Sigidi kaSenzangakhona commonly knows as Shaka was a great Zulu king and conqueror. He lived in an area of south-east Africa between the Drakensberg and the Indian Ocean, a region populated by many independent Nguni chiefdoms. During his brief reign more than a hundred chiefdoms were brought together in a Zulu kingdom which survived not only the death of its founder but later military defeat and calculated attempts to break it up.

Shaka was a son of Senzangakhona, ruler of an insignificant small chiefdom, the Zulu. His mother was Nandi, the daughter of a Langeni chief. Information about Shaka's early years is gleaned entirely from oral sources. It is claimed that Shaka was born into Senzangakhona's household but that the couple were not yet married according to traditional custom. A more credible account is that the relationship between Nandi and Senzangakhona was illicit, and that Shaka was born in Langeni territory at the Nguga homestead of Nandi's uncle. Shaka's name is said to stem from Senzangakhona's claim that Nandi was not pregnant but was suffering from an intestinal condition caused by the iShaka beetle. Despite his attempts to deny paternity, Senzangakhona eventually installed Nandi as his third wife. Shaka thus spent his earliest years at his father's esiKlebeni homestead near present Babanango, in the hallowed locality known as the EmaKhosini or Burial-place of the Kings, where Senzangakhona's forebears, the descendants of Zulu (Nkosinkulu), had been chiefs for generations. The relationship of Senzangakhona and Nandi seems to have been unhappy and ended in the chieftain driving Nandi from his court.

Nandi and her son sought sanctuary in the Mhlathuze Valley of the Langeni people. Here, growing up as a fatherless child, Shaka seems to have been the victim of humiliation and cruel treatment by the Langeni boys. At that time there were two strong rival Nguni groups, the Mthethwa led by the paramount chief Dingiswayo, and the Ndwandwe under the ferocious Zwide. Later, probably at the time of the Great Famine, known as the Madlantule (c.1802), Shaka was taken to the Mthethwa people, where shelter was found in the home of Nandi's aunt. He thus grew up in the court of Dingiswayo, who welcomed them with friendliness. Shaka, however, suffered much from the bullying and teasing of the Mthethwa boys, too, who resented his claims to chiefly descent.

As he grew to manhood, Shaka began to discover new talents and faculties. Outwardly, he was tall and powerfully built, and his skill and daring gave him a natural mastery over the youths in his age group; inwardly, he was developing a thirst for power. Probably when he was about twenty-three years old, he was drafted into one of the Mthethwa regiments where he found a satisfaction he had never known before. With the impi in the iziCwe regiment, he had the companionship he had previously lacked, while the battlefield provided a stadium in which he could demonstrate his talents and courage. His outstanding deeds of courage attracted the attention of his overlord and, rising rapidly in Dingiswayo's army, he became one of his foremost commanders. At this time, Shaka was given the name Nodumehlezi (the one who when seated causes the earth to rumble). While in the Mthethwa army Shaka became engrossed in problems of strategy and battle tactics, and Dingiswayo contributed much toward Shaka's later accomplishments in war. Militarism was thereafter to be a way of life for him, and one that he was to inflict on thousands of others.

Shaka usurps the Zulu Chiefdom

On the death of Shaka's father (c. 1816), Dingiswayo lent his young protégé the military support necessary to oust and assassinate his senior brother Sigujana, and make himself chieftain of the Zulu, although he remained a vassal of Dingiswayo. But, as Dingiswayo's favourite, he seems to have been granted an unusual amount of freedom to carve out a bigger principality for himself by conquering and assimilating his neighbours, including the Buthelezi clan and the Langeni of his boyhood days.

Dingiswayo's death

According to the diary of Henry Francis Fynn, Dingiswayo's death (c.1818) was the result of Shaka's treachery, though firm testimony of this is lacking. However, it is known that when Dingiswayo fought his last battle, Shaka did not arrive at the scene until after his overlord's capture. He thus retained his forces intact. Zwide later murdered Dingiswayo, and, when the leaderless Mthethwa state collapsed, Shaka immediately assumed leadership and began conquering surrounding chiefdoms himself, adding their forces to his own and building up a new kingdom.

