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On-line version ISSN 2309-8392
Print version ISSN 0018-229X

Historia vol.54 n.1 Durban  2009


Shaka the Great


Shaka die Grote



Jeff Peires

Jeff Peires is of the University of Fort Hare-Alice




Recognising the unavoidable bias of colonial sources, the article reassesses the personality and career of Shaka by means of oral tradition alone. In doing so, it explicitly rejects the opinion, currently prevalent in South African studies, that oral historical narratives are nothing more than a variant of oral narratives generally in favour of the view that oral historical narratives possess underlying invariant structural elements. The body of the article consists of a structural analysis of the oral historical narratives concerning Shaka's accession to power and his role in the death of his mother Nandi. Shaka emerges from this analysis as a distinctive figure who intervened decisively in the history of the Zulu kingdom. The extraordinary violence of his reign and the abrupt break with social norms inherent in his abolition of circumcision must be explained in terms of his ultimate objective of destroying the family and replacing it with an entirely new social organism based on the state. Dingane, by assassinating Shaka, prevented him from realising his ambitions, and it is Dingane, not Shaka, who must be seen as the true founder of the mature Zulu state.

Keywords: Carolyn Hamilton; child soldiers; circumcision; Dan Wylie; Dingane; historiography; Isabel Hofmeyr; James Stuart Archive; legitimacy; mfecane debate; Nandi; oral historical narratives; oral narrative; oral tradition; regimes of terror; representation; Senzangakhona; Shaka; South African historiography; state formation; structural analysis; Zulu


Hierdie artikel erken dat koloniale bronne onvermydelik bevooroordeeld is, en gaan dan voort om die persoonlikheid en loopbaan van Shaka te herevalueer, gebaseer op slegs mondelinge oorlewering. Deur dit te doen, verwerp die artikel op duidelike wyse die opinie wat tans so algemeen in Suid-Afrikaanse studies voorkom, naamlik dat mondelinge historiese oorleweringe niks meer is as 'n variasie van mondelinge oorleweringe nie. Dit betoog ten gunste van die mening dat mondelinge historiese oorleweringe onderliggende onveranderlike strukturele elemente besit. Die hoofdeel van die artikel bestaan uit n strukturele analise van die mondelinge historiese oorleweringe rakende Shaka se magsoorname en die rol wat hy in sy moeder, Nandi, se dood gespeel het. Shaka tree uit hierdie analise na vore as n uitsonderlike figuur wat op beslissende wyse in die geskiedenis van die Zoeloeryk ingegryp het. Die buitengewoon gewelddadige aard van sy heerskappy en die plotselinge breuk met sosiale norme inherent aan sy afskaffing van besnydenis, moet verduidelik word in terme van sy uiteindelike doelwit om die familiestruktuur te vernietig en met n volkome nuwe sosiale organisme, gebaseer op die staat, te vervang. Deur die sluipmoord op Shaka, het Dingane voorkom dat Shaka in sy voorneme geslaag het en dus is dit Dingane, en nie Shaka nie, wat as die ware stigter van die volwaardige Zoeloestaat beskou moet word.

Sleutelwoorde: Carolyn Hamilton; kindersoldate; besnydenis; Dan Wylie; Dingane; historiografie; Isabel Hofmeyr; James Stuart-argief; wettigheid; mfecane debat; Nandi; mondelinge historiese oorleweringe; mondelinge oorlewering; mondelinge tradisie; terreur-regimes; voorstelling; Senzangakhona; Shaka; Suid-Afrikaanse historiografie; staatvorming; strukturele analise; Zoeloe



Full text available only in PDF format.



