In Memory of King Shaka

Published on 3rd October 2016

With the passing of King Senzangakhona ka Jama in 1816, a new chapter opened in the history of the Zulu people. His son, Prince Sgidi, born to Queen Nandi Ndlovukazi ka Bhele, ascended to the throne. Over the next twelve years, the king, who became known as King Shaka, completely transformed the Zulu kingdom, unifying all the people of Zululand into one mighty nation. By the time of his death, in 1828, King Shaka ruled over 250,000 people, all of whom identified themselves as members of the Zulu nation.

Now, 200 years later, King Shaka’s name is still recognised throughout the world. His name conjures the image of a proud warrior, a ruthless leader, and a military genius. He has become a symbol of resistance against oppression, and his name is synonymous with the quest for identity that has endured for 200 years. King Shaka ka Senzangakhona is a heritage icon.

It is thus fitting that we commemorate the legacy of King Shaka every year, gathering as Amakhosi to remember the founder of the nation we serve. We did this even under apartheid. When the homelands system was foisted on us, and I became Chief Minister, I consulted His Majesty our King and we proclaimed the 24th of September as an official public holiday in KwaZulu to commemorate King Shaka.

In 1994, when I became the first Minister of Home Affairs in a democratic South Africa, I assumed responsibility for determining public holidays. During discussions in the task team that I appointed, I explained the background to King Shaka Day, which was celebrated only in KwaZulu, and the task team recommended that the 24th of September be proclaimed national Heritage Day. When I took this recommendation to Cabinet, President Mandela himself remarked that the 24th of September is King Shaka Day. However, a compromise was reached to include all South Africans.

While we welcomed this effort at social cohesion and inclusivity, our fear was that the commemoration of King Shaka would be watered down into something generic and that future generations would lose the sense of identity that this commemoration intends to provide. Thus, in consultation with His Majesty the King, we decided to separate Heritage Day from the day on which we commemorate King Shaka.

Long before any of this, we as Amakhosi gathered for a second commemoration, the day after King Shaka Day. Over the years, this commemoration has been moved from place to place. We did this to ensure that all Amakhosi and people have the opportunity to celebrate our identity, history and founder. This expresses the importance we attach to our role as custodians of the past.

We are honoured today by the presence of His Majesty our King. In his wisdom, His Majesty held the celebration of 200 years of Zulu history at the Moses Mabhida Stadium, in Durban, yesterday. This was attended by many dignitaries both from within the Zulu nation, and from the broader society of South Africa, Africa and the world. Our history and our founder were celebrated.

But today’s celebration is for us, the Amakhosi, Izinduna and people of that proud nation built by King Shaka. Let us therefore use this moment to consider our role in keeping alive the spirit of our nation.

When it comes to the history, the legacy and the character of King Shaka, what are we teaching the next generation? What are we teaching our own children? Are we allowing King Shaka to become a story in a history textbook? Or are we ensuring a living memory of who we are and where we come from?

For many of our children, we are the libraries that contain their history. They may not have access to books about King Shaka. But they have our oral accounts. They have our stories and our songs. They have us, as Amakhosi, to teach them about the past.

Today this aspect of our role is often overlooked as we pour our energy into fighting for good governance and having our contribution respected. The President of South Africa has described the role of Amakhosi as a support to government, to create jobs for tour guides, to make farming “look cool” to the youth, and to make sure that those who get their land back don’t resell it.

But there is much more to the role of Amakhosi in the society created by King Shaka. We are the custodians of a cultural heritage, a way of life and a social structure. We are the repository of the wealth of our nation, calculated in the measurements of identity, unity and dignity. So we must take seriously the responsibility of imparting our history and traditions to the next generation, to ensure the continuity of our nation’s wealth.

Much of what has been written about our nation’s founder is tainted with myth. Accounts produced by European travellers during the colonial era portray King Shaka as savage and bloodthirsty. They relate image of fields strewn with human bones where once there were thriving settlements. But these writers had a vested interest in portraying King Shaka in this way.

When Henry Francis Fynn penned the first written account of King Shaka, in 1832, his colleague Nathaniel Isaacs advised him (and I quote) “Make them out to be as bloodthirsty as you can and endeavour to give an estimation of the number of people they have murdered… this will swell up the work and make it interesting… (making) a fortune for you as well as myself”. Beyond pecuniary motives, the point, of course, was to justify British annexation.

Thus King Shaka is painted as a cruel and ruthless man in cruel and ruthless times. How much of this is true? Fortunately, the history textbooks used by our children in schools today ask them this very question. They are asked to think about how King Shaka is portrayed and what makes him a heritage symbol. Every learner who finishes Grade 10 will at some point have done a project, or an oral, or an exam on King Shaka ka Senzangakhona, for our nation’s founder is put forward in the school curriculum as an example of legacy.

So our children learn of King Shaka’s military innovations, like the short stabbing spear for close combat. They learn about how he formed social regimental units. They learn about the ferocity of his warriors and how he imposed strict discipline, forbidding warriors from taking wives. And they learn that King Shaka’s army systematically conquered, and assimilated or destroyed, many clans in Zululand.

But King Shaka’s legacy is about more than conquest. Professor Dan Wylie, who has written extensively on King Shaka, points out that military conquest was only one of the methods King Shaka employed to consolidate the Zulu nation. He was an astute social engineer, using marriage, ritual, negotiation, language, propaganda and patronage just as effectively as military attack.

Thus King Shaka built a society in which every member was valued and everyone made their contribution. Each person, man, woman or child, had a role to play in the wellbeing of the whole. Everyone knew where they fitted in, and they understood their identity within the identity of their nation.

That, surely, is a legacy worth celebrating. Yes, the Zulu nation is courageous and proud. Yes, we are from warrior stock. But we are also a people with deep respect for unity, social wellbeing, and personal contribution. This makes us great patriots and valuable citizens.

That is the legacy of 200 years of Zulu history. It must be celebrated along with every other aspect of our past, from how we fought for freedom from oppression, to how we won at Isandlwana, to how we remain undefeated despite suffering loss.

As we honour King Shaka ka Senzangakhona and the legacy he built, it is my privilege now, as the traditional Prime Minister of our present King, to introduce His Majesty the King of the Zulu Nation.

By Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP
Inkosi Of The Buthelezi Clan
Traditional Prime Minister To The Zulu Monarch And Nation
Member Of The Royal Council
And President Of The Inkatha Freedom Party.


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