Trace the Ndebele origins and migration to the present-day Zimbabwe and the importance of such a migration.
By T. Zhou and B. Maregedze*
The key issue is to draw lessons from the origins and migrations of the Ndebele until their eventual establishment in the South Western parts of Zimbabwe. In other words, at A Level, this is not the time to merely narrate the course of events in Mzilikazi’s migration with the Ndebele from South Africa. Rather, it’s time to reflect on those narratives and draw lessons. A competent student could be quickly reminded of the various myths about the Ndebele state during this period of migration and lead the readers into the ‘actual realities’ about the Ndebele. This is the interpretation that is going to be used in this essay. That, however, is not the only way to interpret this question. It is only important that at the end of the essay, there must be important lessons learnt out of tracing Ndebele origins and migration.
Poor essays often come out as a result of focusing on over dwelling on routes taken by Mzilikazi and the Ndebele people and the various course of events during this migration. These are the types of essays by which even Ordinary level students are familiar with since they are in most cases narrative in form. At Advanced level, students must participate in some of the contemporary debates surrounding Ndebele migration. While using the sequential approach or integration approach could be one’s own choice, integration produces the best answers. In this essay, the sequential method shall be used to bring more clarity to each individual point raised.
Early in the 1820s, Mzilikazi and his followers fled from Tshaka in Nguniland to establish themselves as the Ndebele State in South West of Zimbabwe after a decade long migration. This migration has created some of the durable myths about the Ndebele which have lived up to this day. In terms of historical sources, this period is mostly covered by written sources from missionaries, hunters, explorers, concession seekers and traders. As a unique lesson, the reliability of written sources used in the reconstruction of Zimbabwean history shall be put to test citing this particular era. In addition, some long held traditions about the Ndebele at this period of state formation shall be revisited to bring forth the realities. These include those that portray Mzilikazi as a rebellious character founding his state solely under ambitions of power. From Nguniland to Bulawayo, the Ndebele are portrayed as blood thirsty aggressors with no due regard for human life. Lastly, it is held that the Ndebele state was founded solely on conquests and involuntary submissions, clearly making the Ndebele a militaristic people.
However, in this essay, it shall be argued that written sources are a significant part to the history of this period, though they should be used with a critical eye. Right from their origins and migration, it is evident that the Ndebele were equally victims of aggression. Finally, while conquests had their own share in founding the state, peaceful methods of nation building used by Mzilikazi have often been ignored.
Image: Queen Lozikeyi Dlodlo with other Ndebele women
One importance of the Ndebele migration is that it clearly reveals the extent to which written sources are useful in the reconstruction of Zimbabwean history. Documents from missionaries, traders, hunters, concession seekers and explorers dominate the reconstruction of the Ndebele history. For several reasons, they have created some of the long-lasting myths about the Ndebele state formation and migration. For instance, in order to hide their illicit activities like raiding for cheap unpaid labour among locals, early white writers heaped the blame on the Mfecane and violent disorders in South Africa on Tshaka and like- minded locals like Mzilikazi. Such raids also included men of cloth who were part of the London Missionary Society. Portraying the violent nature of local political leaders was also suitable for colonialists who wanted to justify colonialism. This is because they argued that Africans had loose rights to their land since most of them were in ceaseless migrations, hence at the time of occupying territory in South Africa, most areas were uninhabited. Across the Limpopo, myths on the Ndebele in written sources served other purposes. First, the BSAC found it easier to invade the Ndebele after clearly illustrating that they were dealing with a militaristic and violent state which was like that right from the beginning. Secondly, missionaries also wanted to vindicate failure of their missions on the Ndebele. Thus, according to Ndlovu-Gatsheni, the missionary Robert Moffat branded the Ndebele people as ‘violent and brutal;’ the Ndebele King as a ‘powerful, despotic and a dictatorial leader;’ the Ndebele soldiers as ‘bloodthirsty destroyers of human life;’ and the areas around the Ndebele settlements as characterized by ‘destruction, desolation and depopulation.’ His son John Moffat also claimed, ‘Umpanda is the king of the Zulus near Natal, and of his government Moselekatse’s (Mzilikazi’s) is an exact copy’, before he had even entered the Ndebele country. Thus, it is important to understand the shortfalls of the written sources used in the reconstruction of Ndebele history before more lessons are drawn from the origins and migration of the Ndebele.
