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by Thomas Mofolo


A semi-biographical novel set in Zululand from circa 1780 to 1828; completed in 1909; published in Sesotho in 1925, in English in 1931.


Chaka of the Zulus achieves kingship and great power at the price of his humanity.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Almost half a century after the death of Chaka, the founding ruler of the Zulu kingdom, Thomas Mofolo was born in Basutoland, a small country known today as Lesotho, surrounded on all sides by the nation of South Africa. The Basuto people came to Basutoland as refugees in the early 1820s during a period of great turmoil caused in part by Griqua raids and in part by Zulu military expansion under Chaka, the great Zulu leader. Chaka, the first novel written in an African language to achieve an international readership, is the last of Mofolo’s three published novels and is considered to be the author’s greatest work. In Chaka, Mofolo, a missionary-educated Christian, broke with the proselytizing style of his earlier novels and wrote of traditional pre-Christian African culture. Some considered the novel a dangerous encouragement of pagan superstition, and Basutoland’s sole missionary-run publishing company did not release Chaka until many years after its completion. Perhaps due to the frustration of this experience, after Chaka, Mofolo left Basutoland and stopped writing, turning his attention to business ventures. He died in poverty in 1948 after being deprived of his property under a South African law limiting black ownership of land. The subject of his novel, the Zulu warlord Chaka, remains a character of intense debate.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

Zululand and the Zulu

At the time of Chaka’s birth in the 1780s, the Zulu were a small chiefdom of cattle herders living in the hilly grasslands between the Indian Ocean and the Drakensberg Mountains that parallel Africa’s southeastern coast. The Zulu were but one of many little chiefdoms and kingdoms of the Nguni, the cultural and linguistic group inhabiting this region. The country in which the Nguni dwelt provided ample grazing for huge herds of cattle, which played an important part in the Nguni economy and culture. Due, however, to a series of droughts, these grasslands began to fail in the late eighteenth century, and the resulting competition for pastures drove the Nguni to war against each other. Two kingdoms gained dominance during this period—the Ndwandwe under their leader, Zwide, and the Mthethwa under their leader, Dingiswayo, to whom the Zulu allied themselves in exchange for protection.

Nguni peoples of the period lived in villages that housed extended families or clans. The Nguni practiced polygyny, with a single homestead consisting of a circular thatched house for the patriarchal head of the family and a separate circular house for each of his wives and their respective children. The houses were arranged around a central cattle pen and surrounded by a sturdy wall. A typical village consisted of several such family homesteads, representing different branches that shared common descent from a hereditary chief, or inkosi According to oral tradition, the common ancestor of the Zulu people was a man named Zulu, who established a village in a valley considered to be the Zulu homeland, or Zululand, today known as KwaZulu.

Nguni chiefs held power in both this world and the world beyond. They served as commanders of armies, judges of disputes, and chief emissaries to the spirit world of the ancestors. Chiefdoms passed from father to son, but in polygynous Nguni society the firstborn son of a nuclear family was not necessarily considered the rightful heir. Rather, the first son born to the chiefs first wife inherited his father’s chiefdom. The king employed the services of various male age-grade guilds, or amabutho. Young men would join the amabutho around the age of 17, with an ibutho (singular of amabutho) being comprised of young men born a year or two apart. The amabutho served their chief until they were dismissed at his will to pursue marriage. Before that time, amabutho hunted, herded, farmed, built structures, and, importantly during the time of the droughts, engaged in warfare.

Traditionally, warfare among the Nguni was highly ritualized and had more to do with shaming one’s opponent than killing him. Warriors would stand a good distance apart from one another and hurl insults as often as they hurled spears. The light Nguni spears often did not cause much more damage than the insults, and could be easily parried with the stout Nguni shields. During the late eighteenth-century droughts, all this changed; oral history imputes the changes (discussed below) to the influence of Chaka.

Zulu belief and medicine

Traditional Zulu belief posits a first being, uMvelinqangi, who lives “above” with the “Princess of the Sky,” inkosazana yezulu. The Zulu do not have immediate recourse to uMvelinqangi or inkosazana yezulu, who are conceived of as remote deities; the people can, however, petition them through the ancestors, the spirits of the dead of one’s clan. The ancestors are believed to retain the personalities they had in life and to continue their lifestyle beneath the earth, where they herd cattle and raise crops. Ancestors are keenly interested in the welfare and behavior of the descendants whom they have left behind. If the ancestors approve of a descendant’s actions, they can provide that person with protection against misfortune and disease. Thus, when good things happen, Zulus say “the ancestors are with us.” In order to honor the ancestors and gain their protection, Zulus sacrifice goats and cattle. The ancestors need these sacrifices in order to be integrated into the realm of the dead; prior to sacrifice on their behalf, the newly dead lead a lonely existence in a sort of limbo that is separate both from the world of the living and the spirits of the ancestors. If an ancestor is displeased by a descendant’s bad behavior or failure to sacrifice, he or she can cause illness, crop failure, or general bad luck. Thus, when bad things happen, Zulus say “the ancestors are facing away from us.”

