The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

The Zulu Civil War, 1883-1888.

by Ken Gillings

Address to SAMHS Jhb branch on 7 October 2010

After the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, Zululand was divided up into 13 sections ruled by "kinglets". Some were ruled by insignificant chiefs, many of whom had assisted the British during the War. One, however, was given to one of Zululand's most remarkable personalities, Zibhebhu kaMapita, inkosi (chief) of the Mandlakazi tribe.

Zibhebhu was King Cetshwayo's second cousin. He had supported the acceptance of the terms of the British ultimatum to King Cetshwayo, but had loyally supported him during the War. The remnants of King Cetshwayo's Usuthu faction of the Zulu Royal House had been placed under the authority of the Mandlakazi. These included Ndabuko, Siwedu (the King's brother) and his son, Prince Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo. Fearing that King Cetshwayo would eventually be restored to his position of power, Zibhebhu constantly humiliated Prince Dinuzulu, and reportedly tampered with the King's isigodlo (harem).

At the beginning of 1883, Cetshwayo returned to Zululand, rebuilding his Ondini home close by the previous one. The King's return saw the entire region in a state of chaos, but because he had been stripped of his powers, he was unable to use what influence remained to restore order. Furthermore, Zibhebhu was no longer the King's loyal subject; he had become his most bitter enemy. The result of this division of Zululand was inevitable; in 1883, a vicious civil war broke out, and the first major clash took place in the Msebe River valley between Nongoma and Mkhuze on the 30th March 1883. The Royalist amabutho (comprising the emGazini, the Buthelezi and the Usuthu) suffered a humiliating defeat with heavy losses. On the 21st July 1883, Zibhebhu attacked Ondini. The casualties included many prominent personalities such as the victor of Isandlwana, Inkosi Ntshingwayo kaMahole Khoza, King Cetshwayo's youngest son (Prince Nyoniyentaba) and at least three 'amagogo' (widows of King Mpande kaSenzangakhona). The King barely escaped with his life, and took refuge in Eshowe where he died on 8th February 1884. The chieftainship of the Usuthu passed to Prince Dinuzulu.

Matters in Zululand became chaotic, and the Boers from the area made the most of them by offering to support Dinuzulu in his struggle against Zibhebhu. On 21st May 1884, at Zaalflaager, near Hlobane, they poured a bottle of castor oil over Prince Dinuzulu's head, and anointed him as king of the Zulus. This action was ridiculed by Zibhebhu but the New Republicans offered to assist Dinuzulu in return for land.

Urged on by Ndabuko, 100 Boers under Louis Botha, Lucas Meyer and some Germans from the Luneburg area, led by Adolph Schiel, advanced on Zibhebhu, joined by some 1000 Usuthu warriors. They followed the course of the Mkuze River, aware that Zibhebhu had taken up a position in the Mkuze River gorge, where it passes through the Lebombo mountains. The scene was set for the Battle of the Ghost Mountain!

Zibhebhu had concealed his Mandlakazi warriors between the slopes of eTshaneni peak and the Mkuze River. Higher up, near the summit, on the southern slope and hidden from view, he had concealed those members of his tribe who had been unable to bear arms. On the north bank, he had hidden his women, children and cattle in the gorge, protected by a spur in the mountains. They were guarded by another section of his force. It was a brilliantly selected position which not only provided cover for his warriors, but also provided him with an escape route via the Mkuze gorge and onto the Makathini flats, should a retreat become necessary.

The Usuthu army approached the Mandlakazi ambush on the 5th June 1884, with the Boers and Germans in the rear. As they approached Zibhebhu's trap, a Mandlakazi warrior fired a shot prematurely, giving away their position. This shot almost certainly saved the Boers, because Zibhebhu had ordered his warriors to fire at the horses, effectively immobilising them.

Instantly, the Usuthu moved into its traditional horn formation, but discovered that the topography prevented the encircling movement from taking place. As the right horn swept forward, it met the full onslaught of Zibhebhu's army near the base of eTshaneni on the right. A fierce and bloody battle ensued but it soon became clear that the Mandlakazi had gained the upper hand. Buoyed by their success, the Mandlakazi redoubled their efforts, and the Usuthu turned and fled.

The Boers, mounted on their horses, checked both the Usuthu retreat and the Mandlakazi attack, as the latter left the cover of the dense bush, and they forced the Mandlakazi to turn and seek shelter in the bush on the slopes of eTshaneni. Taking note of this development, the Usuthu then turned and pursued the Mandlakazi up the slopes of eTshaneni, resulting in their line of retreat being cut off.

They turned the Mandlakazi retreat into a rout, inflicting a devastating defeat on Zibhebhu. As the attack continued, the abaQulusi, allies of the Usuthu, crossed the Mkuze River and stormed the ridge where the women, children and cattle had been concealed. They attacked with great ferocity, scattering the defending force, and capturing the cattle - the Mandlakazi wealth.

The battle lasted little more than an hour. Mopping up then commenced, and the Usuthu showed no mercy. Fleeing Mandlakazi warriors were either drowned in the river, or stabbed and shot as they fled. Amongst the dead were no fewer than six of Zibhebhu's brothers and many members of his family. Zibhebhu, mounted on his horse, watched the carnage from a high vantage point with his two White advisors, Darke and Eckersley. As the Usuthu turned towards him, he turned his horse and fled, taking refuge in the Eshowe district for 4 years before the British allowed him to return to his home at Bangonomo.

In return for their assistance, the Boers were granted huge tracts of land which they later welded into the short-lived Nieuwe Republiek, with Lucas Meyer as its first and only President.

The War continued to simmer and the British eventually deployed troops in volatile areas of Zululand. The most significant engagement occurred at Ceza Mountain on the 2nd June 1888 where Capt Pennefather's force of 140 men of the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons, 66 Nongqayi (Zululand Native Police) and warriors from Inkosi Mnyamana Buthelezi (who had by then switched loyalty) was attacked by the Usuthu, resulting in the death of two Dragoons.

The Civil War culminated in the defeat of the Mandlakazi by the Usuthu at kwaNongoma on the 23rd June 1888 - within a few hundred metres of the incredulous and hopelessly outnumbered police in the nearby earth-walled fort.

The final action was fought on the 2nd July 1888 at Hlopekhulu, resulting in the death of one Brtitish officer, two mounted Basutho, three Nongqayi, forty Eshowe Levies and fifteen of Inkosi Mnyamana Buthelezi's men to the loss of between 200 and 300 Usuthu.

King Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo was arrested and tried for High Treason. He was sent to St Helena but returned to South Africa on the 5th January 1898, having been relegated to the position of Paramount Chief of the Usuthu clan by the British administration. He became unwillingly and unwittingly implicated in the 1906 Poll Tax ('Bhambatha') Rebellion, imprisoned and released after Union by his old friend General Louis Botha. He died on the 18th October 1913 and was buried 'with his fathers' - the ancient kings of Zululand - in the eMakhosini Valley.

Zibhebhu died in 1905 and was buried near his homestead at Bangonomo. He was probably the most able Zulu military strategist since King Shaka kaSenzangakhona and was described as Zululand's 'Master of the Ambush'.

Summary by Ken Gillings, 17th October 2010.

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