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African Kingdoms

Southern Africa


Zulu Nation
c.AD 1781 - Present Day

The Zulu were descended from the Nguni, a group that established itself in southern Africa in the seventeenth century. The Nguni were Bantu speakers who had been migrating down the eastern coast of Africa over the course of many centuries, with some groups arriving perhaps as early as the ninth century. Once in southern Africa, they formed into several clans of which the Zulu were a single example. They were originally a relatively unimportant tribe, but after Shaka was sponsored as the new Zulu king in 1816, he revolutionised Zulu warfare and established an empire. Zulu identity was subsequently shaped by both Shaka himself and a series of powerful successors.

According to oral tradition, the original Zulu chiefdom was established in the seventeenth century by the founding patriarch, Malandela. It was his son, Zulu, who gave his name to the people. 'Zulu' means 'heaven', and they became known as the amaZulu, the people of heaven. They settled in a region that would eventually become known as KwaZulu-Natal, flanked to the west by the Drakensburg Mountains and in the east by the Indian Ocean, a landscape of rolling hills, deep river gorges, and fertile grassland.

(Information by Mick Baker, with additional information by Peter Kessler, from the BBC documentary series, Lost Kingdoms of Africa, first broadcast on 5 January 2010, and from External Links: King Goodwill Zwelithini obituary (The Guardian), and Queen Mantfombi Dlamini dies (The Guardian), and Prince Misuzulu as heir (The Guardian).)

fl c.1000?


Eponymous father figure of many Nguni groups.

Mnguni is the forefather of many later southern African groups that descend from the Nguni, including the Zulu. He is claimed as being a migrant from north-eastern Africa.

The Nguni settled into a rich and plentiful land of sweeping grass and game, and they lived quietly and relatively peacefully for about eight hundred years


Minor chief of the Nguni.

early 17th C



FeatureThe death of Malandala at some point in the early seventeenth century sees the Nguni (or at least this particular branch) divided between his two sons, Qwabe and Zulu. According to tradition, the brothers fight, and such is the scale of death wreaked by Zulu and his warriors that they are exiled from the Nguni lands. This suggests that they are defeated, despite the high casualty rate inflicted on their opponents, and so Zulu leads his followers to the north (into modern Mozambique), where they prosper by trading with the Portuguese.


Son, and eponymous creator of the early Zulu kingdom.

fl c.1700



? - c.1727



c.1727 - 1745


Twin brother.

Mageba's first son is Ndaba, his chosen successor. His other son is Mpangazitha, who marries his cousin. This union results in the creation of the Ntombela clan.

c.1745 - 1763



1763 - 1781



1781 - 1816


Son. Killed by Zwide of the Ndwandwe.

1790s - 1800s

The Zulu are just one of a patchwork of small chiefdoms in southern Africa. Up until now, for around a century, they have lived in relative peace leading an agricultural existence untroubled by excessive warfare. Europeans have been trading with people in the region since the sixteenth century, and the Portuguese are the nearest to the Zulus, with their own trading port to the north called Delagoa Bay. Finding goods to trade with the Europeans is becoming harder as competition increases, and the Zulu are in danger of being eclipsed entirely.

For reasons unknown, Senzangakhona sends his son, Shaka, away from the tribe. Shaka finds refuge with King Dingiswayo of the regionally important Mthethwa confederacy of which the Zulu are part, where he learns the skills required to become a statesman and a soldier. When his father dies, the influential Dingiswayo puts Shaka forward as Zulu king, and the young man seizes the chance to take command of his people and transform their lives.

1816 - 1828


Son. Zulu Nation-builder. Assassinated by his half-brothers.

