Mfecane - Zulu expansion and empire-building in KwaZulu-Natal


Mfecane is a Zulu word (literally 'crushing') used to describe the ripple effect of early 19th-century Zulu expansion and empire-building in what is now KwaZulu-Natal. The keys to these bloody events were a pressing need for land and the vengeful ruthlessness of Shaka.

Among the often warlike Nguni societies of the 18th century, chiefdoms expanded, spilling over into ever more virgin territory, so that by the beginning of the 19th century there was a land shortage. This was aggravated by a devastating drought, overgrazing, serious soil erosion and the ever closer presence of the white Voortrekkers. A scramble for power and influence ensued, forcing many smaller chiefdoms into defensive alliances against land-hungry foes. This led to larger groupings, such as the southern Mthethwa whose ruler (from about 1809) was Dingiswayo, normally considered to be the first of the great Zulu kings. Another such group included the northern Ngwane who, under Sobhuza, were to flee inland, defeating smaller Sotho and Nguni clans they met on the way and eventually amalgamating them into what became the Swazi nation.

Shaka: In 1815, Dingiswayo was murdered by a rival clan, the Ndwandwe. Shaka emerged as the new king.shaka Born in 1787, the illegitimate son of a minor Zulu chief, he grew up in Dingiswayo's court and became a military commander. One of his first acts was to change the name of the ruling tribe and all the conquered clans to that of his clan, the Zulus. Shaka was a military genius and totally ruthless. From the moment he took power, he set about expanding his army, turning it into one of the deadliest fighting forces in Africa. He invented the hugely effective short stabbing assegai to replace the traditional javelin-style throwing spear, allowing the army to reuse their weapons. He also developed brutally efficient new tactics such as the terrifying impi with the warriors attacking in a curved 'bull-and-horns' formation. In this, the main army advanced on the enemy from the front, while units of the fastest runners created diversions down the opposition's flanks, and troops from the rear circled round outside the horns to close the circle. By the end of his reign, Shaka had subjugated most of the smaller, weaker clans and controlled a vast area of land, left vacant by the flight of those who refused to submit to his authority. He was murdered in 1828 by his half brothers Dingane and Mhlangane, but he remains one of the greatest heroes of the Zulu nation.

 [A second word, Difaqane, also describes this period of black South African history. A Sotho word, it is used for the intertribal wars west of the Drakensberg that followed invasions of peoples fleeing the Mfecane wars further east. Of all the conquered and dispossessed tribes, the Sotho were the most affected, and the word has connotations of defeat and loss.]

The battle for land: The ripple effect caused by the refugees from Zulu might created widespread upheaval. As terrified peoples moved north, they collided and clashed with other settled inhabitants spread in a wide arc from what is now Swaziland to the highveld and Lesotho, displacing them in turn as they secured land on which to graze their cattle and grow their crops.

The events of this period gave rise to an enduring myth: that the land into which the Voortrekkers and other early pioneers stepped in the 19th century was empty country, depopulated by the Mfecane. The reality was quite different. In fact, this was a land where people had gathered in places of safety and were desperately endeavouring to re-establish order in their shattered societies. The presence of the settlers - with their guns, wagons and horses - only exacerbated an already unpleasant situation, eventually leading to appalling violence and some of the most tragic episodes in South Africa's history, among them the horrifying Battle of Blood River.

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