The reign of Mzilikazi

Under the leadership of Mzilikazi, the people who came to be called the Ndebele in Zimbabwe (originally of the Khumalo clan) broke away from their Zulu kindred in the 1820s and moved from present day Kwazulu Natal.  It is unclear exactly why the split came about. Some sources say that Mzilikazi had a falling out with Shaka, others suggest Mzilikazi simply wanted to expand his zone of power westwards.

By the time Mzilikazi left Kwazulu Natal there were already Ndebele people in the what is today Mpumalanga and Gauteng. The details of the Mzilikazi groups incorporation into these already established Ndebele groups are confusing and under-researched but Mzilikazi did settle with a Ndebele group in this area for a period before being defeated by the Voortrekkers in 1836, at which point he trekked over the Limpopo River to present day Zimbabwe, and settled in an area between the Limpopo and the Zambezi Rivers that later became known as Matabeleland. He is therefore credited as being the founder of the Ndebele in Zimbabwe. 

The Ndebele or Matabele (‘people who duck behind their shield’) had a long warrior tradition. The Ndebele amabutho (regiments) were similar in organization to those of the Zulus but much smaller, seldom exceeding 500 men. Mzilikazi and the Ndebele influenced events in the area north of the Vaal during the Difaqane more than any other group and succeeded in building and defending an Ndebele State (visit our 'People of South Africa feature to read more about this).

Mzilikazi's War with the Voortrekkers:

In the 1830s the Ndebele king made enemies of the Griqua and Rolong peoples through constant raids into their territories in the Orange and Caledon river valleys.  With the arrival of the Voortrekkers in 1836, Mzilikazi’s enemies found in the Whites a useful ally.  When it became clear that Mzilikazi and the White newcomers would not live peacefully together, the Ndebele attacked the Voortrekkers in October 1836. The Voortrekker forces (including the Griqua and Rolong) retaliated three months later and defeated the Mzilikazi's Ndebele at Mosega. The Voortrekker leaders associated with this war are Barend Liebenberg, J. Bothma, and H. Steyn.

Map of Matabeleland. Source: wikipedia. 

Displaced from the South African highveld, the Mzilikazi's Ndebele trekked over the Limpopo River to present day Zimbabwe, and settled in an area between the Limpopo and the Zambezi Rivers that later became known as Matabeleland.

Mzilikazi organized this ethnically diverse nation into a militaristic system of regimental towns and established his capital at Bulawayo. He was a statesman of considerable stature, able to weld the many conquered tribes into a strong, centralized kingdom. From 1847-51, the Afrikaners invaded this territory, but the Ndebele warriors proved strong enough to repel them. In 1852, the Boer government in Transvaal entered into a peace agreement with Mzilikazi. However, the peace would not last, as gold was discovered near Mthwakazi in 1867, focusing the unwanted attention of the European powers into the region. When Mzilikazi died on 9 September 1868 near Bulawayo, his son, Lobengula, became the king of Mthwakazi.


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