South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 13 August 2009 was the distinguished author Alan Mountain, who we are proud to record is a member of the Cape Town branch of the SAMHS. His topic was The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Empire and its Relevance to the Politics of Today. Mr Mountain's talk was illustrated with excellent photographs, illustrations of paintings and diagrams, which came into their own, being projected onto the wide screen of the back wall of the hall's stage. This were especially true of the renditions of the paintings as it did justice to the colours by reflecting the full glory of the paintings, as if they were real paintings on display.

Mr Mountain introduced his talk with a family tree showing the three brothers who were to play key roles in the history of the Zulu people: Shaka, Dingane and Mpande. He explained that the Zulus were originally a small and insignificant tribe. The Zulu chief Senzangakhona was the father of the baby boy, Shaka, born to Nandi, a member of the Langeni tribe. He initially attempted to escape his paternal responsibility by saying that he was suffering from an intestinal illness caused by a beetle only found in the intestines (i-tshaka). He later changed his mind and took her as his third wife, but her strong personality and bad temper made her unpopular with Senzangakhona's tribes people, and she later returned - with her baby - to her own people in disgrace. Mother and son are persecuted and ostracised and both suffered terrible hardships, which only served to strengthen the bond between them.

Our speaker described the difficult boyhood of Shaka, who was a loner, tormented by his fellow herd boys, apparently because he was not sexually well-endowed. Although he never became part of the group, he was brave, strong and well-built, very intelligent and determined to succeed. He served in the regiments of Dingiswayo, who built the Mthethwa tribe into one of the major political groupings in the Thukela(Tugela)-Phongolo region. Shaka later-on even commanded one of these regiments. When his father died in about 1816, Shaka, who had no claim to the throne in terms of Nguni tribal law, surreptitiously killed his half-brother Sigujana - who ostensibly drowned mysteriously while bathing - and seized the chieftainship with the help of Dingiswayo.

Shaka was now a chief and introduced the new concepts in warfare which were to enable him to create the mighty Zulu empire. Some of these measures included, amongst others, abolishing initiation schools which robbed the tribe of much-needed manpower for lengthy periods. Shaka established a permanent standing army, organised into three regiments according to age (izintanza). These were the amaWombe (men aged between 30 - 40 years); the izimPohlo (bachelors between 25 - 30 years), and the uFasimba (young bloods aged 18 - 25 years). The regiments were barracked at three regional amaKhanda (Royal households) each under the command of a trusted relative. These were his maiden aunt, Mnkabayi, and two of his father's widowed queens who had been kind to his mother when she was married to Senzangakhona).

Shaka also replaced the longer throwing spear with a short-handled stabbing spear, the Iklwa, the blade of which reminds a person of that highly-efficient Roman Legionary's fighting sword, the Gladius. Shaka's view was that it was crazy to throw away your weapons as spears in flight are relatively easy to deflect or dodge, which leaves you defenceless in close-combat. The Iklwa (said to have been named after the sounds made by its penetration into and withdrawal from the body) was held firmly a short distance behind the blade, for a short, half-circular and powerful stab to strike the enemy in the rib-cage. Like the Gladius, the Iklwa was also held with the blade horizontal to the ground, to ease penetration between the ribs. The larger, heavier cowhide shields served a dual purpose: to deflect the thrown spears or parry the blows of their opponents; and to hook the left side behind the shield of the opponent and to deflect it far enough to the right to leave the enemy open and defenceless for the fatal stab of the Iklwa. The pattern of the cowhide of the shields was unique to the particular regiment. The Zulu shields were not unlike in design and purpose to the Roman Legionary's rectangular shield, the Scutum.

Shaka differed in opinion from Dingiswayo in the way to approach warfare: Shaka advocated Impi ebomvu (total war), in that victory must be total otherwise you have to fight again - Dingiswayo did not accept its drastic nature - to him the purpose of war was "to teach your enemy a lesson and not to destroy him". Around 1817-1818, Dingiswayo was captured and killed in a battle between the Mthethwa and Ndwande tribes.

The other revolutionary battle tactic introduced by Shaka was a highly-successful battle formation, a tactic which left his enemies confused and easily overpowered on the battlefield. This was the famous "buffalo horns" formation. It was composed of three elements: 1) The main force, the "chest", which closed with the enemy Impi and pinned it in position; 2) The "horns". While the enemy Impi was pinned by the "chest", these would flank the Impi from both sides and encircle it; in conjunction with the "chest" they would then destroy the trapped force and 3) the "loins", a large reserve, was placed, seated, behind the "chest" with their backs to the battle. The "loins" would be committed wherever the enemy Impi threatened to break out of the encirclement. Battlefield coordination was supplied by regimental izinduna (chiefs or leaders) who used hand signals and messengers, making the scheme both elegant in its simplicity and well understood by the warriors assigned to each echelon.

