AOV: Chapter 3: Images and Transformation

Chapter 3: Images and Transformation

In the previous chapter, we looked at different meanings of various forms of violence in a variety of different social and cultural settings. I demonstrated how violence is aestheticized through its articulation with cosmologically-generated meanings and how even minor or subtle differences in the ritual can alter its meanings. Also I showed how variations in the form of violence are ultimately derived from the mythological heroes and characters which variously embody those ideals and values which are seen as essential not only to the survival of the individual, but also to the structural integrity of those societies.
Thus, while mythologies may be regarded as the expression, at the cosmological level, of a given society’s existential and ontological reality, they are not merely expressions, but also engage in a dialectical relationship with the members of that society, structuring their attitudes and dispositions and, consequently, their social practices through their function as social ‘charters’, which therefore validate simultaneously both social practice and the social structures of which such practice is the manifest expression.
Thus social structures and behaviour-patterns (i.e. social practice) are perpetuated through the operation of the dialectical inter-relationship between cosmological realities and the material conditions of existence, mediated by social practice; and it is this dialectic of affectivity to which we refer when using Bourdieu’s concept of habitus to describe the nature of aesthetic experience.
However as I said earlier, neither these habitus nor the social structures and practices to which they give rise are eternally immutable structures, however strong might be their tendency to reproduce themselves exactly. As Michael Taussig (1987) clearly demonstrates, changes in the material conditions of existence, combined with the interaction of foreign ideologies and mythologies and habitus, with indigenous ontologies, give rise to transformations which are reflected at both the level of cosmologically and mythologically-perceived reality, and also inevitably, at the level of social practice (praxis).
Because of the largely synchronic nature of the ethnographies examined in the previous chapter, it was not possible to analyse diachronic changes and transformations in the structure and meanings of these violent aesthetics and their manifest behavioural expressions and this has resulted in a rather static view of these habitus. Therefore, in this chapter and the next I shall examine the changes in the images and meanings of the aesthetic of violence cultivated by the Zulu of South Africa, from the emergence of the Zulu empire to their subjugation under the South African system of apartheid.
In his review of Marshall Sahlins’ book “Islands of History” (1985), Jonathan Friedman quotes Sahlins:

“History is culturally ordered, differently so in different societies, according to meaningful schemes of things. The converse is also true: Cultural schemes are historically ordered, since to a greater or lesser extent the meanings are re-valued as they are practically enacted.” (Friedman 1987: 73)

Thus history is seen by Sahlins as a reciprocal movement between the practice of structure and the structure of practice. Friedman’s interpretation of Sahlins’ stance is that,

“…culture is seen as a code, program, system of semantic categories that are implemented in the actual performance of social life and are as such essentially generative, while by implication interpretive, since meaning that organizes the world is at once its own signification.” (Friedman, 1987: 74).

However, if from this we infer that these cultures, these codes, programs and systems of semantic categories can be apprehended, interpreted and understood through the process of sociological analysis, there is nevertheless a reason for caution as Friedman warns us:

“… in writing about other histories as produced by other cultures in a world that is made up of nothing but culture, our own discourse about them can be nothing other than an expression of our own culture. This solipsism generated by culturalism forces us to consider the possibility that our notions of their heroic history are part of our own culture but not of theirs.” (1987: 82).

Even so, it should not surprise anyone that in situations of the interaction of two or more cultures, the receiver of any information at all of necessity apprehends that information via the means of a ‘cognitive grid’ which automatically structures that knowledge in terms which refer directly to the recipient’s own existential, ideological and emotional biases, because it is these biases, or ‘dispositions’, which form the infrastructure of that ‘cognitive grid’. To do otherwise is therefore impossible.
However, although data is thus quite possibly distorted in the very act of its transmission, this is not to say that it is therefore ‘false’, or ‘meaningless’ to the recipient. True, what is perceived may be a distortion, but even so, because of the fact that any application of the knowledge thus received is made by the recipient, then what ought to be the object of analysis is not perhaps, the ‘true’ existential reality referred to by the sender, which in any case remains ineffable at least until it has undergone a protracted process of clarification through ‘cultural feedback’, but rather what the recipient makes of it – which still has meaning, value and utility, though only in reference to the recipient’s own experience and epistemologies.
‘Received knowledge’ is therefore not ‘real’ knowledge, but rather what Friedman (1987) calls ‘a self-oriented reconstruction of another, alien knowledge’, in terms that may be applicable and meaningful to the recipient, but not necessarily to the sender.
At the level of the individual, the construction of meaning, though influenced and shaped by existing habitus, epistemologies etc, is therefore ultimately a completely subjective experience in which data, received through the senses, are structured by the individual so as to have relevance; but relevance can only ever be considered in terms of the individuals, and by extension, the societies, which try to encompass more or less alien concepts within their own frames of reference.
Distortion of meanings may occur to a greater or lesser degree, depending on whether perceived cultural differences are more or less radical. The potential this hermeneutic distortion has for leading to tragic consequences is vividly demonstrated by Sahlins’ analysis of the fate of Captain Cook. As Friedman points out,

“…the Hawaiian confrontation with Captain Cook and his crew consisted in incorporating them into their cultural categories and then proceeding to treat them as participants in a scenario pre-inscribed in the Hawaiian cosmogony. Everything would have worked perfectly if the English had not had their own script.” (1987: 82).

