Shaka kaSenzangakhona is a figure that looms large in the South African imagination. The Durban International Airport is named after him and the Zulus celebrate King Shaka Day on September 24 as part of the National Heritage Day. So who was Shaka?
Shaka was a brilliant military strategist who succeeded in uniting many small groups to form the Zulu Nation. Shaka was born around 1787 out of wedlock. Although his father, the ruler of a small chiefdom called the Zulu, eventually took Shaka’s mother, Nandi, as a wife, he ultimately cast them out so that Shaka ended up growing up with Nandi’s clan. Shaka was teased because of the circumstances of his birth and childhood, which might have played a role in his thirst for power later on in life.
Shaka’s rise started when, with the support of Dingiswayo, leader of the Mthethwa chiefdom, Shaka assassinated his older brother, Sigujana, who had inherited the chieftaincy of the Zulu from their father. Soon after, Dingiswayo was killed in battle, leaving a power vacuum among the Mthethwa, which Shaka filled. Shaka began to conquer more and more chiefdoms enlarging the Zulu Nation. The secret of the success of Shaka’s troops has been attributed to their discipline and innovative assault style. Instead of throwing long-handled spears at the enemy, Shaka gave his men short-handled spears with larger, broader blades and trained them to fight at close range. Shaka also initiated other military innovations such as the “bullhorn” fighting formation, which is a tactical encirclement of the enemy in combat.
Shaka introduced crueler policies over time even killing people at the mourning ceremonies after his mother’s death because they seemed not to be grieving. Dingane and Mhlangana, Shaka’s two half-brothers, eventually assassinated him in 1828. However, Shaka had laid the foundation for a strong Zulu Nation that became one of the African states that defeated European forces in battle.
By Iyeyinka Kusi-Mensah