The bad things that can happen when the ancestors turn away are linked to the Zulu concept of isifo, or disease, which refers not only to physical ailments, but also to general misfortune and susceptibility to misfortune. Isifo may be caused by the ill will of the ancestors or by harmful substances that occur naturally in the environment or are deliberately placed there by one’s enemy. An example of a natural substance that can cause disease is umkhondo, an invisible trace left behind by people and animals in places where they have been. A person becomes infected with harmful umkhondo, such as that of wild animals or new mothers, through physical contact, through inhalation, or simply by stepping over tracks.

Closely related to the Zulu concept of disease is the Zulu concept of medicine, or umuthi, which refers to substances with the power to heal or cause good, as well as to substances with the power to harm or cause ill, depending upon the intentions of the user. Umuthi is for the most part herbal, though it sometimes contains animal matter, and takes the form of powders, pastes, teas, and the like. There are two kinds of umuthi: that which works independently and that which works only in the context of ritual. Because of harmful umuthi that may be used against a person and the abundance of natural isifo-causing substances in the environment, positive, strengthening umuthi is frequently used to fortify the individual. In the novel, Chaka receives such strengthening umuthi from his doctors.

As in the novel, Zulu medical practitioners can be either male or female. Male practitioners are inyanga and learn their trade through apprenticeship to other inyanga. Female practit ioners are isangoma, or “diviners,” and gain their skills through the ancestors, who bestow upon them clairvoyant powers. A patient generally goes to an isangoma to receive a diagnosis, and then may seek treatment either from an isangoma or an inyanga, or, in modern times, from a Westerntrained doctor. An isangoma uses various methods to learn the cause of her patient’s isifo: she may simply listen to the voices of her ancestors; her ancestors may speak directly to the patient; or she may throw bones and read the cause of her patient’s ailment from the bones’ positions. Those who use umuthi primarily to harm are known as umthakathi, or “night-sorcerers,” of whom more will be said later.


Sometime in the 1780s, a son named Chaka was born to Prince Senzangakhona of the Zulu and a woman named Nandi of the Langeni. Chaka grew up with his mother among the Langeni, who neighbored the Zulu. Eventually mother and son left the Langeni and came to reside among the Mthethwa, so that when Chaka grew old enough to join an ibutho, he fought under the Mthethwa leader Dingiswayo, and not under the Zulu leader, his father, Senzangakhona.

Various sources account for Chaka’s estrangement from his father in different ways. Some African informants claim that Chaka’s parents never married, and even that Chaka’s birth was hidden from his father. Other African sources claim that Chaka’s parents did marry, but not until after Chaka was conceived, adding that the hasty marriage led to tension within the family. A number of sources cite Nandi’s fierce temperament as the reason for her expulsion from her home with Senzangakhona; elsewhere it is suggested that the pressures of drought and a diminishing food supply sent Nandi, as Senzangakhona’s youngest and least powerful wife, back to her parents’ home. In any case, Chaka apparently grew up in unusual circumstances that led to a difficult childhood in which his peers tormented him, treatment to which he responded with a violence that caused his mother and himself to be cast out of her homeland. Another explanation sometimes given for their departure from the Langeni is the need to stay on the move in search of food and water in those troubled times.

In his service under Dingiswayo, Chaka quickly gained a reputation as a great warrior. While fighting in Dingiswayo’s amabutho, Chaka is credited with designing a new shorter spear, the assegai, to be used specifically for stabbing in hand-to-hand combat—an innovation that allowed the Mthethwa to gain further ascendancy in warfare. In return, Chaka gained the love and support of Dingiswayo in the matter of Chaka’s succession to Senzangakhona’s kingship when Senzangakhona died at a young age. According to some accounts, Dingiswayo treated Chaka with medicines to give him a “’magical’ ascendancy” over his father, and as a result Senzangakhona grew ill and died, whereupon Chaka took his place (Hamilton, p. 60). Others claim that Senzangakhona died of natural causes, but that Chaka wrested the kingship from Sigujana, another son of Senzangakhona, who had been appointed by his father as the rightful heir. In any case, Chaka became Zulu chief in the year 1816.

Reports indicate that, as Zulu chief, Chaka continued his military innovations. He made his troops discard their clumsy sandals and harden their feet by treading on thorns so that they could run barefoot into battle. He is remembered as a crafty tactician and a harsh disciplinarian who executed his soldiers for any show of cowardice or disobedience. Shortly after Chaka’s accession to chieftaincy, his mentor, Dingiswayo, was captured and killed by a rival king, Zwide of the Ndwandwe, whereupon Chaka is reported to have cried out, “Zwide has killed my father!” (Knight, p. 20). The close connection between Dingiswayo and Chaka perhaps allowed Chaka to claim the Mthethwa kingship. As leader of the Mthethwa, Chaka commanded all the chiefdoms that owed allegiance to this powerful community, who now owed allegiance to Chaka’s people, the Zulu.