Not only are such tragic and terrible misunderstandings far from unique; but they also often have far-reaching social and historical repercussions:
Another example is the way Moctezuma II believed Cortes to be the Toltec god Quetzalcoatl, returning to claim his patrimony, and treated him accordingly. Cortes was more fortunate than Captain Cook however, as this treatment must surely have aided Cortes in his project, which was nothing other than the conquering and subjugation of the Aztec empire (Reeves-Sanday, 1986: 170).
Again, Michael Taussig (1987: ch3 and 4) shows how the preconceived ideas of the ‘savagery’ of the Indians of the Putumayo on the part of white traders helped structure the brutally violent manner in which these same Indians were treated, and how this image of ‘wildness’ was later used as a source of power which enabled shamans to heal both Indians and whites. In spite of Roger Casement’s protests to the contrary, the savage image of these Indians prevailed and the fear this generated was used as a justification for all manner of atrocities committed against them in the name of ‘civilizing’ these ‘savages’; which of course, meant nothing other than the ruthless exploitation and enslavement of the Indians by the rubber traders.
In an earlier book Taussig also describes how, in the Indians’ appropriation of Christian iconography, the meanings which their Spanish conquerors attached to the figures of God and the Devil became fused with the ambivalent character of indigenous spirits to produce a transformation of Christianity in which the Devil ultimately becomes a symbol of the history of colonial domination, and also, curiously enough, of hope for the future as a symbol of resistance to that domination through its close identification with the colonisers. (1980: pt3).
Thus we can see that, as Friedman quite correctly states:

“…the entire concrete history of a particular time period is always the expression of an ultimate cosmological drama.” (1987: 82).

Because of the ambiguity inherent in situations of early cultural interaction (most especially in the initial stages), in which the meanings and intentions of the practices of ‘Others’ cannot possibly be interpreted in relation to the unknown paradigms which both structure those practices and give them their meanings, they are inevitably interpreted in terms of the actors’ own respective ‘paradigms of significance’ (Friedman, 1987:98) and responded to accordingly, though perhaps not always entirely appropriately.
Thus new forms of praxis emerge from the perceived, rather than the actual meanings of the ‘Other’, which in turn structure subsequent and on-going interactions. Though the original paradigms of significance may eventually be understood, this can only happen in retrospect, after a prolonged process of constant and mutual feedback and correction, when codes governing the nature and forms of cross-cultural interaction have been established and are operating to modify not only inter-cultural practices, but also the paradigms of significance which engendered these transformations. Thus, as Friedman succinctly puts it:

“… The conditions of our existence, our social relations, and even the constitution of ourselves as subjects, are structured and transformed in the very flow of events that is our praxis, and even more, the process of social reproduction in which our praxis participates.” (1987: 97).

It is therefore necessary to understand these ‘paradigms of significance’, i.e. these cosmologies, ideologies, and the aesthetics and habitus from which they emerge, not merely as codes or programs for social practice, but rather as strategies of social reproduction.

The Rise of the Zulu Empire:

Before the emergence of the Zulu empire, the population of South Africa consisted of scattered small-scale societies and chiefdoms which belonged largely to the Nguni linguistic group of peoples who had migrated from the north over a long period of time. These groups were to become known as the amaXhosa, and the abaThembu, whose southward migration was finally checked in the vicinity of the Great Fish River by the northward migration of European settlers extending the frontiers of the Cape settlement. EV Walter quotes Eric Walker’s description of the confrontation:

“… there were in 1779 on either side of an ill-defined and totally unpoliced border, white men and black, at different levels of civilisation it is true, but both rough and ready agriculturalists, both essentially cattle-farmers, both migratory and both greedy of land.” (EA Walker, 1957, quoted in EV Walter, 1969: 114).

Although the Nguni offered the white settlers serious and durable resistance, the superior weapons of the Europeans enabled them to overcome the far more numerous Africans. This contact was to have far-reaching repercussions. Walter, speculating on Dingiswayo’s motivations for the extensive wars of conquest which resulted in the subjection of scores of independent chiefdoms to Mthethwa supremacy, mentions certain clues which may suggest that he was motivated by something more than merely an ambition for territorial expansion. Increased pressure on available land as a result of European expansion inevitably gave rise to much conflict between these hitherto independent chiefdoms. Dingiswayo justified his wars of conquest by the claim that he wished to end the continual fighting between the communities by bringing them under a single government and establishing a supreme head to settle disputes (Walter, 1969: 120). It is also quite possible, even probable that Dingiswayo saw that uniting these communities was the only possible means of resisting further European encroachment on tribal lands.
Whether or not Dingiswayo’s innovations, which included discipline and drill, regimental organisation, massed attacks and encircling tactics, were influenced by contact with Europeans or were transformations of indigenous social structures and practices, they effectively transformed the nature of warfare in South Africa. Traditional forms of warfare were relatively minor affairs, usually settled in a single day, and although each man was an expert in the use of his assegai, he was never drilled to act in concert with others and the warriors did not perform even the slightest military evolution as a unit (Walter, 1969: 122-123). As Walter says, these techniques did not lend themselves to systematic destruction.

“Dingiswayo changed the technique by drilling his men to fight in units, then marching his regiments forward in massed attack, training them to hold their fire as they moved through the fusillade, covered by their large shields, until they confronted the enemy at close range. It was not long until warriors fighting in the old style would break and run at the sight of the massed impi.” (Walter, 1969: 123).

This new style of warfare had important ramifications:

“…on the one hand, it constructed an organisation and method that made possible systematic destruction, forging an instrument of military terrorism. On the other hand, it fashioned a military discipline and network of controls within the community that was not possible under the old system.” (Walter, 1969: 123).

This new method of warfare made possible the creation of a new political order, based on a system of suzerain-vassal relationships, as those chiefs who resisted were either put to death or to flight, and replaced by favourites of Dingiswayo, while those who submitted were allowed to maintain their territorial and internal sovereignty intact once they had pledged fealty to Dingiswayo.
Another equally important effect of the new style of warfare was that a new type of kingship was created, along with a new image of the king. For the conquered chiefdoms, their view of Dingiswayo could not have been other than that of an invincible and all-conquering chief with a massive and irresistible military machine at his disposal whose successes must even have smacked of almost supernatural ability and near omnipotence. This image was to be enhanced and reinforced by his successor, Shaka, who introduced further military as well as social and structural modifications which transformed the nature of the kingship from the relatively benevolent limited monarchy the people had known under Dingiswayo to that of a terroristic despotism. This transformation can only have been facilitated by traditional Nguni ideologies of discipline and moral authority which structured sentiments of loyalty to the king. Walter quotes Bryant on this subject:

“Each and every individual of the Nguni clan, boys and girls, maids and men alike, [was] taught, first to father, then to the king to be ever obedient, docile, disciplined, self-sacrificing unto the last, unto the supreme test of offering one’s life on the field of battle.” (Bryant, 1929: 29; quoted in Walter 1969: 121).