1816 - 1828

In the space of twelve years, Shaka turns the small Zulu chiefdom into an empire which surpasses anything his father or the neighbouring tribes had envisaged. He goes from settlement to settlement, persuading with his spear the northern Nguni chieftains to join the newfound empire. This time of empire-building is called the Mfecane, or 'the crushing'. Those who refuse to cooperate can chose between death or exile, and the latter flee to the foothills of the Drakensburg Mountains. There they find the hunter-gatherers known as the sand people who record their arrival in rock paintings that survive to this day. The same conflicts result in the formation of the Basutoland tribal state.

Zulu warriors
The Zulu under Shaka became the dominant force in the south-eastern corner of Africa, creating a tribal empire from a mixture of persuasion and intimidation, plus a certain amount of warfare

As the backbone of the new Zulu nation, Shaka builds on recent developments by other chiefs by introducing a system of conscription, and dividing his soldiers into regiments, or amabutu. These would revolutionise Zulu society by removing young warriors from their homes and their people to train them fully and bind them in loyalty to their king. He also introduces new fighting methods and weapons (the short stabbing spear to replace the long throwing spear), and a battle formation that would become known as the 'Horns of the Buffalo'.


While Shaka is in the process of increasing the population of the Zulu nation from an initial 300,000 to a quarter of a million during his reign, the rest of southern Africa is also changing. A group of British traders land in the swampy land on the east coast of Africa that subsequently grows into the city of Durban. The traders form a base and quickly make contact with Shaka. They start trading with the Zulu from wooden huts in Britain's first outpost in the region.


Shaka is assassinated by his half-brothers, Dingane and Mpande, who seize the kingdom and rule in turn after him. His death marks a break with the past. Dingane constructs a new royal residence in the heart of the Zulu nation at Emakhosini Valley in 1829. The site is uMgungundlovu, which houses between five and seven thousand people living in a cluster of around 1,500 beehive-shaped houses.

1828 - 1840


Half-brother of Shaka.


Groups of Boer settlers, the descendants of Dutch and German farmers set off from the Cape Colony to the east in search of new land. One group led by Piet Retief arrives in Zulu territory in early 1837 and, following some brief skirmishing with the Zulu, these 'Voortrekkers' are invited to uMgungundlovu to talk to the king. They arrive brandishing their weapons and appearing very arrogant to the Zulu, and at a subsequent leave-taking, they are seized by the Zulu at the command of Dingane. Taken to a hill just outside the royal compound, the seventy Boers are clubbed to death, one by one, with Piet Retief the last to die. The massacre confirms the European image of the Zulu as brutal barbarians.


Nine months after the Boer massacre, their compatriots select a new leader in Andreas Pretorias. He organises a commando of 470 Boers to take the fight to the Zulus. By December, the commando has advanced into Zulu territory. They set up a camp encircled by their wagons, with the gaps between wagons protected by wooden fences behind which is packed straw to protect the defenders. The large space in the centre of the circle is where their families and livestock will be positioned, safe from a native attack that will wash around the heavily protected wagons. This defensive position is known as a laager.

The attack takes place at dawn, but the defensive formation confuses the Zulu and the left horn attacks before the rest of the army is ready. It is thrown into the river with loses of around 3,000 due to its inability to engage the Boer riflemen with its short spears. The Battle of Blood River is a complete and shocking defeat for the Zulu while the Boers suffer three casualties, none of which are fatal.


The defeat at Blood River temporarily splits the kingdom in two. Pretorias and a force of four hundred Boers aid Mpande in a civil war against Dingane which results in the latter's overthrow and death. However, the kingdom is unstable and still in a state of shock, and three decades of instability follows.

1840 - 1872


Half-brother of Dingane.


A diamond is discovered by Erasmus Jacobs, over on the other side of Lesotho, at Kimberley in Boer-controlled central southern Africa. It is a discovery that will have profound implications for the Zulu, once they have been fully reunited by Cetshwayo.

1871 - 1872

Mpande has not specifically named a successor, relying on the Zulu tradition that the son of his 'Great Wife' will be selected after his passing. Having redesignated his great wife more than once, the succession is contested between two of his sons, Cetshwayo and Mbulazi while Mpande is still alive. The contest is decided at the Battle of Ndondakusuka, close to the banks of the River Tugela. Although Cetshwayo is the victory and de facto ruler of the Zulu, Mpande remains king for over a year.