Seeking to expand the limits of his power, Chaka established a new royal Zulu village named Buluwayo, “the place of killing,” and began to war against neighboring chiefdoms. Chaka consolidated his power by requiring that the young men of all the peoples under Zulu dominion come to serve under him in the Zulu amabutho. Chaka thus promoted a sense of unity among the hundreds of clans under his power, who came to regard themselves as Zulu. Accounts of this period of Zulu expansion, known as the mfecane, or “crushing,” characterize it as a time of great violence and devastation. Chaka is depicted by his enemies as a power-mad warlord whose armies massacred entire peoples, burning their lands and plundering their cattle, reducing the few survivors to starvation or cannibalism. Another possible explanation is that drought-induced famine turned the various chiefdoms and kingdoms against each other in increasingly desperate competition for disappearing resources. More recently, some historians have suggested that Chaka’s brutality was fabricated by European slavers of the nineteenth century to conceal the true cause of the mfecane: their own depredations. Debate over the true origins of the mfecane is ongoing.

The coming of the Europeans

Although Europeans had already established colonies in other parts of southern Africa, by the mid-1820s the only white people who had strayed into Nguni land were a handful of shipwrecked sailors whom the Nguni regarded as pathetic. Eventually word spread to the residents of the British Cape Colony (now part of South Africa) of a powerful king named Chaka, and this news piqued interest in his wealthy and as yet uncontacted African kingdom. In 1824 British Lieutenant Francis Farewell led an expedition to establish trade in ivory with the powerful king. Farewell’s party eventually made it to Buluwayo where Chaka graciously entertained them and expressed an interest in their firearms. The party asked Chaka to sign a document granting them title to the strategic port of Natal where their ship had landed and Chaka, unfamiliar with European notions of land ownership, granted their request. Nguni society had no concept of land ownership by individuals; a king might control the land for a time, but only as a function of his power, not as a legal right.

It seems that Chaka regarded the Natal party’s request for land as he would the request of any small chiefdom or people for a place in the Zulu kingdom. They would be a subject clan occupying the land at Chaka’s pleasure, owing the king allegiance when required. The Farewell party, like any other subject clan, were induced to fight in Chaka’s battles, and it has been suggested that this experience changed their view of Chaka. Whereas the party’s previous accounts of the king had emphasized his goodwill and hospitality, later accounts described Chaka as a dangerous savage. Perhaps Farewell’s party saw a side of Chaka in battle that was not evident in daily life, or perhaps, as some historians suggest, Farewell found it expedient to portray Chaka as a scoundrel in order to secure support from British authorities, which he needed to expand trade.

While hunting elephant with members of the Farewell party in 1827, Chaka received word that his mother was gravely ill. He immediately marched his hunting party to Nandi’s residence several miles away; Nandi died of dysentery soon after her son’s arrival. Chaka’s reaction was extreme, and his hysteria is reported to have been shared by the Zulu. Thousands died in the week following Nandi’s death, reported Henry Francis Fynn of the Farewell party, some from the customary abstention from food and water in times of mourning, others by killing their neighbors in a frenzy of grief. Those who did not appear to be sufficiently mournful were executed at Chaka’s command.

In 1828 Chaka sent a group of Zulu ambassadors to Cape Colony. These were accompanied by two members of Farewell’s party who wished to establish an overland trade route to the Cape. Simultaneously, Chaka launched an attack against the Mpondo peoples settled along the trade route that the Englishmen wished to establish. Chaka’s ambassadors arrived in Cape Colony at a time of political upheaval and were denied an official audience. Instead, they were detained and questioned and suspected of being spies before they were allowed to leave. Members of the Farewell party said Chaka felt the Cape colonists had made a fool of him.

Death of Chaka

Chaka was assassinated on September 22, 1828, stabbed to death outside his own house by his two brothers, Dingane and Mhlangana, sons of Senzangakhona by other wives. Whether these two were driven by a desire to free the Zulu from a bloodthirsty despot or a desire merely for personal power is unknown. They struck while Chaka’s armies were away on campaign; by the time the armies returned, Dingane had murdered Mhlangana and succeeded to Chaka’s kingship. Perhaps the people were glad to be rid of Chaka; perhaps the returning armies, who had been defeated, were happy to be spared his customary punishment for failure. In any case, the people accepted Dingane as ruler, and unceremoniously cast Chaka’s body into the fields to feed the hyenas. Eventually, it is believed, his corpse was buried in an old grain pit, and today a stone monument marks the place where Chaka’s body is said to lie.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

Senzangakhona is a king without an heir. None of his wives has yet borne him a son, and he has begun to worry that his wealth and his kingship will be lost to his lineage when he dies. Therefore, Senzangakhona decides to take another wife. At a dance, he notices a beautiful and dignified young woman named Nandi to whom he is instantly attracted. She, in turn, is attracted to him, and agrees to a private meeting with the king. Senzangakhona asks Nandi to engage in sexual intercourse with him and, despite the fact that out-of-wedlock pregnancy is punishable by death, Nandi agrees. When she becomes pregnant, Senzangakhona hastily marries her, and he soon gains the male child, named Chaka, for whom he has longed. Senzangakhona sends word to the Mthethwa king Jobe, to whom the Zulu owe allegiance in exchange for protection, that Chaka will be his successor.