First, there is a long-established tradition that the Ndebele owe their origins to an act of defiance by Mzilikazi, who refused to surrender to Tshaka the loot from a raiding expedition. It portrays Mzilikazi as a political fugitive who connived with his relatives and soldiers to into a political coup because he had hidden political ambitions to rebel against his king. It seeks to portray Mzilikazi as an ambitious leader rebelling against a legitimate government in pursuit of his selfish political destiny. However, Mzilikazi’s flight from Tshaka could better be understood as an act of defence rather than political selfishness. According to Doyle, by challenging Tshaka, Mzilikazi was not demanding what was not legally his. Mzilikazi was the legitimate heir to the throne after the assassination of his father, Matshobana, but was only too young to rule. Even a regent king who immediately occupied the throne temporarily confirmed, ‘the king is the child of Matshobana, I am holding him till he can walk. A king is king because he is born one. I was not born a king, therefore cannot be one. Let us salute the son of Matshobana who is our king!’ However, the throne was soon grabbed by Tshaka, who declared that ‘no king was king unless he won his throne by an assegai’ and went ahead to destroy all his rivals opposed to his assumption of power, but spared Mzilikazi. Clearly, the flight of Mzilikazi from Zululand was not a mere act of civil disobedience, but an attempt to avoid a political dispute with Tshaka whose results were predictably disastrous. Soon, the Khumalos and other clans who greatly upheld the right of Mzilikazi to rule rallied behind him to form a group of about 12000 who were ready to break ranks with Tshaka and migrate for their own safety. The long-held tradition that Mzilikazi’s flight was largely driven by civil disobedience is therefore debatable.
During their migration to South West Zimbabwe, Mzilikazi and his Ndebele have earned such titles as ‘blood thirsty destroyers of human life’ for carrying with them ‘a devastating warfare as well as stressful state formation to the Transvaal highlands and beyond’. Such narratives contributed to the long-held legends that the Ndebele state was formed out of military aggression and the Ndebele were always perpetrators of aggression. The migration from Zululand is treated as one whole expedition where a ‘blood-thirsty’ political leader was on the loose to inflict pain on other tribes and forcibly incorporate them into his empire. All other people are portrayed as victims to Mzilikazi’s militaristic state, as they were left in a state of vanquish while their resources and populations were absorbed into the Ndebele empire. This, however, is despite that Mzilikazi and his people were also victims to Tshaka’s continued attacks, hence the northward migration was a defence mechanism. The Ndebele were further also victims of attack from the Afrikaaners for two major reasons. Firstly, Afrikaaners used to raid local Africans to get slave labour urgently needed in the Cape colony plantations and those in Mozambique. Secondly, by absorbing and protecting other weaker local groups from white raids, they automatically invited trouble upon themselves, and one defensive solution was to migrate further northwards. Therefore, a revisit of the Ndebele migration narratives is important as it corrects some of the conservative myths about the Ndebele.
During their migration to South West Zimbabwe, Mzilikazi and his Ndebele earned such titles as ‘blood thirsty destroyers of human life’ for carrying with them ‘a devastating warfare as well as stressful state formation to the Transvaal highlands and beyond.’ Such narratives contributed to the conservative legends that the Ndebele state was formed out of only military aggression where the Ndebele were always perpetrators of aggression. The migration from Zululand is treated as one whole expedition where a ‘blood thirsty’ political leader was on the loose to inflict pain on other tribes and forcibly incorporate them into his empire. All other tribes are portrayed as victims to Mzilikazi’s militaristic state, as they were left in a state of vanquish while their resources and populations were absorbed into the Ndebele empire. This, however, is despite that Mzilikazi and his people were also victims to Tshaka’s continued attacks, hence the northward migration was a defense mechanism. The Ndebele were further also victims of attack from the Afrikaaners for two major reasons. Firstly, Afrikaaners used to raid local Africans to get slave labour urgently needed in the Cape colony plantations and those in Mozambique. Secondly, by absorbing and protecting other weaker local groups from white raids, they automatically invited trouble upon themselves, and one defensive solution was to migrate further northwards. Therefore, a revisit of the Ndebele migration narratives is important as it corrects some of the long-held myths about the Ndebele.