1872 - 1879


Son. Briefly exiled after being defeated.


Within two years of a much more spectacular diamond find (in 1871), thousands of Europeans have arrived to seek their fortunes. The fevered activity at the various mines needs a comprehensive labour force, and the mine owners turn to the natives. Young men are bound to their work by contracts which prevents them leaving after a short season of work, but also gives them money in their pockets. Zulu men are included in this workforce.


With people scrambling for diamonds, the British authorities of the Cape Colony are keen to regulate the industry by drawing all of the Boer territories and the remaining independent native territories under their control, including the Zulu. A series of minor border infringements by the Zulu are blown up into the threat of a Zulu invasion of Natal by the British. In December 1878, the Zulu are issued with an ultimatum which they cannot possibly accept, as it means dismantling their army and accepting British administration. With the Zulu kingdom once again a powerful military force, Cetshwayo declares war against Britain.


Three columns of about 12,000 British infantry under Lord Chelmsford work their way into Zululand. They camp at Isandhlwana on 20 January. Chelmsford splits his forces, leading the bulk of them down into the valley, so that 20,000 massed Zulu troops can annihilate the rest at the Battle of Isandhlwana. Cetshwayo writes himself into the annals of history with his victory, inflicting upon British troops one of their worst colonial defeats (as depicted in the feature film, Zulu Dawn). Today, a series of white cairns mark the burial places of the 1,200 British military and support staff dead.

Rorke's Drift
The desperate but ultimately victorious British defence of the Rorke's Drift station saw the largest number of Victoria Cross medals ever awarded for one day of fighting

A secondary action at the small British garrison of Rorke's Drift, twelve kilometres away (eight miles), is not so successful. The rump of the main Zulu force at Isandhlwana, about 4,000 strong, disobeys the king's order not to cross into the British-controlled Natal Colony so that they can attack the garrison of a hundred and fifty or so soldiers at the garrison fort. They expect another easy victory, but the garrison holds them off, killing about 500 of their number. The battle goes down in history as one of the greatest British military victories, offsetting the defeat of the day before (the essential details are depicted in the feature film Zulu).

1879 - 1883

Five months after the two battles, the British return to Zululand with an army 25,000 strong. A series of battles brings both sides to the town of Ulundi, just a few kilometres from Cetshwayo's royal compound. An evolution of the anti-cavalry square formation is used by the British, with rifles and canon firing from all four sides of this new 'block' to devastate the Zulu army. With casualties of 1,500 warriors, they surrender. Cetshwayo is imprisoned and the Zulu kingdom is divided into thirteen 'kinglets', each ruled by a minor king who is an enemy of Cetshwayo, apart from one which is soon governed by Catshwayo himself after his restoration by Britain. The Zulu spend the next few years fighting a devastating civil war which kills more of them than any conflict against the British. Cetshwayo is restored as overall ruler of the Zulu in 1883.

1879 - 1884

Usibepu / Zibhebhu

Son. Governor of one of the 'kinglets'.

1883 - 1884


Restored to a buffer reserve territory but defeated by a rival.

1883 - 1884

Although Cetshwayo has been restored as overall ruler of the Zulu by the British, one of the former 'kinglets' remains, under the governance of Usibepu, one of his sons. With Boer backing in the form of mounted mercenaries, that son attacks his father's kraal on 22 July 1883, wounding him. Cetshwayo is able to escape and find refuge with the British, but he dies a few months later, possibly due to blood poisoning, or more simply, poison. Usibepu is defeated by Dinuzulu at the Battle of Ghost Mountain (or Tshaneni), with each side fielding their own mounted Boer mercenaries.

1884 - 1913


Son. Last officially-recognised king of the Zulu.


