Originally published in Inqaba Ya Basebenzi No. 28 (January 1990)

by Richard Monroe

Inkatha claims to be a national liberation movement of the Zulu people – following in the traditions of resistance established under the leadership of the Zulu royal house in the nineteenth century.

This article re-examines this claim. It explains how the Zulu kingdom arose, and how it was able to combat white settlers and British imperialism, establishing the tradition of resistance.

It explains how this tradition of resistance later passed to the Zulu working class, while the Zulu royal house and chiefs were transformed into agents of collaboration with white minority rule.

It took 250 years after 1652 for the indigenous African tribespeople of SA to be conquered by the forces of colonialism and imperialism: first Dutch and then British.

White settler regimes grew-up, expropriating the bulk of the land, and subjugating the black majority. Through conquest, a capitalist economy arose, born in blood and exploitation – particularly from the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

The rise of capitalism has transformed the conquered tribes into a working class that forms the overwhelming majority of our population.

But, within these broad processes of conquest and of the rise of the working class, there are important regional variations and histories which affect the relationships between the races and classes in different areas.

In the Eastern Cape the militant traditions of the proletariat are almost a direct continuation of one-hundred years of struggle by the Xhosa people against land-grabbing and enforced labour. On the other hand, on the Witwatersrand the working class has come together from all over Southern Africa, from many different tribes. It has had to create a new tradition for itself as a working class – which owes very little to the tradition of those who happened to live in the area of Johannesburg before the late nineteenth century.

What we deal with here is the history and traditions of Natal – which means at root the traditions of the Zulu people, who form the overwhelming majority of the population of Natal (70%), together with 10% whites, 11% Indian and some 7% Mpondo. Throughout SA the Zulu number today six million, three-quarters of them in Natal/KwaZulu.

The Zulu State

The history of what is now Natal is very rich. This account sketches only the main processes, beginning with the rise of the Zulu state under Shaka, at the start of the nineteenth century – to become the most formidable military power in south-east Africa. It remained such until the 1880s. This has had immense importance in the history of Natal up to the present.

In the Eastern Cape, white settlers and the British army waged against the Xhosa tribes for one-hundred years an almost continuous war of attrition. Because there was no centralised military power, the colonisers could play off tribes and sections of tribes against each other – grabbing this bit, then that bit of land; turning some groups into collaborators, dividing to subjugate and rule.

But the Zulu state through most of the nineteenth century was too powerful for this.

Before the Zulu state arose, production in this area was based on homesteads (kraals). Each extended family lived from the crops it produced and the livestock it reared. New generations established new kraals.

Women were subordinate to men, who controlled what their wives produced (including children). Marriage involved the transfer of lobola (payment in cattle) from the man’s family to his wife’s family.

Kraals were grouped in chiefdoms, on a kinship basis at their core. For several centuries there had been, also, the germs of wider forms of political authority based around paramount chiefs. These were unstable, constantly shifting, tiered-groupings of chiefdoms.

But this form of social organisation began to come up against its limits. This was partly because of rising population on the land beneath the Drakensberg escarpment (partly due to the introduction of maize, and more widespread use of iron hoes). Linked to this was the increase in herds of cattle, pressing on the available pasturage.

There was also a widening network of trade, among the peoples of the region, and to Europe and the East via the outlet of Delagoa Bay.

All these factors encouraged heightened conflict between groups, over the use of land, and over maximising benefits from trading.

It was in these conditions that the Zulu state arose – a classic example of the emergence of the state in the way explained by Marx and Engels (see drop-down box below). The crisis in the region was resolved in the revolution brought about by Shaka.

Engels on the Origins of the State

“As men originally made their exit from the animal world — in the narrower sense — so they made their entry into history: still half-animal, brutish, still impotent in face of the forces of nature, still ignorant of their own; and consequently as poor as the animals and hardly more productive than they. There prevailed a certain equality in the conditions of existence, and also a kind of equality of social position for the heads of the families — at least an absence of social classes — which continued among the primitive agricultural communities of the civilised peoples of a later period.

In each such community there were from the beginning certain common interests the safeguarding of which had to be handed over to individuals, true, under the control of the community as whole: adjudication of disputes; repression of encroachments by individuals beyond their rights; control of water supplies, especially in hot countries; and finally, when conditions were still very primitive, religious functions.

Such offices are found in native communities in every period — thus in the oldest German Marks and even today in India. It goes without saying that they are endowed with a certain measure of authority and constitute the beginnings of state power. The productive forces gradually increase; the greater density of the population creates common interests at one point and conflicting interests at another between the separate communities, whose grouping into larger units again brings about a new division of labour, the setting up of organs to defend common interests and guard against conflicting interests.

These organs, which as representatives of the common interests of the whole group, already occupy a special position in relation to each individual community — in certain circumstances even one of opposition — soon make themselves still more independent, partly through heredity of functions, which comes about almost as a matter of course in a world where everything occurs spontaneously, and partly through their growing indispensability with the increase in conflicts with other groups.

