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South Africa Holiday: Shaka Zulu


Shaka, king of the Zulus, devised innovative battle tactics to establish Zulu dominance of south-eastern Africa in the 19th-century and control a population of 250,000. Shaka developed a military system that reined supreme for more than fifty years after his death.

Shaka ka Senzangakhona Zulu, (1787-1828) the first king of the Zulus, transformed the amaZulu from a small clan into a nation that held sway over southern Africa between the Phongolo and Mzimkhulu rivers. His statesmanship and vigour in assimilating neighbouring clans, and ruling by proxy through others, marks him as one of the greatest Zulu chiefs.
Shaka was born out of wedlock to Nandi and chief Senzangakhona. Nandi was the daughter of a past chief of a lesser clan, the Langeni.
When his mother became pregnant, she claimed that her growing belly was because of a "shaka" or intestinal beetle parasite. Shaka was born between 1781 and 1787 near present-day Melmoth in KwaZulu-Natal.
Shaka spent much of his childhood in his father's settlements and was initiated there. In his early days, Shaka served as a Mthethwa warrior under the leadership of a local chieftain, Dingiswayo.
Dingiswayo, having been exiled after a failed attempt to oust his father, had helped develop new ideas of military and social organisation, in particular the ibutho, or age-based regiments.
South Africa Holiday: Shaka ZuluWhen Shaka's father, Senzangakona died (around 1812 to 1816), Dingiswayo aided Shaka to defeat his brother and assume leadership of the Zulu clan. Shaka immediately began improving the army and taking revenge on those who he felt had treated him and his mother badly during his childhood.
With Dingiswayo's help, Shaka began to refine the ibutho system further, and over the next few years forged alliances with neighbouring clans, mostly to counter the growing threat from Ndwandwe (Nxumalo) raids from the north.

New fighting techniques

Shaka is best known for the new fighting and battle techniques he introduced.
He replaced light throwing javelins (assegais) with heavy bladed thrusting spears known as iklwas. He also introduced larger, heavier shields made of cowhide and taught each warrior how to use the shield's left side to hook the enemy's shield to the right, exposing his ribs for a fatal spear stab.
To toughen his men he discarded their leather sandals and made them train in bare feet. Shaka's troops practiced by covering more than fifty miles in a fast trot in a single day over hot, rocky terrain so that they could surprise the enemy.
Finally, he introduced a new battle manoeuvre called the "buffalo" formation. Four sections - two "horns," the "chest," and the "loins" - formed the buffalo. During an attack, the chest assaulted the enemy from the front, while the horns struck the flanks to encircle them. The loins were kept in reserve, usually waiting behind a hill so that they could not see the fight, become excited, and reinforce too soon. Shaka directed his buffalo formation from nearby high ground and controlled the four sections by means of foot messengers.

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South African History Online
Hall of Fame: Shaka Zulu
South Africa Holiday: Shaka ZuluShaka's early battles against smaller clans yielded him easy victories. He then offered the survivors the choice of either death or joining him. Those who chose to join also became Zulus. Shaka began with only 350 warriors, but by the end of his first year of leadership the Zulu ranks numbered 2,000.

Death of Dingiswayo

In 1818 Dingiswayo was murdered by Zwide, a powerful chief of the Ndwandwe clan.
Shaka took it upon himself to avenge Dingiswayo's death. He captured Zwide's mother, a Sangoma (a traditional healer and spiritualist) and killed her by locking her in a house with hyenas. They devoured her and in the morning Shaka burned the house to the ground.
In 1824 an Englishman, H.F. Fynn, provided medical treatment to the wounded King. In appreciation, Shaka allowed English traders to begin operations in his kingdom and even made an attempt to exchange royal ambassadors with King George.
For ten years Shaka continued to raid, destroy, and absorb clans and tribes throughout southern Africa. The Zulu nation grew to a population of 250,000, with an army of more than 40,000 warriors occupying territory of about 2 million square miles. An estimated 2 million of Shaka's enemies died during his decade of power.

The Mfecane

The increased military efficiency led to more and more clans being incorporated into Shaka's Zulu empire, while other tribes moved away to be out of range of Shaka's impis.
The ripple effect of these mass migrations, combined with the impact of white encroachment and expansion in that area of Southern Africa, has become known as the Mfecane, in which dispossessed tribe after tribe turned on their neighbours in a deadly cycle of flight and conquest.

Shaka's death and legacy

South Africa Holiday: Shaka ZuluShaka's erratic behaviour worsened with the death of his mother in 1827. His armies grew unhappy with the constant operations, which ranged further and further afield, as Shaka sought new lands to conquer.
On 23 September 1828, Shaka's half brothers, Dingane and Mhlangana, assassinated him. He was buried in an unmarked grave near the Zulu settlement of Stanger (now KwaDukuza in KwaZulu-Natal).
The death of Shaka did not mean the end of Zulu power. Dingane soon killed his brother and became the single chieftain of the Zulus. New leadership, combined with the legacy of Shaka's organisation and tactics, provided continued Zulu dominance.
A half century after his death, the Zulu nation still employed the buffalo formation to defeat their enemies and to repel invaders, reinforcing Shaka's reputation as southern Africa's most influential military leader.
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