Further on, Walter again quotes Bryant on the subject:

“The one great law that governed there was the law of complete submission to parental authority; and that authority was drastically enforced. Unquestioning, un-answering obedience to the supreme power was demanded without distinction, of all alike, of mothers, of sons (some of them already middle-aged men with families of their own), of every child. Every failure to obey was immediately followed by a penalty inflicted without mercy; while persistent insubordination might lead to the disgrace of expulsion, and open revolt might even terminate in death. And what each inmate of the kraal saw practiced by the father, he in turn practised in his own regard, demanding of all his juniors the same measure of obedience as was demanded of him by those above. Alongside, or out of, this practice of complete submission was gradually evolved something more than mere respect, almost a holy awe – ukw-esaba – or ‘to fear’, as the Zulus call it, ‘for those above one’. And this again was mutual and universal, the little boys revering the bigger boys; the bigger boys, the men, and all, their parents.” (1987:187).

Shaka was to capitalise on these traditional sentiments, though he was astute enough not to initiate his regime of terror until after he merged the Zulu with the Mthethwa after the death of Dingiswayo in the First Ndwandwe War. This he did by having the legitimate heir to the Mthethwa paramountcy killed on the pretext of a personal offence, and installing his own favourite, Mlandlela, in his place, thereby gaining control of the greatest machine of military destruction South Africa had ever seen (Walter, 1969: 127). After the Ndwandwe were defeated in the Second Ndwandwe War and the Qwabe were defeated and incorporated into the Zulu regiments, Shaka had eliminated the threat from his two most formidable enemies and transformed the political character of Zululand into an imperial domain, having incorporated, in less than three years, more than thirty chiefs and their peoples into a single political system, the former enemy troops being incorporated into the Zulu military forces, thus replenishing them beyond the losses of all campaigns and expanding the Zulu armies to new proportions (Walter, 1969: 128-129). The creation of a vast, almost uninhabited wasteland, or ‘traffic desert’, in which anything that could by used as food was destroyed and which was regularly patrolled by bands of Zulus who hunted down any stray men and killed them, was an important feature of Shaka’s strategy and had a twofold effect. Not only did it pose a logistical problem to potential invading enemies, but it also rendered existence impossible within his reach, except under his rule (Walter, 1969: 138-139).
The policy behind the regime of terror instituted by Shaka was to eliminate any possible resistance to, or limitation on his own power. (Walter, 1969: 163-164) For this reason some of the first victims of the terror were the old men who, no longer useful for military purposes, could have served as a limitation on Shaka’s power because of the traditional respect accorded to them, and the moral authority which was vested in them as living archives of custom and law. Thus Shaka redefined their status through instituted ridicule before slaughtering them (Walter, 1969: 163-164). Although Shaka depended on his amaphakathi, or inner circle of chiefs and generals, to execute his will and for advice on matters of state, they too were nonetheless subject to the process of terror, and any chief or other important person whose loyalty came into question was killed and replaced by a favourite of Shaka. Shaka also very cleverly divided his three military councils against each other, each competing for his favour, thus curbing the possibility of the chiefs as a group becoming a threat to, or a limitation on his power (Walter, 1969: 165-166). Realising that one of the greatest threats to a ruler was the potential rebellion of his own sons, Shaka refused to marry or to beget heirs. His own bachelorhood was also used as an example to his soldiers, who, through Shaka’s rigid control of the right to marry, were only permitted to do so after their best years of military service were over, when Shaka would arrange the marriage of a regiment of men with a specific regiment of girls. By this means he further eroded the authority of kin-groups. The primary loyalties of kin-groups was also weakened by the regimental system under which all men were required to live permanently in military kraals until their period of active service was finished, as well as by his habit of frequently ordering a father to kill his own son, or a man to kill his brother, facing execution themselves if they showed the least hesitation. Furthermore, families were forbidden to grieve for their own dead, whilst expected to display grief dramatically and convulsively for the deaths of important people. By such means,

“… Shaka struck at the primary loyalties of kinship ties and personal attachments, not permitting those sentiments to compete with the total loyalty he demanded from his people.” (Walter, 1969: 152)

Thus we can see that Shaka, by destroying these ‘primary loyalties of kinship ties and personal attachments’, and by refusing to permit the growth of political groups which might inhibit his own power, as well as by the constant use of terror to ensure complete submissiveness and total obedience to his will, augmented his own despotic power until it was absolute. But he was not content merely to become the sole focus of all secular power and authority. He also demanded, and achieved, a monopoly on all the major forms of mystical power as well.
Though as ruler, he himself was immune to accusations of sorcery, Shaka realised that his trusted inner circle of chiefs and lieutenants – the amaphakathi – were vulnerable to such accusations by the izanusi (diviners, specialists) who therefore represented the threat of a potential limitation on Shaka’s power. In order to curb this threat, Shaka struggled with the izanusi for several years, during which time he managed to obtain immunity from sorcery accusations for the army and eventually contrived a scheme to break the power of the izanusi once and for all.
Though he could not deny the principles of divination, nor impugn the role of the isanusi (singular), he could expose them as false diviners. To that end, he secretly smeared the walls and the ground in front of the royal hut with blood then asked all the izanusi to discover who had perpetrated this sacrilege. The diviners smelled out a large number of ‘criminals’, including several members of the inner circle, but their execution was delayed on Shaka’s order. Only one diviner had the wit to say the offence had been committed by izulu – a word which signified either ‘heaven’ or a praise-name for the Zulu king. Thus Shaka spared him, but ordered the rest to be killed by their would-be victims (Walter, 1969: 161). After this, Shaka declared himself the only true diviner in the country, as well as the only legitimate rainmaker, and gave the order for all the ‘heaven-doctors’ to be killed. Thus Shaka achieved a virtual monopoly over the most important magical practices. Quoting Isaacs, a member of the small group of Englishmen who had the privilege of attending Shaka’s court, Walter says,

“Chaka ruled his people by perpetually keeping them in a state of terror, and his command over them was also greatly facilitated by his continually impressing them with the power of charms, witchcraft or necromancy, which he practised, with inconceivable effect, on his poor, abject deluded and oppressed subjects. This he carried to such an extent as to excite a belief in their minds, that he had the power of knowing all their thoughts, and of seeing all their most secret actions” (1969: 162).