At first, Nandi’s co-wives are pleased that the newcomer has provided an heir for the family. Soon, however, the other wives bear sons of their own and, since Zulu royal succession does not follow seniority of the king’s children but rather the seniority of the king’s wives who bear the children, the wives claim that their sons supersede Chaka as heirs to the kingship. Senzangakhona, who is fond of Chaka and his mother, refuses to revise the order of succession. Therefore, the senior wives employ a sorcerer to turn the king against Nandi and her son. The wives also threaten to reveal the circumstances of Chaka’s conception until Senzangakhona finally agrees to change the order of succession and to exile Nandi and her child from his kingdom.

Mother and son seek refuge in Nandi’s homeland, but gossip has spread that Chaka is a “child of sin” who should never have been born, and the boy is subjected to torment by his peers (Mofolo, Chaka, p. 11). Other boys, with whom Chaka herds calves, gang up and beat him regularly, at times nearly killing him, and Chaka never understands why. Through experience, he grows strong and becomes adept at combat. In addition, Nandi takes Chaka to a doctor who gives the boy special medicines to make him strong, fearless, and eager to fight. This doctor informs Nandi that “the events that will take place around the life of this child are of great importance,” and instructs Chaka to bathe in a river at dawn at the time of each new moon (Chaka, p. 14).


“That man used to play around with people. A man would be killed though he had done nothing, though he had neither practiced witchcraft, committed adultery, nor stolen.”

(Baleka ka Mpitikazi, Zulu informant, in Knight, p. 28)

“[Chaka was] a savage in the truest sense of the word, a monster, a compound of vice and ferocity without one virtue to redeem his name from the infamy to which history will consign it.”

(Nathanial Isaacs, British visitor to Chaka’s kingdom,
in Knight, p. 9)

“[Chaka,] to do him justice, is for a savage the best-hearted of his race.”

(James King, Port Natal trader, in Hamilton, p. 41)

“King Shaka rose like a colossus in his day and age to make KwaZulu a place of Zulus….He made one people out of many peoples….King Shaka… was the greatest visionary of his time.”

“(Zulu king Zwelithini, Shaka Day speech,
September 24, 1992, in Hamilton, p. 11).”

While still a child, Chaka demonstrates his courage and strength by killing a lion that has been menacing his village. Through this act, he incurs the resentment of the village men, who all fled from the lion in fear, but he gains the respect of the village women, who sing his praises and mock his enemies. Nandi’s co-wives and their sons hear of the insults directed against them and their hatred of Chaka increases. Many people would like to see him dead.

Early one morning as Chaka bathes according to the doctor’s instructions, an enormous water serpent raises its head out of the black water. It approaches Chaka, who neither fights nor flees because the doctor has enjoined him not to do so, “no matter what may appear” (Chaka, p. 23). The serpent comes face to face with him, sticks out two long tongues that wrap around Chaka’s head, and then proceeds to coil its body entirely around Chaka’s. After licking every inch of Chaka’s body, the snake withdraws and disappears into the dark waters. From a patch of reeds, disembodied voices prophesy in song a brilliant future for Chaka. After these events, Chaka’s mother is anxious to consult her doctor to learn of their significance, presently to no avail. The doctor has died but has sent for another doctor to attend Chaka.

Soon thereafter Chaka rescues a girl from a hyena that stole her from the house where she was sleeping. None of the other young people in the house, nor indeed any of the adults in the village, makes any attempt to save the girl; hyenas are regarded as familiars, or animals in the service of witches, and are thus extremely feared. Chaka’s brother Mfokazana, senior to him in succession to his father’s throne, happens to be visiting Chaka’s village and sleeps in the young people’s house next to the girl, who is regarded as his sweetheart, yet even he does nothing to help her. When Chaka slays the hyena, he again arouses admiration and resentment in equal parts, the latter particularly in Mfokazana, who is now disgraced. Determined to kill his rival, Mfokazana attacks his brother, and a general melee ensues with some villagers taking Chaka’s side, some Mfokazana’s. When Senzangakhona arrives on the scene and demands Chaka’s death, it is too much, and after breaking his spear in battle, Chaka flees, determined to never return again. In the face of such injustice, he decides that “from that day on, he would do just as he pleased, and that, whether a person was guilty or not, he would simply kill him if he so wished, for that is the law of man” (Chaka, p. 35).

While wandering the land as an outcast, Chaka falls asleep one day underneath a tree and awakens to find a strange man confronting him. From his unkempt appearance and the many pouches he carries, Chaka knows at once that the man is a doctor. This man, named Isanusi, seems to know all about Chaka. Apparently the man is the doctor for whom Nandi’s doctor sent. Before he will help Chaka, Isanusi demands that Chaka obey him absolutely, and Chaka agrees. Isanusi asks Chaka what he wants and Chaka replies that he wants his father’s kingship. Isanusi responds by offering Chaka a kingship that will surpass all others and to which all other kings will owe allegiance. Chaka eagerly accepts the offer.

Isanusi treats Chaka with various powerful medicines to make him invincible. Together the two make their way to the village of Dingiswayo, successor to Jobe and the king to whom Senzangakhona now owes allegiance. Dingiswayo has heard of Chaka’s brave feats, and welcomes the young man into his household and into his army. Nandi is already with Dingiswayo, to whom she has fled for protection after the events surrounding the hyena attack. Chaka soon proves himself through valorous fighting. In short order, he advances to the rank of commander of one of Dingiswayo’s best regiments. Much to his pleasure, Chaka finds that his abilities do not produce resentment but rather admiration among Dingiswayo’s men, who prize a brave fighter above all else. Dingiswayo himself comes to love Chaka like a son.

