Shaka Zulu (Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity)
[c. 1787EPTEMBER 24, 1828]
Founder of the Zulu Empire
Between the end of the eighteenth century and 1825, societies on the eastern coastal seaboard of southern Africa underwent a radical and violent political transformation. The cause of this upheaval remains obscure, but an established order of independent chiefdoms collapsed, to be replaced by a number of much larger, more militarily robust kingdoms. The most powerful of these was the Zulu state, which emerged under the leadership of King Shaka kaSenzangakhona. Shaka remains one of the most complex and controversial figures in southern African history, a man still revered as the founding father of his nation, a conqueror of extraordinary vision and political ability whose methods have nonetheless earned him the reputation of a brutal tyrant. A minornd possibly illegitimateon of Chief Senzangakhona of the small Zulu clan, Shaka grew up amid escalating social conflict and displayed an early talent for warfare. In 1816, following the death of his father, he assumed control of the Zulu and began a program of expansion. A charismatic and innovative military commander, Shaka introduced new forms of warfare that relied on close-quarter (hand-to-hand) combat and were highly destructive. By an astute mixture of extreme force and political acumen, Shaka had come, by 1824, to dominate most of the African groups in the present-day South African province of KwaZulu-Natal.
Beyond the immediate Zulu borders, groups dislocated by the violence spread the disruption across
Executions for infringements of etiquette were a feature of daily life in Shaka's court. He condemned individuals on the spur of the moment and with a calculated insouciance for offenses such as sneezing when he was talking, or making him laugh when he wanted to be serious. Victims were usually clubbed to death and their bodies left in the veldt for the vultures, who became known throughout Zululand as "the king's birds." Although the number of individuals killed in this manner was probably small, it served not only to intimidate the opposition but also to invest the new Zulu monarchy with a terrifying aura of power. Political dissidents were isolated by accusations of witchcraft and executed, together with their families who were viewed as being tainted by association. The use of torture was still unknown at this time.
Nevertheless, so great were the political and social changes inherent in Shaka's revolution that it proved impossible to eliminate opposition entirely, and from 1824hen he survived an assassination attempthaka became increasingly preoccupied with efforts to hold the kingdom together. When, in 1827, his mother Nandi died, he used his personal grief to mask the true motives behind an extensive political purge. Those who stood accused of breaking mourning taboos prescribed by Shaka himself were attacked and killed. One contemporary British observer estimated that, during the mass hysteria of the funeral ceremonies alone, as many as seven thousand people died from dehydration and exhaustion; although this statistic is probably an exaggeration, the loss of life was undoubtedly severe, and it fell heaviest on those groups who had remained unreconciled to Shaka's rule.
Shaka's attempts to secure his position were ultimately unsuccessful, however, for in September 1828 he fell victim to a coup orchestrated by members of his own family and was stabbed to death. He had ruled for just ten years, but helped to reshape the political geography of the region and left behind a complex and ambiguous legacy that associated political power with violence.
SEE ALSO South Africa; Zulu Empire
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