* C Burns, "A Useable Past", in H E Stolten, History Making and Present Day Politics (Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, Uppsala, 2007)         [ Links ]
1 Burns, "A Useable Past"
2 C C Saunders, "Four Decades of South African academic historical writing; a personal perspective", in Stolten, History Making, p 288
3 P Ziegler, The Black Death (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1970), p 9         [ Links ]
4 "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing" This fragment from the Greek poet Archilochus was popularised by Isaiah Berlin in his celebrated essay on Tolstoy's view of History, The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953) According to Berlin: "There exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision" and "on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory"
5 D Wylie, Myth of Iron (University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg, 2006), p 518         [ Links ]
6 J Omer-Cooper, The Zulu Aftermath (Longman, London, 1966), pp 33, 36         [ Links ]
7 Linguists have long described the languages of South Africa's coastal strip (isiZulu, isiXhosa) as Nguni, and historians, fearful of anachronism, initially described the protoZulu as "northern Nguni", but ever since John Wright convincingly pointed out that the term Nguni meant different things to different people at different times, historians have been reluctant to employ the term and have resorted to circumlocutions like "the Phongolo-Mzimkhulu region" to describe the territory presently known as KwaZulu-Natal See: J Wright, "Politics, Ideology and the Invention of the "Nguni", in T Lodge (ed), Resistance and Ideology in Settler Societies (Ravan Press, Johannesburg, 1986)         [ Links ]
8 C Meillassoux, quoted in: JB Peires, "Paradigm Deleted: the Materialist Interpretation of the Mfecane", Journal of Southern African Studies, 19, 1993, p 301         [ Links ]
9 J B Peires (ed), Before and After Shaka: Papers in Nguni History (ISER, Grahamstown, 1981)         [ Links ]
10 J Cobbing, "The Mfecane as Alibi: Thoughts on Dithakong and Mbolompo", Journal of African History, 29, 1988         [ Links ]
11 Cobbing, "The Mfecane as Alibi", p 509
12 C Hamilton, "'The Character and Objects of Chaka': A Reconsideration of the Making of Shaka as a Mfecane Motor", in C Hamilton, The Mfecane Aftermath (Witwatersrand University Press, Johannesburg, 1995), especially pp 183-186         [ Links ]
13 Cobbing, "The Mfecane as Alibi", pp 509-510
14 C Hamilton, Terrific Majesty: The Powers of Shaka Zulu and the Limits of Historical Invention (David Philip, Cape Town, 1998), pp 48-50         [ Links ]
15 Wylie, Myth of Iron, pp 482-484
16 Wylie, Myth of Iron, p 431
17 Wylie, Myth of Iron, pp 481-482
18 The full quotation reads: "Be not afraid of greatness; some men are born great, some achieve greatness, others have greatness thrust upon them" From: W Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Act II, Scene 5
19 EH Carr, What is History? (Penguin Books, London, 1964), pp 45, 98         [ Links ]
20 Wylie maintains that Nathaniel Isaacs was "semi-literate", and that his Travels and Adventures must therefore have been "ghost-written by a Londoner, or another jaundiced colonial" Quite apart from the fact that Isaacs was Jewish, and therefore almost by definition educated middle class, I am amazed that it has escaped Wylie's attention that he spent three years as a clerk in the business of his uncle Saul Solomon, the Merchant Prince of St Helena I see no reason to doubt the authenticity of Isaacs's private letter to Henry Fynn, enthusiastically endorsed by Wylie in other contexts, which confirms that his book is based on "memo's that I used to keep in Natal" I fully accept that Isaacs's manuscript was smartened up for publication, as Wylie has shown, but all of us suffer from time to time at the hands of our editors As for the "infamous pact" between Fynn and Isaacs to brutalise the name of Shaka, almost all the insinuations about Fynn's "horrendous lies" collapse once it is realised that Fynn made no attempt to get his work published I hold no brief for Isaacs or Fynn; Isaacs, particularly, is