Undoubtedly, Shaka Zulu is one of the most revered and studied South African Leader. While after his death many decades ago, his shadow and figure still hover around both in South Africa and beyond. Even the contemporary tribesmen as well as people around the world have been astounded by the deeds and the figure of Shaka Zulu. There is a growing trend across the globe to lionize Shaka both as a political figure and as an indispensable warrior (Taylor, 1995). The popular culture and the media have greatly contributed to this particular appeal. South Africans and the world at large continue to celebrate this one time great man; the praises must be balanced against all the destructions and the devastation he caused his enemies, both perceived and real. To his tribesmen and indeed to most South Africans, Shaka Zulu is not only an inspirational figure but also a revered leader that stood firm against the enemy and protected his tribesmen from harm. Indeed Taylor (1995) notes that particular aspects of Zulu traditional culture still recognize and celebrate the deeds of Shaka Zulu. It is against this background that this paper seeks to find out whether the personality cult inherent in the Zulu culture today was inspired by the deeds of Shaka Zulu as an unassailable political and military leader.
Shaka Zulu (1787-1828) born out of wedlock, was the son of Chief Senzangakhona and Nandi, the daughter of a chief Bhebhe of the Elangeni tribe. Having been born out of wedlock, research reveals that Shaka Zulu was rejected by his father and therefore, spent most his childhood living in his mother’s settlements in the neighboring tribes (Morris, 1994). Historical accounts suggest that it was during his life with his mother that he was initiated and inducted into the fighting unit (known locally as ibutho lempi) (Hamilton, 1998). This accorded him the opportunity to serve as a warrior for the neighboring tribes under the stewardship of the local chieftain Mthethwa and Dingiswayo whom had strong regiments in their tribes (Morris, 1994). Shaka Zulu particularly owed a lot to Dingiswayo as the chieftain formed a cordial relationship with him that eventually helped him learn a lot under the tutelage of the chief. For instance, it is proved that Shaka Zulu’s best chance to learn war tactics came when Dingiswayo incorporated the age group that Shaka belonged to in the regiment called Izichwe. Shaka Zulu also served under Mthethwa for almost ten years; however, he never got an opportunity to rise through the ranks to be considered as a legend by his peers, although he had an outstanding courage and prowess as a warrior (Hamilton, 1998).
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The strong regiments built by Dingiswayo (who at some point had been exiled for attempting to overthrow his father) alongside other militant groups that emerged in the region during this time were greatly important. According to Morris (1994), most of this groups emerged to respond to the growing pressures of slavery in Southern Mozambique. It was these groups, which contributed to the development of new ideas of social and military organization, commonly known as ibutho (regiment). Although these regiments were mostly made up of age-based labor groups, they nevertheless incorporated some military activities. Hamilton (1998) notes that while most battles during this period were associated with settling of disputes, the structures of the fighting units (regiments) largely changed the nature of warfare sometimes. However, the regiments were largely used as instruments for political coercion and seasonal raiding as opposed to outright destruction and slaughter that later emerged. The relationship between Dingiswayo and Shaka was of great importance as it was under Dingiswayo that Shaka Zulu sharpened his courage and skills as a warrior (Morris, 1994). Shaka Zulu remained Dingiswayo’s loyalist for a long time and upon the death of his father Senzangakhano, he assumed the seat of his father with the help of his friend Dingiswayo. Upon becoming the chief, Shaka Zulu embarked on refining the regiments similar to those of Dingiswayo which later emerged to be one of the strongest in the entire region as was evident by the number of conquests and brutality of the Zulu warriors (Taylor, 1995).
Shaka Zulu’s Influence
The history of South Africa as a country can never be complete without the mentioning of Shaka Zulu and the Zulu people. Zulu tribe is one of the most prominent tribe in South Africa today, thanks to the heroic deeds of Shaka Zulu (at least according to his admirers). Zululand emerged during the period when the tribes of the Southern Part of Africa were scrambling for land, cattle, and power. Majority of these tribes had settled on the mountainous northern parts of the present day South Africa. The Movement shifted to the lands in the south and largely formed parts of the present day South Africa. As the tribes struggled to control most of the essential resources in this region, Zulu emerged under the leadership of Shaka Zulu as one of the strongest and powerful kingdoms; however, Zululand was never known to be so powerful, until Shaka Zulu took over power (Taylor, 1995). The leadership prowess of Shaka Zulu brought Zululand into the limelight as a prominent and powerful kingdom. Shaka Zulu could have been an illegitimate son of the chief of the Zululand but he emerged to demonstrate strong leadership that helped in elevating the Zulu tribe to a powerful Zulu kingdom. Shaka Zulu was not only cunning but also ruthless in containing revolt and destroying his enemies’ .The beginning of personality cult among the Zulu people could have begun when Shaka assumed the position of power. Not only did this tribe emerge from its hitherto inferior position among major tribes, but Zululand has remained strong and prominent to date, always reminding Shaka Zulu’s contemporaries and South African in general about his heroics deeds (Hamilton, 1998).
