Shaka and the Rise of the Zulu State
Shaka Zulu was born in 1787, the illegitimate son of Senzangakona, chief of the Zulu clan. An outcast as a child, Shaka was brought up among a number of neighboring groups, finally ending with the Mthethwa where he distinguished himself as a skilled warrior in Dingiswayo's army. Dingiswayo was so impressed by Shaka that in 1816 he helped him become chief of the Zulu upon the death of Senzangakona. Among the Zulu, Shaka consolidated a number of military innovations--some developed by Dingiswayo, some dating back to the eighteenth century--to produce a powerful military machine. All young men were incorporated into age regiments and given military training. A short stabbing spear was introduced in addition to the traditional long throwing spears, giving Shaka's army an advantage in close combat. Military strategies, such as the "horn" formation by which Zulu regiments encircled their enemies, were perfected. When Dingiswayo was killed, Shaka with his military machine avenged his mentor's death, destroying the Ndwandwe in battle (two of Zwide's generals, Shoshangane and Zwangendaba, fled north and established kingdoms in present-day Mozambique and southern Tanzania, respectively). Shaka then incorporated the Mthethwa under his rule, and established the Zulu state as the dominant power among the northern Nguni.
By the mid-1820s, Shaka ruled a kingdom of more than 100,000 people with a standing army of 40,000 men. He centralized power in the person of the king and his court, collected tribute from regional chiefs, and placed regiments throughout his state to ensure compliance with his orders. These regiments also looked after the royal herds and carried out public works. Women, too, were incorporated into their own age regiments, which were paired with male regiments to provide food and other services for the soldiers. Shaka forbade members of these regiments to marry, however, until they had completed their military service. For men this meant their late thirties, and for women their late twenties. Only after marriage could men and women leave their regiments and set up their own homesteads.
Shaka fostered a new national identity by stressing the Zuluness of the state. All subjects of the state became Zulu and owed the king their personal allegiance. Zulu traditions of origin became the national traditions of the state. Customary Nguni festivals, such as planting and harvest celebrations, became occasions on which Shaka gathered vast numbers of his people and extolled the virtues of the state. Through such means, Shaka developed a Zulu consciousness that transcended the original identities and lineages of the various peoples who were his subjects.
During most of the 1820s, Shaka consolidated his power through a series of wars against neighboring peoples. His armies raided for cattle and food; they attacked any who challenged the authority of the Zulu monarch; and they extended the limits of Shaka's realm north to the borders of present-day Mozambique, west across the Drakensberg Mountains, and south to the margins of the area that would later become the Transkei homeland. He also welcomed British traders to his kingdom and sent diplomatic emissaries to the British king.
Shaka was assassinated at the height of his powers in 1828 and was succeeded by Dingane, his half-brother and one of the assassins. Dingane was a much less accomplished ruler than the founder of the Zulu state. His weak claim to the throne and his constant fear of assassination made him a despotic ruler. Dingane maintained the centralized and militarized organization of the Zulu state and sent his armies out on raiding missions. Victories, however, were few because of the growing strength of neighboring African kingdoms, and by the end of the 1830s Dingane's hold on power was being challenged by internal discontent and external threats.
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