South African Military 
History Society



By Ken Gillings

For those who are fortunate enough to have visited the South African Province of KwaZulu-Natal, and know the route through the Nkwalini Valley between the picturesque town of Eshowe and Melmoth (named after the first British Chief Native Commissioner for Zululand, Sir Melmoth Osborn), few know the significance of the cross on top of Mandawo Hill.

It is actually the top of the steeple of a little church that was built on Mandawo (although the sign post reads Mandawe) to commemorate the arrival of Christianity in Zululand.

It overlooks, however, the site of Odwini ('The Hornet's Nest'), an 'umuzi' (homestead) built by Malandela and his wife Nozinja in the late 1600s. Here, two sons were born - Qwabe and Zulu (Heaven). On the death of Malandela, Nozinja chose to accompany Zulu to what is now known as eMakhosini (the Place of the Kings), situated in the basin of the White Mfolozi River, deep in the heart of old Zululand. Successive 'amaKhosi' followed: Phunga, Mageba, Ndaba, Jama, Senzangakhona and Sigujana, who was almost immediately assassinated by his illegitimate half-brother named Shaka, who in turn staged a coup in the Mtetwa Empire following the murder of its chief, Dingiswayo. Thus began the establishment of the abaKwaZulu - the Zulu Nation as it is known throughout the world. Shaka was in turn assassinated by his half-brother Dingane, who was followed by Mpande, then Cetshwayo, Dinuzulu, Solomon, Cyprian Bhekuzulu and finally by Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu, the reigning Zulu monarch. We know this Province as "The Land of Heaven."

This proud Nation was subjugated by Great Britain in the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 at the Battle of Ulundi on the 4th July of that year. During that conflict, the Zulus inflicted one of the most amazing defeats on the British army in its Colonial history below a Sphinx-like hill named Isandlwana. Later, they refused to take the suppressive style of independence that the Nationalists offered to them during the Apartheid era; instead, they fought for their ideal of a united South Africa and this dream materialised after the 1994 democratic elections.

Many White South Africans realised the inevitability of majority rule but very few of us believed that it would occur so quickly - and so peacefully. Over 350 years of White rule in Southern Africa ended in a flash. "There is bound to be an attempted White coup", the sceptics predicted. There wasn't (although it would be nave to say that there were no plots hatched to stage one).

The New South Africa was a miracle, with former bitter opponents serving together in Government. This wasn't the first occasion, of course; it was almost a mirror image of the Union Government in 1910 at the end of the three years of War between the Boers and the British from 1899 to 1902. The difference was that the Anglo-Boer War was, as the current Premier of KwaZulu-Natal, Dr S'bu Ndebele says mischievously, 'White-on-White violence.'

The miracle of the New South Africa was epitomised in Nelson Mandela, healer of the wounds of Apartheid. He steered us through reconciliation so successfully that some of our negotiators were introduced to the Irish combatants and I have no doubt that their example has helped to sow the seeds of reconciliation in Northern Ireland as well.

Post democracy has seen South Africa surge ahead. Visitors to this country will see cranes all over the place - a certain sign of growth and stability. With it, however, has come crime. It is pointless trying to hide this fact and it is reaching alarming proportions; especially violent crime. It affects everyone in South Africa - not only affluent Whites. For some inconceivable reason, the National Government has been in denial. Even President Thabo Mbeki denies it is an issue, as does the Commissioner of Police. To exacerbate matters, the Minister of Safety and Security put his foot firmly in his mouth and told South Africa's people to stop whingeing or to leave the country - a remark which thankfully he has admitted wishing he had never made.

This attitude may have suddenly changed. At 17h30 on Friday 26th January 2007, one of South Africa's most eminent sons, David Grey Rattray, was murdered in front of his wife, Nicky, by a gang of six thugs. Historian, raconteur, friend of South African and British Royalty, David has been responsible for sharing the secrets of The Land of Heaven with thousands of local and international visitors to this country. Fugitives' Drift Lodge is a gem in that corner of KwaZulu-Natal and these visitors flocked there to listen to this master story-teller regale them with tales about brave men. He was possibly the Zulu people's best friend. During a radio interval, I cast him in the same mould as those earlier great friends of the Zulu people - Bishop John William Colenso, R C Samuelson, Dr Peter Becker and 'SB' Bourquin.

