It has often been proved by history that the formula for greatness lies in being born in the right place and at the right time, and such was certainly the case with Mzilikazi kaMashobane. Mzilikazi was a man whose particular symmetry of violence, statesmanship and ambition might easily have been consigned to irrelevance had his birth occurred either a century earlier or a century later. Such also had been the case with Shaka Zulu, whose rise to power and infamy was catalysed primarily by the nature of his times, times for which he has often been cited as the cause, but was in fact simply the effect.

It is also true that as despots and tyrants flower in the soil of anarchy there is rarely ever space for two to co-exist. This has been proven time and again, and in modern times it has been confirmed repeatedly in the turbulent theatre of African politics. Mzilikazi was born too late to utilise the same circumstances as Shaka, so he could not exist for long in the same sphere. It is also arguable whether he would have achieved what he did had it not been for Shaka’s example. He would use precisely the same military doctrines, and enforce the same methods of terror and totalitarianism, so he can never be regarded as the founder of the southern African military state, but he was a brilliant pupil, and one of the greatest of Africa’s magnificent sons despite this fact.

Mzilikazi was three years younger than Shaka, and was born into the happier circumstances of a marriage between a minor chieftain of the Khumalo (Hyrax) Clan and the daughter of Zwide, the powerful Ndwandwe regent.[i] His youth followed the usual Bantu pattern of induction into an age group, or guild, the iButho, in which he would have progressed through the usual hierarchy of herding sheep and goats, and then cattle as he grew older, looking forward all the while to initiation into manhood and the inherited rights of a nominal aristocrat in a largely peaceful society.

Such might have been the likely pattern of his existence had not the gradual militarisation of Nguni society overtaken him, and had he not been sucked into the gathering centrifuge of expanding Zulu power. As a nominal clan the Khumalo were confronted with the same basic choices as all the other tribes and sub-tribes of the region, and upon the eve of the Zulu Civil War Mzilikazi defected with his people from the Ndwandwe to the Zulu, making a difficult but shrewd choice under the circumstances. Once under the wing of Shaka he accepted the dual role of sub-chief of his Khumalo Clan under overall Zulu domination, and the rank of military commander of the two Khumalo regiments that emerged from the submission of his people to Zulu military service.

For many others in his position that might have been the end of it. War became a style of life, and reasonable prospects existed for those that could display resilience and a practical aptitude for violence. A powerful bond began to form under the name of Zulu that linked the various subject groups under an alliance of violence and blood that seemed in many ways to appeal to the taste of the masses. Shaka’s experiments in tactics and cohesion worked very well, and from it a nation was born, but a nation that held mixed blessings for men of exceptional gifts. Obviously vital, courageous and intelligent commanders were the life blood of the Zulu military structure, but equally those that were too courageous, too vital and too intelligent might rise too high, standing then an excellent chance of annihilation. It was necessary for sub-chiefs and commanders to balance a high standard of service and discipline with a complete abandonment of individual thought or action. It is not difficult from this to imagine what kind of an individual came to be recognised as Zulu, and also how limiting and frustrating this would have been to a man of wit, imagination and intellectual vitality such as Mzilikazi.

Mzilikazi did enjoy one important advantage over his peers however, and this was that he and Shaka somehow became close friends. There would of course have been limits to the scope for expressing this friendship, but a kinship of interest in war and military tactics would have been a good start, and no doubt Shaka approved of Mzilikazi’s physicality, athleticism and personal aggression, all of which blended very well with the emerging Zulu self image of the time. Mzilikazi was also reputed to be light hearted, humorous and easily amused, which to a man like Shaka, nurtured as he had been on a lifetime of isolation and fear, was bound to be an intoxicating combination.

In the meanwhile, and in the aftermath of the war, Shaka settled his Royal Kraal at his old home of Bulawayo, The Place of Slaughter, and began to consolidate his enlarged paramountcy. This meant much work for his fighting men and generals, among them Mzilikazi and the Khumalo regiments. Shaka soon therafter moved his headquarters to a site named Gibixegu near the present day settlement of Eshowe where Mzilikazi remained close at hand until about 1822 after which he was despatched from the capital to rejoin his own people in their traditional homeland of Ngome in the hills north of the Black Umfolozi.

There Mzilikazi remained militarily active, continually raiding north and northwest into the fringes of Basutho country. He was responsible for the return of large hauls of booty, mainly in the form of cattle, which were channelled back into the royal herd as the laws of war and acquisition demanded. From cattle captured in battle it was customary for Shaka to make his own selection, after which what remained was returned as a reward for victory to the clan or regiment that had won them. This was one of the central and unimpeachable doctrines of Zulu life, and a refinement of the ancient Bantu economy wherein cattle had long formed the central pillar. More than this though was a strong emotional and symbolic bond that the nation enjoyed with its herd. The question of the offering of all captured cattle to the king was bound up in the symbolism of power and central control, acting both as the de facto national treasury and the sceptre of office.

Thanks to Mzilikazi’s favoured status, his general aptitude for war and the gathering strength of the Khumalo he would have enjoyed more wealth from this system than most, and more latitude in how and under what terms he governed his particular prefecture. It is at this point however that the story of Mzilikazi’s life takes what might be regarded as an inevitable turn. At some point during the course of his raiding he returned to Ngome where he deliberately held back a large haul of captured cattle. A number of these were then slaughtered and victory celebrations held while Shaka was left wondering in Gibixegu what might be the source of the delay. With unusual restraint he gave Mzilikazi ample time to rectify the oversight before sending a pair of envoys to Ngome to make formal inquiry. These were greeted at Mzilikazi’s kraal with unprecedented discourtesy, shorn of their accoutrements and returned home empty handed.

