This Reconciliation Day article reflects on some of the causes of the decline of the Zulu military might prior to Blood River.
Today is a glorious day; some will say.
Besides the more obvious political platitudes that engulf Mangaung today (at the ANC’s elective Conference of Dec 2012), some will point out that today is the day that the ruling party’s armed wing Umkhonto We Sizwe (MK) was formed in the days when it was still a party-non-grata in 1961.
This formation was announced by a series of sabotage attacks and was precipitated by the violent response to Anti-Apartheid protests by the regime of the day.
Some of course will point to the original Day of the Vow – the day that the Afrikaaner Voortrekkers routed a superior numbered Zulu army back in 1838 at the Battle of Blood (Ncome) River. The day was so named because of a pact that the hapless Afrikaaners entered into with God: “Give us Victory and we’ll give you a church”. It still stands today in Pietermaritzburg.
This day was also colloquially known as “Dingaansdag” or “Dingaan’s Day”, a mocking reference to the then Zulu king, who had now gotten his comeuppance for having slain the Voortrekker leader Piet Retief, unfairly the Afrikaans then thought.
This calamity for the Zulu people was the culmination of a decade of decline of the one thing that the nation had become known for – its military prowess. Most of us are familiar with the event that precipitated this period of decline – it was on the other day named for a Zulu King – Shaka’s Day in September when King Dingane and his brother, Mhlangana, assassinated King Shaka. Today, this is our Heritage Day.
Soon after this Mhlangana was also killed by his brother. It seemed power was more important than family ties. This trend continues with Dingane being dethroned soon after Blood / Ncome River by his brother Mpande, who sided with his brother’s enemies, the Voortrekkers. Ironically Dingane had earlier dispatched assassins to kill Mpande to avoid this. Years later Mpande’s son Cetshwayo carried on this tradition and killed his brother and rival for the throne, Mbuyazi. Mbuyazi had incidentally enlisted the help of Colonialists from Natal.
Admittedly each successive leadership provided something that the nation needed at the time – be it stability or a reaffirmation of its sovereignty or even peace in a time of weakness, but arguably what they also did was erode the unity of the Zulu nation.
The work of unification of the African people that the Zulu scion Shaka had begun around 1816 would soon be halted, not to be continued for nearly 80 years until the formation of the ANC. Instead the African people were soon acceding to “deals” that were not in their interests just to maintain their existence, it was the ultimate price for the mistakes of leaders past.
Today, the threats to a unity of a people, all South African people as the constitution ascribes and Reconciliation Day espouse, are similarly visible in the internal battles of our ruling classes – whatever their respective well meaning reasons.
History’s lesson that we must reconcile ourselves with is that where the individuals are bigger than their institutions, then they will be doomed to reign over a people who will one day wake to find their greatest days are but memories behind them.
Past is Prologue.