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King Shaka’s Zulu


The Zulu nation was founded by King Shaka kaSenzangakhona (the prefix ka meaning ‘son of’), who reigned from 1816 to 1828, and whose nephew Cetshwayo kaMpande was on the throne in 1879. Outside South Africa Shaka has long enjoyed a reputation as a tyrant, a monster of cruelty who murdered his own people on a whim, and whose campaigns of conquest depopulated huge areas of the interior.

This is not the place for a lengthy discussion of the real nature of his rule, but the visitor may be surprised to discover that the view of Shaka prevalent in Zululand today is very different. For those arriving in Durban by air the first clue will be the name of their destination: King Shaka International Airport. From the coast road south of the town of kwaDukuza-Stanger once the site of the king’s kraal, or base a sign points to Shaka’s Rock, where the king is said to have sat and contemplated the sea and the invaders that it was bringing to his land. (An alternative story, more in line with the traditional ‘monster’ theme, has it that he threw his enemies from the rock to drown.) In the town itself a memorial marks the spot where he was assassinated. In Durban a major new attraction is uShaka Marine World, situated on King Shaka Avenue. And near Eshowe there is Shakaland, a theme park that offers reconstructions of traditional Zulu life and culture. As long ago as 1994 the king’s new image was the subject of an academic book, Inventing Shaka, by Daphna Golan (Boulder, Colorado), and since then the process has continued. Today, the visitor might well find it hard to discover anyone in Kwazulu-Natal, black or white, who has a bad word to say about him.

Their argument is that the stories of his cruelty were invented or exaggerated by the white traders who wrote about him in order to emphasise their own courage and sell their books, and certainly many of them are old chestnuts, told about countless tyrants throughout history. The undoubted tragedy that the wars of his reign involved for large areas of southern Africa could be seen as an unintended consequence of Zulu success in what were essentially defensive campaigns, and in any case the devastation might have been exaggerated by white men who took advantage of the chaos to seize land. On the other hand, Shaka undoubtedly founded a great nation admittedly by violent means, but that was hardly unusual in that time and place and showed himself to be an outstanding military innovator. He was forward thinking in his attitude to European inventions and was interested in such unlikely subjects as the migration of birds. It is even possible that his notorious disapproval of marriage and sexual activity was prompted by a realisation that overpopulation was driving much of the unrest in the region. It is difficult to untangle the reality from the conflicting traditions, and much of what we think we know about Shaka’s life might be mythical in any case, but it is obvious that as a symbol of local pride he continues to extend his influence well beyond the Zulu people themselves.

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