The largest Black ethnic group in South Africa is the Zulu, whose population stands at about nine million. The Zulu have a relatively brief history as an independent group. The term Zulu refers to the Nguni speaking people in KwaZulu Natal in South Africa. The Zulu are a branch of the southern Bantu, who have close ethnic, linguistic, and cultural ties with other groups in the area such as the Xhosa and the Swazi.
Although the Zulu are the largest Black ethnic group in South Africa, they are the least Christianized group there. That did not keep the Zulu from using millenarian Christian rhetoric to advance their cause: Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party’s campaign slogan during the 1994 democratic election was “The last shall be first.” Buthelezi thus claimed a sacred origin for Zulu nationalism, freely using Christian terms promising a divine destiny.
Buthelezi’s slogan is in the Zulu tradition of using religion to strengthen Zulu nationalistic objectives. The rise of the Zulu and their consolidation of power and resistance to British power and later to other ethnic groups in the New South Africa follow a common pattern of the union of religious ideas with nationalistic ones. This pattern forms the outline of this article.
In the early 19th century, the Nguni, under Shaka, united the Zulu clan of the Nguni with other Nguni people in Natal, forming the Zulu nation. Shaka used his clan name, Zulu, for the united peoples. Through expansive conquest and use of new principles of warfare, Shaka formed the powerful Zulu Empire.
Shaka was born about 1787 to the Zulu clan of the Nguni, and his father was a Zulu chieftain. Shaka had a turbulent childhood. His parents split up when he was about 6 years old. When he was around 15, his mother’s people, the Langeni clan, drove him and his mother out. They found refuge with the Dietsheni clan. This clan belonged to the Mtetwa people, a very powerful group. Shaka stayed with the Mtetwa as a warrior until his father died in 1816 and he became the Zulu chief.
It was at this time that Shaka showed his military skill. He reorganized the military in such a way as to change warfare from a series of skirmishes into a bloody ordeal. Swords replaced spears, leading to close-quarter fighting. Shaka developed new tactics: He divided the army into four parts and trained each unit to surround the enemy. In a brief time, he had built up his Empire.
Historically, the Zulu were farmers who kept large herds of cattle. They kept up the size of these herds through cattle raids. During the 19th century, European settlers fought the Zulu, taking grazing and water resources from them. The Zulu had little option but to hire themselves out for labor on European farms or in urban areas. Shaka’s heirs had little time to enjoy the fruits of their conquest. They found themselves battling with Boer settlers migrating north into Natal. These Boers, Dutch descendants who were farmers, were moving away from British settlers and their government, a movement called The Great Trek. Dingane, the Zulu chief, ambushed Boers moving through his territory, killing around 500 people. This massacre occurred in 1838. Andries Pretorious, a Boer general, retaliated at the Battle of Blood River, killing about 3,000 Zulus. In 1840, the Boer intruded into Zulu domestic politics, resulting in the toppling of Dingane and the rise to power of Mpande, who became a vassal of the Boer republic of Natal.
When the British succeeded the Boers as rulers of Natal in 1843, they found Mpande’s son, Cetshwayo, to be opposed to their interests. In 1878, he refused to accept an ultimatum to submit to British rule. Great Britain reacted to this refusal by attacking Zululand in 1878. Although the Zulu inflicted serious defeats on them, the British conquered the Zulu in July 1879. In 1897, the Zulu successfully annexed Zululand because of their continued resistance to British rule and the number of raids they staged against the British.
The Anglo-Zulu War began on January 11, 1879. The British sent about 15,000 troops into Zululand. There were about 7,000 British regulars, 7,000 conscripted African troops, and about 1,000 colonial volunteers. The attack took place at the sacred time of the First Fruits festival. Cetshwayo had his entire army of about 30,000 assembled at Lundy for the festival. He attacked and defeated the British and then sued for peace. He had refrained from killing civilians and invading Natal.
The Zulu inflicted the greatest defeat that any European army had ever encountered at the hands of an African force. Almost every soldier died. The British refused to allow any peace to be negotiated and sought revenge. In July 1879, they burned Lundy, the royal homestead, and captured the king.
There was a close relationship between the power of the Zulu king, religion, and military organization. Shaka built on both Zulu religion and the sacred nature of the chief to supplement his military reorganizations. So powerful did he make the Zulu people and their military that the Zulu came close to driving the British from Natal and caused great discontent in Great Britain regarding the colonial endeavor in South Africa.
Zulu religion stresses the age-grade system, the importance of cattle, and the importance of matrilineal ties. These ties stretch back to ancestors from whom the elders descend and whose authority they wield. The belief system centers on ancestor worship, and this strengthens ties in the group and the power of the king. The king is in charge of all magic, rain-making, and other significant rights, all of which activities increase his power.
Shaka’s heirs as priests and shamans as well as sacred people commanded a great deal of respect. They were able to harass the British and Boers until the end of the 19th century and have proved a force to be reckoned with during the end of White rule in South Africa. Much of their cohesion has come from their knowledge of their traditional customs and religion. Their reverence for the old and willingness to adapt to changing times, a part of their tradition, has enabled them to continue as an essential part of South Africa’s future.
There is a close relationship between Zulu religious ideas and their prowess in war. The Zulu have a belief in a Supreme Being, called Unkulunkulu. Some scholars argue that the term originally referred to the first man. In any case, Zulu use the term to refer to the Ancient One who has created all things and who is also the ancestor of humans. This Ancient One organized human societies. Additionally, the Zulu use the term “Lord of heaven” or “Chief in the Sky.” This term refers to a Storm God.
There are also other supernatural agents, including animal spirits and sacred snakes, that aid in rain-making. They also have a female spirit, Inkosazana. Inkosazana aids in the growing of corn. There are rituals, performed by young women in the spring, to celebrate her power.
In common with other related peoples, the Zulu regard the chief as the symbol of tribal unity. The chief is a priest and sorcerer. He is the ruler and lawgiver of his people. He is also general and source of wealth. Under Shaka, the king became godlike. Simply put, he was a sacred being before whom his people prostrated themselves. He was a demigod and passed on this persona to his heirs.
Despite these views, people could and did abandon the king: Coups could take place, even civil wars. For example, the king’s enemies assassinated Shaka. Provocation for these actions had to be great and both the Boers and the British learned how to foment and abet such provocation.
The First Fruits festival is an important ceremonial time for the Zulu. It is a time of the gathering of a large number of people. Diviners, herbalists, and other ritual specialists gather, and the sense of unity of the power of the king was enhanced by these ritual ceremonies.
Christianity came into Zululand in 1835 with Christian missionaries of many denominations. In 2000, about 50% of the people were Christians. Most of these people belong to African Independent Churches. However, there are Zulu Catholics, Anglicans, members of the Dutch Free Church, and other Christian denominations. Most of these Christians also observe traditional religious practices along with Christian ones. Thus, the nationalistic notions of traditional religion get absorbed into Christianity in the Zulu area.
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