Mbeki pays tribute to Inkosi Bhambatha

Sounds of Zulu war dances and a military parade filled the air on Sunday as South Africans hailed a Zulu hero whose rebellion a century ago sowed the first seeds of black resistance.

Soldiers and Zulu warriors, dressed in traditional leopard skins, joined thousands to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Bhambatha rebellion, an event that had huge ramifications in South African history.

“We are here today to pay tribute to the great heroes of our people like Inkosi Bhambatha kaMancinza,” South African President Thabo Mbeki said.

“Today we are free because of what leaders like he did and we must never forget what we owe them,” Mbeki said at a ceremony at Bhambatha’s traditional home of Mpanza, in KwaZulu-Natal.

The ceremony, attended by high profile dignitaries including former deputy president Jacob Zuma, Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini and members of the Bhambatha’s Zondi clan, also saw Bhambatha posthumously reinstated as a Zulu chief.

The story of Bhambatha and his rebellion began in 1905 when colonial rulers in Natal decided to impose a poll tax of one British pound on all adult men in order to boost coffers emptied by the recently-ended Anglo-Boer War.

In reality, the tax was meant to keep poor black labourers in white-owned farms and mines, because they needed the work to pay the tax.

“The imposition of poll tax lead to a great deal of opposition by black people,” said Ken Gillings, a military historian and expert on KwaZulu-Natal history.

As black discontent spread and white fears grew, with sporadic clashes between black tribes and white tax collectors in the sub-tropical and densely forested province, a Zulu chief named Bhambatha of the small but influential amaZondi clan was fingered as the main culprit of the unrest.

Colonial powers stripped him of his chieftancy and he rebelled, fleeing with his rebels into the densely forested area of Nkandla near the small hamlet of Greytown, about 150km north-west of Durban.

On June 10 1906, Bhambatha’s rebels were surrounded by colonial forces at the nearby Mome Gorge valley. As the sun rose, colonial soldiers opened fire with machine guns and cannons, killing 575 rebels.

After the battle, soldiers cut off the head of the man they believed to be Bhambatha and sent it around the province as a warning to quell any future uprisings against white rule.

But on Sunday—a century later ‒ leaders spoke of reconciliation, rather than war.

“We are happy to be here,” said Kwazi Zondi, one of Bhambatha’s grandsons.

“We feel we have reconciled,” he said as soldiers bearing the colours of regiments that fought against Bhambatha were getting ready to go on parade. Earlier, Mbeki shook hands with Jacob Zuma, whom he axed as his number two last year following graft allegations, at a wreath laying ceremony to commemorate the death of four white policemen who were killed in an ambush during the Bhambatha rebellion.

The historic significance of the uprising is often overlooked, Gillings said.

“The rebellion was the first real black resistance against colonial oppression and where the seeds of black consciousness were sown,” he said.

It was also the last armed resistance of Africans before the adoption of the armed struggle by former president Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) in the 1960s, which eventually led to democracy in South Africa in 1994.

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