It is not necessary for us to examine here how this independence of social functions as against society increased with time until it developed into domination over society; how, where conditions were favourable, the original servant gradually changed into the master; how this master emerged as an Oriental despot or satrap, the dynast of a Greek tribe, the chieftain of a Celtic clan, and so on, according to the conditions; how far he finally made use of force in the course of this transformation; and how the individual rulers ultimately united into a ruling class.

Here we are only concerned with establishing the fact that the exercise of a social function was everywhere the basis of political domination; and further that political domination has existed for any length of time only when it discharged this, its social, function.”

Freidrich Engels, Anti-Duhring (1878)

At the core of this revolution was the creation of a standing army which, at the height of Shaka’s rule, may have numbered 100,000 fighting men. Built-up through repeated conquests of weaker clans, this army replaced the fluctuating “retinues” of dozens or a few hundreds of warriors which was the main force that earlier chiefs and paramounts had at their disposal. It fought, not with the earlier throwing-spear, but with a far more effective stabbing-spear.

The standing army was not merely a military but a social innovation. Previous retinues subsisted on what surplus in tribute the chiefly layers could squeeze from the homesteads under their authority. In the Zulu state all males and most females between about 18 and 30 were conscripted into age-regiments, not only for war, but to labour on the royal homesteads. The produce of this labour supported a permanent staff of state officials, and could be dispensed by the Zulu ruler in conducting “affairs of state”.

Homestead production continued, as the predominant form of production. But, in another important innovation, the Zulu rulers took over from the homestead heads control of marriage and hence of the creation of new homesteads. Only with the king’s permission could men and women leave their age-regiments, marry, and settle on a homestead of their own.

By thus controlling the extent to which kin groups could expand and build-up their numbers of young men, women and cattle, the Zulu state was able to suppress internal conflicts between generations which so often tore other chiefdoms apart. This also provided a means of regulating the distribution of surplus between the homesteads and the royal estates.

Together with methods of birth-control, it also controlled, not sexual activity as such, but birth of children, hence increase in population.

By all these means, much of the surplus was directly or indirectly controlled by Shaka and his successors. Together with this, numbers of cattle, numbers of wives, production of crops, were increasingly unequal from top to bottom of society.

A powerful military machine was created which, at its height, held sway from Delagoa Bay in the north to the country of the Mpondo in the south. Centralised authority throughout this area brought greater stability – by ruthless means.

Prior to Shaka, the Zulu were a tiny clan. Under Shaka, all the peoples between the Pongola and Tugela rivers came to regard themselves as Zulu. This was achieved by despotism. The rule of the Zulu state was a rule of terror. For example, a soldier returning from battle without his stabbing spear, or with a wound in his back, was put to death.

Beyond the Zulu heartland, impis exacted tribute from vassal peoples by force, and raided for labour put forcibly to work on the royal homesteads. Military offshoots from the Zulu state – such as that led by Mzilikazi –spread havoc across the Highveld and northwards in Africa in the course of establishing similar states. Hundreds of thousands, at the least, lost their lives.

At the same time, the Zulu state under Shaka, and under Dingane from 1828, had a resilience with which to confront the encroaching forces of colonialism and imperialism.

British Occupation: Zulu Kingdom Cut Back

In the 1830s what was to become Natal was entered by the Voortrekkers. In 1843 it was annexed by Britain. The main concern of British imperialism was to control the SA coastline against any independent power – because of their interest in controlling the sea-route from Europe to India. They were not willing to allow the Trekkers an independent republic with a port at Port Natal (later Durban).

At the same time the British put the weight of imperial power behind the white land-grabbing, trading, etc. interests which had established themselves in Natal. The British thereby deprived the Zulu state of a large area it had dominated to the south of its heartland. The sway of the Zulu kingdom was forced back to the north of the Tugela river.

In addition, the emergence of a rival power in Natal allowed many of those Africans forcibly incorporated into the Zulu heartland to return to their original homes.

But, reduced in territory and in subjects, the Zulu kingdom continued to exist, economically self-sufficient, politically independent, and militarily strong under the rule of Mpande (from about 1837) and then under Cetshwayo (from 1872). In the late 1870s its population may have been about 300,000.

And in 1879, for example, Cetshwayo could muster 30,000 fighting men in an army of age-regiments. This was a formidable force – given that the total white population of Natal, even by 1891, was only 46,000.

Day of the Covenant

The decisive confrontation between white settlers and the Zulu in the 1830s took place at the battle of Blood River on 16 December 1838. The Day of the Covenant is still celebrated by whites as the commemoration of that victory. White racists claim it as the day of the ‘triumph of white civilisation over black barbarism’.

But, at the time, the Trekkers prayed to God and ‘made a covenant’ before the battle because they were terrified of being wiped-out altogether. So in reality the Day commemorates merely the sigh of relief that they survived at all against Zulu power!

Dingane was suspicious of the motives of the Voortrekkers in Natal. He understood they were after the land. He is reported to have said “this is a fighting force”. He was also no doubt angered by the arrogant letter written to him by the Trekker leader Retief: “The great Book of God teaches us that kings who conduct themselves as Umsilikazi [Mzilikazi] does are severely punished, and it is not granted to them to live or reign long.”