Why on Earth would someone want to do this? His murder sent shock-waves throughout South Africa and on Thursday 1st February 2007, about 2000 people of all colours and creeds gathered at his sons' school, Michaelhouse, to bid him farewell and to share the Family's grief. The speakers pulled no punches. The Bishop of Natal, The Rt Rev Rubin Phillip deplored the violence gripping South Africa and demanded immediate action. His Royal Highness Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, in a personal note read by his friend Mr Robin Woodhead, also expressed his dismay that the level of crime had progressed to this extreme. Prince Charles likened the loss of David to the assassination of Lord Mountbatten. Inkosi Mangosuthu Buthelezi, Great Grandson of King Cetshwayo's Prime Minister and commander-in-chief of the Zulu army in 1879, Inkosi Mnyamana Buthelezi, expressed his outrage about it. Then Premier S'bu Ndebele addressed the mourners. His condemnation was not as vociferous as the other speakers but he did not conceal his anger at David's murder and he promised action.

People came away from the funeral with a sense of relief that something might be done.

I believe that it will. The Government has woken up to the fact that it is now a very serious issue but the counter measures still need to go through the sausage machine. Indeed, following David Rattray's murder, Mr Vusi Pikoli, the head of the National Prosecuting Authority has been reported in the national press as saying: "We have to break the back of crime in this country. We need to stop talking about how much crime there is and start talking about what we are going to do about it."

This gives me hope. He is the most senior Government official to make such a remark.

As matters now stand, two of the thugs have been arrested. I am convinced that it will be a matter of time before the remainder are rounded up with the assistance of the local community. The SA Police Service have praised the assistance of the local community, who are, like most of us, 'gatvol'* of crime and violence. Judging from the one killer's confession, it was clearly a botched robbery.

Right; so what happens now? Do we sit by and gnash our teeth while everyone cancels their visits to the Land of Heaven? Not on your life. That is not the type of legacy that David Grey Rattray would have liked to leave behind. Nicky Rattray has made it clear that life must continue at the Lodge and that visitors will continue to be held spellbound by the presentations offered at Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift by their team of Guides.

And just what else does "The Land of Heaven" have to offer to entice tourists to it? KwaZulu-Natal is a microcosm of South Africa. It has been my privilege to share some of its secrets with tourists from South Africa and abroad for 35 years. They marvel at the majesty of the Drakensberg, known to my Zulu compatriots as "uKhahlamba - the Barrier of Spears", as it changes shape at every corner. Our beaches are of golden sand and the water of the Indian Ocean is warm - in fact, during our KZN (as we refer to our KwaZulu-Natal) winter months, at 20C (70F) the sea can be warmer than the day's temperature!

The Greater St Lucia Wetland is a KZN treasure and like the Drakensberg/uKhahlamba Trans-frontier Park, has been declared a World Heritage site. In the bad old days, during the holiday periods, it was descended upon by the Brandy and Coke brigade and became a rowdy place that it was best to avoid. That has changed; it is reverting to a pristine wilderness with the most incredible assortment of wildlife. It is birder's paradise. The eastern shores have almost been cleared of exotic pine plantations and the natural vegetation is quickly re-establishing itself. It will eventually be extended northwards, where the local communities will have a stake in its future and therefore its viability. To snorkel at Cape Vidal is like swimming in an aquarium, while Sodwana Bay is a renowned diving experience. Only recently, a colony of 'living fossil' fish (the Coelacanth) was discovered off one of its reefs.

Then we have our Game Reserves - especially the Hluhluwe/iMfolozi Park, with its 'Big 5' - Cape Buffalo, Elephant, Leopard, Lion and two species of Rhinoceros. It used to be two Reserves - Hluhluwe and Mfolozi (the iMfolozi refers to the fact that two Mfolozi Rivers flow through it; the sandy White Mfolozi and the rocky Black Mfolozi). The confluence of these two great rivers was once the hunting ground of King Shaka kaSenzangakhona and the game pits can still be seen. Several years ago, the two Reserves were combined.