Another innovation introduced by Shaka was the abolition of sandals. The warriors toughened the soles of their feet by dancing on thorns. Without sandals they could run faster and would not be hindered and distracted by sandal straps becoming undone at a critical stage, for instance, when in battle. To enhance the combat-readiness and efficiency of his warriors, Shaka outlawed marriage until they became 35 years of age, or had "washed their spears in blood". Shaka's interests not only revolved around empire-building or warfare - he took a great interest in cattle-breeding and also promoted intensive crop cultivation to feed his people.

The first full application of Shaka's new strategy and fighting techniques occurred when his Zulu army advanced to do battle with the Buthelezi clan (under chief Pungashe). Drawn up in battle formations, the Zulus were unmoved and unresponsive to Buthelezi taunts, which confused the Buthelezi - also when no attempt was made to retaliate when they threw their spears at the Zulus. The Zulus - without making a sound - inexorably drew closer, which led to mounting confusion amongst the Buthelezi. When within striking distance, Shaka gave the command and his Impis overran the Buthelezi. The killed the both the enemy warriors and the Buthelezi women who came to watch and motivate their men folk by taunting the Zulus. They then destroyed the Buthelezi homesteads and captured all their cattle and returning women and children. They returned victoriously with their captives and plunder to kwaBulawayo, Shaka's head kraal. Chief Pungashe escaped with his life and nothing else. Our speaker also explained the antecedents of Chief Gatsha Buthelezi.

Shaka set about expanding his empire by: 1) Entering into alliances with neighbouring chiefs who lost their suzerainty), or 2) destroying those who did not submit voluntarily. The expansion of Shaka's empire, can be divided into three main phases: 1) Consolidation of the Zulu Heartland (circa 1819): In a little over 2 years Shaka's territory increased from around 200 sq kilometres to over 10 000 sq kilometres. The heartland, located between the White umFolozi and umHlatuze Rivers, included all those clans which had kinship and traditional ties with the Zulus; 2) Consolidation of the Second Tier (1821): This comprised those clans who dwelt south of the umHlatuze River and as far as the Thukela River, as well as north of the White umFolozi up to the umKuze River. Although their kinship and traditional ties with the Zulus were more tenuous, they nevertheless enjoyed the same rights as those of the inner circle - all were amaThungwa-Nguni; and 3) Addition of the Third Tier, this was his empire at its Zenith (1826): Within three years Shaka expanded his empire to include the whole of what we know as KwaZulu-Natal, the southern part of present-day Mozambique and the northern half of the old Transkei, stretching southwards as far as the umZimkhulu River (Port St Johns). The most important tribes in the region on the eve of Shaka's rise to power were the Nguni, Hlubi, Ngwane or Matibele, Zulu, Qwabe, Mthethwa, Ndwandwe, Nguane of Sobuza and the Thonga.

So it inevitably came about that those who slighted him or his mother ended up by falling into his clutches and suffered the warlord's wrath - by being killed without pity or remorse. Shaka's cold-blooded ruthlessness also extended to economic considerations - to safeguard scarce resources by not feeding useless mouths. He also had the elderly and infirm killed. In a sense Shaka was quite broadminded, which was displayed in his considerable interest in the English culture and technological skills, especially firearms, which he was introduced to by some English traders in Zululand, and whom he was particularly well disposed to. The arrival of the English traders in 1823, heralded a new era in Shaka's statesmanship. F G Farwell and H F Fynn, managed to win Shaka's trust after Fynn nursed Shaka back to health after he was stabbed and seriously wounded by an Ndwandwe spy. Shaka demonstrated his gratitude by permitting the traders to settle and erect a trading outpost at Port Natal, as well as allowing the traders to hold sway over the natives at the outpost. He also gratefully accepted their military assistance on a number of occasions. Shaka had a particular fear of old age and death. When Fynn promised him an elixir that would have prevented Shaka's hair turning gray he was eager to use the remedy. Alas, it never materialised. The role played by Jacob, a Xhosa interpreter, brought to Natal by Farwell, was also related, as was the remarkable career of Joseph Msimbithi, a one-time cattle rustler, inmate on Robben Island and latterly interpreter (English and Dutch) for cartographer Lieutenant Owen on the survey ship HMS Leven. Joseph's swimming skills particularly, were greatly admired by Shaka.

