An introduction to the History of the amaNdebele

Of the many great events of pre-colonial history in Southern Africa, perhaps the most dramatic has been the rise and dispersal of the Nguni line of the Bantu family. Several branches of this family exist, but of those that broke away from the main rootstock, and established satellite communities beyond the borders of South Africa, there are three. These are the Gaza people, or the Shangaan, who at one time ruled, and still currently occupy, a large swathe of what is at present Moçambique, the Angoni, or Ngoni, who at present reside in the modern nation state of Malawi, and the Matabele, or amaNdebele, the main branch of which now occupy the southern half of modern day Zimbabwe.

This is the story of the rise of militarism among the Bantu people of southern Africa, and in particular the ascent of the amaNdebele branch that emerged as the most powerful and influential of the Nguni fugitive groups. The story begins with the genesis of the Bantu race itself, a migrant line from west/central Africa that over the course of millennia succeeded in permeated and settling most of the sub-Saharan region. How, why and according to what timeframe this process took place is all still more a matter of guesswork than science. It is generally agreed however that the development of advanced agricultural and iron-working techniques sometime around 3000BCE made possible a more effective occupation of areas of diverse climate and ecology. This, over successive millennia, saw the Bantu race expand its influence from the Niger Delta region into the Congo Basin, the lakes of the Great Rift Valley, and progressively south until by the latter half of the last millennium it had penetrated the sub-continent south of the Zambezi River.

In the meanwhile, and as the Bantu races began to approach the southernmost quarter of the continent, a drifting spore of European settlement took root at the Cape. In 1652 a Dutch sea captain by the name of Jan van Riebeeck landed a small flotilla of ships at the Cape of Good Hope, arriving under instructions from the Dutch East India Company, or the Verenide Ooste-indische Compagnie, to establish a victualing station to supply passing ships bound for the Dutch colonies of the Far East. As this most tentative of settlements gained strength the vanguard of the migrating Bantu was gradually filling the highveld and the hinterland of South Africa, forming out of a mobile and homogenous mass the diversity of languages and ethnicity that makes up South Africa today.

In order to simplify what was in fact a highly complex demographic event it is necessary to picture the broad topography of the southern African as it might have appeared to an ambulatory wave of migrants. From the Limpopo River southwards the landscape of South Africa spreads out in a largely uniform and unbroken manner until out of the long coastal escarpment emerges the great obstacle of the Drakensberg Mountains, or uKhahlamba. This had the broad effect of dividing the southward flow into two groups. The first, that which became known as the Basutho branch of the Bantu family, veered west onto the high plains of the interior, while the second, the Nguni branch, moved eastwards onto the coastal littoral.

The Nguni continued their progress southwards until by the late 18th century they had begun to make contact with European settlers and farmers pioneering northwards from the Cape. These were a hybridised people known collectively as the Boer who had evolved from the rootstock of early Dutch and Huguenot immigrants to the Cape. They were individualistic in outlook, mistrustful of authority, religious in character and driven by a hunger for land.

It was here that the great migration southwards of the Bantu abruptly ended. A backwash of pressure on land and resource unsettled the population and introduced hitherto unknown political stresses. To this was added the influence of an emerging hierarchy of leaders that had begun to accumulate wealth and influence through internal political changes boosted by trade with the Portuguese. Merging centres power formed and coagulated to oppose others doing the same, while of course among the general population choices had to be made and sides drawn. A series of droughts and poor harvests added to the discomfiture, with food soon becoming as important a factor in deciding allegiance as protection. All in all the pieces were in place for a defining event of some sort to give form and structure to the new realities of Bantu life.

The first commanding figure to emerge from out of this cauldron of change was Dingiswayo, Chief of the Mthethwa clan and paramount leader to a large confederacy of subject groups. The popular version of Dingiswayo’s chronicle is that he was driven into exile as a youth during which time he absorbed two vital lessons. The first was in trade through an association with Basutho merchants moving between the interior and the coast, and the second was in imperial politics and military philosophy through a chance encounter with the first geographic expedition sent north from the Cape to explore the interior. Upon succeeding to the throne of the Mthethwa he used a grasp of these two principals to expand his power and influence. To this end he used diplomacy and patronage whenever possible, but he was willing and able to deploy a strong military formation to reinforce his diplomacy whenever he needed to.