Isanusi, meanwhile, has left because of old animosity between himself and Dingiswayo, but sends two of his servants to help Chaka. These are Malunga, “a beautiful and refined young man” whom Dingiswayo instantly recognizes as evil, and Ndlebe, a seeming half-wit (Chaka, p. 57). Dingiswayo forbids Malunga to remain in his village, but Ndlebe is allowed to stay and serves Chaka by unobtrusively observing everything and reporting the news back to Chaka. Malunga meets up secretly with Chaka during battles beyond the village boundaries and suggests tactics that increase Chaka’s renown as a warrior. Meanwhile, Chaka never speaks of Isanusi to either his mother or Dingiswayo, promotes the misconception that Ndlebe is a halfwit, and lies outright when asked about his relationship with Malunga.

Senzangakhona dies and Mfokazana assumes his father’s kingship, but Dingiswayo refuses to recognize Mfokazana as Senzangakhona’s rightful heir. Senzangakhona never informed Dingiswayo or his father, Jobe, of any change in the order of succession since the initial message that Chaka would be heir to the kingship. With the backing of Dingiswayo, Chaka battles his brother for the kingship and wins. Chaka further strengthens his ties to Dingiswayo through engagement to Dingiswayo’s favorite sister, Noliwa, a woman whose physical and moral perfection are the earthly image of “the beauty and profound love of [the] Creator” (Chaka, p. 71).

Soon thereafter, Dingiswayo is captured and held prisoner by an enemy king. Chaka hears of this and sends messengers to offer Dingiswayo’s captors anything they want in return for Dingiswayo’s life. But before these messengers reach the royal village, Malunga and Ndlebe spread the false rumor that Dingiswayo is already dead. Upon hearing this, the messengers abandon their mission, and as a result, Dingiswayo truly is killed. The people of Dingiswayo’s kingdom unhesitatingly offer the kingship to Chaka in return for his protection from the attacking armies of the enemy king. Chaka accepts and vanquishes the invading troops, his success due in part to the order he gives his troops to use their spears for stabbing instead of throwing.

With Dingiswayo out of the way, Isanusi returns to Chaka’s side and asks him if he is now satisfied or if he desires a kingship still greater than the one he currently has. Chaka replies that he desires the greatest kingship possible, though it be obtainable only through the terrible medicine that Isanusi claims it requires. This medicine is the blood of the person whom Chaka loves best, Noliwa. Chaka readily agrees to sacrifice his beloved, remarking that “in this world there isn’t anything I love other than kingship, war, and commanding armies” (Chaka, p. 102). Chaka himself must kill Noliwa for the medicine to be effective. He commits this deed in her house, as he caresses her by the fire, suddenly stabbing her in the armpit with a knitting needle. When her body is found, drained of blood, Chaka accuses Noliwa’s serving women of sorcery and has them executed, whereupon “the last spark of humanity remaining in him [is] utterly and finally extinguished in the terrible darkness of his heart” (Chaka, pp. 127-28).

In pursuit of greatness Chaka builds a royal city in which he institutes new customs and laws. On Isanusi’s advice Chaka shuns marriage and instead keeps a harem of women in his royal compound. He proceeds to have the children they bear him murdered so that there will be no heirs to challenge his kingship. He also forbids his troops to marry until they prove themselves with unusual bravery in battle or they reach middle age. Chaka leads his armies in attacks against neighboring kingdoms, capturing cattle and killing all the inhabitants. Among Chaka’s own soldiers, those who lose their spears, fail to capture an enemy spear, or flee the scene are mercilessly slaughtered when they return to the royal village. This is the means by which Chaka encourages bravery in battle. He goes on a violent rampage, attacking chiefdoms and villages without cause, spreading his kingdom as far as he can. Those who flee Chaka’s notorious armies descend upon neighboring villages in their flight, fighting the inhabitants for food and shelter. Mass migrations result and, as Chaka’s troops burn fields and steal cattle, mass starvation as well. Whole peoples are wiped out, and some turn to cannibalism as a result of the scourge of Chaka.

Eventually Chaka returns to manage the affairs of the royal city, and commands his troops to push the limits of his kingdom ever further. Without battle to satisfy his bloodlust, Chaka turns his aggressions against his own people, whom he kills for the slightest semblance of an infraction. Meanwhile, his troops begin to chafe under the harsh restrictions. Some defect to different kingdoms; others plot to overthrow the despot. As he observes these developments, he takes to executing anyone who seems to be overly popular among his troops. This injustice further fuels resentment against him. Nandi, who desires a grandchild, abducts a pregnant member of Chaka’s harem and hides the young woman until she gives birth. Although Nandi conceals the child from Chaka, he soon finds the infant, and when Chaka’s shadow falls upon his son, the child dies. Furious, Chaka murders his mother in the same manner as Noliwa.

