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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Buthelezi and the "Zulu Kingdom"

by Cassius Lubisi

In the late 1970s Chief Gatsha Buthelezi was working very hard Ito position himself as a national liberation leader in South Africa. With the ANC, SACP and PAC banned, Buthelezi tried to take upon himself the mantle of the liberation movement. He adopted ANC symbols and language as a tactic for building a personal base. He presented the ANC as the "ANC Mission in Exile", and Inkatha as the "ANC Mission in South Africa".

It is interesting in 1993 to read what Buthelezi was saying in those years. In March 1976, for instance, Buthelezi told a Soweto rally that he wanted one South Africa with a single destiny. He only offered a federal option as "a compromise".

While in recent times Buthelezi has been arguing strongly for a semi-autonomous Zulustan, where IsiZulu-speaking people would enjoy what he terms "self-determination", he was mouthing a different language back in the late 1970s. At the Soweto rally, Buthelezi said:

"Beyond any divisions which appear to be present in black society, there is a unity based on deep-rooted black nationalism... There is no Zulu freedom that is distinct from the black man's freedom in South Africa... Black oppression has no ethnic boundaries. We have a common destiny as black people." (Buthelezi, p.28 and p.33)

But Buthelezi was in for a rude awakening. In 1978, at the funeral of Mangaliso Sobukwe he was booed by angry mourners. His clash with the ANC in London in October 1979 further dashed his aspirations. Buthelezi started switching tracks, and so began the invention of a new mantle. Increasingly Buthelezi set about projecting himself as a Zulu, rather than South African leader, heir to the heroic traditions of an historical Zulu kingdom.

Buthelezi is, of course, currently head of one of the Verwoerdian bantustans the Natal-located KwaZulu. Some 25 years ago Buthelezi was very forthright about the Verwoerdian origins of this bantustan, today he is much less forthright. Indeed, he wants to make a distinction between KwaZulu and other bantustans. He now argues that KwaZulu pre-dates the Verwoerdianbantustan.

His argument can only convince those who are not familiar with the history of indigenous South Africans. Buthelezi is, indeed, correct when he says there was a Zulu kingdom in the early history of South Africa. The question, however, remains whether Buthelezi's KwaZulu is the same as the Zulu kingdom of old. This is the question I shall seek to answer in analysing Buthelezi's appeal to IsiZulu-speaking people to follow him in his quest for power.

Historical background

The south-eastern tip of Africa was dominated by indigenous polities of one basic kind in the middle of the eighteenth century. These were chiefdoms of various sizes and structures. There were chiefdoms ruled by independent chiefs, and semi-autonomous chiefdoms subordinated by a paramount chief. These chiefdoms were not stable entities. They regularly changed from one form to another, they were indeed fluid.

The basic economic unit of a chiefdom was the umuzi. A gender division of labour existed, with women working in agriculture and men working on livestock. Despite this division, before the last quarter of the eighteenth century there was still very little social division along class lines, the reason being that the land the major means of production was held in trust by the chief and distributed fairly equitably among members of the chiefdom.

For various reasons, the last quarter of the eighteenth century saw the increasing centralisation of a number of chiefdoms. Strong chiefdoms with subordinate chiefdoms under them came into being. The three main chiefdoms identified by Wright and Hamilton (1989) were the Mabhudu (east of the Maputo River now Southern Mozambique), the Ndwande (in the Magudu region now Natal far north, below the Phongolo River), and the Mthethwa (between the Mhlathuze and lower Mfolozi Rivers).

One of the main instruments of centralisation were the amabutho. The amabutho were initially age-group units for the purpose of preparing young men for the transition from youth to adulthood. Centralisation brought with it a fundamental change in the amabutho. These became more militarised and moved even closer to the control of the paramount chief.

Wright and Hamilton (1989) point out that, by the early nineteenth century, conflict among rival indigenous polities was rife. The one conflict which is more relevant to the present discussion was that between the Mthethwa under Dingiswayo kaJobe, and the Ndwandwe under Zwide kaLanga.

The small chiefdom of the Zulu was part of the Mthethwa chiefdom. When the conflict between the Mthethwa and the Ndwandwe started, the Zulu chiefdom was under the leadership of Shaka kaSenzangakhona. When Zwide attacked and killed Dingiswayo in about 1816, Shaka tactically held his forces in reserve. He then began to build an army with strong discipline and fighting capacity. The Zulu, after defeating the Ndwandwe in a close battle in about 1819, became the most powerful group in the Thukela-Phongolo region. Shaka, increasinly brought many chiefdoms under his direct rule, and thus was built the Zulu kingdom.

The Zulu kingdom

The Zulu in the kingdom that Shaka built between the Thukela and Phongolo Rivers was entirely independent. The Zulu king was the supreme ruler, tightly controlling the processes of production and reproduction. The Zulu under Shaka colonised a number of chiefdoms south of the Thukela. Later Shaka moved his headquarters from kwaBulawayo to kwaDukuza (near Stanger) in 1826. Here he came into contact with British traders who had settled in the southern part of the Mzimkhulu-Phongolo region.