The defeat of the Ndwandwe

Zwide decided to smash his new rival. After a first expedition had been defeated by the superior control and strategies of the Zulu at Gqokoli Hill, Zwide, in April 1818, sent all his army into Zululand. This time Shaka wore out the invaders by pretending he was retreating and drawing Zwide's forces deep into his own territory; then, when he had successfully exhausted the invaders, he flung his own regiments on them and defeated them conclusively at the Mhlathuze river. This defeat shattered the Ndwandwe state. Part of the main Ndwandwe force under Shoshangane, together with the Jere under Zwangendaba, the Maseko under Ngwane, and the Msene led by Nxaba, fled northwards. The survivors of the main Ndwandwe force settled for a time on the upper Pongola River. In 1826, under Zwide's successor, Sikhunyane, they again fought the Zulu, but were totally routed. The majority then submitted to Shaka. He was able to recruit additional warriors from these sources and proceeded to train them in his own methods of close combat.

Shaka's supremacy

By then, Shaka had no major rival in the area of present day KwaZulu/Natal. During his brief reign, which lasted only ten years after his final defeat of the Ndwandwe, his regiments continuously went on campaign, steadily extending their assaults further afield as the areas near at hand were stripped of their cattle. If a chiefdom resisted, it was conquered and either destroyed or, like the Thembu and Chunu, driven off as landless refugees. When chiefdom submitted, he left local administration in the hands of the reigning chief or another member of the traditional ruling family appointed by himself.

The Zulu Military System

Once in power Shaka began reorganizing the forces of his people in accordance with ideas he had developed as a warrior in Dingiswayo's army.

The assegai. He had seen that the traditional type of spear, a long-handled assegai thrown from a distance, was no good for the regulated fighting in close formation he had in mind. A group of warriors who held on to their assegais instead of hurling them, and who moved right up to the enemy behind the shelter of a barrier of shields would have its opponents at its mercy and would be able to accomplish complete victory. Having proved the advantages of the new tactics, Shaka armed his warriors with short-handled stabbing spears and trained them to move up to their opponents in close formation with their body-length cowhide shields forming an almost impenetrable barrier to anything thrown at them.

The formation most generally used was crescent-shaped. A number of regiments extending several ranks deep formed a dense body known as the chest (isifuba), while on each side a regiment moved forward forming the horns. As the horns curved inward around the enemy, the main body would advance killing all those who could not break through the encompassing lines.

Discipline. By means of much drilling and discipline, Shaka built up his forces, which soon became the terror of the land. Shaka prohibited the wearing of sandals, toughened his warriors' feet by making them run barefoot over rough thorny ground and in so doing secured their greater mobility. His war cry was `Victory or death!' and he kept his impi on continuous military campaigns until he thought they had earned the right to wear the headring ( isicoco) of manhood. Then they were formally dissolved and allowed to marry.

The male amabutho. The young men were taken away to be enrolled alongside others from all sections of the kingdom in an appropriate amabutho, or age-regiment. This produced a sense of common identity amongst them. Each of these amabutho had its own name and was lodged at one of the royal households, which became military communities as well as retaining their traditional functions. Each military settlement had a herd of royal cattle assigned to it, from which the young men were supplied with meat. The hides of the cattle were used to provide the shields of the warriors and an attempt was made to select cattle with distinctive skin colouring for each amabutho.

The female amabutho. Numbers of the young women of the kingdom were assembled at the military settlements. Officially, they were wards of the king. They were organized in female equivalents of the male amabutho and took part in ceremonial dancing and displays. When one of the male amabutho was given permission to marry, a female amabutho would be broken up and the women given out as brides to the warriors. Until such time, however, sexual intercourse between members of the male and female age regiments was forbidden. Transgressions were punished by death.

The royal women. Each settlement contained a section of royal women headed by a formidable woman, usually one of Shaka's aunts. Shaka, however, dreaded producing a legitimate heir. He never married and women found pregnant by him were put to death. His households were thus not dominated by wives but by stern senior women of the royal family. In the king's absence, administrative authority was wielded jointly by the female ruler of the settlement and by an induna who was usually a favourite of the king. The military system thus helped develop a strong sense of identity in the kingdom as a whole.

The traditional leaders of the subject chiefdoms still held local administrative authority, and on the dissolution of the amabutho the young men would return to live in their community of origin. Thus, the sense of identity of these subject chiefdoms was not entirely lost, but remained an important element in the later politics of the Zulu kingdom.

The military indunas or captains, as trusted favourites of the king, received many cattle from him and were able to build up large personal followings. These developments resulted in the evolution of powerful figures in later reigns with strong local power bases that they had been able to build up because of royal appointments and favours.