Dingane invited Retief and his party to his capital, signed a piece of paper conceding some land – and then killed the party and went onto the offensive against the Trekkers. His impis killed or drove-out about nine-tenths of them in 1837 and early 1838.

The Trekkers achieved their victory at Blood River only by bringing in a new commander, Potgieter, who had experience in the Eastern Cape, and by using to maximum effect the laager of ox-wagons to fight off the impis from a defensive position with controlled firepower.

Some 4,000 Zulu were killed at Blood River and a subsequent battle. These were severe defeats. They resulted in splits at the top of the Zulu state. Mpande, Dingane’s brother, turned against him and sued for peace with the Trekkers. Dingane was driven out of the kingdom.

Zulu power was temporarily weakened. But it was not finally crushed. Mpande made an accommodation with the power of the Trekkers. By these means he secured the survival of the Zulu state for more than forty years.

This affected Zulu consciousness. By the 1870s they had a word, amakafula, for those Africans who, in contrast with themselves, went out to work for the whites. Amakafula is derived from ‘kaffir’ – “they’re the kaffirs, we’re the Zulus”. It also means in Zulu “those we spit out”.

The survival of the state, and the relative self-sufficiency of the economy, gave the Zulu a certain sense of superiority to other tribes.

The Colony of Natal

Natal developed, as a colony with limited self-government for whites only, under the shadow of Zulu power. The white settlers were weak, and fearful of this power. They were also frustrated, because their ability to grab land and labour in Zululand was limited. Zulu power also affected their ability to exploit the African people even within Natal.

By the early 1850s the colonial government had given five-sixths of the land of Natal to whites, leaving only the remaining one-sixth as “reserves” – for an African population numbering 100,000 (increasing to 300,000 by the 1870s).

This was a policy of racial segregation on the land. In later times, in Natal, and throughout SA, the “reserves” would become transformed into cheap labour-reservoirs for the developing mining and manufacturing industries. But, at the start, these “reserves” were established rather to contain the potential military threat that the Africans represented.

The settlers complained that the Africans were “allowed” land at all. They wanted them distributed among their own farms, to use as labour. But the government could see that pushing too hard against the African people would most likely provoke an uprising – and could even bring Zulu military power into play.

Even this degree of “segregation” could not realistically be enforced. Probably less than half the African population lived on the “reserves”. And, even on white-owned land, they were economically and politically strong enough to resist pressures to labour for white owners.

The result was that agricultural production in Natal remained largely based on African homesteads. Only on the coast did a plantation economy develop under white-ownership, producing sugar for export. Unable to secure local labour, the sugar planters were supplied by the British government with indentured (forced) labour from India (resulting in a population of 100,000 Indians in Natal by 1904).

Most of the rest of white-owned land fell into the hands of absentee owners and land speculators – grabbing land in the hope of future profit. The largest was the British-based Natal Land and Colonisation Company, with 675,000 acres in 1871. Backed by government power, these speculators exacted rent-tribute from the African producers.

Imperialism and the Rise of the Mining Economy

In the 1870s large-scale diamond production started in Kimberley. From 1886, large-scale goldmining began on the Witwatersrand.

These economic developments produced big pressures towards the political unification of SA – because of the stimulus given to production, to the development of railways and trade, and to the creation of a black working class throughout the region.

The colonies, Trekker republics, and still-independent African societies into which SA was divided stood in the way of economic integration, and the development of the forces of production to create profit for British imperialism and SA capitalists. This divided system of states was not adequate for forcibly creating, and controlling the black working class.

The capitalist class within SA was too weak, economically and politically, to unify the country. This task fell on the shoulders of British imperialism.

Britain’s predominant role in SA derived from its predominant role in the world through most of the nineteenth century as the strongest capitalist economy: “the workshop of the world”. But by the last quarter this position was being challenged by other capitalist powers, in particular Germany and the United States.

By the late nineteenth century no capitalist power could any longer develop on the basis of restricted home markets. The old small-scale competitive capitalism had given way to monopoly capitalism, engaging in large-scale production of commodities, competing on a world-scale for sources of raw material, spheres of investment, and market.

Capitalism had entered the phase of imperialism – with the major powers carving and re-carving the world among themselves in hectic competition which culminated in the First World War (1914-1918).

Between the 1870s and the turn of the century the whole of Africa (save Ethiopia and Liberia) was brought under British, French, German and Portuguese colonial rule.

In Southern Africa British imperialists had been divided between those favouring annexation of territory, and those who thought colonies an unnecessary expense so long as Britain was economically dominant. They had pursued a zig-zag policy. In 1848, for example, inland Trekker territory was annexed as the Orange River Colony, but then granted independence as the Orange Free State in 1854.

With the rising challenge of rival powers, however, combined with the expansion of production in SA, British imperialism was impelled in a more interventionist direction to protect its interests. In the 1870s it moved again to conquer the Trekker republics and the remaining tribal societies, aiming to create a white-ruled confederation of states. The -Transvaal Republic was annexed in 1877. Direct British rule of Natal was re-established in 1873.

