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Mzilikazi Khumalo: The king and the myths

05 Mar 2016 at 21:27hrs | Views
Typical of the many African pre-colonial military and political leaders, the name and legacy of Mzilikazi Khumalo is enveloped in colonial and racist myths. European adventurous explorers and prospectors who encountered these early African leaders wrote about them and their people in racist, mythologised and stereotyped terms.

The tragedy is that even now in what is supposed to be post-colonial Africa, the names and legacies of precolonial African leaders still appear in the textbooks and documentaries rendered in mythology and stereotype. Some toxic myths about King Mzilikazi, his life and rule still endure today. Sometimes these harmful myths and colonial confabulations are unwittingly circulated by well-meaning scholars, historians and journalists who receive them without question from colonialist historiographers.

In the prevalent colonial mythology, Mzilikazi Khumalo is supposed to have been a blood thirsty and marauding warrior King who perfected his art of killing in ordering the slaughter of his first born son Nkulumane Khumalo. A close decolonial look at the life and political rule of Mzilikazi betrays him as indeed a warrior but one to whom war and violence were a last resort. Mzilikazi Khumalo was a diplomat and statesman of impressive dexterity.

Naming the King

The name Mzilikazi according to such colonialist and imperialist historiographers as Peter Becker refers to "the path of blood" which means umzila wegazi in Zulu and IsiNdebele languages. This name is supposed to define Mzilikazi's confabulated legacy of bloodletting and killing, as if Nomphethu and Matshobana, Mzilikazi's parents knew in advance that he was to gain a reputation as a mass killer. Other colonialist historians like Howcroft also, with cruel prejudice, simply understand the name Mzilikazi to mean "the great path" which means umzilakazi in IsiNdebele and Zulu languages, as if anyone knew at his birth that Mzilikazi was to make a great journey from Mkuze in Zululand to Ingama in what is now called Matabeleland. Correctly, the name Mzilikazi originates from the word umzili that comes from the word ukuzila which refers to the custom of ritual abstinence.

Umzilikazi then would describe a person who abstains from sex or from any other human activity for a longer time than usual. This name should have been a reference to the habits of his mother or father, not any of the king's own personal attributes.

Briefly, King Mzilikazi was born in 1790 in the Mkuze area of Zululand, to Nompethu the daughter of King Zwide of the Ndwandwe and Matshobana the son of Mangethe. Largely, Mzilikazi grew up in Zwide's kraal and observed the leadership and warrior ways there. After King Zwide murdered Matshobana, Mzilikazi affiliated himself to the neighbouring King and rival of Zwide, Dingiswayo of the Mthethwa people.

At the kraal of Dingiswayo is where Mzilikazi met Shaka who had sought refuge there after an attempt on his life by assailants sent by those among the Zulu who correctly speculated that Shaka would return and seize the throne after the death of his father. Seizing the throne is what Shaka eventually did, assisted by regiments from the Mthwethwa Kingdom and the Khumalo chieftaincy of Mzilikazi. From the beginning, the relationship between Shaka and Mzilikazi was that of love and respect.

Fleeing Zululand
In 1822, as a trusted General in the Zulu army and personal political advisor to Shaka, Mzilikazi led an attack on Sotho Chief, Ranisi, prevalently referred to in history literature as Somnisi. After this attack and raid of cattle from Ranisi, the differences between Shaka and Mzilikazi on how to treat soldiers and distribute the war spoils seem to have magnified. Colonialist historians have dramatised these differences to a spectacular and even violent standoff.

The poetic reference to Mzilikazi as "owala ukudla umlenze kwaBulawayo" has comically been circulated by mythologists as referring to a day when Shaka wanted Mzilikazi to eat "umlenze" the thigh of a cow, meat that was meant for women, what would have been an insult to Mzilikazi. And Mzilikazi is said to have defiantly refused. This is all colonialist and mythologist nonsense, Ukwala ukudla umlenze refers to disagreement, to refuse instructions, and politely so.

The other myth that followed this is that Mzilikazi then stole many cattle and women from the raid and fled Zululand in 1823, leaving Shaka seething with anger. Children at school are made to imagine a movie like scene when Mzilikazi and his followers are leaving Zululand at night, in a great hurry. The truth seems to be that, out of love and respect, and concern that they had created two centres of power, Mzilikazi and Shaka agreed to part ways peaceably. In a word, in political stature and military power Mzilikazi had become another King.

There is acceptable evidence that after murdering Shaka on the 2nd of September 1828, King Dingane tried to pursue Mzilikazi who had now settled in what is presently Gauteng in South Africa. Dingane had either felt that Mzilikazi left with a lot of wealth or he feared that Mzilikazi might come back to avenge the killing of Shaka, who was dear to him. That Mzilikazi stole a lot of cattle and women from Zululand is a myth that stinks to the high heavens; sadly this myth is widely circulated and believed. Even more mythical is the narrative that all the way from Zululand up to present Matabeleland, Mzilikazi was fleeing Shaka. The truth is that Mzilikazi was seeking peace and settlement away from colonialist settlers with whom he engaged in many battles.

The killing of Nkulumane and the chiefs

This particular myth is narrated with much racist glee and colonialist relish. In the long journey Mzilikazi was separated from his people for many years, up until the group that had settled first in present Bulawayo installed Nkulumane as the King of AmaNdebele in 1838. When Mzilikazi arrived to find Nkulumane on the throne, he is said to have immediately ordered his murder and the murder of the chiefs that had installed him as king.

Whether there were any chiefs killed and buried on the mountain at Ntabazinduna is what must be verified. What has been proven is that Mzilikazi sent Nkulumane with a number of regiments and chiefs that were loyal to him back to what is today called South Africa. His intention for Nkulumane and his followers was to return to Zululand, the intention was not going to arise if Mzilikazi had stolen cattle and women from Zululand.

On their way, Nkulumane's party arrived in the land of the Bakwena in present day Rusternburg, where Mzilikazi had settled before. Finding the Bakwena under attack from one Sotho King called Mathebe, Nkulumane quickly generalled his warriors and the Bakwena young boys to repel the attackers. As narrated by the Bakwena themselves, Nkulumane personally killed Mathebe.

The King of the Bakwena asked Nkulumane to stay in the Kingdom as Chief and advisor to the king until he died of natural causes in 1883. Nkulumane's grave is a marked heritage site in the Phokeng area of Rusternburg that was once named Nkulumane Park by the apartheid administration in South Africa.

That Mzilikazi Khumalo was a great fighter cannot be disputed. What can be disputed is that his life was a life of fighting. He engaged in sophisticated diplomacy and conducted some of the most fantastic nation building experiments ever observed.

Mzilikazi died of natural causes at the age of 78 in 1868. Lobengula was installed only in 1870 as there was a group of people, prominently led by Mbiko the Son of Madlenya, a Masuku chief who believed that Nkulumane should have been sought and found to come and succeed his father as King of the Mandebele, not Lobengula who was considered, among other weaknesses, of being a sissy, softy who had been corrupted by his learning of the ways of white people.

It is a matter of academic speculation what the Ndebele history would have turned up to be if Nkulumane had been the successor to Mzilikazi.


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Cetshwayo Zindabazezwe Mabhena is a Pretoria based Zimbabwean academic: decoloniality2016@gmail.com.

Source - Cetshwayo Zindabazezwe Mabhena
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