The Story of Africa


- Zulu rise & Mfecane


- Oppression of Khoikhoi and Xhosa


- Afrikaners versus English


- Mining


- Imperial racism


- Apartheid


- The Cold War


- South African aggression


- Clinging on


- Collapse of Apartheid

Zulu Rise and Mfecane


The rise of Shaka

Zulu men
In the first two decades of the 19th century, the Zulu people grew in power and expanded their territory under their leader, Shaka. This expansion, was in some measure a response to drought, putting pressure on the Zulus to find new land.

In addition, the movement of Europeans into new territory, which was not theirs, contributed to a situation of flux of which the Zulus took advantage. However, the Zulu expansion and the defeat of rival Nguni kingdoms is hard to imagine without Shaka's hugely forceful personality and exacting military discipline.

Emperor Shaka the Great

From the tales of the war and their fame in Nguniland,
the Zulus knew how popular their fight was against Zwide.
Shaka, proud of these achievements and eager to encourage his army, addressed the regiment:

"Great nation of Zulu,
You have shown courage against a superior enemy.
The nations that spoke of you with contempt are chilled by your songs.
Kings and princes shiver in their little thrones.
Enemies flee to hide in the mountain caves."

The above excerpt celebrates Shaka's victory against King Zwide of the Ndwandwe Kingdom, in 1818 at the Mhalatuse River. Taken from Zulu epic poem, Emperor Shaka the Great, translated by Mazisi Kunene, drawing on a number of Zulu oral historians.

Shaka created a standing army of 40,000 warriors, made up of regiments separated out into age groups. The communities he defeated were plundered for cattle and grain. These attacks were not free for alls, with Zulu soldiers taking what they wanted, but highly organised raids, with all the booty becoming the property of Shaka.

Effects of Zulu expansion

  • The Ngwane moved northwards in response to form the Swazi kingdom.

  • The Ndwandwe also went north to establish the Gaza kingdom.

  • The Ndebele moved in 1840 to what is now south western Zimbabwe.

  • Mfecane 1817-1828

    More destruction was caused by those whom Shaka defeated, than by his own forces. Such was the case of the Hlubi and the Ngwane. Bereft of all social order, these refugees took to looting and pillaging wherever they went. They reduced the landscape in the Natal and much of the Orange Free State into a wasteland. This period of change became known as the Mfecane, which is said to derive originally from a Zulu word meaning "crushing". For the past ten years the word and ideas behind it have aroused much debate and argument.

    Many South African historians now believe that Europeans, and slave traders in particular, played a much larger part in upheaval in the region in the first quarter of the 19th century than was previously thought, and that too much emphasis has been put on Shaka's impact.

    The black south African writer and journalist Sol Plaatje wrote movingly about this period after Shaka's death, in a novel. Entitled Mhudi, it focussed on the Ndebele defeat of the Barolong in the 1830s. This is believed to be the first novel written in English by an African.

    The advance of Ndebele

    "Mzilikazi's tribe (the Ndbele) originally was a branch of the Zulu nation which Shaka once ruled with an iron rod. Irritated by the stern rule of that monarch, Mzilikazi led out his own people who thereupon broke away from Shaka's rule and turned their faces westward.

    Sweeping through the northern areas of Port Natal, they advanced along both banks of the Vaal River, driving terror into man and beast with whom they came into contact.

    They continued their march very much like a swarm of locusts; scattering the Swazis, terrifying the Basuto and Bapedi on their outposts; they drove them back to the mountains at the point of the assegai; and, trekking through the heart of the Transvaal, they eventually invaded Bechuanaland where they reduced the Natives to submission."
    - Taken from Sol Tshekisho Plaatje's book Mhudi.

    Other people profited from the chaos, and new kingdoms arose, notably the kingdoms of Gaza and Swaziland. The Sotho under the canny leadership of King Moshoeshoe, retreated to the mountain of Thaba Bosiu. Here he built a mountain kingdom (modern Lesotho) that was easy to defend against invaders.

    He also cultivated the friendship of missionaries as a way of purchasing guns and horses. But he remained in danger of being swallowed up by the Afrikaners of Natal Province. For this reason, he agreed to become a Protectorate under the British (Basotholand), forfeiting some of his land in the process.

    ^^ Back to top Back to Index >>