The man who ruled over the Zulu clan at the time of their greatest glories, who had led their growth from a small clan into the dominant power of coast of south-east Africa, was called Shaka.
At the beginning of each winter the all-conquering Zulu regiments would gather in their ancestral lands to pledge themselves to new conquests with the salute: "Ngathi impi" and "Because of us, war." The man who ruled over the Zulu clan at the time of their greatest glories, who had led their growth from a small clan into the dominant power of coast of south-east Africa, was called Shaka. He was a fierce and militaristic king, contributing to the murder of a million people.
But to understand the man we know today as "King Shaka", we have to understand the driving force that made him to be the noted leader he was.
Shaka's mother was a child of a deceased chieftain of the eLangeni clan and her name was Nandi. Shaka's father was a chieftain of the small, then unknown Zulu clan and his name was Senzangakona. Three months after they had met, word reached Senzangakhona that Nandi was pregnant. A failed marriage forced Nandi to return to her tribe, but she was less welcomed there than with the Zulus. Shaka grew up fatherless among people who despised his mother and him. He grew up lonely and bitter with his only companion being his mother, whose life also was miserable. The intelligent and naturally sensitive boy knew of his royal blood and the origins of his tormentors. He harbored great hatred for them till his death.
However, in due course Shaka's physical development outstripped those of his peers and his stature became that of a true Zulu warrior. By the time he was 21 Shaka was 6' 3" tall, with a magnificently proportioned body, well muscled and with a true royal bearing. As a teenager, he showed exceptional fighting ability and bravery. At the age of 19 he single-handedly killed a leopard which was attacking the livestock.
At the age of 23, he was called to serve as a Mtetwa - warrior, and did so for the next six years. In battle, he found an outlet for his pent-up frustrations and developed his political policy. He saw battle as the one safe method of political growth and was never satisfied with a clan's submission before being taken to war.
Shaka became king of the Zulus in 1816 when he was about 30. Over the next few years he systematically attacked every independent group in the vicinity, either driving them away or absorbing them in the Zulu nation. The first people he attacked were the eLangeni.
Shaka's Zulu warriors or amabutho were truly legendary, and stories of the grueling and often cruel training are innumerable. However, Shaka never expected his men to do anything he couldn't or wouldn't do himself, and he set the example. He spared himself no luxury of a true king.
Forced marches of up to 70km a day, carrying weapons, and surviving on what they could
find in the bush, proficiency in handling their weapons, and the methods of dispatching the enemy were the order of the day. Shaka had soon discovered that the crude sandals traditionally worn by Zulu men hampered his speed and agility, and as a result the army marched, ran, and fought bare foot - on sharp stones, through thorn bush, in deep sand, rivers and every type of terrain possible. Another innovation of Shaka's was the short stabbing spear; a great improvement on the longer handled throwing assegais which broke when used against the enemy at close range.
One of the most successful of Shaka's great battle tactics was the fighting formation he devised. Known as the "horns of the buffalo", it was supremely simple. The warriors forming the "horns" encircled the enemy, while the "boss" or "chest" took on the main weight of the attack. Reinforcements were held in reserve behind the safety of the "chest".
At 23, Shaka was triumphant. His army was supreme, his followers delirious with success. Cattle, loot and women simply poured into their hands, and the once peaceful valley was too small to contain them all.
In the winter of 1823 Shaka began to build a new capital on site overlooking the valley of the Mhlatuze River. He named it kwaBulawayo ("the place of the persecuted man"). It was here that his mother, Nandi died in 1827. In grief, Shaka ordered several men executed but in the chaos, over 7,000 people died. Shaka practically ordered his clan to death by starvation in reverence to his mother. After three months, order was finally restored, but the seed of anguish against Shaka had been sowed. Shaka and his army began to go downhill, as Shaka seemed to increasingly lose touch with reality.
Towards sunset on 22 September 1828, Shaka was waiting to receive tribute from a visiting party of Tswanas. Two of his half brothers, Mhlangana and Dingane, suddenly strode into the cattle enclosure where Shaka was waiting and stabbed him to death.
The next day his corpse was bundled into ox-hide and buried, with a few of his belongings, in an empty corn pit.
Although some historians have described Shaka as a tyrant and a monster, his actions should be seen in the context in which they took place. A harsh land called for harsh measures, and Shaka was quick to use them. He ruled his kingdom fairly and in many cases with compassion. Shaka remains one of the greatest kings and warriors of our time. His legacy, to this day, still echoes and lives on.
Along the road between Eshowe and Melmoth, is the location of three excellent and increasingly popular Zulu "living museums" that offer visitors day-long and overnight "kraal experiences". The biggest is Shakaland, which was built for the TV epic Shaka Zulu and now comprises of a hotel, a kraal of 120 beehive huts (with en suite bathrooms) and other Zulu specialities.