South Africa Shaka and the Rise of the Zulu State
Source: The Library of Congress Country Studies
Shaka Zulu was born in 1787, the illegitimate son of Senzangakona, chief of the Zulu clan. An outcast as a child, Shaka was brought up among a number of neighboring groups, finally ending with the Mthethwa where he distinguished himself as a skilled warrior in Dingiswayo's army. Dingiswayo was so impressed by Shaka that in 1816 he helped him become chief of the Zulu upon the death of Senzangakona. Among the Zulu, Shaka consolidated a number of military innovations--some developed by Dingiswayo, some dating back to the eighteenth century--to produce a powerful military machine. All young men were incorporated into age regiments and given military training. A short stabbing spear was introduced in addition to the traditional long throwing spears, giving Shaka's army an advantage in close combat. Military strategies, such as the "horn" formation by which Zulu regiments encircled their enemies, were perfected. When Dingiswayo was killed, Shaka with his military machine avenged his mentor's death, destroying the Ndwandwe in battle (two of Zwide's generals, Shoshangane and Zwangendaba, fled north and established kingdoms in present-day Mozambique and southern Tanzania, respectively). Shaka then incorporated the Mthethwa under his rule, and established the Zulu state as the dominant power among the northern Nguni.
By the mid-1820s, Shaka ruled a kingdom of more than 100,000 people with a standing army of 40,000 men. He centralized power in the person of the king and his court, collected tribute from regional chiefs, and placed regiments throughout his state to ensure compliance with his orders. These regiments also looked after the royal herds and carried out public works. Women, too, were incorporated into their own age regiments, which were paired with male regiments to provide food and other services for the soldiers. Shaka forbade members of these regiments to marry, however, until they had completed their military service. For men this meant their late thirties, and for women their late twenties. Only after marriage could men and women leave their regiments and set up their own homesteads.
Shaka fostered a new national identity by stressing the Zuluness of the state. All subjects of the state became Zulu and owed the king their personal allegiance. Zulu traditions of origin became the national traditions of the state. Customary Nguni festivals, such as planting and harvest celebrations, became occasions on which Shaka gathered vast numbers of his people and extolled the virtues of the state. Through such means, Shaka developed a Zulu consciousness that transcended the original identities and lineages of the various peoples who were his subjects.
During most of the 1820s, Shaka consolidated his power through a series of wars against neighboring peoples. His armies raided for cattle and food; they attacked any who challenged the authority of the Zulu monarch; and they extended the limits of Shaka's realm north to the borders of present-day Mozambique, west across the Drakensberg Mountains, and south to the margins of the area that would later become the Transkei homeland. He also welcomed British traders to his kingdom and sent diplomatic emissaries to the British king.
Shaka was assassinated at the height of his powers in 1828 and was succeeded by Dingane, his half-brother and one of the assassins. Dingane was a much less accomplished ruler than the founder of the Zulu state. His weak claim to the throne and his constant fear of assassination made him a despotic ruler. Dingane maintained the centralized and militarized organization of the Zulu state and sent his armies out on raiding missions. Victories, however, were few because of the growing strength of neighboring African kingdoms, and by the end of the 1830s Dingane's hold on power was being challenged by internal discontent and external threats.
Swazi, Sotho, and Ndebele States
Indeed, as a result of the mfecane , a series of states formed throughout southern Africa as people banded together to secure access to foodstuffs and to protect themselves from Zulu marauders. Sobhuza, leader of the Ngwane people to the north of the Zulu, built a defensive state that eventually took the name of his son and heir Mswati to form the basis of the modern Swazi nation, Swaziland. Sobhuza secured the boundaries of his state through a combination of diplomacy and force. He negotiated marriage alliances with Ndwandwe and later Zulu chiefs and cemented similar arrangements with his own chiefs. He paid tribute to the Zulu kings when he thought it necessary, but he also built a powerful army with which the Swazi were able to repel Dingane's incursions in the 1830s.
Moshoeshoe, another contemporary (b. 1786) of Shaka, forged a strong Sotho kingdom on the southern Highveld in the 1820s and 1830s. This kingdom became the foundation for the modern state of Lesotho. Moshoeshoe, seeking in the 1820s to protect his people from the worst ravages of the difaqane , fortified a large mesa, Thaba Bosiu, that proved impregnable to attack for decades thereafter. With this natural fortress as his base, he built a large kingdom, welcomed in particular refugees from famine and wars elsewhere, and provided them with food and shelter. These refugees, once incorporated into the state, were considered Sotho like their hosts; thus, as with the Zulu, ever larger numbers were integrated into a group with a consolidated ethnic identity, a practice that furthered the process of nation building. Moshoeshoe also sought to strengthen his kingdom militarily, especially by acquiring guns and horses from the Cape. A superb diplomat, he sought to maintain cordial relations with all his neighbors, even paying tribute on occasion to Shaka and seeking always to avoid war. Believing that they could act as emissaries on his behalf to the intruding European powers while also teaching his children to read and write, he welcomed French Protestant missionaries. By the mid-1830s, Moshoeshoe's kingdom comprised about 30,000 people and was the largest state on the southern Highveld.
A fourth major African state formed in South Africa during the 1820s and 1830s was the Ndebele state ruled by Mzilikazi. Mzilikazi had been a subject chief of Shaka, but in 1821 he had sought to demonstrate his independence by refusing to send tribute cattle to the king. Fleeing from a punitive force sent by Shaka, Mzilikazi and a few hundred followers crossed the Drakensberg Mountains and established a series of armed settlements on the Highveld. Raiding for cattle and grain and forcibly incorporating Sotho-Tswana people into his forces, Mzilikazi built a powerful kingdom in the 1830s near present-day Johannesburg and Pretoria.
Although the mfecane in many ways promoted the political development of southern Africa, it also caused great suffering. Thousands died because of famine and warfare, and thousands more were uprooted from their homes and were forced to travel great distances, many to become refugee laborers in the Cape who sought work at any wage. Perhaps the most significant result in terms of the future was that large areas of South Africa were temporarily depopulated, making it seem to Europeans that there were unclaimed lands in the interior into which they could expand.
Data as of May 1996
NOTE: The information regarding South Africa on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of South Africa Shaka and the Rise of the Zulu State information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about South Africa Shaka and the Rise of the Zulu State should be addressed to the Library of Congress.