Despite Chaka’s constant killing, the medicine within him cries out for more blood. To satisfy it, Chaka begins to murder his own people in droves, looking for any excuse to kill. Finally, he takes some troops just beyond the village and, through contrivance, manages to get them to kill one another. But even this is not enough. Chaka is plagued by horrible dreams and visions of the people he has killed. When he is in this weakened state his younger brothers, Dingana and Mhlangana, who have been plotting against Chaka for some time, attack him, stabbing their brother to death. Before he dies, Chaka tells his brothers that they will be thwarted in their desire for kingship when he is dead because “umlungu, the white man, is coming, and it is he who will rule you, and you will be his servants” (Chaka, p. 167). Chaka is not buried but left in the open fields for the wild beasts to devour. Even these, however, shun him; finally Dingana orders the intact corpse to be buried, lest Chaka rise again.

The individual vs. the collective in Chaka

In the novel, Chaka uses various strengthening medicines in the pursuit of power. As discussed above, such strengthening umuthi are an integral part of traditional Zulu medicine, in which they are used to counteract the many harmful substances that threaten to cause isifo, or disease. Zulus believe, however, that care must be taken that people who live together are strengthened at the same time, for if one comes into contact with someone who has been strengthened to a greater degree than oneself, one can become sick. Thus power, specifically an imbalance of power, is regarded by the Zulu as dangerous.


…They said Shaka [Chaka] would not rule,
Would not be king
Yet that was the very year Shaka inherited a life of comfort.

Ferocious one of the armies of Mbelebele
Who unleashed his fury within the large villages
So that till dawn the villages were tumbling over each other.

Fire of the dry tinder, of Mjokwane of Ndaba,
Fire of the dry tinder scorches fiercely….

(From Ushaka by Chakijana, Son of Msenteli,
Zulu praise-singer in Chaka, p. 119)

Umthakathi is a Zulu word for “power,” and it is also the word for “sorcery,” or the pursuit of power by harming others through magical means. Anyone can practice umthakathi, the most common method of which is the hiding of harmful umuthi in the environment of one’s intended victim. Those who practice sorcery only against their enemies or rivals are considered to be decent members of society in good standing—only their victims would regard them as evildoers. There are those, however, who are believed to practice umthakathi against everyone indiscriminately and without cause. These are known as “night sorcerers,” and they are born, according to Zulu belief, “with an evil heart” (Ngubane, p. 31). Night sorcerers are always men, and their umthakathi consists of hiding harmful substances in people’s homes as well as scattering them indiscriminately in public places. Those regarded as night sorcerers in Zulu society tend to be unusually successful and hence powerful men with a reputation for arrogance and selfishness.

Traditional Zulu society, and indeed traditional Nguni society, is highly cooperative. The institution of polygyny ensures that families are large, and that the individual exists within a web of relations to whom he is obligated and who are obligated to him. Nguni religion reinforces the value of community in its emphasis on pleasing the ancestors through behavior that furthers the survival and well-being of the group. The cooperation of age guilds to carry out the work of the group brings members of a generation together, and the marriage custom of lobola, wherein the groom’s family gives cattle to the family of the bride, creates a bond between pastoral clans because, as explained in Thomas Mofolo’s novel, “a head of cattle is a great uniter of people” (Chaka, p. 90).

Inevitably tensions arise between people, and in a collective culture in which everyone must cooperate, such tensions can be devastating. The Nguni regard antisocial behavior as the most egregious crime, and exile as the most extreme form of punishment. In this culture where seemingly nothing is achieved without a group effort involving both the living and the dead, it is no wonder that individual power is equated with sorcery and that individuals with power who also exhibit selfishness are regarded as evil. Power, like strengthening umuthi, must be shared or else it destroys the individual and the group. These attitudes towards power appear in Chaka. The key method Chaka employs in his pursuit of power is sorcery. Isanusi, a character invented by Mofolo, can be likened to a night sorcerer whose influence on Chaka is diabolical. Isanusi’s medicines strengthen Chaka, but Chaka can be strong only through the destruction of others, most notably Noliwa.

When Thomas Mofolo wrote Chaka in the early 1900s, his country of Basutoland was host to Christian missionaries who taught not only reading and writing but also Christian and European values—values that conflicted in many ways with the traditional values of the Basuto who are, like the Zulu, a Bantu people. The conflict was between a primarily individualistic culture and a primarily collective culture. Traditional Basuto religion, like traditional Zulu religion, focuses on pleasing the ancestors, whereas Christianity’s focus is salvation of the individual soul. Similarly, Basuto economic structure was based on barter and cooperation between members of large extended families while European economic structure was based on individual competition for monetary gain. In addition, the missionaries in Basutoland actively opposed certain collectivity-promoting African practices such as polygyny, age guilds, and ancestor veneration. Thus the unity of the Basuto people was being undermined at just the time when, as colonial powers laid claim to African territory, the Basuto most needed to present a united front.

