South Africa: From Shaka Zulu to Jacob Zuma

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Zulu photo

Zuma in traditional Zulu leopard skin

The year was 1818, and the great king of the Methethwa had just fallen in battle. One of his lieutenants rallied the remnants of his reeling army at a place called Goqkoli Hill. The Methethwa were a branch of the Ngoni speakers of the Bantu people. More than 1500 years before, they had left West Africa on an epic migratory journey. Like all Bantu they were peaceful people. But in recent years the fertile land they had settled, between the mountains and the sea, in the eastern tip of southern Africa, had begun to dry. And so war had become the order of the day. Their king had led them well in a series of conflicts. But now he was dead, and those who survived prepared to make a stand.

Wave after wave of fierce African warriors came flying up the slopes of Goqkoli Hill. They crashed again and again into a wall of shields. And then, when their fury was spent, the Methethwa came pouring down on their foes and onto the pages of history. The dead king was Dingiswayo. His stalwart lieutenant was Shaka. The Methethwa and all whom they conquered were, and still are, the Zulu.

More than 100 years before and a 1000 miles away, the Dutch first landed at the southernmost point of Africa (today called the Cape of Good Hope.) The Dutch East India Company, in 1652, set up the settlement to maintain a supply station for trading ships headed for Asia by way of the African coast. (And it became the modern day city of Capetown.) In time, they began raising cattlle and crops, and as these activities increased, their contact and conflict with the indigenous peoples, the Khoikoi and the San steadily intensified.

On their farms the work was done by enslaved Africans and Asians. In the large settler families, as each son came of age, he would systematically stake out his own 6,000 acre lot and acquired forced labor to work it. Eventually, Holland turned the settlement over to Britain. When, in 1832, Britain abolished slavery, long wagon trains of Dutch settlers, refusing to give up their enslaved Africans and Asians headed out into the “open” land. As they pushed north, the Zulu were pushing south. They were headed directly towards each other…

The Battle of Goqkoli Hill was just the beginning for Shaka and the Zulu. Building on the ideas of Dingiswayo, Shaka created new weapons, training, tactics and military organization. All fled before the Zulu, or were defeated and absorbed by them. And those who did flee came into conflict with other indigenous groups and the advancing Europeans. For example, one group of Ngoni speaking Bantu under Sobhuza established themselves in what is today the nation of Swaziland. Others, under Moshwheshwe, fought all comers to a standstill in the territory which is today known as the nation of Lesotho.

By 1828, after 10 years of very hard fighting, Zululand was a massive, still-expanding kingdom, and Shaka was making plans for a final push that would bring him in touch with the European settlements. He was already in contact with their traders, whom he allowed into Zululand only under his strict supervision. However, he was eager to get direct access, not only to European trade goods, but also to their weaponry and military knowledge. His ideas would later be used by the British in the first world war and the Germans in the second. One can only wonder what if Shaka had reached the Europeans, for that was not to pass. He was assassinated in 1828 by his brother with the support of other commanders. His brother, Dingane, was no match for the Dutch who defeated him decisively at the Battle of Blood River in 1838.

Over time the Europeans made other, rapidly expanding, settlements along the coast. The overflow populations, largely Dutch, migrated inland fighting the indigenous peoples often every step of the way. Diamonds were discovered in the 1870s and gold was found in the 1880s. Britain, seeing this, steadilly extended its influence into the interior. This led to war with the Dutch, and the British were victorious three years later.

In 1945, however, South Africa was granted independence as a country totally controlled by a small white minority. In 1948, the apartheid laws went into effect making racial discrimination, in every aspect of society, a formal part of the constitution of the country. After exhausting all peaceful methods to obtain justice, the people of South Africa began to revolt. In the early 1960s, Nelson Mandela emerged as the leader of that armed struggle. He was captured and imprisoned in 1964.

The indigenous population was ultimately corralled into horrendous slums (“townships”) in the cities and banished to largely infertile, resource-deprived areas of the countryside (“bantustans.”) Over the years, all the adjacent European colonies gained their independence. And so the white regime in South Africa soon found itself fighting not only internal rebellion, but external attack. In the early ‘80s, they repeatedly offered to release Nelson Mandela if he renounced armed struggle. Mandela refused to do so.

In time, people around the world, began to boycott all economic activities involving South Africa. In 1988, a combined force of Angolans, Namibians, South African freedom fighters and thousands of Cuban soldiers decisively defeated a large South African force. Seeing the handwriting on the wall the white government in South Africa, in 1990, released Mandela without any pre-conditions. Afterwards, they asked if he would sit with them and negotiate an end to the conflict.

In the years ahead, Blacks were allowed to vote, entered the political process and elected a government led by Nelson Mandela and his political party, the African National Congress (ANC). During that period, though, in an attempt to divide and still rule, the white minority encouraged the Zulu to engage in violent conflict with other indigenous peoples. That has since stopped and Mandela passed on the leadership to Thabo Mbeki who passed it on to Jacob Zuma. Yes, apartheid is over but severe problems remain.

South Africa and its neighbors are today the world’s largest source of gold, diamonds, plantinum, uranium, copper, manganese, chrome and other minerals. However, there is a rising incidence of AIDS in the Black population, and the land is still largely in European hands. The resolution of the land conflict in nearby Zimbabwe will have a major impact on South Africa. Also, there is still stark inequality. The Black middle class has grown somewhat, but the bulk of the Black population is still impoverished. The recent police killings of 34 striking miners clearly illustrates the severity of the situation. In short, it can be said, the revolution continues here…

 

From Africa Is Not A Country: It’s A Continent, by Dr. Arthur Lewin, www.AfricaUnlimited.com