Together with this, spurred on by settler interests, British imperialism directed itself towards the subjugation of the Zulu state. Thus Theophilus Shepstone, architect of “native policy” in Natal, and a spokesman of expansionism, wrote in 1878 to the British Colonial Secretary:

Had Cetshwayo’s 30,000 warriors been in time changed to labourers working for wages, Zululand would have been a prosperous peaceful country instead of what it now is, a source of perpetual danger to itself and its neighbours.

Quoted in Jeff Guy, The Destruction of the Zulu Kingdom (1977)

In the interests of land- and labour-grabbing, Shepstone falsely presented the Zulu power as an aggressive and threatening one.

Publicly, trying to whip-up pro-imperialist popular sentiment in Britain, Shepstone also promoted the idea that the Zulu kingship was an “unpopular tyranny”, imposed by Shaka over the “natural tribes” of the region – and that Britain had the task of “liberating” and “civilising” these tribes.

Indeed the rule of the Zulu state was despotic. But the aim of Shepstone and of British imperialism was to replace this despotism by the global despotism of imperialism and capitalism. For the masses of Zululand, the rule of the Zulu state at least served to ensure the independence and relative prosperity they had enjoyed since the 1830s.

Cetshwayo bent diplomatically backwards to try to avoid a war, but to no avail. On 11 November 1879 the British army invaded Zululand. But their leaders were over-confident: they under-estimated Zulu military power.

lsandhlwana and Ulundi

Eleven days later, the British army suffered one of its biggest defeats of the century at the battle of Isandhlwana. One of its three invading columns was caught unawares by of the main body of the Zulu army, and decimated: 1,600 men were killed.

As Marx’s close collaborator, Engels wrote in 1884:

The Zulus a few years ago … did what no European army can do. Armed only with lances and spears, without firearms, under a hail of bullets from the breech-loaders of the English infantry – acknowledged the best in the world at fighting in close order – they advanced right up to the bayonets and more than once threw the English into disorder and even put them to flight, in spite of the enormous inequality of weapons and in spite of the fact that they had e no military service and knew nothing of drill.”

Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884)

Engels was not aware that the Zulu did have a form of “military service”, and a centralised state machine. But he correctly estimated the significance of the Zulu victory, and its blow to British imperial pride.

To save face, the British continued fighting until, a few Months later, they occupied the capital Ulundi. Behind them, of course, was the whole social and economic power of British imperialism. In contrast the Zulu army, efficient and skilful fighting force as it was, was a “part-time” army, which also had responsibilities for maintaining production.

In public, British imperialism claimed a big military victory in occupying Ulundi. But its shrewder representatives – such as the new army commander Wolseley – recognised that they would be over-reaching themselves to try to smash the Zulu completely. They offered peace provided that the military age-regiment system was disbanded, but on the basis that the Zulu would not be deprived of any land.

Thus the victory of Isandhlwana further delayed expropriation of Zulu land. It also had a wider impact in SA history. Together with the 1881 uprising by the Transvaal Boers, it persuaded British imperialism to retreat temporarily from its plans for annexation and confederation.

The drive to bring all SA under the imperial flag was resumed again only in the 1890s. The gold wealth of the Transvaal was a rich prize for British imperialism. It did not want a Transvaal with the independence to manoeuvre with rival powers. Moreover, Kruger’s Transvaal Republic was an inadequate state for protecting the interests of the gold-mining capitalists and controlling the black working class drawn from the whole sub-continent.

Thus the Orange Free State and Transvaal were brought under British rule through the 1899-1902 Anglo-Boer War, laying the basis for the formation, under British supervision, of the Union of South Africa in 1910.

Divide and Rule

Over Zululand itself Shepstone and the Natal whites had wanted to establish a military dictatorship. Wolseley saw this was unrealistic. Zululand remained formally independent. But Cetshwayo was banished: at first, imprisoned in Cape Town Castle. Zululand was divided into thirteen areas to be ruled by thirteen British-appointed chiefs. This was a half-way concession to Shepstone’s idea that the Zulu state was an “artificial” creation.

Shepstone claimed these chiefs were the heirs to the pre-Shakan rulers. This was only partly the case. Most were chosen purely on the basis that they had some sort of grudge against the Zulu royal family. It was “divide and rule” of a very crude kind. These “chiefs” were the most greedy, ambitious and parasitic figures in Zululand, already involved on the fringes of the kingdom in accumulating personal wealth through trading, labour recruitment, etc. Under British sanction they now set-out to grab more wealth, cattle, and fees as labour recruiters, and to impose more severe taxes on the Zulu people than ever before.

Foremost among them were Hamu, who had deserted to the British before Isandhlwana, and Zibhebhu, from the Zulu clan. Immediately after the battle of Ulundi Zibhebhu turned against Cetshwayo to collaborate with the British. A third was a white, John Dunn, who had “gone native”, and become a chief with many wives.

These, collaborators with imperialism and parasitic plunderers of the Zulu people over the next years, were precursors of the Inkatha warlords of today.