In this way armed force began to play an increasingly important, although still not central role in the rise of the Mthethwa Confederacy, and it was not until Dingiswayo was succeeded by his pupil and friend Shaka kaSenzangakhona that the full militarisation of the state began to solidify. Shaka was one of those brilliant but disturbed and scarred personalities that have littered the great battlefields of history. He was Alexander to Dingiswayo’s Phillip, and Patton to Dingiswayo’s Pershing. Nurtured in the armed forces of the Mthethwa, it was not long before his own innate command sensibility and visionary view of warfare began to bloom.

Born the illegitimate son of a minor local chieftain, Shaka Zulu suffered rejection and exile from an early age. His closest relationship throughout his life was with his mother, which resulted in a somewhat obsessive adoration, and which in turn perhaps contributed to persistent rumours of sexual inadequacy and homosexuality that have tended to follow Shaka throughout the evolution of his historical record. It is very likely that some kind of deep seated psychosis played a part in Shaka’s physiological make up, which in combination with many other factors – not least an obsessive hunger for power and an Napoleonic military genius – to produce a personality of magnified brilliance and terrifying cruelty.

The vehicle of Shaka’s rise to power was the minor seat of the Zulu clan that in 1816, upon the death of his father, he claimed more by force than recognition. Then, with a minimal compliment of available men, he set about applying his particular philosophy of military organisation. This effective revolution in military doctrine was driven home with levels of discipline that at times appeared to be homicidal. The degree of obedience and cohesion that he achieved through these methods however was absolute, and the small Zulu army was quickly honed to a point of unqualified precision.

Thereafter Shaka tested his capacity with a series of minor campaigns that brought into the Zulu sphere of influence a handful of smaller clans from which fresh manpower were drawn. These were duly inducted into the military under a new system of compulsory service, savagely drilled upon pain of death and organised into units and regiments under professional and competent command. As he was finding his feet, however, Shaka was careful to maintain his allegiance to Dingiswayo, and territory and booty captured were always obediently handed over. Shaka at that point had neither the strength nor the gumption to challenge Dingiswayo, and although the older man was always careful to gauge the growing power of his protégé, he was also not unhappy to allow Shaka leeway to dominate his northern frontiers as a buffer against a rival Nguni paramount.

Zwide ruled the powerful Ndwandwe confederacy that occupied a swathe of territory north of the Black Umfolozi River. History has tended to paint Zwide in colours of duplicity and treachery which is perhaps not altogether fair in the context of the times, although he was arguably the less militarily powerful of the two great regional leaders, and certainly he lacked Dingiswayo’s diplomatic flair and charisma. A shifting balance of power existed between the two that over the course of a number of military campaigns was never materially altered, and it only reached a climax when Dingiswayo was tricked by Zwide into capture and execution.

Shaka and his Zulu army had not been involved in this particular campaign, but when he received word of Dingiswayo’s capture Shaka quickly mobilised his army and set off northward to lend his weight to Dingiswayo’s release. He arrived too late, however, and upon learning of the paramount’s death, and seeing the disintegration of the Mthethwa army, he retreated rather than engage. He however quickly assumed command of the Mthethwa army and projected himself thus into the role of paramount chief in the shoes of Dingiswayo. Most of the Mthethwa had been trained, but they were given additional training to the newly established Zulu standards, and were then formed into or appointed to existing regiments. Shaka’s principal objective at that point was to crush Zwide and the Ndwandwe Confederacy in order to establish his own unchallenged dominance of the two major branches of the Nguni. This then set the stage for what has often been called the Zulu Civil War of 1917/19.

Two battles were subsequently fought between a now vitalised Zulu army and a newly enervated Ndwandwe force flush with victory. The first of which, the Battle of Gqokli Hill, was indecisive, but the second, the Battle Mhlatuze River, concluded dramatically in the favour of the Zulu. The Ndwandwe army was broken up and scattered allowing the Zulu to reach the Ndwandwe capital before news of the defeat had reached Zwide. Zwide was able to escape but remained only briefly a fugitive before being captured and killed. Shaka in the meanwhile ordered a salutary slaughter of the Ndwandwe population, absorbing as he did the survivors into the Zulu confederacy, and allowing only a handful of fugitive generals to flee with their surviving regiments to begin the dispersal of the Nguni northwards into the interior.