Shaka Zulu: Creator and Destroyer

From the lecture series: African Experience: From "Lucy" to Mandela

By Kenneth P. Vickery, Ph.D, North Carolina State University

For several decades in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the southern Bantu world underwent dramatic and, in some cases, traumatic change.

Shaka dismissed firearms as ineffective against the quick encirclements of charging spearmen. (Image: Enriquecardova/Public domain)

Changes in the Bantu Region

Much larger, more centralized kingdoms replaced smaller chiefdoms. Individuals and whole communities were on the move, some in weakness as refugees, others in strength as conquerors. At the center of this process, the modern Zulu kingdom emerged under its founder, Shaka Zulu, one of the truly memorable figures in African history.

For a long time, the whole process of change in the Bantu region has been referred to by scholars as the Mfecane—pronounced something close to “m-fa-(click)-a-nay.” The direct translation of this word from Zulu would be approximately the “hammering” or the “crushing.”

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The Mfecane process altered the southern Bantu world in three key ways. First, society transformed from a large number of small-scale states—chiefdoms—to a smaller number of large-scale ones. This was a process of political consolidation, resulting in the emergence of considerably more powerful and larger kingdoms in its aftermath.

Second, as elsewhere in the world, there was most definitely a military side to this consolidation. That has certainly been in the making of major powerful states in the rest of the world, so it should not be a surprise that was the case here. These larger units did involve an intensification and increasing centrality for the art and science of military warfare.

image of map of Zulu Empire under Shaka
Map of the Zulu Empire under Shaka (1816-1828) (Image: Discott/Public domain)

The third great change is that the ethnic map of southern Africa was remade. Ethnic identities expanded and contracted. Some people relocated. You can go to parts of southern Africa today and hear languages that were originally spoken in source areas hundreds of miles away.

The kingdom, in many ways, at the center of this process is the Zulu kingdom. While the story of Shaka Zulu and the founding of the modern Zulu kingdom illustrates the three key changes that were underway, the Zulu story is only a part of this enormously wide-ranging transformation that affected the entire subcontinent.

This is a transcript from the video series African Experience: From “Lucy” to Mandela. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Shaka and those around him were part of the Nguni subdivision of the Bantu who lived between the Drakensberg Mountains and the Indian Ocean. This is the area of the province of South Africa today known as Kwazulu—Natal toda—which simply means “country of the Zulu.”

Shaka Zulu’s Early Years

Drawing of Shaka made in 1824.
Little is known of Shaka’s appearance. This artist’s depiction was made in 1824. (Image: James King/Public domain)

Shaka’s life story is a fascinating tale in the telling. Both his adult personality and his childhood experiences were unusual. As an adult, Shaka was reputed for his driving ambition, his fierce determination, his iron will, and, in some accounts, for his outright cruelty. He never married nor had any recognized children, which was highly unusual.

Shaka was born almost certainly in 1787. His father was the chief or monarch of the Zulu, but “Zulu” meant something very different at that point. It referred to only a small chiefdom in a strip of very hilly, rolling, beautiful subtropical land between the Drakensberg and the Indian Ocean. Shaka’s father had perhaps 4,000 to 5,000 followers or subjects. This was just one among many small-scale states and chiefdoms in this part of the Nguni southern Bantu world.

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Shaka’s father was named Senzangakona. His mother was a strong-willed and self-reliant woman named Nandi. If Shaka’s parents ever married, it did not last—some of the oral sources do say that they were married, but others say that they were not. Shaka was raised by his mother Nandi, very much under her wing and rejected by the Zulu royal house.

The world that Shaka grew up in was already beginning to change. He didn’t drop out of the sky one day and transform southern Africa. He had predecessors and successors. He had peers who were engaged in some of the same things that he was engaged in, and that was the political consolidation and militarization of southern Bantu life.