Cetshwayo Returned

The parasitic and destructive rule of the thirteen chiefs aroused the hatred of the mass of Zulu people. It threatened to become counter-productive for imperialism. Moreover, by exiling Cetshwayo, the British unwittingly strengthened his position as a rallying point for Zulu opposition to the new order.

To redeem the situation, the British brought Cetshwayo back in 1883. But they gave him only limited authority as “one chief among many” in a restricted area. Of course, that was not how he was seen by the Zulu people.

During his exile, Cetshwayo had been allowed to visit Britain. Here he had seen the might of imperialism: the power of British industry, and its military power. He believed that the only chance for the survival of his dynasty was to come to terms with British imperialism. He accepted this compromise, hoping it would lead to his full restoration.

But British imperialism could not abandon the collaborating allies they had created.

The Usuthu Against Zibhebhu

The return of Cetshwayo led to civil war. He became the pole around which the mass of Zulu rallied against the collaborators and their followers. His supporters, known as the Usuthu, the praise name of his age-regiment, launched a struggle to overturn the rule of the forces of Zibhebhu.

This war was what finally undermined Zulu military and economic power. Just as British imperialism could not conquer and hold India except by “divide-and-rule” and the use of Indian troops against other Indians, so they could not subjugate the Zulu except by turning Zulu against Zulu.

Two battles in 1883 were decisive. One was fought at Msebe in March, where Zibhebhu inflicted a severe defeat on Cetshwayo’s forces – partly through an ambush and partly because he had better mounted troops and better rifles. There were thousands of Usuthu casualties. Zibhebu’s forces followed up by destroying Usuthu homes, crops, food stores and so on. The Usuthu were forced to retreat into caves in the mountains which had previously been used as defensive retreats in Shaka’s times – caves known as inqaba (fortresses, strongholds).

At the battle of Ulundi in July there was again huge slaughter. A whole generation of Zulu leaders were wiped-out, and Cetshwayo had to flee for his life.

The historian Jeff Guy explains the difference between 1879 and 1883:

In 1879 the Zulu turned from war to seek out their cattle and prepare their lands for the spring rains. In 1883 the upholders of the Zulu royal house had lost their cattle and were unable to turn to the urgent tasks required by the agricultural cycle. They were forced to seek refuge beyond their borders or were driven further into the forest cave and mountain strongholds.

Jeff Guy, The Destruction of the Zulu Kingdom (1977)

In other words the civil war in the 1880s led not merely to defeat for the Usuthu resistance, but to economic breakdown. It prepared the conditions for the enslavement of the Zulu masses to rising capitalism as Shepstone and his party desired.

After the battle of Msebe one Herbert Nunn, a white “advisor” to Hamu, crowed cynically:

Numbers of old men, women and children are coming in. What will thousands eat this year? No cattle to purchase! A fine time to gather these refugees together here, and send them out to work on the Natal government railways or sugar estates! Wages ought to come down 100%.

Quoted in Jeff Guy, The Destruction of the Zulu Kingdom (1977)

Cetshwayo died the following year at Eshowe, where the British Resident had installed himself. The Zulu still believe he was poisoned there. And they date the demise of the kingdom to this time. “When the great bird died, the eggs became rotten”, it is said.

The Usuthu leaders tried to unite around Cetshwayo’s 15-year-old eldest son, Dinizulu, to continue guerrilla resistance against Zibhebhu, etc. They also made a temporary tactical alliance with Transvaal Boers, and defeated Zibhebhu in battle in 1884.

The result was that the Boers laid claim to north-west Zululand. They were held off from further land-grabbing only because the British wanted to prevent their access to the sea. Then, over the head of the royal house, British imperialism and the Transvaal agreed to partition Zululand. The British Resident Commissioner declared:

Dinizulu must know, and all the Zulus must know, that the rule of the House of Shaka is a thing of the past. It is dead. It is like water spilt on the ground. The Queen rules now in Zululand and no one else.

Quoted in Jeff Guy, The Destruction of the Zulu Kingdom (1977)

In a last despairing attempt, Dinizulu again went to war against Zibhebhu in 1888, and defeated him. As a result, the British put Dinizulu on trial for high treason and exiled him to St. Helena.

Because of their numbers, organised by the powerful and despotic centralised state, the Zulu had held-off the pressures of land alienation and proletarianisation for nearly fifty years. Now, they were to be rapidly subjected to the brutality of capitalist exploitation – an experience which produced huge psychological shock.

Proletarianisation and Resistance

In 1893 the Natal whites were conceded self-government. But despite vehement opposition from the Natal settlers, the British government felt obliged in 1898 to allow Dinizulu to return from exile, again as “one chief amongst many” rather than as paramount. To sweeten the whites, British Zululand was handed over to the rule of Natal, with certain areas of it opened up to settlement.

“The history of Zululand in the 1880s and the 1890s”, writes Jeff Guy, “can be seen as the history of the diversion of surplus labour from the service of the Zulu state to the service of developing capitalist production in southern Africa.”

From 1883, the British had begun to enforce a hut tax – a tax on every wife of every homestead, to be paid in money. This created an inexorable pressure on those who had previously produced for themselves to take jobs at low wages.

