Shaka Zulu

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Shaka Zulu

[c. 1787–SEPTEMBER 24, 1828]

Founder of the Zulu Empire

Between the end of the eighteenth century and 1825, societies on the eastern coastal seaboard of southern Africa underwent a radical and violent political transformation. The cause of this upheaval remains obscure, but an established order of independent chiefdoms collapsed, to be replaced by a number of much larger, more militarily robust kingdoms. The most powerful of these was the Zulu state, which emerged under the leadership of King Shaka kaSenzangakhona. Shaka remains one of the most complex and controversial figures in southern African history, a man still revered as the founding father of his nation, a conqueror of extraordinary vision and political ability whose methods have nonetheless earned him the reputation of a brutal tyrant. A minor—and possibly illegitimate—son of Chief Senzangakhona of the small Zulu clan, Shaka grew up amid escalating social conflict and displayed an early talent for warfare. In 1816, following the death of his father, he assumed control of the Zulu and began a program of expansion. A charismatic and innovative military commander, Shaka introduced new forms of warfare that relied on close-quarter (hand-to-hand) combat and were highly destructive. By an astute mixture of extreme force and political acumen, Shaka had come, by 1824, to dominate most of the African groups in the present-day South African province of KwaZulu-Natal.

Beyond the immediate Zulu borders, groups dislocated by the violence spread the disruption across southern Africa. In the areas under his control, Shaka imposed new political structures in which the conquered chiefdoms became subordinate to a Zulu elite. Central to his authority was the army, in which young men from across the kingdom were required to serve in regiments under the direct control of Shaka himself. By carefully cultivating a warrior ethos, Shaka deliberately created a climate of discipline and obedience. The army was used both as a means of enlarging the kingdom and suppressing internal opposition. To enhance his base of support within the army, Shaka rewarded individuals who displayed conspicuous courage, but executed those accused of cowardice. Shaka himself presided over the military reviews that routinely followed successful campaigns, in which regimental commanders identified so-called cowards who were then publicly stabbed to death. King Shaka's reputation has undoubtedly suffered at the hands of the European colonial and apartheid regimes that displaced Zulu authority—and for whom Shaka became an emblem of savagery justifying white intervention. He certainly was autocratic and ruthless; however, the popular image of Shaka as personally bloodthirsty and psychotic is not supported by contemporary evidence, even though he made extensive use of terror as a political tool.

Executions for infringements of etiquette were a feature of daily life in Shaka's court. He condemned individuals on the spur of the moment and with a calculated insouciance for offenses such as sneezing when he was talking, or making him laugh when he wanted to be serious. Victims were usually clubbed to death and their bodies left in the veldt for the vultures, who became known throughout Zululand as "the king's birds." Although the number of individuals killed in this manner was probably small, it served not only to intimidate the opposition but also to invest the new Zulu monarchy with a terrifying aura of power. Political dissidents were isolated by accusations of witchcraft and executed, together with their families who were viewed as being tainted by association. The use of torture was still unknown at this time.

Nevertheless, so great were the political and social changes inherent in Shaka's revolution that it proved impossible to eliminate opposition entirely, and from 1824—when he survived an assassination attempt—Shaka became increasingly preoccupied with efforts to hold the kingdom together. When, in 1827, his mother Nandi died, he used his personal grief to mask the true motives behind an extensive political purge. Those who stood accused of breaking mourning taboos prescribed by Shaka himself were attacked and killed. One contemporary British observer estimated that, during the mass hysteria of the funeral ceremonies alone, as many as seven thousand people died from dehydration and exhaustion; although this statistic is probably an exaggeration, the loss of life was undoubtedly severe, and it fell heaviest on those groups who had remained unreconciled to Shaka's rule.

Shaka's attempts to secure his position were ultimately unsuccessful, however, for in September 1828 he fell victim to a coup orchestrated by members of his own family and was stabbed to death. He had ruled for just ten years, but helped to reshape the political geography of the region and left behind a complex and ambiguous legacy that associated political power with violence.

SEE ALSO South Africa; Zulu Empire


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Taylor, Stephen (1994). Shaka's Children. London: HarperCollins.

Ian Knight