One of his predecessors was Dingiswayo, who created a loose confederation of several northern Nguni chiefdoms, including those of Shaka’s mother and the Zulu of Shaka’s estranged father. Dingiswayo also started down the path of greater centrality of military life by injecting an element of military training into the initiation process of the so-called amabutho, which is the Zulu word for age sets or age grades.

Shaka first distinguished himself as a soldier in one of Dingiswayo’s age-regiments. Not every great general begins as a great soldier. He caught the eye and favor of Dingiswayo, who elevated him at quite an early age to become the commander of his age-regiment.

Shaka’s Decade of Power

Around 1816, Shaka’s estranged father, Senzangakona, died. With Dingiswayo’s patronage and support, Shaka returned and seized the Zulu chieftainship. When Dingiswayo died in 1818, Shaka was well-positioned to move into the vacuum left by Dingiswayo’s death.

The year 1818 begins Shaka’s only decade of real power. He took Dingiswayo’s loose confederation and intensified the consolidation of power around himself, and elevated the role of the military. Shaka’s army used a new and shorter stabbing iron spear and a much larger oval shield. These were designed for infantry advance, something quite reminiscent of the Roman phalanx.

Certainly, many died in the path of Shaka’s armies as he engaged in the expansion of this state, but the survivors were generally not massacred or enslaved, provided they accepted Shaka’s authority.

Certainly, many died in the path of Shaka’s armies as he engaged in the expansion of this state, but the survivors were generally not massacred or enslaved, provided they accepted Shaka’s authority. They were even incorporated into the appropriate age-regiments. There were even female age-regiments that played a supporting role in these military efforts.

Statue representing Shaka located in London, England.
Shaka was a builder as well as a destroyer. (Image: Jacob Truedson Demitz for Ristesson History/Public domain)

Shaka insisted that the rapidly growing numbers under his rule adopt the particular praise, poetry, and so forth of his Zulu roots. It shows, again, the fluid nature of ethnic identity and how it can expand and contract. In a lot of respects, this is the key to the fact that “Zulu” today is the largest single ethnic identity in South Africa.

Shaka, therefore, was a builder as well as a destroyer. He built a new nation and kingdom. For a time, at least, he inspired as well as compelled loyalty.

The military campaigns of Shaka and others created the threat of insecurity over a wide region. How would people and their leaders respond to that? Certainly, some people and some whole communities fled in destitute and desperate conditions. Others mobilized militarily and politically. Some took to the road—they were, in a sense, “states on the march.” If you go to western Zambia today, the language of the Lozi kingdom is actually the language brought there by a people originally from the Sotho country. They moved northward about 1,000 miles and established themselves on the upper Zambezi.

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Hero or Villain?

After his mother died in 1827, he seems to have lost his keen judgment, and it may have been only a matter of time before he was overthrown. That came on September 24, 1828. Shaka was assassinated by a party of conspirators that included a couple of his half-brothers—sons also of Senzangakona, but by a different mother—one of whom was Dingane, who succeeded Shaka on the Zulu throne.

Shaka’s legacy has always been significant in South African history, and it has always been contested. Was he a hero or villain? Apartheid-era whites tended to paint him as a bloodthirsty tyrant, just the sort of thing to expect without white rule. Others saw and still see him as greatness itself and wrap themselves in his mantle.

Common Questions About Shaka Zulu

Q: What is Shaka Zulu’s full name?

Shaka Zulu’s real name was Shaka kaSenzangakhona.

Q: What did Shaka Zulu do?

Shaka Zulu was an ambitious, just, and an extremely influential monarch who defined, united, and expanded the Zulu Kingdom by reforming the military and social fabric and fighting the witchdoctors who were parasites on their society.

Q: How did Shaka Zulu become King?

Shaka fought as a warrior for the Mthethwa after his father died. His leader saw his unique fighting talent and made him a chief. He went on to conquer over 11,500 sq. miles and became king.

Q: How did Shaka Zulu fall?

Shaka Zulu died in an assassination by his half-brothers in 1828.

This article was updated on April 23, 2020

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