Power and authority in the Zulu kingdom: Moving beyond the stereotype

The Zulu kingdom was established under the rule of Shaka Zulu in the late 1810s and early 1820s in the northern part of what is now KwaZulu-Natal. It was defeated in an invasion by British imperial troops in 1879, and broke up soon afterwards in a series of destructive civil wars, in which British colonial officials played an important role.

Since as far back as the 1830s, the kingdom has been held up in the literature as a prime example of a militarised and absolutist African state whose rulers gave out laws that were unquestioningly obeyed by their subjects. Many writers portray its founding figure, Shaka, as an autocratic despot who imposed his authority through violence and fear. Others see him in a more positive light as the bringer of unity and order in the place of disunity and instability, but agree that he was an authoritarian ruler. These views are very much the product of colonial times.

Though often working from very different positions, white and black “dealers” in the past drew on one another’s ideas to foster the notion of Shaka the Mighty as the founder of a politically highly centralised conquest state with a more or less homogeneous “Zulu” culture and identity.  This idea is still widespread today.

Since the 1980s, however, historians have been painting a very different picture of the Zulu kingdom. They now see it as an amalgamation of pre-existing chiefdoms under hereditary rulers who, under varying circumstances, had acknowledged the overlordship of the upstart and successfully opportunist Zulu ruling house.

These individual chiefdoms retained many of their own customs and their own dialects. They also had their own memories of the times before the establishment of Zulu domination, though it could be dangerous to speak about these memories too openly. The Zulu kings certainly had a court culture, in which uniformity of manners and speech was expected and enforced, but the kingdom as a whole was far from culturally and linguistically homogeneous.

Nor was the kingdom socially unified. The Zulu ruling house was careful to maintain sharp distinctions of status between itself and its subjects. These latter fell into two broad categories: those of the kingdom’s core area, who were seen as forming the major part of the body politic; and those of the geographical margins, who were treated as inferior menials.

It follows that the people of the kingdom had no common identity as “Zulu”. The term applied exclusively to members of the ruling house. Subject groups continued to name themselves after their own ancestors. Collectively they were given various, often opprobrious, names by their Zulu rulers.

The modern “Zulu” identity grew up only after the break-up of the kingdom in the late 19th century as the new British colonial rulers of what is now KwaZulu-Natal worked to turn the subordinated peoples of the region into administrative “tribes”. Similar processes were at work at this time all over the colonial world, often with the support of chiefs, who in many cases stood to gain considerable new powers over their subjects in the emerging colonial order.

The Zulu kings are often seen as having exercised authority over their subjects through a hierarchy of officials, or izinduna, with power flowing outwards and downwards from the political centre. The realities were different. The izinduna were mainly commanders of men called up to serve the king in amabutho, or age-grades; apart from the most senior ones, who were placed as overseers of particular regions, they did not have political authority.

The several dozen chiefdoms that made up the kingdom were ruled in the first instance by their own chiefs according to their own customs, as modified over time to meet new social and political pressures, whether internal or external. Politics in the kingdom was marked by a constant jostling for authority and influence between the Zulu ruling house and its subordinate chiefdoms, between subordinate chiefs and their own subjects, between elders and juniors, and between men and women in the homesteads that formed the basic social and economic units in the kingdom.

Where do these newer ideas come from? In part they have emerged from perspectives and concepts developed in African history more broadly since the era of decolonisation in the 1950s and 1960s. More particularly, they come from historians’ use of a new source of evidence, in the form of a mass of written records of Zulu oral histories in the James Stuart Collection, housed since the 1940s in the Killie Campbell Africana Library in Durban.

James Stuart was a public official and magistrate in colonial Zululand and Natal from 1888 onward. He was a fluent Zulu linguist, and early in his career he developed the idea of making himself the main living authority on Zulu history and custom. His aim was to feed ideas for the more just governance of black people to the colonial authorities. In the period 1897 to 1922 he collected oral testimonies from a total of nearly 200 interlocutors.

In the event, governments paid little attention to Stuart’s ideas, and it was left to scholars of a later era to discover the value of his work. Since 1976, five volumes of the historical testimonies collected by Stuart, edited by Colin Webb and John Wright, have been published by the University of Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal) Press under the title The James Stuart Archive. A sixth volume is in press and a seventh is in preparation.

Collectively the volumes constitute a major source of evidence on the processes in which customs and laws in autonomous African societies were constantly shaped and reshaped under particular historical circumstances. This perspective is altogether different from the one that has been codified since the later 19th century in numerous ethnographic and legal texts, to the effect that African people in the past were governed by chiefs according to fixed “tribal” customs.

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