and many more with gleaming names, deck Shaka’s train.”



About Professor Herbert W. Vilakazi

Professor Herbert Vilakazi was born at Nongoma, KwaZulu/Natal, South Africa. He received his tertiary education at Columbia University, and at the New School For Social Research, both in New York City, USA. He has taught sociology and other social sciences at various tertiary institutions in and around New York City (City College of City University, Essex County College in Newark, Livingstone College, and State University of New York). He has also taught at the University of Transkei (now Walter Sisulu University), University of the Witwatersrand, University of Cape Town, and University of Zululand. He served as Deputy-Chairperson of the Independent Electoral Commission from 1998 to 2004. He has also served as Special Advisor to the Premier of KwaZulu/Natal (2005-2007). He is Chairperson of Vilakazi Development Strategies.
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4 Responses to King Shaka and Modern History

  1. Ofori Kofi says:


  2. Reblogged this on Mayibuye iAfrika and commented:
    This is superb story about the African Heritage it is my pleasure to sharw with you.

  3. I’m the son of Miwa whom was begot Somarubini whom was begot Sobukhokho whom was begot Somarubini whom was begot Songubo whom was begot Liphahla KaMnguni kaNtu I’m from the AbeNguni whom today are known as the Msiza Clan because of ugusiza impi ka Manala no Nzunza ka Msi ka Mhlanga kaMafana and we are from the great lakes of Central of African as a Mnguni Kingdom whom resided Egolweni then to Sbhakabhakeni and Khothwani to Matempule(All in the present Mpumalanga) before we the descents of NaSibiya the wife to Somarubini(Snr) relocated to the district of Odi in the present cross-border of Tshwane and Madibeng municipalities, I’m a brother to Bernard Thabo Mnguni of Ndebele descent and former Mamelodi Sundowns, we have other clansmen and women in and around mpumalanga and Gauteng townships and overseas so I need someone who have a more detailed information in regard to our Genealogy cause in our praise-songs we pride ourselves as left our Kingship eBongunini( My great great grand father had Three wives of which are NaSibiya, NaBuda and Nokamele whom all of their descendants stays at Matempule in Troya in Vaalbank or Siyabuswa District in Mpumalanga today as a clan or community and are known as matebeleng by local residents which we are the Msiza today.

  4. Yoliso Zuma says:

    fascinating I have a lot from reading this thank you Professor Vilakazi

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