damned by his own letter, but it seems sad that we should deprive ourselves of such valuable sources on such flimsy grounds What we need, are good critical editions of Fynn and Isaacs, not blanket rejections See: D Wylie, Savage Delight (University of Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg, 2000), pp 94, 97, 105-120; Wylie, Myth of Iron, pp 367, 515; N Isaacs, Travels and Adventures in Eastern Africa (Struik, Cape Town, 1970), p xxviii;         [ Links ] P R Kirby, "Unpublished Documents relating to the career of Nathaniel Isaacs, the Natal Pioneer", Africana Notes and News, 18, 2, 1968, p 67         [ Links ]
21 Wylie, Myth of Iron, p 4
22 The only relevant reference in Wylie's footnotes and bibliography is to Jan Vansina's Oral Tradition as History (1985) Daphna Golan's work is entirely absent, while Carolyn Hamilton's Terrific Majesty (1998) is mentioned, but otherwise ignored
23 I Hofmeyr, We spend our years as a tale that is told (Witwatersrand University Press, Johannesburg, 1993), pp 3, 5         [ Links ]
24 H Scheub, The Xhosa Ntsomi (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1975) For their reliance on Scheub,         [ Links ] see: Hofmeyr, We spend our years, p 5; Hamilton, Terrific Majesty, p 51
25 E Tonkin, "Investigating Oral Tradition", Journal of African History, 27, 2, 1986, p 210 For Hofmeyr on Tonkin,         [ Links ] see: Hofmeyr, We spend our years, p 275 For Hamilton on Hofmeyr, see: Hamilton, Terrific Majesty, pp 53-54
26 J Peires, "'At the entrance to science as at the entrance to hell'; Historical Priorities for South Africa in an Age of Deconstruction", African Historical Review, 40, 1, 2008, p 64         [ Links ]
27 Tonkin, "Investigating Oral Tradition", p 209 On the reality of the past, see Peires, "'At the entrance to science as at the entrance to hell'", pp 62-63
28 S Feierman, The Shambaa Kingdom (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1974), pp 40-41 Jan Vansina,         [ Links ] who is hostile to structuralism, adopts a nominally different methodology which amounts to more or less the same thing See: J Vansina, Oral Tradition as History (James Currey, London, 1985), pp 68-83, 162-165 Beginners trying to get a grip on early African history,         [ Links ] often make the mistake of reading worthy but uninspiring general texts like Vansina or D Henige, Oral Historiography (Longman, London, 1982) Far better to observe the methodology of a single good study The best representative collection I know, J C Miller's The African Past Speaks (Dawson, Folkstone, 1980) is unfortunately very hard to find In addition to Feierman, I can confidently recommend T Q Reefe's The Rainbow and the Kings (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1981) or J C Miller's Kings and Kinsmen (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1976)         [ Links ]
29 D Golan, Inventing Shaka: Using History in the Construction of Zulu Nationalism (Lynne Riener Publishers, Boulder, 1994), p 118,         [ Links ] recognises the importance of identifying the "invariant core those aspects of the narrative that all versions share" Unfortunately, she then proceeds to dismiss this core as a "fiction" and a "set of clichés from pre-Shakan days", without acknowledging the many specific elements which are not borrowed from elsewhere
30 Hofmeyr, We spend our years, p 5; Hamilton, Terrific Majesty, p 51
31 D T Niane, Sundiata (Longman, London, 1965), pp 18-23;         [ Links ] Miller, Kings and Kinsmen, p 139; Evidence before the Nhlapo Commission, KwaMhlanga, 12-15 June 2005; J Vansina, Oral Tradition (Aldine, Chicago, 1965), p 74         [ Links ]
32 Henige, Oral Historiography, p 2
33 Vansina, Oral Tradition as History, Chapters 1 and 6
34 Summarised in: Vansina, Oral Tradition as History, pp 120-123
35 Vansina, Oral Tradition as History, p 122
36 Vansina, Oral Tradition, p 74