The Zulu kingdom, which only came into being in about 1820, was divided along class lines. The king, the royal house and important chiefs formed the upper-most stratum of Zulu society, followed by subjects of important chiefs and chiefdoms which formed part of the initial core of the Zulu chiefdom. This second stratum was encouraged to regard themselves as superior to others, calling themselves amaNtungwa. The third and lowest stratum were called derogatory names, and their chiefs were not included in decision-making processes in the kingdom.

The Zulu kingdom remained largely the same throughout the rule of Shaka, Dingane, Mpande (all sons of Senzangakhona kaJama) and Cetshwayo kaMpande. The area covered by the kingdom was mainly between the Thukela and the Phongola Rivers.

During this period the Zulu engaged in battles against certain chiefdoms, Boer trekkers, and British settlers from Port Natal. Dingane annihilated Piet Relief's delegation before he was defeated by Boers at the Battle of Ncome in 1838. This defeat adversely affected Dingane's capacity to fight and defend his rule. In 1840, a double column offensive by the Boers under Pretorius and the forces of Mpande (Dingane's brother) crushed Dingane's army at Maqongqo (near Magudu). Dingane was forced to flee, and the Boers declared Mpande king of the Zulu.

The Boers attempted to instal themselves as masters over Mpande, but they never succeeded. The Zulu kingdom retained its independence. Mpande's rule was relatively peaceful.

Cetshwayo kaMpande, fighting with his ibutho Usuthu defeated the forces (Isigqoza) of Mpande's favourite son, Mbuyazi at the battle of Ndondakusuka in 1856. With Usuthu's victory, Cetshwayo established himself as the rightful heir to the throne. Cetshwayo formally became king when Mpande died in 1872.

The Port Natal settlers had an eye on the Zulu kingdom, which had control over vital trade routes. Coupled with this was internal strife within the kingdom. The Zulu kingdom also had a border dispute with Transvaal Boers. The British, in their mediation between the Zulu and the Boer, set up a Boundary Commission which ultimately supported the Zulu claim.

However, when the British released the finding of this commission to Cetshwayo, they gave him an ultimatum: "demanding not only the payment of fines and the surrender of certain Zulu men to the colonial authorities, but also the abolition of the Zulu military system within thirty days." (Guy, 1979, p.4)

Cetshwayo refused to recognise the ultimatum. The British armed forces under Chelmsford entered the Zulu kingdom in January 1879 to force Cetshwayo to abide by the terms of the ultimatum. The British suffered what was to be one of their most humbling defeats at the battle of Isandlwana.

The British were joined by Hamu kaNzibe, chief of the Ngenetsheni chiefdom. Bolstered by reinforcements, Chelmsford attacked Usuthu at Cetshwayo's headquarters in Ondini. The Zulu were defeated and Cethswayo's headquarters burnt down. Cetshwayo fled to the Ngome forests, where he was later captured by the British. He was led into exile at the Cape Town castle.

End of the kingdom

This was the beginning of the end of the Shakan Zulu kingdom. The British divided the kingdom into thirteen chiefdoms to be ruled by British-appointed chiefs. Among these chiefs were a white trader John Dunn, Hamu and another chief of Zulu royal lineage, Zibhebhu kaMaphitha of the Mandlakazi.

Although remnants of Usuthu refused to toe the British line, the British had effectively turned the clock back to the era before Shaka built the Zulu kingdom. By default, the British planted seeds for a civil war involving the Zibhebhu/Hamu axis and the Cetshwayo-supporting Usuthu axis.

Although the king was re-installed after he led a delegation to Queen Victoria in Britain (1882), he was to rule only over a strip of land between the Mhlathuze, the upper reaches of the Phongolo and the lower reaches of the Black Mfolozi.

All the 1879 appointed chiefs were deposed, except for Zibhebhu who was closely working with the British. Zibhebhu, realising the organisational weaknesses of Usuthu, launched regular attacks. The most ruthless of these attacks was on Ondini in July 1883.

According to Guy: "If one has to find an historical moment to mark the end of the old Zulu order, then it is this Mandlakazi attack on the royal homestead on 21 July 1883 when Zibhebhu succeeded where Chelmsford had failed in July 1879. The British commander had left the political hierarchy of Zululand virtually untouched: Zibhebhu decimated the Zulu leadership, killing the great men of the country upon whose authority Usuthu dominance depended.' (p.167)

Cetshwayo died shortly after this defeat. Even Dinizulu who succeeded his father, Cetshwayo, to the throne, could not stem the tide of the destruction of the Zulu kingdom. Most of the formerly Zulu-held land was given to white settlers after the creation of British Zululand in 1887.

The barren tracts of land occupied by Zulu and other African indigenous people were called a 'Native Reserve'.

Zulu kings from Dinizulu on were largely ceremonial, because they had been stripped of the last vestiges of Shakan power. The king himself became a subject of the Governor of Natal in his capacity as Supreme Chief. In effect, the Zulu kingdom existed for a mere sixty years. Zulu royalists continued, however, to show allegiance to the king, but merely for ritualistic reasons.