Peaceful mechanisms of Ndebele state building have often been ignored in Ndebele state formation as writers mostly portrayed the Ndebele as a state formed by conquest. Thus, Doyle wrote, ‘I would ask you to look back at their history, since their flight from Zululand. At Magaliesberg, the country was depopulated by them. At Marico, they found the natives populating large towns and extensively cultivating. They left it a desert. The whole career of the people is marked by deeds of carnage, blood and robbery.’ However, what is more evident is that the Ndebele was one local group which was more resistant to the white men’s raids. Most local groups came to acknowledge this fact and how they could benefit from the Ndebele who offered security to local weaker groups. Thus, some areas were ‘left a desert’ not because of conquests, but by voluntary submission to a military leader offering better prospects of security from white raids. The Swazi, Tonga, Pedi, Tswana and Sotho are perfect examples of groups who voluntarily joined the Ndebele to benefit from security from white raids. Mzilikazi even took a Swazi wife on the way, who became mother to Lobengula, his successor. At one point, the Swazi alerted Mzilikazi at the earliest intelligence that Tshaka had sent soldiers to punish him, indicating the cordial relations he had with them, and why they too chose to be part of the Ndebele migration. It is thus important to realise that the Ndebele state formation included peaceful means which some written sources partly ignored.
After a long migration, their eventual establishment in the Rozvi territory offers yet another perfect case to clarify some of the myths and legends about the Ndebele. Ranger cited a colonial officer who claimed that since their arrival in Zimbabwe, the ‘Ndebele had killed 100,000 Shonas during the last 70 years; this estimate having been arrived at on the basis of the very large number of deserted villages and deserted valleys’. However, a revisit of the same narratives would show that by the time the Ndebele arrived in South West of Zimbabwe, the Rozvi had become a shell of itself. According to Doyle, the locals (Rozvi) had been subjected to a series of about five groups that ‘destroyed everything before them, killing men, spearing women, burning houses and tossing children to the flames’ rendering the country ‘uninhabited and desolate.’ The small population remaining was therefore glad to pay homage to Mzilikazi’s Ndebele, given the terrible experience they had undergone in the recent past. Local groups were soon assimilated into this new empire, while unfriendly chiefdoms were attacked as a way to improve security in the middle of hostile neighbours. Mzilikazi further went ahead to forge relations with locals by marriages and cattle loaning. In the long run, he was not only the victor in wars between himself and the locals but was sometimes at the receiving end. Such an image of the Ndebele is not learnt from Eurocentric writers at that moment who wanted to paint the picture that the arrival of the Ndebele had dire consequences for the local Rozvi. Instead, Friedrick Selous claimed that the Mashona became, ‘scattered all over the country without any central government… and very soon, every stream in their country ran red with their blood, while vultures and hyenas feasted undisturbed amidst the ruins of their devastated homes. Their cattle sheep and goats were driven off by their conquerors and their children…were taken for slaves. In a few years, there will be no Mashonas left in the open country’. That this was a clear fabrication for a purpose can be estimated from Hartmann’s claim, ‘I hear it often times said that if the white men do not protect them (Shona), they will emigrate from the country’.
In conclusion, Ndebele origins and migrations are important in the reconstruction of Zimbabwean history. They expose the dangers of over relying on written sources which were predominantly Eurocentric in approach. A revisit on the same historical narratives is important since it has changed some of the longstanding myths about them. Firstly, circumstances leading to Mzilikazi’s rebellion no longer show that he was mostly pushed by political greedy. His migration from Zulu land then to present day Zimbabwe was a defensive expedition where he sometimes had to fight in order to survive threatening circumstances. State formation was therefore not only hinged on conflict and conquest, but by also non-violent methods. The case of the Rozvi who were found in South West of Zimbabwe offers a perfect example from which some of these lessons about the Ndebele can be drawn.
Next article: Discuss the view that the Torwa State was an offshoot of Great Zimbabwe.
Answers from the upcoming book:
‘A’ LEVEL ZIMBABWEAN HISTORY
Pending publication by GRAMSOL BOOKS
© 2020 T. Zhou and B. Maregedze
Author, historian & columnist