The Zulu legendby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
Shaka Zulu was a fierce warrior, brilliant military strategist, Leader expecting complete fearlessness from his warriors, and a murderous ruler. The Zulu nation today still takes pride in this revolutionary leader, who carved out the Zulu empire from simple beginnings. But Shaka was also brutal and fearless. During his reign he would execute men at will. The constant wars Shaka engaged in and the arbitrary executions eventually led to his downfall, when he was stabbed to death by a half-brother.
At the time of Shaka's birth, chief Senzangakona the ruled by the Zulu nation of probably 10,0001. His betrothed wife, Nandi, became pregnant, but according to legend she claimed a certain intestinal beetle caused it. Soon Nandi gave birth to an illegitimate son, who was appropriately named Shaka, for beetle or parasite. In 1794 they were exiled to the Langeni.2 According to stories, Shaka and his mother were constantly fighting and disliked. Shaka began to display his aggressive character in his fights with other boys.3 When his mother married and bore a son Shaka left home to be protected by the ruler of the Mthethwa.
Shaka first served as a warrior under Dingiswayo in 1809, and quickly became distinguished as a fierce warrior. Recognizing Shaka's ability, Dingiswayo made him the commander of a regiment, and in 1816, became the Zulu chief.4
Shaka radicalized African warfare in order to conquer effectively; during that time warfare had not been very damaging. The opposing parties would line up against each other and hurl insults. Eventually they began to throw light spears, and after a few casualties were taken the armies retired. It was designed to raid cattle, not to conquer an enemy. By replacing the light throwing spear with the heavy, short, close quarters, stabbing spear called an assegi and adding improved cowhide shields to knock aside an enemies shield5, Shaka made battle significantly more deadly. Also Shaka redesigned the battle formation in order to capture the enemy and slaughter him completely. Using a formation similar to the Macedonian phalanx, the Zulu armies would form a "cow horn" formation in which the flanks of the enemy were surrounded by troops while a close-formation covered by cowhide shields advanced in the center.6 Shaka also enforced iron discipline on his troops. Having learned to run barefoot, Shaka trained his men to do the same in order to increase speed. Anyone who showed pain could be killed as a coward. To drop a warrior's assegi meant execution.7
Although Shaka was successful, Dingiswayo was still his overlord until the Mfecane. At this point the Ndwandwe defeated the Mtethwa and killed Ndwandwe. Shaka took advantage of the resulting confusion called Mfecane, or "time of troubles." Absorbing the Mthethwa into his Zulu army, Shaka defeated the Ndwandwe and successfully absorbed his enemies into his army or slaughtered them.8
Eventually, however, Shaka's control over his empire became stressed under Shaka's ruthless rule. Chieftains unhappy to join the Zulu nation were discontent. The constant war campaigns exhausted the people. When Shaka's mother, Zandi, died, Shaka mandated that the nation mourn for her. His Mother's death so grieved him that he killed a number of people because he thought they did not show enough grief in 1827. Fearing an heir might take his kingdom away from him, Shaka killed a number of pregnant women.9 An assistants surgeon who visited Shaka in 1824 wrote, "Meanwhile it became known to us that Shaka had ordered that a man standing near us should be put to death for what crime we could not learn: but we soon found it to be one of the common occurrences in the course of the day."10 Shaka's wanton murder eventually brought about his downfall.
Dingane and Mhlangana, Shaka's two half-brothers, assassinated Shaka in September 24, 1828 along with the help of Shaka's personal assistant.11 Thus ended Shaka's short yet radical 10-year reign that is still proudly celebrated by the Zulu people.
1 Wallace G. Mills , The Zulu Kingdom and Shaka , (April 17, 2004)
2 "Shaka," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2004 http://encarta.msn.com © 1997-2004 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
3 The Zulu Kingdom and Shaka
4 Robert W. July, A History of the African People New York, Waveland Press Inc. 1992
5 The Zulu Kingdom and Shaka
6 Robert W. July, A History of the African People New York, Waveland Press Inc. 1992
7 The Zulu Kingdom and Shaka
8 A History of the African People
9 Key Events in African history
10 Basil Davidson, African Civilization Revisited New Jersey, Africa World Press, Inc. 1991
11 "Shaka," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2004 http://encarta.msn.com © 1997-2004 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.