When Shaka's mother Nandi fell ill, Shaka ran 115 km back to her kraal near the present-day Stanger, to be with her. When Nandi died, Shaka was deeply grieved and had at least 7 000 of his people killed during the initial mourning period. Thousands more were killed subsequently. Shaka ordered one year of national mourning during which a total ban were placed on any crop cultivation, the use of milk. Intercourse was also not permitted and married women who fell pregnant during this period of mourning were killed along with their husbands. After three months of mourning had passed, he relented to the pleas of his chiefs and lifted the ban on the raising of crops, which narrowly averted a famine in his empire. During this period of mourning, he also embarked on a campaign against the Pondos, whom he defeated and captured all their cattle. He then turned his armies (under his trusted general Soshengane of the Shangaan tribe) northward and defeated some lesser tribes in what today is Mozambique. By now Shaka's cruelty and excesses led to major disenchantment and disillusionment amongst his people. Having not accompanied his armies on the northern campaign, his security and power were at their most vulnerable. His brothers Dingane and Mhlangane seized the opportunity to assassinate him and stabbed him to death in 1828.

After Shaka's death, the two brothers quickly fell out and Dingane in turn murdered Mhlangane. Dingane was very different from Shaka: he was moody, loved dressing up and was an accomplished dancer. Only he was entitled to sit in a chair, which was a symbol of exalted status. Anybody that transgressed this taboo, symbolically threatened the throne and ridiculed the king's status, and was summarily executed if caught. His fall was caused by his inability to maintain and extend Shaka's hard-won empire, as well as being hastened by the arrival of the Voortrekkers, Dutch settlers who saw Natal as an El Dorado in their longing to escape the oppressive yoke of British colonial rule in the Cape Colony. Dingane saw the Voortrekkers as a military threat as they had managed to vanquish umZilikazi, Dingane's great enemy, seemingly without any undue effort. This was an enemy Dingane had repeatedly tried to conquer but was unsuccessful on every occasion. Dingane must have clearly understood the significance of this potential threat to his kingdom posed by the seemingly endless stream of Trekkers descending upon the Zulu empire. What followed was the treacherous attack on Piet Retief and his party and the subsequent massacre at Dingane's kraal, umGungundlovu, the surprise attacks on the Boer laagers at Weenen (Doringkop, Bloukrans, Moordspruit, Rensburgkoppie), which led to the massacre of over 531 Voortrekker men, women, children, as well as their coloured and black "agterryers". The Voortrekkers regrouped and from a well-defended laager, using superior tactics and firepower, 300 men, women and children under the leadership of Andries Pretorius, managed to decisively defeat Dingane's Impis at Blood River on 16 of December, 1838.

Captain Jarvis, a British Army Officer, brought the Boers and Zulus together to hammer out a peace treaty, which was in no way lenient to the Zulu nation, as it confirmed the land deal concluded between the murdered Piet Retief and Dingane, stretching between the rivers umZimvubu in the south and the Thukela in the north. This grant, plus the conquered land, became the Voortrekker Republic of Natalia. In 1840 the Voortrekkers extended their land claim to include the land to the north of the Thukela River up the Black umFolozi River.

After his defeat, Dingane chose to remain in Natal under the protection of the Voortrekkers. Mpande, the half-brother of Dingane was considered a weak man in comparison to his contemporaries, and while other half-brothers were removed he was allowed to live. Dingane instructed his chief inDuna Ndlela kaSompisi to assassinate him, but he repeatedly delayed, as he realised that Mpande was the only son to have had any children, and the continuation of the blood line was crucial to the stability of the Zulu nation. Ndlela was tortured to death by Dingane for his inaction. In 1840 Andries Pretorius helped Mpande in his revolt against his half-brother Dingane, who was defeated in the Battle of Magongo. Dingane, a refugee from his own people, escaped northward but was murdered in the Ubombo Mountains, in the Hlatikhulu Forest. Mpande (born 1872) was king of the Zulu nation from 1840 until his death in 1872, making him the longest-reigning Zulu king. He maintained good relations with both the Voortrekkers and the British. He was succeeded by his son Cetshwayo kaMpande. He was the king of the Zulu nation from 1872 to 1879 and their leader during the Zulu War, under whose leadership the British Army suffered its biggest defeat of arms ever inflicted upon them by native inhabitants of the lands whom they sought to forcibly incorporate in the British Empire, Such was the legacy of the politico-military heritage of Shaka. The battle took place at the foot of a forbidding-looking hill called Isandhlwana - the date, 1879.