However, it was not enough for Shaka merely to have a monopoly on all possible sources of power. This power must be made visible, and it must by demonstrated and dramatised to the people in order for them to realise his omnipotence. This was achieved through the grandeur of the spectacle of Shaka’s court and the impressiveness of the rituals surrounding day-to-day life there. To make his chiefs aware of his omnipotence, they were all periodically required to attend court in his capital at kwaBulawayo, the ‘place of the slaughter’, and later at Dukuza, to experience simultaneously its grandeur and its terror. Describing these, Bryant says:

“Life at Bulawayo appeared to be a continuous fete-day. All ‘London’ had flocked out to see the king and to take part in the joyous celebrations. ‘The whole country, as far as the eye could reach, was covered with numbers of people’ – which on one occasion Fynn calculated to amount to 25,000 souls, male and female – ‘and droves of cattle. The king came up to us and told us not to be afraid of his people, who were coming onwards’. Keep the troublesome population busy, was Shaka’s wise maxim and you keep it out of mischief; and every morning or afternoon a dance or a cattle-show on the grand scale was organised.” (Bryant, 1929: 573).

Elsewhere he quotes Isaac’s description of kwaBulawayo:

“…the circumference I should think would exceed three miles, and includes within its space about 1400 huts. The king’s palace, which is situated at the head of the kraal, on an eminence, comprises about 100 huts, in which none but girls [i.e. Shaka’s seraglio] live. At the time of our entering the gates, the kraal was surrounded by about 12,000 men in their war attire…. Umbekwana (=uMbikwana), who had accompanied us, made a long speech to the king, who was so surrounded by his chiefs that we could not distinguish him.” (Bryant, 1929: 573).

Daily rituals were frequently interrupted by the executions of men, and sometimes even women and children, who may have committed some minor error or breech of etiquette, such as sneezing while Shaka was eating, or making him laugh when he was trying to be serious. Sometimes there was no apparent reason other than caprice, but at the merest sign from Shaka – a nod, or the lifting of a finger – and those indicated for destruction would immediately be seized by those sitting nearest to them, their necks would be twisted and they would be dragged off to feed the king’s vultures. Often the victims would die singing the king’s praises, as if thanking him for the honour. Thus grandeur and terror went hand in hand to not only emphasise the idea of the king’s omnipotence, but also to make it manifest.
From this description of Shaka’s methodology, it should be clear that Shaka, through his monopoly on all power, both secular and mystical, including control of all wealth through his personal distribution of all cattle captured in raids and wars on enemy villages, consciously and deliberately set about the creation for himself of an image of his kingship as being both omniscient and omnipotent; Shaka was the Great Destroyer/Provider. In effect, to all intents and purposes he became much more than a king to his people; in their eyes he became a living god and his godhood was experienced by them as actual.
So far we have seen how changes in the material conditions of existence, represented by European encroachment on Nguni lands, created the necessity for a unification of the Nguni peoples which was previously unknown to them and which only became possible by the deliberate development of the image of the king from that of a ‘paramount chief’ to that of a living god. The fact that several great leaders emerged (Zwide and Mzilikazi as well as Dingiswayo and his successor, Shaka) does not detract from this line of reasoning, but rather reinforces it. At the same time it also demonstrates the necessity, perceived by Shaka, of terror as the only effective means of completing that unity. Consider, for example, an explanation of the terror which tradition ascribes to Shaka himself,

“Terror is the only thing they understand, and you can only rule the Zulus by killing them. Who are the Zulus? They are the parts of two hundred or more unruly clans which I had to break up and reshape, and only the fear of death will hold them together. The time will come when they will be as one nation, and the clans will only be remembered as their izibongo (surnames). In the meantime my very name must inspire them with terror.“ (Walter, 1969: 176).

SF Nadel also, in his analysis of the political history of the Nupe of Nigeria, who also have a divine, and at least theoretically omnipotent kingship, and whose social structure comprised a unification of heterogeneous social groupings, absorbed by conquest, faced similar problems of unification as those faced by Shaka. However, the Nupe found a compromise in the rotation of succession between the three major social groupings. However, he also points out that the unity of the social structure created by the compromise was a fragile one,

“…we must point out at once that this absorption of heterogeneous elements could only achieve a relative unity. The antagonism between the original heterogeneity and the subsequent unification is never allowed to disappear completely. It survives in certain forms of cultural and racial discrimination.” (1942: 70).

