Mfecane (also Dificane or Lificane in Sotho) was a period of widespread chaos and warfare in southern Africa from 1815 to 1840, which triggered the scattering of various ethnic groups to as far as East and Central Africa. In Zulu, mfecane means “the crushing,” whereas in Xhosa, it derives from ukufaca “to become thin from hunger,” and fetcani “starving intruders.”
Early historians blamed the Mfecane on the rise of the Zulu Kingdom under King Shaka. According to them, Zulu wars of expansion displaced neighbouring people and snowballed into further violence as these uprooted communities fought each other over resources. However, more recently, this interpretation has been dismissed as Eurocentric. Instead, it is argued that the disruptions that sparked the Mfecane predated Shaka.
By the turn of the century, corn from the Americas had been introduced into southern Africa via Portuguese traders. As societies shifted from nomadic hunter-gathering to fixed lifestyles dependent upon corn-farming and coastal trade with Europeans, their settlements became increasingly concentrated. When a ten-year drought hit in 1800, the effect on sustenance was devastating. People began competing for access to increasingly scarce grain, cattle, water, etc., and states became increasingly militarised since powerful armies were crucial for securing these resources. These pre-existing conditions of unrest were later compounded (rather than created) by the Zulu wars of expansion. Additionally, historians now posit that illegal slave-raiding by white settlers supplying labour for the Cape Colony and Mozambique furthered the upheaval in the region.
Overall the mfecane caused widespread suffering as refugees fled drought, war, and slavers. It also catalysed political development as people banded together to form stronger states to resist the Zulu incursion. Lastly, the mfecane may have paved the way for European settlement: fleeing communities left behind large swathes of so-called “empty” land in the interior, which European settlers then expanded into.
By Nnenna Onuoha