The British also enforced an increase in the amount of lobola. This created further pressure on young men wishing to marry to earn money with which to buy the cattle.

“In the 1890s”, writes Guy, “Zulu society had changed fundamentally, from a society in which man was the aim of production to one in which production was the aim of man.”[1]

By that time 10-20,000 Zulu, erstwhile warriors, were living in compounds and working in the degrading and atrocious conditions of the Transvaal gold mines. Many more were wage-labourers in Natal. By the turn of the century the pressures of capitalism were weighing even more intensely. The rise of the mining economy created new urban markets for foodstuffs and products such as wattle. Natal landowners turned from speculation and rent-exaction to demand labour from their black tenants. They squeezed them by raising rents and by evictions.

Together with this, the homestead economy was ravaged by the effects of new diseases. In 1897-8 six-sevenths of African-owned cattle – the lynch-pin of the tribal economy – were wiped out by rinderpest. It represented, as Shula Marks writes, a loss for the Zulu people equivalent to the losses suffered by shareholders in the 1929 Wall Street stock-exchange crash.[2]

The final straw was the decision of the Natal government in 1905 to impose a poll tax – a tax aimed at all those men who did not pay hut tax, i.e. specifically young unmarried men. It was aimed to strengthen the compulsion on all young men to wage-labour.

Within a generation, the masses in Zululand were rapidly transformed from independent tribespeople to a subjugated peasantry and working class, heaped with intolerable burdens. Among this defeated and enslaved people, mass anger and frustration boiled-up, looking for an outlet through which to break into the open.

In the absence of an alternative, it was once again to the resistance tradition of the royal house that oppressed Zulu rallied. Removed from power, the Zulu royal house was not so easily removed of its authority. As the liberal Harriet Colenso warned in 1897, the government did not have the choice of

…giving or withholding power from him [Dinizulul, but of controlling the power he has without us. If it is not recognised, it is not controlled and if he died tomorrow another of Cetshwayo’s descendants would have it.

Quoted in Shula Marks, Reluctant Rebellion (1970)

What was expected of the royal house was revealed in the 1906-7 Bambatha revolt.

The Bambatha Rebellion

Electric currents began to flow, in all kinds of forms, but linking in one way or another to the question of Dinizulu. Even descendants of those who had fled from the Zulu state in opposition to Zulu tyranny were now looking towards him as a pole of attraction. Mission-educated Africans, the elite, were also supporters of the Zulu royal house.

This mood of resistance came out in desperate ways. In 1905, with the promulgation of the poll tax, sudden rumours spread that Dinizulu had ordered all white goats, pigs and fowl to be killed, and all tools of European manufacture to be destroyed. It was supposed he was then going to call on the gods to kill all whites on a certain day.

There had been similar developments among the Xhosa when traditional modes of military resistance seemed to have failed, when people felt powerless and looked for some supernatural way out.

Out of this, revolt flared. In scattered areas up and down Natal, chiefs and people resisted payment of the poll tax.

The main effort to unify this resistance was by Bambatha, whose chiefdom was in Natal though part of old Zululand. His people were rent-payers on white-owned land – in an area becoming a crucible for capitalist agriculture.

Bambatha claimed that resisting the tax was an instruction from Dinizulu. He told his troops that Dinizulu had given him a charm to turn white man’s bullets into water. His followers used the Usuthu war-cry.

Bambatha came to his uncle, whom the British installed as chief in his place, and taunted him: “Where are your white friends now? We do not acknowledge a Natal king but a black one” (in other words Dinizulu).[3] When forced to retreat from the colonial troops, he took as his base the Inkandla forest, the same area of the inqaba to which the Usuthu and Cetshwayo retreated in the 1880s.

But Dinizulu did not support the revolt. Instead, he sent a message of loyalty to the government and even offered to raise levies. Bambatha’s appeal in Dinizulu’s name to all the chiefs of Natal and Zululand mobilised only a few. There was a sense among the chiefs that this was a desperate revolt against a force that was too powerful. The historian Shula Marks believes that Bambatha himself “was prepared to die fighting probably knowing that his chance of success was slender in the extreme”.[4]

Disunited, trying to organise around outmoded institutions, the revolt was crushed rapidly and brutally by white settler forces. Chiefs refusing to encourage payment of poll tax were deposed, and in some cases court-martialled on the spot and shot. Troops rampaged through African communities, burning crops and kraals, confiscating cattle, imprisoning people. 3-4,000 Africans were killed, mown down by Gatling guns. There were numerous floggings and atrocities.

But the revolt stretched the whites in Natal. They had to call-up volunteers from other provinces. In the Transvaal, mining magnates like Percy Fitzpatrick and Abe Bailey were quick to oblige, speaking at public meetings to encourage enlistment in the name of “the unity of the white races”.[5]

The collaborationist traditions of Zibhebhu continued. Just as Bambatha’s followers used the Usuthu war-cry, so the black troops that fought on the side of the Natal government used the war-cry of Zibhebhu.