The figure of Chaka, who helped exacerbate the tendency of chiefdoms to turn on one another, even as he turned troop against troop at the end of Thomas Mofolo’s novel, can be seen as emblematic of the disruptive forces threatening southern Africa at this time. He exemplifies the pursuit of personal power at society’s expense, a value promoted by Europeans in Africa and also evident in the African figure of the night sorcerer. Chaka’s pursuit of power brings the people together as “Zulus,” but this same power turns the people against one another in flight from Chaka’s depredations, even reducing them to the ultimate antisocial behavior, cannibalism. Chaka’s pursuit of power also allows him to achieve a great kingship, but it is a power very much identified with sorcery. Ultimately the power destroys him.

Mofolo’s Chaka is an outsider. Driven from his father’s clan, driven from his mother’s clan, he meets his end outside the walls of the village he himself built. In his outsider status Chaka resembles the Europeans, outsiders to African culture, who promoted among Africans the pursuit of individual power exemplified by Chaka and so inimical to the collectivity valued in traditional African society.

Sources and literary context

In the introduction to Chaka, Thomas Mofolo speaks about the novel’s relationship to fact: “I am not writing history, I am writing a tale, or I should say I am writing what actually happened, but to which a great deal has been added, and from which a great deal has been removed” (Chaka, p. xv). Though not a history, Chaka is a text woven with strands of historical tradition, both written and oral. Mofolo, who was born to Christian Basuto parents and educated in missionary schools in his native tongue, Sesotho, as well as in French, had access to several published histories of the Zulu, and much of Chaka tallies with the accounts in such works as The Diary of Henry Francis Fynn, written by a member of the Farewell trading party. In addition, before writing Chaka, Mofolo bicycled through Zululand, where he consulted the Zulu praise singer Chakijana, quoted in Chaka. He probably discussed the great Zulu king with other informants in Zululand as well. Mofolo must have also heard accounts of Chaka from the Basuto people of his community, for whom Chaka was an important historical figure; the novel follows recorded oral traditions about Chaka in many regards.


Since the early 1970s, September 24, the clay of Chaka’s death, has been celebrated as “Shaka Day” in the KwaZulu-Natal region of South Africa, former Zululand, where the memory of Chaka is evoked as a symbol of Zulu identity. On this day the current Zulu monarch addresses his subjects in speeches promoting Zulu nationalism.

In 1986 the South African television miniseries Shaka Zulu aired to millions of viewers. It told the story of Chaka’s interactions with the Farewell party, and was criticized by one reviewer as being “Shaka through White Victorian eyes” (Hamilton, p. 173). In 1988 a successful African hotel-chain established Shakaland, a “living museum to Zulu culture” built around one of the sets created for Shaka Zulu (Hamilton, p. 187). In Shakaland, visitors become guests in a re-creation of the homestead of Chaka’s father, Senzangakhona, where they are introduced to Zulu history and culture by actors portraying members of a traditional Zulu household.

Through the purely fictional elements of Chaka, one can trace the profound influence of Mofolo’s novel on subsequent treatments of the story of Chaka in poetry, drama, and fiction. For example, Mofolo invented the character Isanusi and his servants, Malunga and Ndlebe, as well as Chaka’s sacrificed beloved, Noliwa; Isanusi subsequently appeared in the Sengalese writer Léopold Sédar Senghor’s 1956 drama Chaka, in the Malian writer Seydou Badian’s 1961 The Death of Chaka, and in the Guinean writer Djibril Tamsir Niane’s 1971 Chaka. Some of the later African treatments of Chaka present a more favorable picture of the Zulu king, depicting him as the hero of the Zulu people who brought together the scattered clans. Other African treatments focus, as Mofolo’s novel does, on the corruption of power and ambition.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

Moshoeshoe and Basutoland

In Chaka, the Basuto chief Moshoeshoe is a minor character, a subject king who manages to stay on good terms with Chaka by sending him gifts of crane feathers. The real Moshoeshoe is a cultural hero who led his Nguni people to safety in the time of the mfecane, and established a haven for other people fleeing Chaka’s soldiers on the fortresslike slopes of Thaba Bosiu, the “Mountain of the Night.” In the early 1830s Moshoeshoe invited French Christian missionaries to come and educate his people, who would as a result become the most literate African people in southern Africa. Later, when Basutoland faced encroachment by Boer farmers (whites mainly of Dutch descent, now called Afrikaners), Moshoeshoe sought the protection of the British, who proclaimed Basutoland to be British territory in 1868. Basutoland, however, maintained its sovereignty in that the British followed a policy of “protection without control” (Spence, p. 15). The Basuto government was still in the hands of Basuto chiefs when Thomas Mofolo was writing Chaka in the early 1900s.

The French missionaries had, perhaps, a more profound influence on the Basuto than did the British government. They introduced writing and eventually established newspapers in the Basuto language, Sesotho. They set up schools throughout Basutoland, where, as discussed above, European values and the principles of the Christian faith were taught alongside reading and writing. The schools trained missionary-educated youths like Thomas Mofolo who became in some sense alienated from the culture of their ancestors but also became those who could most effectively challenge European encroachment on European terms.