Shaka Zulu’s influence has continued to be felt later after his death. He not only set the precedent of how his tribesmen understood the powerful central authority in their lives but he instilled in everyone the unconscious comprehension of the position of a king and his authority. Moreover, presently in South Africa, a large number of people from Zululand recognize and understand the position and the authority of Shaka Zulu, as a king, despite the fact that the new democracy in the country has rendered monarchy unimportant and relatively irrelevant (Taylor, 1995). Indeed, the personality cult that could have begun during the reign of Shaka Zulu as the king has persisted to this day as the events in the current political environment in South Africa would attest. According to Carton, Laband, & Sithole (2009), the current president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma is a Zulu and on numerous occasions (especially in the run up to the previous election) turned to his people (tribesmen) so as rise to power. The influence of President Jacob Zuma can only be equated to that of Shaka Zulu. As Louise (2009) notes, even when President Jacob Zuma was faced with rape and corruption charges during the reign of his predecessor, President Thabo Mbeki, he was still a hero among his tribesmen, and was nominated when the election came. President Jacob Zuma’s reverence and respect as a leader in South Africa is not surprising; however, he owes his unwavering support of his tribesmen to Shaka Zulu. Shaka Zulu’s influence has been surprisingly great, many decades after his demise. Indeed, Shaka inculcated the culture of personality cult not only among his people but also within South Africa as a country and his influence has left a lasting effect on how the Zulus and South Africans understand their leaders and those in authority.
Undoubtedly, Shaka Zulu is singly respected for showing great leadership when he united his tribesmen under a single culture and language that has transcended both time and space. Like most African tribes, the Zulu were not born in their present land. Their journey started from the north to the south as they sought fertile land and pasture for their cattle (Morris, 1994). The Zulu tribe was among the many tribes that originated from the northern part to the present day South Africa. According to historical accounts, all the tribes that migrated to the south traced roots to a single great ancestor called Malandela who was once famous and respected many centuries ago (Taylor, 1995). However, the Zulu tribe took the name of Malandela’s second son. During these early periods, male dominance was the order of the day in the African societies and most tribes were known to believe in ancestor worship (Hamilton, 1998). According to Taylor (1995), the first sons were highly respected and would inherit their fathers’ lands as well as power. On the other hand, the last sons were expected to support and follow the leadership of their elder brothers and if they became too ambitious, they would be killed or ostracized by the tribe. It is important to note that having traced their origin to the chief’s second son; the Zulu were not only inferior and weak before other major tribes in the region but were not able to stand up against the other tribes in any war. As Taylor (1995) puts it, the Zulus were all along referred to as "you who came from a dog's penis" to emphasize their inferiority.
Ironically, being illegitimate son of the chief, Shaka was also regarded as inferior and weak by his peers and everyone, include those from the neighboring tribes. Shaka Zulu was regarded as the useless son of the hapless Senzangakhona and poor Nandi. In the traditional African society, it was not only rare to hear of a women becoming pregnant while still single, pregnancy was a big disgrace to the woman and her child (Taylor, 1995). After learning of his new wife’s pregnancy, chief Senzangakhona drove Nandi and her son away and they took refuge in neighboring tribes as there was no one who wanted anything to do with them, including her family. Historical accounts point that, Nandi had to move from one tribe to another most of the time as a result of the humiliation they were subjected to (Hamilton, 1998). Shaka Zulu particularly suffered in the hands of his peers who teased him for being the illegitimate son of the chief. Interestingly, these experiences hardened him and he found relief after joining the military and becoming a great warrior. He rose to command position fast enough due to his fearlessness and great skills. He soon assumed the position of chieftaincy after the demise of his father, a position that put him in direct control of all the affairs of the tribe including making the decision of when to go for war (Morris, 1994).
Shaka Zulu has been portrayed in many literatures as a brutal tyrant who commissioned many deaths and destructions during his reign as a king (Morris, 1994; Hamilton, 1998). Being termed as a fearless warrior is no doubt; however, his tyranny was as a result of his childhood experiences in the hands of his peer and others who looked down upon him and his mother. Besides his brutally, there is a good side of Shaka Zulu that perhaps put him ahead of his peers, as one of the most revered and respected leaders whose shadows still linger on in South Africa. Shaka Zulu’s immediate task after taking over power was to reshape the Zulu tribe into a more powerful group that could be respected by other major tribes. He decided that a standing army consisting of many regiments and the use of the assegai (the main weapon among the Zulu) as a sword and not as a spear would be the first step in building a powerful tribe. To emphasize his intention of building a strong and powerful tribe, he threatened his tribesmen with death, should anyone of them lose his assegai (Taylor, 1995). While his tactic for close quarters combat proved costly later on when they were faced by gun-trotting Europeans, Shaka Zulu laid a strong foundation for the Zulu’s rise to kingdom .These new tactics were put to use when Shaka ordered offensive attacks on many neighboring tribes where buildings were burnt and children and women were killed. The motives of these attacks were to make a strong point that the Zulus were no longer weak and inferior to the other tribe. Apart from attacking the neighboring tribes for the purposes of conquest, Shaka Zulu was on a revenge mission, considering that his mother and he faced humiliation. With regards to the Zulu people, Shaka was like a hero since he brought back the dignity and the pride of his tribesmen after many years of playing second fiddle to the other major tribes (Hamilton, 1998).
