Sunday, 19 June 2016

No. 27 - Yet another manly Shaka?!

Some battles have to be fought over and over again.

Matthew Savides reports in the most recent Sunday Times ('King Shaka to rise again, more manly this time', June 19, 2016) on the long-awaited replacement statue of Zulu founder-leader Shaka at uShaka International Airport near Durban.  I’ve been through that bleak, military-grey monstrosity recently and observed the two bronze cattle standing forlornly alongside a space that originally boasted Andries Botha’s Shaka statue.  That version was immediately rejected by King Zwelithini because it apparently made Shaka look more like a herd boy than a warrior. That was in 2010.

Peter Hall’s replacement statue – like most depictions of Shaka – is said to be based on what Savides calls the “only recognised portrait of Shaka” – the picture on the left.  This is, indeed, a kingly portrayal: tall, elegant, poised on the lip of an imperious promontory.

But let’s look at this portrait again.  And I mean again – I argued about this picture in my first book on Shaka, Savage Delight: White myths of Shaka (2000), in my second, Myth of Iron: Shaka in History (2006; both UKZN Press), and yet again in the pocket biography, Shaka (Jacana, 2011), not to mention numerous lectures and journal articles in between.  But given that university subsidy machineries still studiously neglect to reward the propagation of academic work into more popular formats, it’s not surprising that delusions continue in public mythologies.

Simply put, this is emphatically not a credible portrait of Shaka.  It does not date from the 1880s, as Savides wrongly asserts, but from a book produced by one of the few literate observers of Shaka’s reign, Nathanial Isaacs’ Travels and Adventures in Eastern Africa, first published in 1836, eight years after Shaka’s death.  Isaacs himself was a teenager at the time and only semi-literate: his travelogue was worked up by a ghost writer in London (no original notes or diaries exist) – and so was the portrait.  It was said to have been based on an original “sketch” by Isaacs’ companion and small-time entrepreneur, James Saunders King.  Since King died even before Shaka did, it’s not clear how such a sketch could even have reached England.

Even assuming that it did, we can safely assume that the eventual artist had never been to Zululand; he was therefore obliged to work the portrait up from assumptions and inheritances from other sources.  One was the stance: hand curled, head turned away, one foot lifted on the toes.  This stance, as we can see from the other drawings below right 
(Da Vinci, Dürer, and depictions of other African leaders), was one embedded in conventional European figure-drawing over centuries.  Moreover, the shield is vastly oversized, the spear ridiculously puny, and the finery only vaguely accurate.  In short, this is an imagining, not a portrait from first-hand observation.

A second oddity is that this stance is one generally accorded royalty or nobility; so is the regal positioning on a promontory or hilltop.  But this is the exact opposite of what Isaacs writes in the text of Travels and Adventures: there, he is concerned to paint Shaka as a degenerate savage, a mass murderer, “a beast in human form” who revelled in seeing the blood of his victims flowing at his feet.  In 1832, when he corresponded with fellow-adventurer Henry Francis Fynn, Isaacs urged Fynn to “make Shaka out to be as bloodthirsty as you can.”  So began nearly two centuries of almost groundless vilification.

Isaacs’ ‘ghost’-portrait of Shaka provided some of the basis for hiring soccer-star Henry Cele – hyper-lean and mean – to play the lead role in the 1987 TV series Shaka Zulu.  This awful piece of historically inaccurate hysteria is still being re-screened today, and many people think of Shaka as Cele-in-disguise.

Cover based on a 'berserker'-like depiction
in Ian Knight's Anatomy of the Zulu Army
In fact, we have no idea what Shaka looked like.  Neither Fynn, nor the only other contemporary witness-writer, the neglected Charles Rawden Maclean, left a detailed physical impression of him.  Zulu oral histories – which are tricky because those we have were collected only fifty to sixty years later – are contradictory.  One elderly informant to the six-volume James Stuart Archive of Zulu oral history (UKZN Press), who was only four at the time of Shaka’s assassination, thought he had the lean tight buttocks of an athlete and dancer.  Another informant recalled his father, who had been in one of Shaka’s regiments (ibutho), saying that Shaka had the broad buttocks of true royalty.  There is just no way now of really deciding which informant is the more reliable, and there’s no other corroboration.  The only other physical detail recorded is that Shaka had an unusually hefty nose that “sat like a frog on his face”, and from which he was habitually dashing the sweat.

Any depiction of Shaka, then, is inevitably not a portrait of the historical man, but a projection of propensities treasured by the image-makers.  When he rejected Botha’s original statue, King Zwelithini wanted to perpetuate the “fierce warrior” image that began with Isaacs’ picture and that has been reproduced in sundry media, until it has become an integral part of Zulu historical consciousness.  A modern cross-cultural myth, in short.

Indeed, in my explorations of the creation of this mythology, I began to question this ‘fierce warrior’ status itself.  The stories are legion, of course: that Shaka distinguished himself as a warrior under Dingiswayo of the Mthethwa; that he slaughtered his way to power; that he built an army in no time by getting trainees to stamp on devil-thorns; that he crushed the Ndwandwe at the battle of Qokli Hill; that he wiped out entire tribes and sent others scattering across the continent (conveniently clearing vast areas for later white settlers); that he executed thousands; that he invented the stabbing-spear, led his troops into battle and never lost; and that despite all this he somehow “unified the Zulu nation”.

I concluded that, the first statement excepted, every one of those stories was fundamentally wrong.  He did have some opponents, including a half-brother, killed when Dingiswayo boosted him to power, but few compared to the dozens that Dingane, Shaka’s assassin, had to in 1828 in order to counter Shaka’s popularity.  The devil thorns were invented by E A Ritter in his thoroughly misleading novel Shaka Zulu (1955).  Ritter also invented the battle of Qokli Hill, which actually never happened.  Though Zulu military might was certainly immeasurably enhanced by Shaka, his ibutho were as much social units as military, suffered losses as well as victories, and seldom slaughtered wholesale.  Shaka needed to incorporate people, not to kill them off or chase them away.  Instead, around a core of Zulu direct rule perhaps 100 km across, between the Mfolozi and Thukela rivers, he established alliances, some pressured but most cordial, with neighbouring ‘client-chiefs’.  These he cemented with joint expeditions, marriage alliances, massaged genealogies, verbal propaganda, sharing of resources, and so on.  The ‘unity’ was partial: those surrounding peoples – the Mkhize, the Hlubi, etc – retain independent identities to this day. 

In short, in my view, Shaka was as often diplomatic as he was forceful, largely but not seamlessly successful.  He was unquestionably a toughie, with a sometimes nasty sense of humour: but adding up every possible case recorded in all the histories we have, even including the most dubious, it seems to me he ordered the judicial execution of fewer people than George W Bush did as Governor of Texas – which was 70.  Surprise surprise: Shaka was neither a superhero nor a monster, but a real and complex human being, doing the best he could in difficult and real political and environmental conditions.

What interests me, then, is why, in our present era in which diplomacy, democracy, negotiation, rainbow-ness, tolerance of differences, reconciliation, and cosmopolitanism are the progressive societal watchwords – why should anyone want to promote the violent image of the “fierce warrior”?  Why not the image of the statesman, the unifier, the canny if tough negotiator, that Shaka actually was?


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