Zululand and Chaka’s successors

Meanwhile in Zululand, the Zulu kingship had passed from Chaka’s brother Dingane to another son of Senzangakhona, Mpande, who in turn passed the kingship to his son, Cetshwayo. There were two groups of white settlers to contend with: those from Great Britain and the Boers. Under Dingane in 1838-39 the Zulu lost control of lands south of the Tukela River to the Boers, but remained a strong independent kingdom north of that river under first Mpande and then Cetshwayo. The British took over the colony of Natal from the Boers in 1845 and employed a policy of minimal interference in the Zulu kingdom’s affairs. After diamonds were first discovered in Africa in 1868, the British authorities began to push for a wider unification of the various southern African territories. To create a pretext for intervening in the Zulu kingdom, the British in 1878 made demands that an independent kingdom could not be expected to accept, culminating in the requirement that the Zulu military be dismantled. Cetshwayo refused. The Zulu troops, who possessed a minimal number of outdated firearms, managed to repel the first British attack, but were ultimately defeated in 1879. The British took Cetshwayo prisoner, disbanded his troops, and transferred control of the Zulu to a group of puppet chiefs who answered to the British. Cetshwayo managed to get his kingship back through a public-relations visit to London, but in exchange he would henceforth answer to British authorities. Soon thereafter, civil war erupted between different Zulu chiefdoms and clans during which King Cetshwayo died.

Cetshwayo’s son, Dinuzulu, succeeded his father and reigned from 1884 to 1913. Dinuzulu made an unsuccessful alliance with a group of Boer adventurers against the British. Captured by the British in 1887 and imprisoned for ten years, he was afterward demoted to district chief, though the Zulus still honored him as their unofficial king. During this period, drought and locusts combined to destroy some 90 percent of Zulu crops, while rinderpest, a livestock disease, killed some 90 percent of Zulu cattle. Then, between 1902 and 1904, the British government opened nearly half of what remained of Zululand to white settlement and use, and instituted a tax on the African population. Such pressures resulted in Zulu uprisings from 1906 to 1908, in which thousands of Zulus were killed and Dinuzulu was once more arrested and imprisoned. It may have been the witnessing of these events that inspired Thomas Mofolo to explore the beginnings of the Zulu nation that in the early 1900s was suffering so greatly.


The first printing press was established in Lesotho in 1861 by Christian missionaries, and missionaries still controlled Lesotho publishing in 1925, when Chaka was published. The reason for the lapse between the completion of Chaka in 1909 and its publication in 1925 is unknown, but given Thomas Mofolo’s sudden departure from Lesotho in 1910 and the reactions of some of the missionaries to the novel when it was eventually published, it seems that the author had some difficulty getting approval for Chaka. One missionary described Chaka as “an apology for pagan superstitions,” and exhorted his fellow missionaries to remember that “the literary value of a work should not make us forget the pernicious effects it can have” (Paris Evangelical Missionary Society in Lesotho, in Molema, p. 24). A similar critique appears in a letter to the editor of a Lesotho newspaper, which describes Chaka as “poison among the nation” that contains “fabrications” and reinforces the “misconceptions of people in darkness” (Thoahlane in Swanepoel, p. 151). Another Lesotho reader of Chaka, however, praised the book’s presentation of fact and found it to be “unforgettable even when one goes out to the fields” (Khoachele in Swanepoel, p. 152). This sentiment was echoed by a second Lesotho reader, who described Chaka as “a fine book, one that is entertaining, written with skill and with wide knowledge,” and who argued, “there is not the slightest danger that this book can cause to the nation” (Potsane in Swanepoel, p. 152).

Upon its translation into English in 1931, Chaka received praise principally for what one review described as “genuine insight into the mind and traditions of the African peoples as they were before the coming of the white man” (Times Literary Supplement in Knight, James, and Brown, p. 739). Reviewers of the time considered the literary value of the novel only secondarily, though in favorable terms, such as those in a review that proclaimed Chaka “a work of art” characterized by “virile and eloquent” writing (New Republic in Knight, James, and Brown, p. 739). It is perhaps this same “virile” quality that yet another review refers to as “crudity,” deeming the novel, nonetheless, to be “a work of genius” (New Statesman and Nation, in Knight, James, and Brown, p. 739).

—Kimberly Ball

For More Information

Ballard, Charles. The House of Chaka. Durban: Emoyeni Books, 1988.

Hamilton, Carolyn. Terrific Majesty: The Powers of Shaka Zulu and the Limits of Historical Invention. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Knight, Ian J. Warrior Chiefs of Southern Africa. Dorset: Firebird Books, 1994.

Knight, Marion A., Mertice M. James, and Dorothy Brown, eds. The Book Review Digest 1931. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1932.

Malaba, Mbongeni. “The Legacy of Thomas Mofolo’s Chaka.” English in Africa 13, no. 1 (May 1986): 61-69.

Mofolo, Thomas. Chaka. Trans. Daniel P. Kunene. Oxford: Heinemann International, 1981.

Molema, Leloba Sefetogi. The Image of Christianity in Sesotho Literature: Thomas Mofolo and His Contemporaries. Hamburg: Helmut Buske Verlag, 1989.

Ngubane, Harriet. Body and Mind in Zulu Medicine. London: Academic Press, 1977.

Spence, J. E. Lesotho: The Politics of Dependence. London: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Swanepoel, C.F. “The Leselinya Letters and Early Reception of Mofolo’s Chaka” South African Journal of African Languages 9, no. 4 (November1989): 145-53.

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