While Shaka Zulu’s most notable good deeds are always had to seen by an outsider, behind his military conquests and ruthlessness were many positive deeds that compelled his people to revere him until now. His most outstanding achievement was the ability to unite his conquests with his tribe into a single kingdom of common culture, language, and religion (Taylor, 1995). As a result, he laid the groundwork for a single entity called the Zulu people. Although it was probably not his primary aim that this unit survives his time, the common culture and language in the Zululand, echoes the works of Shaka Zulu. After conquering the rival tribes, he recruited the men from such tribes into the Zulu’s standing army and stripped the chiefs of their power by assuming such powers (Morris, 1994). For instance, the tribal chiefs were ordered never to recruit warriors under their chiefdom, preside over harvest celebrations, or to settle any dispute. In other words, under the new Zulu, the local chiefs were rendered ceremonial with Shaka Zulu assuming single central authority (Taylor, 1995). The rapid rise of Shaka Zulu both as a religious and political leader catapulted him to a position where no man could stand up against him. For his people, Shaka Zulu was not only a hero comparable to none, he was (and still is) a savoir. The notion instilled by Shaka during his reign that a leader is a hero and a savoir to his people has continued to echo in the local politics and cultural practices in South Africa (Carton, Laband, & Sithole, 2009).
While Shaka Zulu could be faulted for his brutality and ruthlessness, his achievement of creating a broadly based society outlasted his reign. According to Taylor (1995), a broadly based society is only achievable when the customs and taboos of individual clans and tribes are broken down. Shaka Zulu must have had this knowledge as was evident in his political conquest endeavors. In building the greater Zulu kingdom, he incorporated the ‘favorite’ customs of individual tribes and extended their practices in the entire Zulu kingdom. He not only united his people under a common language but also adopted new and favorable customs from different tribes that favored his nation-building efforts.
It is important to note that under the reign of Shaka Zulu, all the people were bound by his laws. Shaka Zulu word was law and few people dared stand to up against him. However, while some of his deeds were not pleasing at all even to his most ardent followers, the Zulu people generally accepted his strong and powerful central leadership. Probably his most prominent legacy was his ability to bring together different and rival tribes where common culture and language would define their future. Similarly, Shaka Zulu’s rise to power and later the development of a strong central authority, instilled in his people a burning desire for a strong and powerful monarch. With Shaka Zulu, the notion of personality cult started creeping in and has persisted to date (Taylor, 1995).
While much of the unity brought about by Shaka Zulu during his reign dissipated after his death, it is important to note that he had instilled unwavering loyalty to the people who considered him as a hero. The Zululand faced real test after the demise of Shaka Zulu when the Europeans invaded their lands and waged war (Morris, 1994). The Zulu warriors were horrendously defeated due to the superiority of the British weapon and as a result of their poor tactics (Hamilton, 1998). Although Shaka Zulu was brutal at times, he was largely a great leader and his immediate successors could not match his leadership qualities. They were equally brutal; however, the Zululand disintegrated under their leadership when the Europeans invaded South Africa and started inciting the indigenous tribes against each other (Hamilton, 1995). However, despite this failure, the desire among the Zulu people for a more powerful central figure never wavered long after the death of Shaka Zulu.
This legacy has transcended time and population and has even been unconsciously demonstrated in South Africa politics today. With regards to the treatment of the current President Jacob Zuma, it can rightly be said that the Zulu people celebrate and revere their leaders despite their shortcomings. Anybody would have expected the Zulu people to turn away from President Zuma when he faced rape and corruption charges, but the whole Zululand steadfastly remained behind him. While it could be argued that the citizen’s support is merely driven by ethnicity, the Zulu people view that President Zuma is an unassailable warrior and strong figure that the whole community can look up to, undertones the powerful Shaka Zulu’s rule. The institution of the king among the Zulu faced a great challenge when the British and the Boers descended on the Zululand in the post Shaka Zulu era. Apart from putting the rival tribes against each other, the colonial powers tried very hard to reduce the powers of the king by transferring some his powers to the ceremonial chiefs. The colonial powers used several tactics to disrupt the unity of the Zulu people and they succeeded in disintegrating the tribes; however, the Zulu people have never wavered in looking up to certain individuals they consider heroes in their land. The institution of the Shaka Zulu, for instance, has survived the political turmoil of the Zulu-British war, the apartheid era, and the modern democracy in South Africa.