It is evident that Shaka foresaw this problem and used terror as a means to avoid a compromise which would ultimately have a disintegrative effect on the social unity he was attempting to forge. The desired degree of social unity in Shaka’s case could only be achieved by the means of the creation of an image of divine kingship that was completely novel among the Nguni-speaking peoples of South Africa – an image of divine kingship based on terror. Thus a cosmological reality (for a god is a cosmological reality, however human he may prove to be empirically), is created from processes which emerged out of changes in the material conditions of existence, which are in turn transformed by that cosmology into a strategy of social reproduction: this cosmological image (i.e. Shaka’s ‘godhood’) or model of and for reality is seen as the only means of resisting the threat of social disintegration represented by the continual feuding of the Nguni communities which was the result of increasing European expansion.
I have said that the image of the god/king thus created and fostered (quite deliberately) by Shaka was new, yet there have been several African peoples, including the Shilluk of the Nilotic Sudan and the Nupe of Nigeria, not to mention the pharaohs of Ancient Egypt, who also attributed divinity and at least theoretical omnipotence to their rulers. However, as Evans-Pritchard points out for the Shilluk, although the king may have exerted considerable influence in the country, he did not nominate settlement chiefs, but merely confirmed them in office; their positions being due to their status as heads of dominant lineages in their villages (Evans-Pritchard, 1948: 14). Moreover both the function and status of the king were primarily of a ritual order; his divinity being due to his embodiment of the spirit of Nyikang, the semi-divine hero of Shilluk mythology, who was also, through his embodiment in each successive king, the king of the Shilluk at every period in their history. (1948: 16-18). A further limitation on the theoretical omnipotence of the Shilluk king derives from the fact that he could not nominate his successor. Although he might indicate a preference, in order for a prince to become a king the backing, if only passive, of the whole kingdom was necessary. (1948: 24-25).
In Nigeria, the Nupe kingship, though again theoretically omnipotent and again divine through his association with the semi-mythical hero Tsoede, of the Nupe charter myth, was limited by a balance of power between three separate dynasties, each representing distinct cultural groups among whom succession to the throne was a precarious one which gave rise to rivalries, feuds, intrigues and revolts which constantly threatened the peace. (Nadel, 1942: 73-76). Thus the novelty of the image of divine kingship created by Shaka stems from the fact that because Shaka controlled all power in Zululand, both spiritual and temporal, as well as all social relations, martial, marital and economic, Shaka’s omnipotence was experienced as actual, rather than merely theoretical.
However, though new, the image of Shaka’s kingship did not necessarily represent a radical departure from traditional structures and practices, but is rather an extreme transformation of potentialities already inherent in traditional structures and practices. For instance, Shaka’s use of violence as a means of social control had its basis in the old Bantu culture in which fines and death were the only two modes of punishment for civil offences, torture being reserved for cases of witchcraft; although admittedly the use of violence to punish specific civil offences is qualitatively different from its use in the process of terror (Walter, 1969: 147). Even so, the use of violence and fear formed part of traditional authority structures, and this provided a basis for legitimacy of the uses of violence and fear within the terroristic context:

“At no time were violence and fear considered departures from traditional authority, for they might be traced back to the ancestral system of controls which had preceded Shaka’s regime. The pattern of terroristic despotism never lost its legitimacy, therefore, although the chief’s right to kill and the subject’s duty of fearful reverence were no longer fixed in the network of limitations and restraints that had been part of the patriarchal organisation. No longer merely subordinate parts of a system of controls, violence and fear took on exaggerated proportions, becoming the central features of terroristic despotism. The elements had always been present; what had changed was the frequency and extent of their use and the way in which they were organised.” (Walter, 1969: 187).

Walter also suggests that the classical ‘bulls-head’ strategy of the Zulu impis and also the regimental system may have pre-dated Dingiswayo by at least two centuries, or else that the regimental system was a transformation of initiation ‘guilds’ and the bulls-head tactic may have developed out of traditional hunting practices (1969: 123-124). Even Shaka’s excesses in reaction to the death of his mother, Nandi, though it surpassed the limits of custom and tradition as it was absorbed into the system of terror, had its basis (and, to some extent, its legitimation) in traditional Zulu reactions to death, which was ceremonialized by rituals of purification and attended by convulsive demonstrations of grief (Walter, 1969: 170). Thus Shaka’s regime of terror and the image of the god/king to which it gave rise, though themselves innovations, were legitimised through their bases in traditional structures and practices of which they represent extreme transformations.
If it seems that I have dwelt rather excessively on the creation of this image of the god/king, this is because it is of central importance to the analysis of the changes and transformations in South African history. It is an image which has had a profound significance to both the Zulus and their indigenous enemies and also to the European settlers who came to subjugate, dominate and exploit them. However its meanings change over the course of history and depending upon the position from which it is viewed, as we shall see later, when I discuss how European domination was effected largely through the manipulation of this image.
It is one of those images which, operating through the aesthetic communications which it affords succeeding generations, becomes an habitus in and of itself, structuring social practices – though differently, depending on different cultural interpretations, and the different historical perspectives from which it is viewed and interpreted – so subtly, but so profoundly, that it becomes an integral part of social reality, though submerged in our dreams; or perhaps, in our nightmares; so potent a symbol was Shaka’s image of the god/king that it seems to take on a life of its own; ultimately becoming unstoppable and irresistible, a juggernaut. So it must have seemed to Dingane, Shaka’s assassin and successor, who, disgusted by Shaka’s latest excesses, plotted with a royal prince, Mhlangana, like Dingane half-brother to Shaka, and a principal induna, Mbopha, to kill him and put an end to the terror, knowing that public opinion would support such an action in the light of Shaka’s growing fury, having recently even threatened to kill members of his inner circle of chiefs, the amaphakathi. Dingane’s subsequent actions, however, led Isaacs to suspect the sincerity of Dingane’s expressed desire for peace and an end to the terror, though I would argue that his desire was sincere, but that he was unable to realise it. Fynn, another Englishman at Shaka’s court at the time of his death, observed:

“Dingana promised to set the minds of his people at ease by not imitating the conduct of Chaka, in such matters as he considered to be hurtful to them. He composed, or caused to be composed, national songs, containing the denunciations against the former state of things: he adopted mild measures, and thought that he was establishing himself freely, when obstacles occurred which showed him the true state of things, and the motives that had driven his predecessor to such extreme lengths of severity and cruelty. I shall not be in the least surprised to see repeated by Dingana the very acts for which he punished Chaka with death.” (Fynn, 1950: quoted in Walter, 1969: 175).

Fynn’s premonitions proved to be accurate and prophetic. Within three months of Shaka’s murder, Dingane, who had begun his reign as a moderate king, turned to Shaka’s methods of terroristic despotism as the only means to overcome fissiparous tendencies which emerged from pre-existing tensions within the political system. Unlike Isaacs, however, Fynn does not doubt the sincerity of Dingane’s motivations, but rather anticipates that his hand would be forced by the disintegration of the Zulu empire threatened by these tensions and fissiparous tendencies. The turning point came, and its meaning was not lost on Dingane, with the rebellion of Nquetho, who led the Qwabe in revolt against Dingane after being accused of the crime of lese majeste for his failure to report having taken his brother’s widow for his wife under an ancient custom. Walter says of this incident:

“It turned into a general crisis because it exposed several unresolved issues: the ambiguity of Dingane’s promise to release the privilege of marriage – especially the marriage of chiefs – from royal controls, the thrust towards independence of conquered segments that retained old identities, the problematic nature of the relationship between the king and the chiefs of those segments, and the need to define more precisely Dingane’s still inchoate style of rule.” (1969:181).