The other pot leg of KZN's tourism is its Battlefields - undeniably my passion. This sector is arguably the fastest growing in our tourism industry, albeit off a smaller base than the other attractions. Many a military lesson has been learnt here on the east coast of Africa:
* The Shakan era, where a young warrior king changed the tried and trusted tactics of his forefathers to include the stabbing spear (iklwa - an onomatopoeic name given to it due to the sound it made when withdrawn from its opponent's body) in its armaments and the famous Horns of the Buffalo (where the opponent was engaged by the chest of the army and enveloped by the two wings). He then forged a nation whose name is the last letter of the phonetic alphabet;

* The Voortrekker era, when misunderstanding between Whites and Blacks has led to years of animosity and mistrust. One of the battles fought during this period was on the banks of the Ncome ('Praiseworthy') River on the 16th December 1838. It will go down in the annals of military history as one of the most decisive but tragic in South Africa. The Battlefield of Blood River is now even the object of American military history buffs' attention.

* The Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 has continued to intrigue civilian and serviceman alike. While some guides erroneously claim that the Battle of Isandlwana was the greatest defeat suffered by Great Britain in her colonial history (it wasn't - Gandamak was), the atmosphere on this battlefield is awesome. As one stands amongst the monuments and cairns, under which the bones of Briton and Zulu undoubtedly lie heaped together, it takes very little to imagine the desperation that faced the men of the 24th Regiment of Foot, the Royal Artillery, the Natal Carbineers, Natal Police and the Natal Native Contingent as the warriors of Chief Ntshingwayo kaMahole Khoza closed in on them. 1357 Imperial and Colonial soldiers lie buried beneath those cairns and little wooden crosses with red poppies lie at the foot of the memorials to both sides. I salute the people of Great Britain; they never forget their men who made the Supreme Sacrifice so far from home. The film 'Zulu', seething with inaccuracies about the Defence of Rorke's Drift, has resulted in thousands of visitors from all over the world descending on this little corner of The Land of Heaven, to hear battlefield guides relate the story of the heroic defence by little over 100 men against 4000 warriors led into battle by King Cetshwayo's brother Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande on horseback. There are other sites of course, such as Nyezane and Gingindlovu on the coast and Hlobane, Khambule and Ulundi in northern KZN. The road from Ulundi to Cengeni gate at the lower end of the Hluhluwe/iMfolozi Park has been tarred, opening up a new tourist route that includes some of the most spectacular scenery in KwaZulu-Natal while including several battlefields and fascinating Zulu cultural sites.

* Three battlefields of the Transvaal War of Independence are situated in KZN. In one of the battles (Lang's Nek), Colours were carried into battle for the last time. In another, at Majuba on the 27th February 1881, Sir George Pomeroy Colley (Governor, High Commissioner and Commander-in-Chief South East Africa) was killed. Eighteen years later, British soldiers shouted "Remember Majuba!" as they charged into battle during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. Majuba is in pristine condition and the atmosphere is as eerie as that at Isandlwana. ?The Anglo-Boer War was one of the costliest wars ever fought by Britain. "It will all be over by Christmas" said the politicians, but they didn't say which Christmas. The war raged for 3 years and to quote Rudyard Kipling, it. taught the British "no end of a lesson", It helped to launch Winston Churchill into his political and military career (he was captured in KZN on the 15th November 1899, escaped to participate in the Relief Battles and then fought the Oldham by-election). The site of his capture has been the target of two visits by the International Churchill Society and several by his direct descendants. Recently a film was produced about his exploits in Natal during the War. Entitled "Chasing Churchill - in search of my grandfather", it features his grand-daughter Celia Sandys, David Rattray and the writer.

The war saw some of the most amazing and tragic battles in military history fought here; Colenso, where the Royal Artillery lost 10 out of 12 field pieces to the Boers - akin to an infantry regiment losing its Colours; Spioenkop with its 'acre of massacre' - a lesson in communications (or rather lack thereof). Vaalkrans, where the bickering British Generals at last began to change tactics but then snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, and the Relief Battles, where tactics learned by the British during the War were adopted and honed by armies in the Great War of 1914 to 1918. I once took the son of an officer who had fought in this, the so-called Battle of the Thukela Heights, to visit this battlefield which is spread over a front of 10 km. It necessitated traversing rural tribal areas and one of the local Zulu subsistence farmers asked what we were doing there. When told, he said: "Please advise the gentleman that we will always look after the graves of the fathers of such sons" That son of the father walked away with a lump in his throat.

During the centenary of the Anglo-Boer War (I had the privilege to chair the Centenary Committee in KwaZulu-Natal), the local inkosi ("chief") of this particular area asked if he could address the thousand or so visitors. "You White people are most welcome here", he said. "And it is a privilege for my people to have you with us."

