History of South Africa

The Rise of African States

By the eighteenth century, several groups of immigrants from the north, known for their skill in smelting iron and in metalworking, had occupied the mountains along the Limpopo River. This heterogeneous population had coalesced into a number of chiefdoms, known as the Venda, or VaVenda. In the southern Highveld, the powerful Tswana-speaking kingdom known as the Rolong had split, giving rise to the Tlhaping (BaTlhaping) and the Taung. The Taung were named for a legendary military leader (Tau) among the Rolong.

One of several Khoisan-European populations in the interior in the eighteenth century was that of the Griqua, most of whom spoke Dutch as their first language and had adopted Christianity. A unique Griqua culture emerged, based on hunting, herding, and trade with both Africans and Europeans along the Orange River.

The Xhosa and related groups were the westernmost of the Nguni-speaking societies between the southern Highveld and the coast. Rivalries among Xhosa chiefs were common, however, and their society was weakened by repeated clashes with Europeans, especially over land between the Sundays River and the Great Fish River. By the late eighteenth century, the Ndwandwe, Mthethwa, and Ngwane were emerging as powerful kingdoms south of the Highveld. The Zulu were still a small group among the Mthethwa and had not yet begun the conquest and assimilation of neighboring groups that would characterize much of the early nineteenth century.

Background to the Mfecane

A combination of local factors--population growth, the depletion of natural resources, and devastating drought and famine--led to revolutionary changes in the political, economic, and social structure of Bantu-speaking communities in southern Africa in the first half of the nineteenth century. Thousands of people died because of ecological catastrophe and warfare; thousands more were displaced. Large centralized states of tens of thousands of people with standing armies of up to 40,000 men and autocratic leaders emerged where before there had been only small-scale political entities and no chief had had total power. This period of revolutionary change--known as the mfecane by the Zulu and the difaqane by the Sotho--is also often referred to as "the time of troubles".

The causes of the mfecane were emerging by the end of the eighteenth century, when population levels increased rapidly, and ecological resources were sometimes scarce. Communities that previously had often spread across the countryside or had repeatedly divided and moved along the frontier became more settled and more concentrated. The introduction of corn from the Americas through the Portuguese in Mozambique was one major reason for this trend. Corn produced more food than indigenous grasses on the same land, and thus could sustain a larger population. Trade in ivory with the Portuguese in Delagoa Bay was another factor that induced people to settle just south of Mozambique. Moreover, possibilities for population movement had become much more limited by the end of the eighteenth century because land was in short supply. Bantu-speaking farmers had reached the margins of arable land on the edge of the Kalahari Desert in the northwest and in the mountains on the southern border of the Highveld, and people settling in the area found their access to water more and more limited.

Declining rainfall in the last decades of the eighteenth century, followed by a calamitous ten-year drought that began about 1800, caused massive disruption and suffering. The adoption of corn as a major staple gave this drought an even greater impact than those of the past because corn needed much more water than local grains in order to produce. When the rains failed, therefore, the effect was devastating. People fought one another for meager supplies of grain and cattle, hunted down whatever game they could find, and sought out any remaining water supplies in a desperate attempt to survive. Warfare erupted, and two kingdoms--the Ndwandwe under the leadership of Zwide, and the Mthethwa under Dingiswayo--battled for control of resources. Both kingdoms became more centralized and militarized, their young men banded together in age regiments that became the basis for standing armies, and their kings became more autocratic as they fought for survival. The Ndwandwe appeared victorious in 1818 when Dingiswayo was killed and his forces scattered, but they were soon overcome by Shaka, founder of the Zulu state.

Shaka and the Rise of the Zulu State

Shaka Zulu was born in 1787, the illegitimate son of Senzangakona, chief of the Zulu clan. An outcast as a child, Shaka was brought up among a number of neighboring groups, finally ending with the Mthethwa where he distinguished himself as a skilled warrior in Dingiswayo's army. Dingiswayo was so impressed by Shaka that in 1816 he helped him become chief of the Zulu upon the death of Senzangakona. Among the Zulu, Shaka consolidated a number of military innovations--some developed by Dingiswayo, some dating back to the eighteenth century--to produce a powerful military machine. All young men were incorporated into age regiments and given military training. A short stabbing spear was introduced in addition to the traditional long throwing spears, giving Shaka's army an advantage in close combat. Military strategies, such as the "horn" formation by which Zulu regiments encircled their enemies, were perfected. When Dingiswayo was killed, Shaka with his military machine avenged his mentor's death, destroying the Ndwandwe in battle (two of Zwide's generals, Shoshangane and Zwangendaba, fled north and established kingdoms in present-day Mozambique and southern Tanzania, respectively). Shaka then incorporated the Mthethwa under his rule, and established the Zulu state as the dominant power among the northern Nguni.

