/ 17 June 2023

Why popular culture is fascinated by Shaka and the Zulu nation

Henry Cele Shaka Zulu
Henry Cele as Shaka Zulu

Hype is building up around Shaka Ilembe, which is set to launch on 18 June. It is a 12-episode series focusing on the epic tale of the legendary African monarch, King Shaka. Billed as being “MultiChoice’s biggest ever prime-time drama series”, Anna-Marie Jansen van Vuuren reflects on media representation and the prominence of King Shaka and the Zulu nation in popular culture.

Since the advent of the South African film industry at the outset of the 20th century, one can observe the prominence of the word “Zulu” in film titles produced in our country. Beginning with the first South African ethnographic film, Sports of the Zulus (Hyman and

Rosenthal 1898), followed by A Zulu’s Devotion (Johnston 1916), A Zulu Drama

(Johnston 1916) and Dick Cruikshanks’s Zulutown in 1917, one can witness the absolute fascination the film industry has had with the Zulu people. 

History professor Neil Parsons refers to this tendency as the process of “reducing all black Africans to the exotic taxonomy of the Zulu”. Parsons explains in his publication Black and White Bioscope: Making Movies in Africa 1899 to 1925 that the British and American filmmakers employed by IW Schlesinger’s African Film Productions in this period made these titles with a mostly foreign audience in mind. 

Historian Charles van Onselen concurs and writes that these pioneering films “influenced the way in which Europeans — locked into facing imperial notions — sought to understand what they considered to be ‘Africa’”. 

Meanwhile, black South Africans were denigrated to the role of being actors and extras in these films that explored stories set against the backdrop of Zulu culture and society. These narratives would later be referred to by another historian, Peter Davis, as employing “Zooluology” — narratives that represent “the taming and domesticating of the Zulu” by Europeans.

The 1916 epic feature film De Voortrekkers, based on a screenplay by Gustav Preller and directed by Harold Shaw, reconstructs the clash between the Voortrekkers (Afrikaner pioneers who trekked to the hinterland) and the Zulu King Dingane’s army, known as “iMpi yaseNcome” or the Battle of Blood River. 

Scholars, including myself, have often reflected on how these early silent films did not only act as entertainment. They also served as propaganda tools for creating a “new white South African nation” after the establishment of the Union of South Africa in 1910. 

Film historian and emeritus professor of Culture and Media Studies at the Universities of

KwaZulu-Natal and Johannesburg Keyan Tomaselli explains that De Voortrekkers was produced at a time when the strife caused by the South African War was still top of mind among Afrikaans and English speakers, and as such, the film played a type of nation-building role. 

It focused on white English and Afrikaner cooperation while glossing over the negative role of the British Empire in causing the Voortrekkers to migrate from the British-controlled Cape Colony from 1838 onwards. 

Lemogang Tsipa (2)
Lemogang Tsipa plays the role of Shaka Zulu in Shaka Ilembe. (Multichoice)

Filmmaker and scholar Palesa Shongwe concurs by stating that “cinema’s involvement in the work of nation-building throughout the 20th century is to be understood not only as historicising and as myth-making but as part of larger discourses that defined citizenship and inscribed national identities through visual language, iconographic representation and narrative”.

Today, South Africa has 11 official languages, all of them tied to an ethnic grouping and culture. But, to this day, none of these groups can boast of having as prominent a place in popular culture and media audiences’ imagination as the Zulu nation. Why? There are several answers to this question.

A lecturer at Unisa’s Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, Dr Mpho Maripane-Manaka, points out that the Zulu nation is one of the largest in South Africa and Zulu is the most commonly spoken language in the country. Their dominance was in part created by the Mfecane migration. 

“The Mfecane migration changed the demographics and political states of certain areas on the African continent. It is said to have been initiated by Shaka Zulu and his amabutho (the AmaZulu warriors). Under Shaka’s leadership, his AmaZulu warriors were victorious in every battle with other clans. This resulted in AmaZulu being known as the greatest and bravest nation in Africa, especially in the19th century.” 

Based on these victories, Shaka kaSenzangakhona has been represented in all forms of popular culture, beginning with Thomas Mofolo’s novel Chaka which is billed as being “a mythic fictional retelling of the story of the rise and fall of the Zulu emperor-king Shaka”. Following the 1925 publication of Mofolo’s novel in Sesotho, it was translated and published in English in 1931, from where it was sold and distributed in all corners of the Western world. 

With time, as Tomaselli wrote in a 2003 edition of the Journal of Southern African Humanities, “the Shaka myth had been appropriated as the premier symbol of Africanachievement and aspiration, and of Africa’s major challenge to colonialism”.

A senior research fellow at the Johannesburg Institute of Advanced Study Dr Sipho Sithole agrees with this assessment of the military prowess of Shaka’s Zulu nation: “The firepower by the 1 357 British and colonial troops, dispatched from Martini-Henry rifle, cannon and rockets, had been predicted by Lord Chelmsford, on 23 November 1878, when he stated that he was ‘inclined to think that the first experience of the Martini-Henrys will be such a surprise to the Zulus that they will not be formidable after the first effort’. However, their defeat by a barely armed regiment of the descendants of Shaka warriors, carrying  knobkerries and assegai thrusting spears, would forever inscribe the word ‘Zulu’ in the world history of human existence.”