The guerrilla stage of the war also left its legacy in British military history. During WW2, after the disaster at Dunkirk and the evacuation of the British forces from mainland Europe Churchill called for the establishment of a 'butcher and bolt' small group raiding party. After it was formed, Lt Col Dudley Clark of the Royal Artillery proposed the name Commando, after the term used for the Boer forces in the Anglo-Boer War. Churchill liked the name but many senior officers didn't and preferred "Special Forces." Its Regimental March is a permanent memorial to the South African Commandos that are now being disbanded by the present South African Government; it is Sarie Marais. Incidentally, Sarie Marais came from the Greytown area in the Land of Heaven and she lies buried there on the original farm.

Several towns feature strongly in the so-called Battlefields Region of KwaZulu-Natal. They include Ladysmith (famous for its 118-day siege), Newcastle - a base from which to visit the 1881 battlefields, Dundee (where the first battle of the Anglo-Boer War was fought) with its world-renowned on-site Museum and Vryheid, in whose vicinity the Napoleonic Dynasty ended on the 1st June 1879, when the young and impetuous Eugene Louis Jean Joseph Napoleon, the Prince Imperial of France and only son of Emperor Napoleon 3rd was killed during a reconnaissance deep into Zululand. The cross erected during the visit to the site by his grief-stricken mother, the Empress Eugenie, can still be seen on the banks of the Ityotyozi River. When visitors arrive there, they are greeted in French by the local Zulu children! (French is taught at the nearby school - with the support of France). These picturesque little towns have excellent and reasonably priced accommodation available, a sturdy infrastructure and in fact make ideal bases from which to visit other non military history sites such as the Drakensberg and Itala Game Reserve.

As visitor numbers have increased in these little towns, it has helped to educate the local communities into realising the importance of tourism. Tourism creates jobs and it now contributes 8% towards South Africa's economy. Over 50000 overseas tourists visit KwaZulu-Natal's battlefields each year and their spend employs 1000 people directly and indirectly in the Region. Over a million domestic tourists visit the broad battlefield area per annum. It is of course vital for this to continue and indeed to grow the market in order to create even more employment in these impoverished rural areas.

I have not attempted to hide the fact that we have a problem. I would like to suggest that overseas visitors especially make use of registered Tourist Guides (who must be accredited by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism) and especially Guides who are members of a Regional Tourist Guides Association.

I would, however, appeal to overseas visitors not to abandon South Africa and more specifically The Land of Heaven, KwaZulu-Natal. We owe it to former President Nelson Mandela's vision of our Rainbow Nation, his spirit of reconciliation and his gift of forgiveness, to share the secrets of this great country with you. To boycott KwaZulu-Natal would negate everything that David Rattray has done to uplift the Zulu people whom he loved so dearly.

At David Rattray's funeral, his young son Andrew said: "We do not seek retribution; we seek justice. To respond to this (murder) with racial hatred would violate everything that Dad stood for."

Some time after the funeral had ended, big drops of rain began to fall. It was as though we - Zulus, Whites and The Land of Heaven - were weeping together. We owe it to these people to keep tourism alive in KwaZulu-Natal.

I'd like to conclude by quoting the well-known South African journalist, Dennis Beckett: "For every guy who holds up a gun, there are 99 who hold out a hand of friendship."

*It is very difficult to accurately translate this somewhat crude and rude Afrikaans word into English, but the basic meaning is that we are filled to the anus with frustration.

Ken Gillings is a Durban based military historian, registered National Tourist Guide and specialist Battlefield Guide. He has written extensively on the military history of KwaZulu-Natal and South Africa. He is a member of the South African Military History Society, the Ladysmith Historical Society, the South African National Society and the KwaZulu-Natal Heritage Foundation. His publications include The War Memoirs of Commandant Ludwig Krause (which he co-edited), the Battle of the Thukela Heights, Battles of KwaZulu-Natal and several articles in the South African Military History Society's Military History Journal.

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Some KwaZulu-Natal Committee contact details

Mike Laing 031-205-1951
Phil Everitt 031-261-5751 (after hours)
Adrian van Schaik 082-894-8122 (after hours)
Bill Brady 031-561-5542 or 083 228 5485
Ken Gillings 083-654-5880

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South African Military History Society /