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Shaka Zulu — Myth of Iron

Published: 18-AUG-06

There are more books and literary treatises on Zulu king Shaka than you can shake a fighting stick at.

Depending on your view of the man, Shaka was the most famous — or infamous — of all Africans, and reams have been written about him, all serving to legendise, demonise and even deify.

Shaka is truly the stuff of legends, typifying the man of Africa, often in flights of fancy, who changed the face of the subcontinent and the way it was seen, and continues to be seen, the world over. But how much of it is true?

If actor Henry Cele was typecast in the South African screen version, then Shaka was tall and muscular, handsome in a Gregory Peck kind of way, and stern and uncompromising with a sense of humour. In other depictions, movie and the written word, Shaka is described variously as “tall and lithe”, to “towering and massively muscled”.

The latter is how he is illustrated in the plethora of drawings and paintings by artists who had nothing more than their imaginations as reference.

For all that has been published, there is much about Shaka we don’t know, even the most basic of facts. When was he born, what did he look like, when and why was he assassinated?

With so esoteric and kaleidoscopic a portrait of Shaka, most people, South Africans especially, have a mental picture of a tall and ferocious black man, festooned with the Zulu paraphernalia of war, striding out across the southeast African landscape at the head of marauding impis hell-bent on bloodshed, mayhem, destruction and conquest. And for most of us, that’s where it rests, content with our own infrequently visited mental picture of South Africa’s most romantic figure.

Not for author Dan Wylie, however. He has subjected Shaka to intensely close and intellectual scrutiny and produced, the publishers maintain, “the first book-length scholarly study of Shaka to be published. It lays out, as far as possible, all the available evidence — mainly underutilised Zulu oral testimonies, supported by other documentary sources — and decides, item by item, legend by legend, what exactly we can know about Shaka’s reign. The picture that emerges in this meticulously researched and absorbing ‘anti-biography’ is very different from the popular narrative we are used to.”

How different?

The premise of Wylie’s study of the Zulu king is that virtually every portrayal of him is wrong. He casts doubt on such popular projection that Shaka was illegitimate, exiled as a youth, a brutal dictator whose armies slaughtered around a million people, was sexually dysfunctional and was murdered by his half-brothers because he went crazy.

Even starting from the standpoint that “we know very little for certain about Shaka,” and that the most basic facts remain locked in obscurity, Wylie submits that he knows more than most because of his energetic and deep research into the man, and that “there is no solid evidence” for much of the hype around that surrounds the Zulu king and that is today accepted as fact.

Such evidence that Wylie has amassed, although frequently thin, is “nonetheless rich enough and full enough to point in very different directions”. He ponders the popularly accepted assertions that Shaka invented the ‘chest and horns’ military formation represented “in Bill Faure’s deeply misleading television series Shaka Zulu” while “there is nothing that can be regarded as evidence which says anything of the sort”.

“Similarly,” writes Wylie, “it is almost always asserted, right through to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, that Shaka’s greatest victory was at Qokli Hill where Zwide of the Ndandwe, Shaka’s main rival for regional power, was finally defeated in 1819. Yet there is not a shred of credible evidence anywhere that this battle occurred. In fact, it turns out to have been invented by E.A. Ritter in 1955, in his novel Shaka Zulu. We have to start looking elsewhere for more truthful depictions of Shaka’s military systems.”

Wylie concedes that it’s scarcely possible to write a biography of Shaka at all, but in Myth of Iron he tries to embed what can more accurately be discerned of Shaka’s life and apply it in the historical context. “History, in the end, is a creative literary medium,” he philosophises. “It tries to say something verifiable about the past, but the past is ultimately a construction of language; it’s something imagined.”

And that’s what Wylie lays before the reader interested in South Africa, with the premise that this time it’s a little nearer to what actually happened.

To what extent is Shaka revered in his home region of KwaZulu-Natal? Enough to name the proposed multibillion rand King Shaka airport after him. The question, of course, is whether or not he will be monumentalised there with a statue, engraving or painting? And if he is, what will it look like?

Zimbabwean-born, Dr. Dan Wylie, teaches English at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa. His PhD on White Writers and Shaka Zulu was completed in 1995

Book Information

  • Author: Dan Wylie
  • Publisher: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press

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