Today, Shaka’s tactics are a subject in military studies internationally. In researching a forthcoming publication about Zulu culture, Sithole found numerous scholarly texts on the Zulu and Shaka’s military prowess, strategy and tactics. Writing in his 2014 monograph, Major Calvin R Allen emphasised, “Shaka Zulu provided a blueprint for mastering the complexity of military affairs through tactics and effective strategy that is reminiscent of what is today considered operational art.”

Sithole explains that Shaka’s influence has even extended to the military in navigation for timekeeping purposes to avert confusion when coordinating with countries using other time standards. 

In response to a question on the website Quora.com about Shaka’s popularity, Paul Gieske argues, “Chaka was great as a military strategist because he broke through a military doctrine and totally revolutionised the way war was fought in the region. He forged the powerful Zulu kingdom in the process. 

“Impressive as this was, it’s not the main reason for his fame in the West. Chaka Zulu really became famous because of the Battle of Isandlwana, which occurred years after Chaka’s death. This battle is considered the worst defeat for the British colonial army against an indigenous foe. 

“It’s because of this one battle that the word ‘Zulu’ has become a household name in many parts of the West.”

From the way Grieske spelt Shaka’s name, one could hypothesise that he had read Mofolo’s novel of the same name.

Sithole, who holds a PhD in anthropology from Wits University, argues that even though the 1879 Battle of Isandlwana occurred six decades after Shaka’s formation of the Zulu nation, his reign of only 12 years changed the course of history in the region. 

“A renowned military strategist and commander, only compared to Napoleon I, Shaka’s rise, and that of the Zulu, has remained an obsession by both the global north and the south, and in particular amongst Western scholars and filmmakers.” 

These texts, and many more, point to the military prowess of Shaka and his Zulu and how this nation changed the course of history in this part of the world. 

Sithole, who wrote the chapter “Urban outcasts and the defiant iSicathamiya music” for the forthcoming volume Sonic Signatures, underlines the influence of Shaka and the Zulu nation on the hip-hop music scene and rap culture during the years that he worked and studied in the US, before returning to South Africa to become a member of the National Arts Council. 

He explains that rapper and DJ Lance Taylor, who changed his name to Afrika Bambaataa (after Chief Bhambatha ka Mancinza who led the1906 Poll Tax Rebellion), formed the Universal Zulu Nation, comprising socially and politically conscious rappers in America and extending branches to the rest of the world, particularly Europe, South and Central America, and including Cape Town. 

Sithole argues that “it is therefore no sheer coincidence that there is such obsession about Shaka to the extent that numerous books have been written, and films made, about this nation”. 

“This is a nation that cut short a lineage of the Napoleon dynasty at the occasion of the death of Napoleon Eugene Louis Jean Joseph Bonaparte, who died at the hands of the Zulus during the Anglo-Zulu War on 1 June 1879.”

The international fascination with Shaka could also potentially be attributed to the impact of foreign blockbusters such as Zulu (1964) and Zulu Dawn (1979). Both these films depicted the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 and are still regularly broadcast on British television. 

In 2014, I did a radio story for the SABC station RSG, about the popularity of

Zulu, after a listener from the UK commented that the film was still so popular there that

it was annually broadcasted on the BBC.

The mini-series Shaka Zulu, directed by William Faure and broadcasted by the SABC in

1985 and 1986, was just as popular abroad. Donald Morris writes in his 1968 book The Washing of the Spears that the Faure series is one of the most repeatedly screened miniseries ever shown on North American television. At the time he wrote, the series had been watched by more than 350 million viewers in the US.

 It had such a profound impact on local and international audiences alike that Hollywood revisited and reimagined history with the 2001 feature film Shaka Zulu: The Citadel. In The Citadel, Henry Cele reprises his role as Shaka Zulu, but in this version Shaka travels across the continent with his Zulu impis on a quest to colonise North Africa. One of the film’s climactic scenes depicts a battle between the Zulu warriors and their Berber-Arab counterparts.

The same year that Shaka Zulu: The Citadel was released straight to television, 2001, Faure’s Shaka Zulu miniseries was again broadcast on the SABC. However, then South African viewers spoke up in the traditional news media about the fact that it was told from a Eurocentric historical perspective and that it centred on Shaka’s cruelty. 

The new television and streaming series Shaka Ilembe is a chance for black South African filmmakers to tell the story from their own authentic perspective, one that has not been imposed upon them. 

As Maripane-Manaka concludes: “In academic terms, we can say Shaka Illembe is one way of Africanising and decolonising the historical narratives of the past on screen.”

(with contributions by Dr Sipho Sithole)

Dr Anna-Marie Jansen van Vuuren is a senior lecturer and research chair of the film programme, Department of Visual Communication, Faculty of Arts and Design, at the Tshwane University of Technology in Pretoria.