Lastly, our speaker discussed the legacy of the rise and fall of the Zulu Empire and the relevance to the politics of today. In 1909 the Congress of the Chiefs was established to assist the Zulu Chief in ruling the Zulu Nation - according to the rules, ordinances and laws as laid down by the British authorities. In 1912 the South African Native National Congress was formed, which later became the African National Congress, the ANC, currently the ruling party in South Africa. In 1922 a movement called Inkatha yeNkululedo yeSizwe, was founded, specifically to promote Zulu culture. In the 1970s Chief Gatsha Buthelezi revived Inkatha for political purposes. In time these two political entities became the opposite poles of political expression in the struggle for the soul - and political control - of the Zulu Nation. Space precludes going into lengthy detail, but it will suffice to say that the creation of the Zulu Nation consisted of a divided nation - the original "core" Zulu people, the amaNtungwa and the conquered peoples south of the Thukela, the amaLala. The terms "amaNtungwa" and "amaLala" became "labels of privilege and servitude", which naturally fostered dissent over time and became political divides. Port Natal became a place of refuge for dissenting factions, which the Christian missionaries saw as an ideal centre for establishing churches and schools. Thus new divides in the body politic and social fabric of the Zulus came into being, based upon religion. The main political strife, however, centres on the question of royal succession - abaKwaZulu represents the descendents from the founder of the original Zulu nation, Chief Zulu. The amaKholwa ("believers") on the other hand, interacted with the white settlers and came under the influence of the whites' cultural heritage. This led to a political polarization into monarchists and anti-monarchists with different objectives. Thus we find today's political arrangement - Zulu Nationalism represented by the Inkatha movement, traditional tribal values and pro-monarchist; and in the opposing corner, a National Perspective represented by the ANC and Westernised values. These differences are party politicised and often violent as the conflict in the Natal Midlands during the 1980-90s and mining migrant clashes reflect. Polokwane, the election of a Zulu, Jacob Zuma as president of both the ANC and of the country and the new agenda might change all this - only time will tell. But what is definite, is that there is an urgent need to heal the divide between the factions - not only for the sake of the Zulu nation, but as well for South Africa as a nation.

The chairman, Johan van den Berg, thanked our speaker for a memorable and outstanding talk (admitting tongue-in-cheek that he might be slightly biased towards the speaker, having being born in Zululand) and presented him with the customary gift.

As a parting thought it is worthwhile to mention that Mr Mountain wrote an excellent book on the subject, appropriately called The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Empire. As far as our subject is concerned, the book was published in 1999 and might therefore be slightly dated, but well worth the read, if you can acquire a copy. The local libraries might have copies.



We welcome Mr Eric Coetzee who became a member recently.

The treasurer will be sending out Renewal Advices to those members who have not yet paid their subscriptions for 2009. Your speedy response to these will be appreciated.

We are always looking for new members so, if you know of anyone who might be interested in military history, bring him or her along to the next meeting or otherwise persuade them to join.



From the Friends of the SAAF Museum (Cape Town Branch):

North Africa & Korea - Wartime Memories

The Friends of the SAAF Museum (Cape Town Branch) held two informal Q&A sessions with SAAF veterans who were pilots in North Africa during WWII and Korea. Their memories were recorded on a DVD which is for sale. The participants were: North Africa - Stewart "Bomb" Finney & Cecil Golding, and Korea - James "Horse" Sweeney, Ainsley Cooke and Syd de la Harpe.

The Cheetah's Tale (DVD): Cheetah - An End of an Era - A True Lifetime Machine

The amazing story of the development and weaponry of the Cheetah in SAAF service as humorously related by Major General Des Barker (SAAF) has also been recorded on DVD. It is a personal recollection of his experience in flying the Cheetah during development and in service. The DVDs sell for R80,00 each. Please contact the chairman, treasurer or secretary for more details.



Thursday 10 September 2009 - A short History of SANDF Museums

Our speaker will be fellow member and scribe, Commander Mac Bisset, SAN (Retd.) He has an encyclopedic knowledge all matters pertaining to military history and, in addition, has the unique distinction of having been a central figure in the creation and management of a number of our military museums over the last four decades. He is therefore uniquely qualified to relate to us the story (and often the story behind the story) of the SANDF museums over the length and breadth of South Africa and even the Military Museum at Delville Wood on the WWI Battlefield of the Somme.

Thursday 8 October 2009 - A short History of the South African Artillery

Our speaker will be Colonel Lionel Crook who served in the South African Artillery, in 1 Medium Regiment and the Cape Field Artillery, which regiment he commanded. He served in a number of Staff posts and is currently serving with the Reserve Forces Council. The author of a number of books, he is currently completing a comprehensive history of the Cape Field Artillery over a period of 150 years.


BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Scribe
Phone: Home: (evenings) 021-689-1639
Office: (mornings) 021-689-9771

Phone: 021-592-1279 or 021-531-6781

South African Military History Society /