By the mid-1820s, Shaka ruled a kingdom of more than 100,000 people with a standing army of 40,000 men. He centralized power in the person of the king and his court, collected tribute from regional chiefs, and placed regiments throughout his state to ensure compliance with his orders. These regiments also looked after the royal herds and carried out public works. Women, too, were incorporated into their own age regiments, which were paired with male regiments to provide food and other services for the soldiers. Shaka forbade members of these regiments to marry, however, until they had completed their military service. For men this meant their late thirties, and for women their late twenties. Only after marriage could men and women leave their regiments and set up their own homesteads.

Shaka fostered a new national identity by stressing the Zuluness of the state. All subjects of the state became Zulu and owed the king their personal allegiance. Zulu traditions of origin became the national traditions of the state. Customary Nguni festivals, such as planting and harvest celebrations, became occasions on which Shaka gathered vast numbers of his people and extolled the virtues of the state. Through such means, Shaka developed a Zulu consciousness that transcended the original identities and lineages of the various peoples who were his subjects.

During most of the 1820s, Shaka consolidated his power through a series of wars against neighboring peoples. His armies raided for cattle and food; they attacked any who challenged the authority of the Zulu monarch; and they extended the limits of Shaka's realm north to the borders of present-day Mozambique, west across the Drakensberg Mountains, and south to the margins of the area that would later become the Transkei homeland. He also welcomed British traders to his kingdom and sent diplomatic emissaries to the British king.

Shaka was assassinated at the height of his powers in 1828 and was succeeded by Dingane, his half-brother and one of the assassins. Dingane was a much less accomplished ruler than the founder of the Zulu state. His weak claim to the throne and his constant fear of assassination made him a despotic ruler. Dingane maintained the centralized and militarized organization of the Zulu state and sent his armies out on raiding missions. Victories, however, were few because of the growing strength of neighboring African kingdoms, and by the end of the 1830s Dingane's hold on power was being challenged by internal discontent and external threats.

Swazi, Sotho, and Ndebele States

Indeed, as a result of the mfecane , a series of states formed throughout southern Africa as people banded together to secure access to foodstuffs and to protect themselves from Zulu marauders. Sobhuza, leader of the Ngwane people to the north of the Zulu, built a defensive state that eventually took the name of his son and heir Mswati to form the basis of the modern Swazi nation, Swaziland. Sobhuza secured the boundaries of his state through a combination of diplomacy and force. He negotiated marriage alliances with Ndwandwe and later Zulu chiefs and cemented similar arrangements with his own chiefs. He paid tribute to the Zulu kings when he thought it necessary, but he also built a powerful army with which the Swazi were able to repel Dingane's incursions in the 1830s.

Moshoeshoe, another contemporary (b. 1786) of Shaka, forged a strong Sotho kingdom on the southern Highveld in the 1820s and 1830s. This kingdom became the foundation for the modern state of Lesotho. Moshoeshoe, seeking in the 1820s to protect his people from the worst ravages of the difaqane , fortified a large mesa, Thaba Bosiu, that proved impregnable to attack for decades thereafter. With this natural fortress as his base, he built a large kingdom, welcomed in particular refugees from famine and wars elsewhere, and provided them with food and shelter. These refugees, once incorporated into the state, were considered Sotho like their hosts; thus, as with the Zulu, ever larger numbers were integrated into a group with a consolidated ethnic identity, a practice that furthered the process of nation building. Moshoeshoe also sought to strengthen his kingdom militarily, especially by acquiring guns and horses from the Cape. A superb diplomat, he sought to maintain cordial relations with all his neighbors, even paying tribute on occasion to Shaka and seeking always to avoid war. Believing that they could act as emissaries on his behalf to the intruding European powers while also teaching his children to read and write, he welcomed French Protestant missionaries. By the mid-1830s, Moshoeshoe's kingdom comprised about 30,000 people and was the largest state on the southern Highveld.

A fourth major African state formed in South Africa during the 1820s and 1830s was the Ndebele state ruled by Mzilikazi. Mzilikazi had been a subject chief of Shaka, but in 1821 he had sought to demonstrate his independence by refusing to send tribute cattle to the king. Fleeing from a punitive force sent by Shaka, Mzilikazi and a few hundred followers crossed the Drakensberg Mountains and established a series of armed settlements on the Highveld. Raiding for cattle and grain and forcibly incorporating Sotho-Tswana people into his forces, Mzilikazi built a powerful kingdom in the 1830s near present-day Johannesburg and Pretoria.

Although the mfecane in many ways promoted the political development of southern Africa, it also caused great suffering. Thousands died because of famine and warfare, and thousands more were uprooted from their homes and were forced to travel great distances, many to become refugee laborers in the Cape who sought work at any wage. Perhaps the most significant result in terms of the future was that large areas of South Africa were temporarily depopulated, making it seem to Europeans that there were unclaimed lands in the interior into which they could expand.

South Africa History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress