The portrayal of King Shaka in South African literature (ca. 1781–1828)

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An enormous amount has been written about the historical person of Shaka kaSenzangakhona (ca. 1781–1828). The publications concerned focus on numerous facets of the life and contribution of this famous and infamous Zulu monarch.

In this article a chronological overview is given of written and oral literature/sources in which Shaka, hailed as the founder of the Zulu nation, has been portrayed since the first half of the 19th century. For this purpose both a significant number of “main” historical and literary as well as “peripheral phenomena” are discussed. Historical and literary works are introduced as sources for the study of Shaka, although the emphasis is on literary texts and genres as primary sources (for the study of history) that have contributed to portraying Shaka as a complex and often contradictory historical figure in challenging and changing times who helped to shape the history of Southern Africa. As an enigmatic figure and world leader, Shaka lived in a pre-literate and pre-visual era, and many of the sources and views about him are vague, incorrect and/or distorted to serve various expectations. In view of the few reliable historical sources about Shaka, literary texts contribute to both a more and less nuanced view of him.

The Eurocentric and Western approach by academics and writers to “understand” Shaka may lead to “stealing” his history. To prevent this danger the article provides a detailed overview of Shaka’s life, how he has been portrayed in texts published in South Africa and abroad, the changing landscape/environment in which he lived, and a wide variety of texts and perspectives about him. As the founder of the Zulu nation’s legacy, Shaka lives in oral and written sources. Ironically, no reliable visual depiction of him has been made, contributing to the role texts have played in “painting” a picture of him. The history of the publication of texts about Shaka is also touched on, spanning from an era when journals and travelogues informed European readers and decision-makers about events in Africa, to the 21st century, when Shaka and his world have been increasingly portrayed and visualised. The article highlights the continuous and ongoing interest in Shaka, among others by historical researchers.

The earliest writings about Shaka came from the English hunters and merchants who settled in Port Natal (later Durban) from 1824 to trade with the rural people along the east coast and in the interior. Recent texts are in several literary genres, including novels, dramas, poems, a TV series and comic books. Historians also continue to publish new research about Shaka and the pre-colonial world he lived in. Other recollections about Shaka came from oral sources which were collected and published long after his death.

Historians must interpret with care these contributions, which have informed the way Shaka has been portrayed as a child born out of wedlock who grew up under difficult circumstances but nonetheless became the king and founder of the Zulu nation in 1817. This put him in a position to forge ahead with his trained warriors to conquer surrounding tribes and integrate them with the Zulu nation.

Nineteenth-century hunters and merchants visited Shaka from 1824 and established themselves with his permission in Port Natal. During this time Shaka decided to move his kraal from kwaBulawayo near Eshowe to kwaDukuza (formerly Stanger) where he would have more suitable grazing for his treasured Nguni cattle, as well as being closer to the English residents in Port Natal, with whose assistance he would eventually try to establish diplomatic relations with King George IV (1762–1830) of England. However, Shaka’s time was running out.

After Nandi kaBhebhe eLangeni (ca. 1760–1827), Shaka’s mother, died under ambiguous circumstances on 10 October 1827 widespread mourning followed. It was Shaka’s wish that all who supported him (and her) had to mourn and for a year abstain from working the fields and having intercourse. On 24 September 1828 Shaka’s half-brothers Dingane ka Senzangakhona Zulu (ca. 1795–1840) and Mhlangana, also known as uMhlangana kaSenzangakhona (?–1828), and the offended servant Mbopha kaSithayi stabbed him to death, as they had become critical of the violence and brutality that he had sparked. Dingane then became the second king of the Zulu nation.

Literature about Shaka has been published since the second half of the 19th century. The English writer H. Rider Haggard (1856–1925) published, among others, the novel Nada the Lily (1892), which portrayed Shaka as a ruthless king with an unnatural personality and unnatural powers. Black writers such as Magema Fuze (1840–1922) depicted the downfall of the Zulu kings and their kingdom. John L. Dube’s (1871–1946) novel Jeqe the body servant of King Shaka (1951/1939) described Shaka’s era, while Sol T. Plaatje (1876–1932) published Mhudi (1930), the first English novel by a black South African writer, which elucidated the (pre-)colonial (Zulu) history. Of special importance is the first major novel written in an indigenous language, Sesotho, namely Thomas Mofolo’s (1876–1948) Chaka (1926), which influenced a number of writers in Southern and West Africa.

Popular works about Shaka were those of E.A. Ritter (1890–1969), Shaka Zulu (1955), and Donald R. Morris (1924–2002), The washing of the spears: A history of the rise of the Zulu nation under Shaka and its fall in the Zulu War of 1879 (1966). These books had a wide readership and were instrumental in shaping the perceptions about Shaka. The popular TV series Shaka Zulu (1986) was based mainly on Ritter’s work.

This article pays special attention to the work of 20th-century writers such as D.J. Opperman (1914–1985), P.P.R. van Coller (1926–1958), Stephen Gray (1941–), Pieter Fourie (1940–), P.J. Schoeman (1904–1988) and Mazisi Kunene (1930–2006), all of whom wrote extensively about Shaka in significant texts addressing different sides and perceptions of his life. It further focuses on Afrikaans texts that have been largely neglected or ignored in other research about the portrayal of Shaka in literature. The article argues that there is a close link between history and various forms of literature, which contributes to a “rounded” perspective vis-à-vis who Shaka really was.

Keywords: literary genres; praise poems; Shaka; South African literature; Zulu history; Zulu kings


Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans

Die uitbeelding van koning Shaka (ca. 1781–1828) in die Suid-Afrikaanse literatuur

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