Buthelezi's claims are flawed

Buthelezi's attempts to adorn himself with the mantle of the Zulu kingdom are flawed in many ways. In the first place, glorification of some timeless and monolithic Zulu kingdom is far from representing reality. Serious tensions and conflicts have been rife between the royal house and its subjects on the one hand, and among members of the royal house on the other.

Talk of Zulu secession is reckless, not only for all the people of South Africa, but also for the IsiZuluspeaking people themselves. As already noted, the Zulu kingdom was created through the forcible subjugation of a number of independent chiefdoms. What stops the Ndwandwe, the Mthethwa, Qwabe, Ngcobo, Mkhize, Hlubi and others from seceding from the Zulu?

In terms of legitimacy, territory and continuity, the Buthelezian KwaZulu is not the Zulu Kingdom, it is largely based on a colonially created Native Reserve.

Buthelezi is (or was) well aware of this. However, he now finds it useful to mislead people who are not well informed about South African history.

That he was once aware of the illegitimate origins of his homeland is well illustrated by statements he was making in the late 1970s. Speaking at the Soweto rally in March 1976 he said:

"I challenge anyone to prove to me that the majority of blacks want the so-called independence which is offered to our reserves now called 'homelands'." (my emphasis) (Buthelezi 1979, p.28)

Speaking to Kajuitraad, an Afrikaner grouping, at Ezimbokodweni in April 1976, Buthelezi shed more light on the subject:

"It has always struck me that the Afrikaans press never bothers to cover events in KwaZulu, not even the proceedings of the KwaZulu Legislative Assembly, an Afrikaner creation." (my emphasis) (Buthelezi p.44)

Not only does Buthelezi know that KwaZulu is not synonymous with the Zulu kingdom, he is also aware that the Zulu kingdom was destroyed by, among others, the British. In April 1978 he said in Johannesburg:

"The KwaZulu (sic) King Cetshwayo was provoked into an unjust war by Sir Bartle Frere...The ultimate end of these evil designs was the Zulu nation of the last century lost its sovereignty with its conquest by the British in 1879." (my emphasis) (Buthelezi, p.118)

But Buthelezi's present attempts to invest himself in the aura of a long disappeared Zulu kingdom are even more outrageous. The reinvention of history goes further than the attempt to transform a Native Reserve into a Kingdom.

"Heriditary Prime Minister"

According to the Inkatha mouthpiece, the Clarion Call:

"The leaders of the Buthelezi clan, the largest in the Zulu nation, have been Prime Ministers to a succession of Zulu Kings. As such Chief Buthelezi is the traditional Prime Minister of the seven million Zulu nation and the senior advisor to His Majesty the King of the Zulus."

These claims are absolutely spurious. As Mzala points out:

"The premier chief during the reign of King Shaka was Ngomane, who remained Shaka's 'Prime Minister' long after the death of Shaka's mother, Nandi. Ngomane was not a Buthelezi but a Mthethwa. Then came King Dingane, whose premier chief was Ndlela kaSompisi. He too was not a Buthelezi but an Ntuli. After King Dingane, the kingdom was led by King Mpande, who appointed Masiphula kaMamba as the premier chief His surname was Ntshangase and not Buthelezi. It was only when Cetshwayo was king of the Zulus that a Buthelezi featured - Chief Mnyamana. Cetshwayo was the last king of the sovereign Zulu kingdom as founded by King Shaka, and before it was divided into various chiefdoms by the British.

"But even as a tradition it fails, because no Buthelezi other than Gatsha has held such a position. When Dinizulu took over as king after Cetshwayo, he appointed Mankulumana as his premier chief Mankulumana kaSomaphunga, a direct descendent of Zwide, was a Ndwandwe (also known as Nxumalo, not a Buthelezi." (emphases mine) (Mzala 1988, p.105)

Switching mantles

Buthelezi, then, has switched mantles between the 1970s and the present. These switches have everything to do with his waning political fortunes. But it is important to note that these switches are usually a question of emphasis. Although he has been forced back into regionalism and "Zulu" ethnicism, Buthelezi has not abandoned his national ambitions. These ambivalences are also partly due to the fact that Buthelezi's base within KwaZulu itself is insecure and eroding.

His continued national aspirations are also due to the fact that the region for which he wishes to declare UDI (as opposed to the old Zulu kingdom) has no economic viability of its own. IsiZulu-speaking people have for a long time been integrated into South African production processes to an extent that, on their own, they will not survive economically.

In the past months, the man who claimed to be the leader of the "ANC at home", the man who aspires to bathe himself in the aura of an heroic Zulu kingdom has made one more adjustment. With one foot in regionalism he has located the other foot in the only national base that remains available. He has aligned himself with the most reactionary, white racist forces in our country. But therein lies another story.


Buthelezi, MG (1979). Power is ours. Books in Focus, New York.

Guy, J (1979). The Destruction of the Zulu Kingdom: Civil War in Zululand, 1879-1884. Longman, London.

Mzala (1988). Gatsha Buthelezi: Chief with a Double Agenda. Zed, London.

Wright, J and C. Hamilton (1989). "Traditions and Transformations: The Phongolo-Thukela region in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries", in Duminy and Guest, Natal and Zululand: From Earliest Times to 1910, University of Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to theThis resource is hosted by the site.