Without documentary records from which to draw any clear inferences on the specifics of why and how this happened, the circumstances remains uncertain. Popular telling of the tale suggests that it was the reckless act of an impetuous and overconfident general, but bearing in mind a weight of precedent it seems hardly likely that Mzilikazi would have risked his own life and the very existence of his people simply on an impulse. It would also be safe to assume that no rebellion at that time would have any chance of succeeding anywhere within the reach of the Zulu army, a reach that was already extensive, and was growing daily. Later events would suggest that the Khumalo where wholly behind their leader, and never wavered as the direct ramifications of what had been done were visited upon them, and likewise in later years as exodus and uncertainty came to characterise their existence. Mzilikazi must therefore have laid the groundwork of a rebellion beforehand, let it be known among his people that this was his intention, and received some sort of assurance from them that he could proceed in the knowledge that he enjoyed their full support.

If this were so then part of his panning would have been a calculated gamble that his friendship with Shaka would help precipitate a softer response from the capital than might have been the case for many others. Indeed Shaka’s initial response upon being informed of the breach was more sorrowful than angry, with his utterance of the now famous lament: ‘Wo! – Wangi hudela umtwana wami….’, which, loosely translated, means: My child has shit on me, or more politely: My child has voided his diarrhoea on me.

Shaka now found himself in an unpleasant dilemma, and despite the urging of his counsellors, and the murmurings of the population, he successfully delayed his response until he was reasonably certain that Mzilikazi had fortified his position and stood a fair chance of surviving. Mzilikazi had in fact done precisely this, and when it did come the response from Gibixegu was as soft as circumstances would allow. With orders to exact no revenge on the Khumalo, but to only capture and return Mzilikazi alive if possible, a light force of the Izimpohlo, or Bachelors Brigade, was sent north from Gibixegu to police the situation.

Mzilikazi of course had plans for neither capture nor submission. He had carefully dispersed his non-combatant population into the forests of Ngome while establishing his fighting men in the hills and cliffs of the surrounding countryside. A battle was fought under terms unequal for the attackers, and the Izimpohlo returned to Gibixegu with no victory to report, and no doubt with the expectation that the wages of cowardice according to the Zulu code would be delivered upon them. However, and with evident relief, Shaka simply chided his men for being a brigade of women and passed the matter over. The Izimpohlo then stood down after which the matter was temporality permitted to rest.

However Mzilikazi lingered in the vicinity of Ngome which under the circumstances was unwise, and so his inconclusive rebellion remained an open sore that continuously challenged Shaka to act. With an ongoing sub-stratum of public opinion agitating against him, and with Shaka now displaying dangerous signs of sentimentality and weakness, the matter urgently needed a solution. Shaka had opened the doors for Mzilikazi to either leave the territory or surrender, neither of which he seemed willing to do, so towards the end of 1822 the feared Belebele, or Endless Trouble Regiment, marched towards Ngome with orders to re-ignite the battle and once and for all to bring Mzilikazi to heel. This time there would be no question of soft treatment. Shaka may still have feared for the fate of his friend, but Mzilikazi had brought this upon himself, and he could not expect to be protected forever.

With respect to Mzilikazi’s prowess in matters of war and strategy the Belebele took the precaution of camping nearby and conducting a detailed reconnaissance of the now heavily fortified Khumalo positions before any attack was launched. In the meanwhile matters were influenced by a half brother of Mzilikazi’s who slipped into the Zulu camp and offered his services as a guide to help storm the Khumalo positions from the rear. The opportunity was taken and the defending Khumalo were duly surprised with the result that an almost total annihilation took place. Mzilikazi himself escaped along with about 300 of his fighting men who all took refuge deeper in the Ngome forest. The Belebele did not consolidate their attack, perhaps on an understanding with Shaka, but instead surged jubilantly out of the Ngome hills leaving the vulnerable women and children of the Khumalo untouched to later creep out of the forest and woodland to join their menfolk.

In the meanwhile an anxious Shaka received news of the rout, but more importantly the news of Mzilikazi’s apparent survival. In another sharply uncharacteristic action he refused to hear of any pursuit or punitive follow-up, and even decreed that all those Khumalo who wished to evacuate Zululand and follow their leader towards his uncertain fate could do so, and that those opting to remain would be treated well.

Back in Ngome Mzilikazi and the remnants of his people were now indeed confronted by a stark decision: to remain in Zululand and face ultimate annihilation or to flee northward towards an uncertain future among strange people in unknown lands. What can be safely assumed is that Mzilikazi was armed with the best defences that man and nature could provide any fugitive – an indomitable spirit, a powerful leadership instinct, unbridled ambition and the arms and tactics of the Zulu military machine. Although his nation was small, and his fighting force even smaller, a vast majority of the Khumalo chose to join him in exile, as did many other Nguni refugees who for one reason or another sought to find space beyond the recall of Zulu justice. This, Mzilikazi deemed, was narrowly sufficient resources to survive on the run, and plans were quickly put in place to flee north out of Zululand ahead of any possible Zulu reprisals.

Thus began the epic journey of Mzilikazi and amorphous amaNdebele people, the raw materials of a nation that would in due course evolve to impose a military and political order on the highveld to rival even that of the Zulu parent. The story of the amaNdebele in its early chapters remains almost entirely the personal story of Mzilikazi, even though the imperfect record of African history precludes much intriguing detail. If a man can be judged by his actions, then history has been correct in representing Mzilikazi as one of the greatest leaders of his age, more brutal and violent at times than Shaka, but with the capacity to mould divergent peoples into a cohesive nation, challenged only by the far greater permutations of European colonial expansion, and the inevitable arrival of a new world order.

[i] Child, Harold, History of the amaNdebele, (Department of Internal Affairs, Rhodesia, 1968) p1