Although Walter (1969:180) suggests that Dingane had two historical alternatives open to him – either the breaking up of the Zulu empire into several tribal fragments, or the establishment of a responsible monarchy limited by chiefs and people – it is clear that the first of these alternatives was unacceptable because of the threat of further European expansion and a return to the continual feuding between the various communities while a limited monarchy would not be able to maintain the integrity of the nation in view of the fissiparous tendencies inherent in the political organisation of the state. Thus, the power of the ruler had to be seen as absolute and unlimited in order to counteract the potential for fissioning inherent in the heterogeneous make-up of the empire. Effectively then, Dingane had no real choice, terror was the only means available to maintain the unity which only terror could forge. One might perhaps be forgiven for imagining the ghost of Shaka laughing at this turn of events from beyond his grave!

The Decline of the Zulu Empire:

Dingane learned that the reason for the terror under Shaka was to empower an image of a god/king which thereby became the sole focus for the loyalty of his chiefs, and through them all his people, who might otherwise, because of the heterogeneous nature of the social and political structure of the Zulu empire, have dissipated their energies in sectional interests aimed only at tribal loyalties. Unchecked, this could only result in the division and disintegration of the Zulu empire into separate tribal units and inevitably a return to the state of constant feuding which had preceded its unification, leaving all the Nguni peoples easy prey to the superior military might of the Europeans.
Neither was the significance of this lesson lost on the later Zulu kings, Mpande and Cetshwayo, who, even though they are remembered by the Zulu as mild and benevolent rulers were both nevertheless convinced of the necessity of terror as the only means by which the Zulus could be ruled. For this reason both of these rulers had cause to complain about British attempts to impose restrictions on them in order to curb their terroristic practices.
But after Shaka’s death the image of the kingship under Dingane was nevertheless significantly different from the cruelly omnipotent image which Shaka had created. Dingane’s initial attempt at ruling through mild measures was met with resistance and the revolt of the Qwabe section, which nearly succeeded. Though this rebellion was successfully repressed, the power of the king had been challenged and tested, and the ferocity with which Dingane turned to terroristic methods in his attempt to reinvigorate the image of the kingship with its previous omnipotence, smacks almost of desperation. Clearly, his early adoption of mild methods had nearly caused him to lose control of the Zulu state and a return to constant feuding between the tribal segments.
Seen in this light, the constant pressures exerted by the indunas on the monarch, urging him on to ever more ferocious acts of barbaric cruelty and gratuitous violence, becomes much more comprehensible: a steady stream of victims was essential in order to empower the image of omnipotence which the kingship had to maintain, as only such an image was capable of overcoming resistance and, at the same time, focussing loyalties solely on the person of the king.
Dingane’s reign also saw a period of military decline which can only have further eroded the image of god-like omnipotence he needed to maintain. Expeditions against the Matabele and the Baca failed; Dingane’s only military success since the death of Shaka was an attack on the small community of the amaCele. The terror mounted at the centre of the state, but failing to make new conquests, though forever pressured into military exploits by his chiefs and indunas, Dingane finally took to preying on communities which were already tributary to the Zulus as the only means of attaching some glory to his name (Walter, 1969: 202-203).
Relations between the Zulus and the British at Port Natal had always been strained, though overtly cordial; each party fearing the outcome of war between them. But when Dingane, relying on the traditional animosity between the British and the Boers, who had been attempting to encroach on Zulu territories since 1834, attacked and massacred Retief’s party, as well as men, women and children in the Boer laagers, it was a fatal error of judgement. Not only did the British side with the Boers, but it also caused a schism amongst the Zulus, many of whom respected the Europeans. Dingane’s brother Mpande also rebelled against him and threw in his lot with the Europeans, contributing a Zulu force to the armies in the field against him.
Mpande was eventually placed on the Zulu throne by the Boer Volksraad, and his kingdom became a vassal state controlled by the Boer republic, although the Boers were too weak and divided to make their suzerainty effective.
Certain conditions had been stipulated by the Boers in return for their support: no-one was to be executed on a charge of sorcery and no defenceless persons – women, children and the aged – should be killed, though as Walter points out these limitations on Mpande’s authority were soon forgotten and no European power ever challenged Mpande’s internal sovereignty (Walter, 1969: 227-228). The reasons for the lack of such a challenge can be put down to a combination of certain structural changes instituted by Mpande and the character of the monarch himself.
Under Mpande Zulu military activities virtually ceased, thus, as Walter states:

“Two important features of the Zulu state – military aggression and territorial expansion – were contained, making fundamental changes in the power system. These changes and Mpande’s adaptation to them have not been understood. The commonly-accepted version of his reign pictures the king as an inept ruler and is based on his seeming mildness as compared to the mien of his predecessors, Shaka and Dingane, and on his political accommodation to the Europeans. His conduct is usually attributed to weakness and indolence.” (1969: 212).

This impression of Mpande’s character was probably stimulated by the fact that, according to Zulu traditions, Mpande had survived the violence of Shaka and Dingane by playing the fool. But as Walter says, Mpande was no fool (1969: 213). The cessation of Zulu aggression was in recognition of changes in the power-relations between the various Bantu peoples and the Europeans. For example, Mswati, king of the Swazi – a traditional enemy of the Zulu – had decided that the British would be useful as allies and, soon after his accession in 1838 he applied to Sir Theophilus Shepstone for British protection against the raids of the Zulus into Swaziland. Although protection was refused, Shepstone used his political influence in Zululand to restrain Mpande (H Kuper, 1947: 19).
Other groups hostile to the Zulus had demonstrated their ability to defend themselves to Mpande’s predecessor, Dingane, so it would have been foolish for him to initiate any military expeditions in those directions; neither did Mpande want the European technological and military superiority which had placed him on the throne turned against him. Walter says:

“Careful inspection of the evidence contradicts the interpretation that dismisses him as an incompetent, apathetic king, and it reveals a complex and prudent policy, which realistically did not pit Zulu strength against European technological power, yet worked to preserve the integrity of Zulu institutions in new conditions. It was a period of replenishment, and, in Morris’s … words, ‘The kraals were flourishing, and the cattle had long since made good the losses from the Boer depredations. All the men between twenty and sixty years of age were enrolled in regiments which could be mobilised in a few days, and the nation was more powerful than it had ever been before.” (1969: 215).

