Celebration of heritage as Zulus get new king

They earned colonial respect by defeating British imperial forces

In Summary

• It is a reminder of fundamental place the fabled community from S Africa holds

Thousands gather for the coronation of the new Zulu king
Thousands gather for the coronation of the new Zulu king

Thomas Thabane visited Kenya in 2019 as a VIP state guest of President Uhuru Kenyatta. Many people did not notice he was around. Many more do not know who he is or where he comes from.

Until 2020, Thabane was the Prime Minister of Lesotho, a land surrounded by the Republic of South Africa. He came visiting to instigate bilateral ties between Nairobi and Maseru.

Little to almost no trade or exchanges of whatever kind exist between his land and our own. Would you compare this to the vibrant relations between Kenya and South Africa?

Anyway, one of the pioneer black novelists from the southern African region is Thomas Mofolo (1876-1948) of Lesotho. He wrote mainly in the Sotho language spoken in both Lesotho and South Africa, just like Zulu, Tswana and other Bantu languages from that region.

Pundits agree that Mofolo is one of the major African writers of the 20th Century. His most famous work, Chaka, is a historical novel that was translated into English in 1931 by Frederick Dutton.

It is based on the life story of one of the famous historical figures of that region, Shaka, the great king, who founded the Zulu Kingdom about 200 years ago in what is the Republic of South Africa today.

It sold thousands of copies at a time when colonial romances set in Africa were captivating audiences in the metropoles of Europe. Think here of books set also in colonial South Africa, such as King Solomon’s Mines by the English fabulist of the Victorian Age, Sir H Ryder Haggard.   

A second and more nationalist translation of the book exists. It is by Daniel Kunene (1923-2016), a literary guru from South Africa of note. He is one of the pioneer professors of African literature, with a PhD awarded at the University of Cape Town in 1961.

He belongs to the cohort of black South African writers and intellectuals expelled from apartheid South Africa with the likes of Lewis Nkosi, Keoarepetse Kgotsisile and Eskia Mphahlelele.

In 1989, Kunene wrote the first full-length book on Mofolo, titled, Thomas Mofolo and the Emergence of Written Sesotho Prose. It is in this book that we get an extensive discussion of the aesthetic value of the fictionalised story of Shaka.

The mythologisation of this great sovereign exists both in fiction and fact. Books abound on the Zulu king, making him a common hero in South African popular culture. Think here of the bestseller by John Sinclair called Shaka (1985).

After the commercial success of the book, Sinclair converted it into a widely popular TV series. What strikes audiences from the story of Shaka is more than his larger-than-life personality.

Many are drawn to his rags-to-riches story as an outsider in political intrigues of a faraway, exotic kingdom, who rises to become the pre-eminent figure of 19th Century Africa.  The legend of Shaka has been taught to pupils of Africa from Senegal to Tanzania and from Kenya to Nigeria.

I remember us sitting as sweet 16s in sunbathed high school classes of history deep in western Kenya in the mid-1990s. We were all doting fans of the history teacher with his kept-unkempt hair and love for sandals made of car tire leftovers.

His untucked kaleidoscopic kitenge shirts would shiver in ripples under his prominent beard longer than that of Jomo Kenyatta, as he gave us his knowledge in his trademark reverberating bass that came to us akin to a folk performance of sorts.

How can I forget to remember that spellbinding account of Shaka, the illicit strong son of the old Zulu chief Senzangokhona, and his nubile, charcoal-black concubine called Nandi Bhebhe (he pronounced it babey)?

So when I heard on television that the Zulu have a new king, I did not treat it as a footnote to the urgent Kenyan poll news of now.

It was a remarkable reminder of the fundamental place that community of fabled fame from South Africa holds, and how it earned colonial respect by defeating British imperial forces at the famous Battle of Isandlwana of 1879.

May I leave it to your curious imagination just exactly how Samwel S delivered this victory lesson to us a quarter a century ago?

The new king is called Misuzulu Hlomesakhishlangu, son of Zwelithini. The 47-year-old digital, urbanised King Misuzulu inherited the ancestral throne from his father, the longest-serving Zulu king ever, called Goodwill Zwelithini (1948–2021).

Goodwill was the son of Bhekuzulu, son of Solomon, son of Dinuzulu, son of Cetshwayo (the king during the Isandlwana battle), son of Mpande. It is Mpande and Dingane who killed their half-brother Shaka and seized power after their eminent brother had become a dreaded and deplorable despot.

Folk festivities, rituals and performances the media has displayed recently to the world at the enthronement of this new royal descendant of Shaka remind us of the importance of preserving our rich heritage and cultural history as postcolonial Africans.

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