The Bambatha revolt marks the end of tribally-based military resistance to white conquest, not only in Natal, but throughout South Africa. But even in failure, and despite Dinizulu’s actual role, it linked even more closely the Usuthu tradition with resistance to imperialism and capitalist exploitation.

During the rebellion, the military were very careful not to provoke Dinizulu, for fear of worsening matters. But a year after the revolt was crushed, Dinizulu was again arrested and tried for treason – though the court could find him guilty only on three counts out of 23. This persecution strengthened the popular identification of the royal house with resistance.


The conquest of the Zulu kingdom was a late episode in entrenching imperialist tyranny in SA. It was part of the forcible unification of SA by British imperial power, breaking down barriers to capitalist production.

The course of world history made the destruction of the Zulu state inevitable. Imperialism, rooted in monopoly capitalism, dominated the globe, and shaped all societies to serve its interests. British imperialism deployed its power in SA to create and subjugate the black proletariat, to unify the country, and to hand over government to a white minority regime in 1910.

Together with other conquered African peoples, the Zulu were absorbed into the SA state as rightless subjects, foreigners in the land of their birth. At the same time, they were becoming formed as part of the black proletariat creating the country’s wealth.

Objectively, for the Zulu people the question was how to unite with the other African peoples of SA in a struggle for national liberation and democracy to bring state power into the hands of the majority.

Capitalism in SA was – and is – implacably hostile to majority rule. The task of achieving democracy has fallen on the shoulders of the working class, the only force with the potential power and interest to carry through the struggle against the regime and the capitalists it defends to a revolutionary conclusion. For this, it must unite and lead in a struggle to over-turn the SA state by splitting the whites along class lines.

Since the demise of the Zulu state, the task for the working class in Natal and Zululand has been to play its part in building the instruments of struggle – trade unions, and political organisation – which could achieve these goals.


In the struggle of the Zulu working class to rise to this task, the Zulu state left an ambiguous legacy.

“Without our king the Zulu people would be like coolies”, it was said after the Bambatha revolt.[6] The ability of traditional Zulu institutions to hold-out against colonialism and imperialism for so long, and to inspire tribal resistance, reinforced the idea that they were a necessary instrument in the fight against worse servitude. The traditions of Zulu resistance continued to resound as a source of militant inspiration and confidence for the rising working class in Natal/Zululand.

Already, in the Bambatha revolt, new forms of struggle blended with the old. Thousands of Zulu workers in Durban, including dockworkers, were summoned back to their age-regiments to join the poll-tax revolt.

The Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union, exploding in Natal in the late 1920s as a mass organisation of working people – as an instrument for national and social liberation rather than as a mere trade union – absorbed Zulu traditions of resistance. Many of those who fought in the Bambatha revolt joined the ICU.

Durban dockworkers in the 1940s led by Zulu Phungula, workers in the 1973 Durban strike-wave – the first herald of the revolution which has now opened – and many other strugglers in Natal have chanted the slogans of Zulu resistance and of the royal house: “Usuthu”, “Bayete Zulu”, etc.

But the failure of the Bambatha revolt itself was a symptom of the inability of traditional Zulu institutions to organise a united struggle to combat oppression and exploitation. In reality, tribal institutions served increasingly as a block to the development of the organisation and consciousness of the Zulu masses.

As elsewhere in SA, the white minority regime has rested in Zululand and Natal on the instruments of tribal society in trying to perpetuate divisions among the African people. On the “native reserves” and the Bantustans, the emerging working class has been ruled by autocratic and usually corrupt chiefs propped-up as government appointees.

At first, because of its tradition of resistance the Zulu Paramountcy had no place in this scheme. But, the more the masses of Zululand and Natal began to seek expression through working class organisation, the more the SA state turned to support the authority of the Zulu royal house as a weapon against the working class.

From the 1930s until the present, the SA regime has used the Zulu Paramountcy to denounce every independent working class action, every strike, every manifestation of mass resistance. It has used the hierarchy of chieftainship to reinforce all the conservative and reactionary features of the Zulu state: inequality, deference to dictatorial authority, subordination of women to men, and the young to the old.

Inkatha vs Congress

The best of tradition can be an inspiration to succeeding generations. But, as Marx long ago explained,

The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionising themselves and things, in creating something that has never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle cries and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honoured disguise and this borrowed language.”

The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852)

In 1975 Chief Gatsha Buthelezi created Inkatha, as a “mass anti-apartheid movement”, appealing to the tradition of Zulu resistance. He has made much of the closeness of his clan to the Zulu royal family: that his great-grandfather was Cetshwayo’s prime minister. But Buthelezi and Inkatha did not, and could not, follow the tradition of the Usuthu.

Inkatha, based on the apartheid-created KwaZulu Bantustan and its chiefly apparatuses, inevitably became an anti-popular force, serving the interests of capitalism and the regime. Gatsha ‘Shenge’ Buthelezi heads a vigilante mafia perpetuating the collaborationist traditions of Zibhebhu and Hamu in waging war against the Zulu masses.