Indeed there is a certain irony in the fact that the same authors who condemned the terrorism of Shaka and Dingane (Becker, Bryant, Morris) should regard Mpande as a fool for not copying their example, especially in view of the economic and social successes of his reign. Although many features of the despotic style remained, Mpande’s relationship to his subordinate chiefs, as well as to the rest of his subjects, had begun to change, restructuring power relations at the same time as they restructured the image of kingship along the lines of a limited monarchy, which Walter says is more typical than despotism among Bantu-speaking peoples. (1969: 215-216).

“In great questions of policy – especially military policy – the king convened councils, ascertained the prevailing opinion, and adopted it as his own. This trend became institutionalised so that in later Zulu history the king had no effective power that was not supported by public opinion. Another kind of limitation began to develop in Mpande’s reign also, for the king was known to declare publicly that he was obliged in his actions to conform to law.” (1969: 187).

Although this new style of kingship (which as I have shown, emerged out of Mpande’s need to accept and accommodate to changing power-relations in South Africa) placed certain limits on the king, requiring him to conform to law and the prevailing consensus of opinion in matters of policy (at least outwardly), it should nevertheless be stressed that despotic practices still continued, though on a reduced scale, and the king still thought of himself as a terrorist. Walter says,

“The despotic system had contracted, but terroristic rule, considerably limited in scope, remained. Generally regarded as the mildest of Zulu rulers, Mpande still declared flatly to Sir Theophilus Shepstone, Chief Native Affairs Commissioner of Natal, ‘The Zulus are only ruled by being killed’.” (1969: 218).

From the fact that even Mpande reserved for himself the monarchical right to kill his subjects, and from the fact that resistance to the terror process only ever occurred when it had been intensified in the extreme, we can deduce that the Zulus never objected to the principle of terroristic despotism, but only to the sometimes extreme intensity of its application. Because Mpande never let the process of terror develop to the extreme it had under Shaka and Dingane, in 1872 he became the first Zulu king ever to die a natural death.
In the latter part of Mpande’s reign, as a result of the new relationships between the chiefs and their king, regional centres of power began to emerge, focussed around the persons of the local chiefs. However, due to Mpande’s maintenance of the integrative functions of the regimental system and his continuing use of terroristic violence – albeit on a reduced scale – the state did not disintegrate, though the focus of power at the centre was perhaps weakened somewhat as a result of Mpande’s acceptance of limitations imposed by Boer and British pressures and his own increasing political passivity. And, though the nation flourished during the thirty-two years of peace Mpande’s reign had achieved, not everyone was happy. The more belligerent chiefs and generals, trained under Shaka, had become restive under Mpande and upon his death turned to Cetshwayo as their hope for the future. Chiefs and headmen thought of themselves as providers, and the younger men wanted to be blooded warriors, but there were not enough cattle to satisfy appetites and there were no more enemies to kill. Moreover patience had worn extremely thin over continuing Boer encroachment on Zulu boundaries. Recognising this discontent, Cetshwayo formulated a policy which ensured solidarity and drew universal enthusiasm: resistance to the Boers and an increase in military strength.
But the policy of the British, who had supported Zulu independence – at least nominally – during Mpande’s reign, was now changing due to the colonial policy of the Disraeli government and the Colonial Secretary Lord Carnarvon’s plan to establish a federation in South Africa. Shepstone supported the plan because he wanted to use the property of the Zulu state to relieve the financial burdens of the bankrupt Boer Republic which he had just annexed for the Crown, which incidentally upset Cetshwayo, who had hoped to help his white ‘father’ demolish the Boers. Frere pursued a policy of uniting the South African states after the Indian model. In order to accomplish this, the independence of the Zulu state would have to be destroyed and a single central government established in which all Europeans would co-operate and by which

“…the blacks would be protected and controlled, with the causes of their unrest ameliorated…. The justification for Frere’s program was presented as moral outrage against the Zulu king’s violence against his own people – taking the form of an official obsession with ‘bloodthirsty and barbaric despotism’ – and a political fear of the ‘celibate man-slaying’ machine, which became his term for the Zulu impi. These provided the excuse for invading Zululand, along with the claim that Cetshwayo had violated his coronation promises, which, it was affirmed, had the force of legal limitations on his power.” (Walter, 1969: 226).

Thus, in spite of the fact that Mpande’s reign was considerably milder than that of his predecessors, and that this mildness was regarded by many Zulus as weakness, in his reports to the British government, Frere set about the deliberate construction of an image of Cetshwayo as a despot and as sanguinary as the worst of his predecessors, Shaka and Dingane. This deliberately ignored the structural changes introduced by Mpande and continued under Cetshwayo, which limited despotic actions, as the king too must now conform to law and the general consensus of opinion on matters of policy. In the construction of this image, the balance of evidence cited by Walter suggests that at the very least Frere had exaggerated reports about the actual level of violence used by Cetshwayo. These distortions were also facilitated by Frere’s making use of a current war-scare in South Africa, even though the balance of military power between the Zulus and the Europeans had been reversed since Shaka’s time (Walter, 1969: 227). Walter concludes:

“Frere’s stereotype of a ‘bloodthirsty barbarian despot’ with absolute control of a ‘celibate man-slaying machine’ bore scant resemblance to the complex realities of the Zulu state and took no cognisance of the significant changes that had taken place in Zulu society since Shaka and Dingane. For one thing the world-view of the ruler had changed from that of a despot acting out fantasies of omnipotence to that of a king struggling with limitations.” (1969:234).