KwaBulawayo. Shaka's first capital was on the banks of the Mhodi, a small tributary of the Mkhumbane River in the Babanango district. He named his great place KwaBulawayo (`at the place of the murder'). As his kingdom grew, he built a far bigger KwaBulawayo, a royal household of about 1,400 huts, in the Mhlathuze valley, some 27 km from the present town of Eshowe.

Economic and social changes. The development of the military system caused major economic and social changes. That so much youth was concentrated at the royal barracks resulted in a massive transfer of economic potential to a centralized state. However, the cattle wealth of the whole community throughout the kingdom was greatly improved; even though most of the herds were owned by the king and his chiefs and indunas, all shared in the pride roused by the magnificence of the royal herds as well as the pride of belonging to the unequalled military power of Zulu.

Effects of Shaka's wars. His wars were accompanied by great slaughter and caused many migrations. Their effects were felt even far north of the Zambezi River. Because they feared Shaka, leaders like Zwangendaba, Mzilikazi, and Shoshangane moved northwards far into the central African interior and in their turn sowed war and destruction before developing their own kingdoms. Some estimate that during his reign Shaka caused the death of more than a million people. Shaka's wars between 1818 and 1828 contributed to a series of forced migrations known in various parts of southern Africa as the Mfecane, Difaqane, Lifaqane, or Fetcani. Groups of refugees from Shaka's assaults, first Hlubi and Ngwane clans, later followed by the Mantatees and the Matabele of Mzilikazi, crossed the Drakensberg to the west, smashing chiefdoms in their path. Famine and chaos followed the wholesale extermination of populations and the destruction of herds and crops between the Limpopo and the Gariep River. Old chiefdoms vanished and new ones were created.

The white traders of Port Natal

By the time the first white traders arrived at Port Natal in 1824, Shaka was in control of a centralized monarchy, which spanned the entire eastern coastal belt from the Pongola River in the north to the lands beyond the Tugela in the south. That year, Henry Francis Fynn and Francis Farewell visited Shaka. In 1825, when Lieutenant James King paid him a visit, Shaka sent a goodwill delegation to Major J Cloete, Cape government representative at Port Elizabeth. Shaka accorded the white traders most favoured treatment, ceded them land, and permitted them to build a settlement at Port Natal. He was curious about their technological developments, was anxious to learn much more about warfare, and he was especially interested in the culture they represented. Moreover, he was alert to the advantages that their trade might bring to him.

In 1826, in order to be closer and more accessible to the settlers at Port Natal, Shaka built a large military barracks at Dukuza, (‘the place where one gets lost'). It was 80 km further south of his previous royal residence kwaBulawayo, on the site of the present day town of Stanger. During his lifetime, there were no conflicts between the whites and the Zulus, as Shaka did not want to precipitate clashes with the military forces of the Cape colonial government. H F Fynn, who knew him well, found him intelligent and often amiable, and mentioned occasions that leave no doubt that Shaka was capable of generosity. Freed from the restrictions that limited most chiefs, Shaka acted as an undisputed, almighty ruler. A cruel tyrant, he had men executed with a nod of his head. The loyalties of his people were severely strained as the frequent cruelties of their great king increased steadily. The climax came with the death of his mother Nandi in October 1827, huge numbers were put to death during the mourning ceremonies because they showed insufficient grief; and his armies were sent out to force the surrounding chiefdoms to grieve.

Taking advantage of the absence of his armies, on 22 September 1828, his bodyguard Mbopha, and his half-brothers Dingane and Mhlangana, stabbed Shaka near his military barracks at Dukuza. As the great King Shaka's life ebbed away, he called out to his brother Dingane:

“Hey brother! You kill me, thinking you will rule, but the swallows will do that.”

He meant the white people, because they made their houses of mud, like the swallows. This was too much for his assailants and they leapt upon him, stabbing. According to members of his family, Shaka's last words were:

“Are you stabbing me, kings of the earth? You will come to an end through killing one another.”

Hastily they buried his body in a grain-pit nearby. Having died without an heir, Dingane succeeded him, but Shaka's prophecy haunted him and ever after that, he was wary of white people. Under Shaka's successors, Dingane, Mpande, and Cetshwayo the Zulu monarchy profoundly influenced the course of South African history.


Howcroft, P. (undated). South Africa Encyclopaedia: Prehistory to the year 2000, unpublished papers with SA History Online.|Who is Shaka Zulu? A short biography on a man with incredible vision Shaka, Zulu King [online] Pagewise [accessed 17 September 2009]|Anglo-Zulu War 1879. [online] [accessed 17 September 2009]

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