What is the Mfecane, and how is it relevant to contemporary South African society?

6 June 2016

“How relevant is the study of the Mfecane to South African History and our contemporary (present) society?” What are the different theories on the Mfecane and how have these changed over time. (See your textbook references and the Jeff Guy lectures) You can also look at Giliomee and Mbenga pages 124-127 and 139 particularly (a copy is available in the classroom – BUT I WILL HAVE PHOTOCOPIES MADE IF YOU REQUEST THEM).

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Look at some of the older interpretations of the Mfecane – and compare these with more recent interpretations. Shaka is a very central figure in Zulu history. Shaka made a popular “comeback” in South Africa during the 1980s with an SABC-TV series Shaka Zulu.

View extracts of this series, and decide how best it would be placed in the different theories of the Mfecane, explaining why. Between 1994 and 2013, Shaka has made a significant comeback into popular history and is viewed as a central icon of Zulu nationalism.

How is this – both Shaka and Zulu nationalism, manifested (demonstrated/obviously shown) in South Africa today, in terms of popular culture and politics. Is there a future for Zulu nationalism in a South Africa today?

The Mfecane loosely means ‘the crushing’, and is also known as Difaqane, or Lifaqane. The term ‘Mfecane’ was first coined by E. A. Walker (1928: 210), which largely refers to the conflicts between South African tribes in the centre and eastern regions of Africa in the early 1800s, which fought each other in search of food and land. However, there are many distinct theories about Mfecane, and numerous historians present their own opinions.

Originally it was widely believed that Shaka Zulu, and the growth and expansion of the Zulu tribe under his command, was the primary cause of Mfecane. However, there have been increasing numbers of theories that suggested what else might have contributed towards the Mfecane.

Although it is impossible to conclusively prove the causes of Mfecane, some theories suggest that a widespread drought hit Southern Africa in the early nineteenth century causing expanding tribes to relocate searching for fertile land, often battling over the same land with different tribes.

Another prominent theory is that when the Portuguese introduced the maize they had brought from America, this food source caused a massive population increase in many Southern African tribes, especially the Zulu tribe, and the Zulus had to expand their territory to accommodate their larger numbers.

Until the 1980s, the Mfecane was universally viewed as a series of major political and social disturbances that took place among the African societies in the 1820s and 1830s, which had been caused primarily by the vast expansion of the Zulu kingdom under Shaka Zulu.

This was recognised as the reality, and it was never enquired. However, in 1988, to counter this concrete ‘fact’ of the time, historian Julian Cobbing presented his argument that although there were admittedly major upheavals that did take place in the 1820s and 1830s, the Mfecane occurred primarily because of the impact of the expansion of the frontiers of European colonial settlement and trade in southern Africa.

But this was not without heavy controversy, as in an article in the Journal of African History (2009), Carolyn Hamilton, along with many others, found Cobbing’s arguments distorted the evidence and argued that Cobbing was, on many accounts, wrong. Hence the real causes of Mfecane are yet to be proven.

The 1986 SABC TV-series ‘Shaka Zulu’ illustrates Shaka as a ‘military genius who revolutionized African warfare with strategies almost unequalled in battle’, and rightfully he gains a reputation as the ‘Black Napoleon’.

The portrayal of Shaka Zulu that this TV-series showed, which enabled the popular comeback of Shaka Zulu in the 1980s, corresponds with some early theories of Mfecane which suggest that Shaka Zulu was the primary cause of the chaotic struggles between tribes. His brilliant military tactics and fierce training, combined with his natural leadership and powerful stature, allowed him to become a central icon of Zulu nationalism.

The current president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, is of Zulu descent. In 2007 Jacob Zuma defeated Thabo Mbeki, former deputy president and former president of African National Congress, in the election of President of the ANC. It is interesting to note that Thabo Mbeki is of Xhosa descent while Zuma is of Zulu, which reminds people of South Africa of the Zulu and Xhosa clashes during the Mfecane.

Jacob Zuma, as the president of the African National Congress, has led in a Zulu Nationalist way. Since his election as national president in 2009, he has been gaining the support and trust of the Zulu living in KwaZulu-Natal with his nationalist patriotism, which shows a discouraging future for the Inkatha Freedom Party, the previous rulers of KwaZulu-Natal.

This essentially shows how the study of Mfecane is relevant to our contemporary society: Like Shaka Zulu led the Zulus to power battled rivalling clans, Jacob Zuma has raised the Zulus to power fighting rivalling National Parties, and they have both become major icons of Zulu nationalism.

Is there a future for Zulu nationalism in South Africa today? Nationalism is the sense of identity and patriotism with a nation. This means that in Zulu nationalism, nationalists such as Jacob Zuma think of South Africa as more of a ‘Zulu nation’ than what South Africa strives to be perceived as following an Apartheid era: a ‘rainbow nation’.

Certainly, there are positive aspects of Zulu nationalism in the sense that the president of South Africa strives to help the KwaZulu-Natal province, to raise the sense of identity among the Zulu community. However, the president should be striving to help all aspects of South Africa, not just the Zulus.

To conclude, I believe that the study of Mfecane is a vital aspect of South Africa’s history and contemporary society, and is very relevant. However, although I believe that Zulu nationalism was a major contributing factor in building present day’s South Africa, I do not believe that it has an important role in the future because South Africa should be striving to become a multi-cultural nation, regardless of the ethnicities and cultural differences present in South Africa.

Gallery Ezakwantu. (-) Southern African Tribal Upheavals. Available from: http://www.ezakwantu.com/Tribes%20 20Southern%20African%20Tribal%20Wars%20-%20Mfecane%20-%20Lifaqane%20-%20Difaqane.htm [Accessed 29 July 2013] Gumede, William. (2012) Zuma and Zulu Nationalism. Available from:

http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/features/85841 [Accessed 1 – 4 August 2013] HS-102 Readings. (-) Nationalism. Available from: http://www2.sunysuffolk.edu/westn/nationalism.html [Accessed 3 – 4 August 2013] Mashele, Prince. (2012) Is Jacob Zuma a Zulu Nationalist? Available

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