Because Cetshwayo thought that the British might one day support a rival prince against him, as Mpande had been supported by the Boers against Dingane, he had requested British confirmation of his royal authority. Shepstone turned the occasion into a coronation ceremony and, after extracting numerous promises from Cetshwayo about the manner in which he was to rule – which were later held to be legal conditions placed upon British recognition of his right to rule – placed a tinsel crown on his head.
Among these promises was one to the effect that “the indiscriminate shedding of blood shall cease in the land” (Walter, 1969: 228). But, given the functional necessity of violence due to its integrating effect on Zulu society, the breach of this promise was inevitable, as even Shepstone himself recognised (Walter, 1969: 228-229). Nonetheless it was the breach of this ‘promise’ that was used as the justification for the invasion of Zululand and the Zulu war of 1879, even though, as Rider Haggard observed,

“I have been unable to share the view of those who see in the breach of these so-called promises a justification for the Zulu War …. The Government of Natal had no right to dictate the terms to a Zulu king on which he was to hold his throne. The Zulu nation was an independent nation, and had never been conquered or annexed by Natal.” (Quoted in Walter, 1969: 229).

Prior to the invasion of Zululand, Frere had issued an ultimatum which required Cetshwayo, within a month, to disband the army, confine executions to legal procedures familiar to Europeans, and allow freedom of marriage. These demands struck at the central institutions which together helped to integrate the state, and it is unlikely that Frere and Shepstone were unaware of their structural importance (Walter, 1969: 238). Given the integrative function these institutions performed in maintaining the Zulu state, there was no possibility that Cetshwayo either could or would accede to these demands. Therefore these demands, which masqueraded as justifications for the Zulu War, were in fact nothing other than deliberate provocation.
After the defeat of the Zulus, Cetshwayo was captured and imprisoned and the Wolseley Plan of multiple-partition was implemented. Under this plan Zululand was divided into thirteen independent ‘principalities’ ruled by men known to be hostile to the Usuthu – the royal party – or especially amenable to British control. Because few of the chiefs of each principality had any real claim to legitimate Zulu authority and also because many of them seized the opportunity to exploit their new subjects, conflict was inevitable and a period of turbulence followed which was so intense that eventually Cetshwayo was restored to the Zulu throne as the only means of ending the turmoil.
However, this new situation was full of contradictions that made Cetshwayo’s position untenable. The British had imposed fifteen conditions on Cetshwayo which Frances Colenso said effectively deprived him of “all that constituted kingly authority”, leaving him with no means to enforce obedience (Walter, 1969: 240-241). Besides this, the Wolseley Plan, together with changing economic conditions in South Africa, had already altered the social conditions which had made the Zulu state possible. The restoration settlement had divided Zululand into three parts with Cetshwayo’s kingdom bounded by a native reserve in the south and west, and Zibhebhu’s kingdom, which was hostile to Cetshwayo, in the northwest. The native reserve provided a refuge for those who were unwilling to live under either of these two rulers, while the Wolseley Plan had loosened the traditional ties of the young men to the Zulu state. These factors, combined with the defeat of the Zulu impi in war and the new freedom to marry, turned warriors into peasants and wage-labourers providing a ready source of labourers for the labour-hungry Europeans, who were busily transforming South Africa’s economy.
After a disastrous campaign against Zibhebhu, Cetshwayo fled to the native reserve, where he was found dead in February 1884. A period of internecine conflict followed until Zululand was formally annexed by the Imperial Government, becoming part of Natal in 1897 (Walter, 1969: 241-243). Thus the deconstruction of the Zulu empire was accomplished by a process which started with, and largely centred around, the presentation to the British Government of deliberately distorted and exaggerated images of the savagery and despotism of the later Zulu kings and the moral outrage these images generated in England. At the same time the Zulus were presented with a completely different image of their ruler, who was now seen, not as an omnipotent and god-like figure, but as a once powerful monarch whose authority had been curbed by a greater power, having been forced to ‘bend the knee’ to the authority of the British. This was, in fact, most dramatically symbolised by Frere during Cetshwayo’s ‘coronation’ ceremony, in which it could be said he was both given a crown, and robbed of a kingdom.
Effectively then, the subjugation of the Zulus was accomplished by means of the symbolic deconstruction of the image which had empowered its unity, thus preparing the ground for its empirical deconstruction under the Wolseley Plan, which formed the basic model for the system of ‘Bantu Authorities’ which would later be so crucial to the operation of apartheid policy. It should perhaps be emphasised that because the king’s right to kill his subjects was always seen by the Zulus as an essential and legitimate element of royal prerogatives due to its integrative function, even by Mpande and Cetshwayo, who nonetheless used it very sparingly, it is quite evident that by Cetshwayo’s reign it was the image of the terror and omnipotence of the god/king that it was important to maintain, rather than its actuality, even though that image had itself been significantly changed since the time of Shaka.
Bishop Schreuder described an interview with Cetshwayo in which Cetshwayo had said that it was his constant endeavour to prevent the Zulus killing one another, and Frances Colenso stated that there were only six cases in which a person had been killed under Cetshwayo’s order during his whole reign and that each of these had been convicted of some crime (Walter, 1969: 232-233). Thus even in his application of terror Cetshwayo conformed not only to Zulu law, but also to the restrictions placed on his authority by the British.
Those older indunas who remembered Shaka or Dingane could only have seen this new and so-called Zulu ‘king’ as the puppet of the British Government, which had effectively brought him to heel like a trained dog. It is therefore extremely ironic that the image of Cetshwayo which Frere and Shepstone had used to facilitate the deconstruction and dismemberment of the Zulu empire had been that of a ‘Devil incarnate’. The irony is all the more poignant because this image varied so drastically from the image of Cetshwayo’s kingship as it must have appeared to his indunas and his people, again as a result of this pair’s deliberate manipulation of public images during Cetshwayo’s mockery of a coronation, during which his lack of authority was underlined by the numerous promises to which he was made to agree before he was crowned – with a tinsel crown.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s