To cloud his purposes, Buthelezi clothed Inkatha in the colours of the ANC, to which the masses in Zululand and Natal have looked since the 1950s as an instrument of unity in the struggle to end oppression and exploitation. Indeed, at the founding conference of the ANC in 1912 itself, Natal Africans – John Dube and Pixley Seme – were elected as President and Treasurer, in tribute to the Bambatha revolt.

Buthelezi claims to continue the traditions of the ANC in Natal. But in fact, within the ANC, there have been – and still are – two different traditions in relation to the state, the bosses, and the institutions of tribal society: a tradition of struggle, and a tradition of compromise.

Thus John Dube – who continued as President of the ANC in Natal until 1945 was dismissed from his post as national ANC President in 1917 for compromising with the segregationist policies of the Louis Botha government. Dube, as a later article in this series will explain, was a collaborator with big business and the government, an ardent supporter of chieftainship and the Zulu Paramountcy, and bitterly hostile to the working class.

Today, Zulu working people, particularly the youth, have risen in revolt against their intolerable conditions of life. They are being drawn en masse into the revolutionary struggle. All the institutions of the old society, from the royal house to the Inkatha mafia and the collaborating chiefs, are trying to crush them.

For the liberation of the Zulu people, and African people nationwide, Congress needs to be built as the revolutionary instrument of the working class, uncompromising in struggle against the state, the bosses, Inkatha, and chieftainship.

Congress needs to incorporate all that is best in the militant and military traditions of the Zulu masses – and at the same time, wage implacable struggle against all those traditions that “weigh like a nightmare on the brain of the living”.

© Transcribed from the original by the Marxist Workers Party (2021).

No to collaboration!

Dear Comrades,

There has been a long tradition in our movement of drawing a clear dividing line between agents of the state, and those they help to oppress. In this way we have shielded ourselves from the state’s attempts to divide and crush us.

However, elements now wish to reverse this policy. Mrs Fatima Meer is a university academic in Durban who has never been an activist in the movement. She has however recently completed a biography of Comrade Nelson Mandela, with his agreement. So she will be seen by many as a spokeswoman for the ANC.

In a recent speech, she criticised what she calls a “divisive tendency in our movement”, which has a “vulgar doctrine of irreconcilable conflict” and which classifies people into “collaborators” and “liberators”.

“For us to be truly strong today against the wavering Nats, if we are going to succeed in forcing them on the negotiating table, then it is imperative that we must rethink our policies of irreconcilable conflict and seriously consider the alternative of co-operation. We must try and gather our forces, be they homeland governments or community councils. Our reasoning ought to be that we need the widest and strongest black resistance against the Nationalist government. And in order to gain this it would be suicidal if we now continued to maintain and nurture internal conflicts.” (Weekly Mail, 13-19 October 1989)

What is the purpose in saying this?

Bantustan leaders and community councillors are part and parcel of the apartheid state machine. Precisely because of this they have very early on felt the fiery breath of the workers and youth when they have risen up in anger in the townships and villages. By calling for unity with the puppets, Meer is arguing for capitulation of the movement to de Klerk’s government, for its division and defeat.

Today, Buthelezi and Inkatha are waging war against workers and youth in Natal. And Meer wants unity with him while sneering at the youth who have fought so courageously against the forces of the state. She said: “Our youth have on the one hand been distanced from the democratic tradition of their forebears and on the other hand so brutalised by the state that the state appears to be reflected in them rather than in the traditional values of the ANC.”

If today the government is appearing ‘reasonable’, and is releasing our leaders and talking of reform, this is because of the heroism and the sacrifice of the working class youth. But Fatima Meer shows no interest in this. Her interest is in taking advantage of this and crossing over to collaboration with the state.

Already she has given comfort to the Bantustan oppressors in Natal. Recently King Goodwill Zwelithini Zulu referred to her: “There is more hope for reconciliation across race groups when leading Indians call for reconciliation instead of fanning the flames of black on black violence” (New African, 25 November 1989)

The King uttered these words just as the Inkatha impis were intensifying their war in Natal. Mrs Meer would do well to remember too that Inkatha has not hesitated to stoke racial attacks on Indians in Natal.

By talking of unity, Meer touched a nerve in the movement of the workers and youth. They feel a great chasm developing in society between those who cling to the state of racism and privilege, and those whose survival depends on fighting to smash it.

While the air is now filled with talk of ‘reform’ and ‘negotiation’, the ‘toenadering’ masks a deepening of the divisions in our society.

The workers and youth can sense this, and yearn for the strength that comes through unity of their ranks. Unity will not come by linking hands with state collaborators. That is the road to division and defeat.

But unity can only be built around a fighting programme which puts forward the needs and aspirations of the workers and youth. With such a programme for cleansing society of apartheid and exploitation, and with their ranks organised to fight for it, the workers can act as a mighty magnet, pulling towards themselves all other classes whose future lies in the death of capitalism.

Florence Bosch

[1] S. Marks and R. Rathbone (eds.), Industrialisation and Social Change in South Africa (1982)

[2] Shula Marks, Reluctant Rebellion (1970).

[3] Quoted in Shula Marks, Reluctant Rebellion (1970)

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Shula Marks, The Ambiguities of Dependence in South Africa (1986)