The Zulu

Mthethwa expansion under Dingiswayo had been checked by Zwide and his Ndwandwe regiments. Several wars had been fought by the rival armies. In 1818 Dingiswayo was captured by Zwide and killed. Because of the personal character of Dingiswayo’s rule, his death created a vacuum in the leadership of the Mthethwa. Shaka, who had been rising fast in Dingiswayo’s esteem (and had with his help become head of the small Zulu chiefdom) now quickly stepped into the breach. He replaced Dingiswayo as head of the Mthethwa confederacy of chiefdoms. He had, in effect, inherited the Mthethwa ’empire’. […] Shaka ‘incorporated’ the Mthethwa empire into the Zulu state, thus making the Mthethwa part of the Zulu nation. He did, however, allow the Mthethwa traditional system of government to continue under a minor son of Dingiswayo with a regent subservient to himself as the Zulu monarch. In dealing with other groups, however, Shaka appears to have insisted on total incorporation rather than mere suzerainty.

Even while he was only head of the Zulu state and subservient to Dingiswayo, Shaka had already started reorganizing his army. This process of rationalizing social institutions for military purposes was now carried to a logical conclusion. Shaka also revolutionized the military techniques themselves. The long throwing spear was replaced by a short broad-bladed stabbing spear that was much more effective in close-up fighting after the enemy had lost the long throwing spear or javelin. Zulu fighting m e n now carried long shields, discarded sandals and went barefoot for greater speed and mobility. Like Dingiswayo before him, Shaka kept a permanent army of regiments drawn from men under 40 years of age. Unlike Dingiswayo, he kept these regiments in military barracks where they were maintained by the state and led a life of celibacy until they were discharged from military service. Because they were maintained in barracks, Shaka’s regiments were well drilled and efficient and always ready for emergencies.

Shaka’s army was instructed in several military tactics of which the ‘cowhorns’ formation was only the most spectacular. The army was trained to be hardy and ruthless in dealing with the enemy. Unlike Sobhuza or Dingiswayo, Shaka often wiped out the ruling elites of the conquered peoples and sought total incorporation of captured groups into the Zulu system with members of the Zulu royal family replacing the original rulers.
Sometimes the chiefs of the larger groups were recognized by being allowed a free hand in the local control of their own peoples.

It was while Shaka was involved in the critical wars for the domination of what later became Zululand that he developed and perfected some of the techniques and tactics referred to above. This drive to bring all groups in the region of northern Nguni under his own control brought Shaka into direct conflict with Zwide’s Ndwandwe, whom he defeated in two successive battles in 1819 and 1820.

Shaka’s defeat of the Ndwandwe army at Mhlatuze meant not only a disastrous military defeat for Zwide himself but also a collapse of the Ndwandwe state, a loose confederacy that had been built up through systematic subordination of small states in the Mkuze and Phongolo valleys. Fragments of the Ndwandwe state under the leadership of Zwide’s erstwhile generals fled panic-stricken northwards into what is now Mozambique.
The leaders of these splinter groups were Soshangane, Zwangendaba and Nqaba. The bulk of the Ndwandwe, now effectively subjugated, remained under Sikunyane as a tributary state of the Zulu sovereign.

D . Ngcongco (Botswana): specialist in Southern African history; has published various studies on Botswana in pre-colonial times; formerly Director, National Institute of Development, Research and Documentation; Professor and Head, Department of History, University of Botswana.

Source: General History of Africa Vol.VI. [Editor: J.F.Ade Ajai] Africa in the Nineteenth Century until the 1880s. Chapter 5. The Mfecane and the rise of new African states.


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