37 C Webb and J Wright (eds), The James Stuart Archive I-V (University of Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg, 1976-2001) [hereafter JSA] Volumes are arranged in alphabetical order,         [ Links ] according to informant The last published volume only takes us as far as Sivivi Two other projected volumes have not appeared yet It needs to be noted that Hamilton and Wylie have made use of the entire archive, including the unpublished interviews, whereas I have had sight of the published interviews only However, for reasons given in the concluding paragraph, this shortcoming should not affect the validity of my argument
38 Hamilton, Terrific Majesty, pp 53-54 and Chapter 4
39 Hamilton, Terrific Majesty, p 166
40 Hamilton, Terrific Majesty, p 134; JSA I, p 270
41 Hamilton, Terrific Majesty, p 147
42 Vansina, Oral Tradition, pp 53-54
43 Hamilton, Terrific Majesty, pp 59-69
44 Vansina, Oral Tradition, p 53
45 Wylie, Myth of Iron, p 15
46 Ngidi, JSA V, pp 35, 44, 72
47 Mabonsa, JSA II, p 14
48 Baleka, JSA I, p 8
49 Mini, JSA III, p 128 For other evidence to the same effect, see Jantshi, JSA I, p 189; Madikane, JSA II, p 54; Mangati, JSA II, p 204; Melapi, JSA III, p 76; Mkando, JSA III, p 151; Mmemi, JSA III, p 248; Ndhlovu, JSA IV, p 217; Ndukwana, JSA IV, p 293
50 In addition to the other sources cited below, see Mangati, JSA II, p 204
51 Jantshi, JSA I, p 195; Mmemi, JSA III, p 248
52 Wylie, Myth of Iron, p 94 It is strange that, in attempting to sustain this argument, Wylie refers to one Ndlela as "another of Shaka's warriors", whereas he was, in fact, the older brother of Senzangakhona's wife Mangati, JSA II, p 204
53 Evidence of Madikane, JSA II, p 54 Madikane is the informant whom Wylie praises to the skies on pp 90-91 of Myth of Iron. See also: Jantshi, JSA I, p 195; Magidigidi, JSA II, p 94, Mkando, JSA III, p 161; Mmemi, JSA III, p 248; Ngidi, JSA V, p 68 To be fair to Wylie, he is simply following in the footsteps of AT Bryant, Olden Times in Zululand and Natal (Longman, London, 1929), pp 99, 641-642 Bryant strongly asserts that circumcision "fell into disuse" towards the end of the eighteenth century, but his references to the amaZulu chiefdom are contradicted by almost all of Stuart's amaZulu informants JB Wright, "Pre-Shakan age-group formation among the northern Nguni", Natalia, 8, 1978, pp 22-30, explicitly relies on Bryant
54 JSA III, p 284 For the other references, see the note above
55 Wylie, Myth of Iron, pp 51, 95
56 J L Döhne, A Zulu-Kafir Dictionary (Juta, Cape Town, 1857), p 329
57 L Alberti, Account of the Xhosa in 1807 (Balkema, Cape Town, 1968), p 84 See also pp 40-41 for an account of the ukusoka ritual which closes the Xhosa circumcision ceremony
58 Space precludes detailed discussion of these matters Many of the JSA informants stoutly asserted that Senzangakhona did eventually marry Nandi, and that Shaka was therefore legitimate That is surely a matter of opinion Given all we know about Zulu marriage customs, it is clear that the "marriage" was highly irregular Shaka had a sister, Nomcoba, whose paternity is not at all clear There are hints in JSA that Shaka's rage against Makhedama of the Langeni was due to fury about his relationship with Nandi See Ngidi, JSA V, p 43 Nandi later married a man named Gedeyama, and had children by him
59 Mabonsa, JSA II, pp 19-20 Makata, the great induna of the Iziyendane regiment, insulted Dingane by calling him "a good-for-nothing that has not been circumcised" He was killed for that
60 In addition to Wright, "Pre-Shakan age-group formation"; and Peires, "Paradigm Deleted", see: P Bonner, Kings, Commoners and Concessionaires (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1983), Chapter 2; J Wright and C Hamilton, "Traditions and Transformations: the Phongolo-Mzimkhulu region in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries", in A Duminy and B Guest (eds), Natal and Zululand from Earliest Times to 1910 (University of Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg, 1989)
61 Wylie, Myth of Iron, p 431
62 E V Walter, Terror and Resistance (Oxford University Press, New York, 1969)
63 Melapi, JSA III, p 86
64 Golan, Inventing Shaka, p 126 Golan also cites additional examples of Shaka's unusual gender attitudes, which cannot be considered here, but which strongly support the argument of this paragraph
65 On the kilombo, see: Miller, Kings and Kingsmen, pp 225-227

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