The Boers who had fought for Dinuzulu claim the land in Zulu territory that they had been promised, but expanding their claims to such an extent that half the kingdom would be lost to them. The British authorities step in and grant them land in northern Zululand. On 5 August 1884 the Boers declare a republic, but this is absorbed into Transvaal in 1888.

1887 - 1910

Zululand is annexed by Britain in 1887, although the formation of the 'Union of South Africa' in 1910 replaces this. The Zulu kings are removed from office and power, but they continue to exert a strong influence over their people, who remain the largest ethnic group within the new South Africa.

1890 - 1897

Dinuzulu is exiled to the island of St Helena for a period of seven years for leading a Zulu army against British forces during his brief period as a semi-independent sovereign king.


Son of Mpande. Regent, possibly in 1890-1897.

1906 - 1908

A rebellion breaks out amongst the Zulu which comes to be labelled the Bambatha Rebellion. It is put down by the British, who accuse Dinuzulu of orchestrating it from behind the scenes. He is put on trial for treason and is found guilty, being sentenced to four years imprisonment from March 1908.Two years later an old friend of his, General Louis Botha, became Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa. Botha ordered that Dinuzulu be released and transported to the farm Uitkyk in the Transvaal, where he died in 1913.


Regent, possibly in 1908-1910.


An old friend of Dinuzulu's is General Louis Botha. He becomes prime minister of South Africa and orders Dinuzulu's release. The Zulu king is taken to the Uitkyk farm in the Transvaal, where he resides for the remaining three years of his life.

1913 - 1933

Maphumazana / Solomon

Son. Born on the island of St Helena in 1891.

1933 - 1968

Cyprian Bhekezulu


1933 - 1945

Although Cyprian, a minor at the moment of his accession, is seen as the rightful successor to Maphumazana, he is involved in a succession dispute. His opponent is not known, but the dispute is resolved in his favour in 1944 or 1945, during which time his uncle, Arthur Mshiyeni, serves as his regent.

King Cyprian greets King George VI
In 1947, now confirmed as the paramount leader of the Zulu, Chief Cyprian Bhekezulu greeted King George VI of Great Britain during the latter's royal tour of South Africa

1933 - 1945

Arthur Mshiyeni

Son of Dinuzulu. Regent during the succession dispute.

1968 - 2021

Goodwill Zwelithini

Son of Cyprian. Born 14 Jul 1948. Died 21 Mar 2021.

1968 - 1971

Prince Israel Mcwayizeni

Regent during Goodwill's self-imposed exile on St Helena.


The emergence of South Africa into an era of majority rule is accompanied by a constitution which enshrines a wide range of equalities: not just racial equality, but gender equality and recognition of diverse sexual orientations. It is highly modern in its range, but all the same enshrines the position of traditional monarchs.

Thanks to it, Goodwill Zwelithini of the Zulu nation is created part of a modern South Africa, while still representing an old lineage and old practice. The inclusion allays deep-seated fears that the Zulu could be sidelined by the new regime. Instead the eleven separate enclaves of the province of Natal are reincorporated into South Africa. The king's former chief minister (since 1976), Mangosuthu Buthelezi, with whom he had shared a somewhat strained relationship, now becomes minister of home affairs.


Jacob Zuma, president of South Africa since 2009, comes under intense pressure even from his own ANC colleagues to resign the presidency, with scandals and their political pressures encircling him. His initial inclination to tough it out is dealt a blow by Zwelithini's private but powerful advice to depart quietly and with dignity. The meeting between Zuma and Zwelithini in the first week of February 2018 presages Zuma's resignation a few days later.

Goodwill Zwelithini
King Goodwill Zwelithini of the Zulu nation is on the left here, with the political leader and his former chief minister, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, at the King Shaka day celebration in 2019


King Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu dies on 21 March 2021, being survived by six wives and twenty-eight children. Prince Lethukuthula Zulu, eldest son of third wife, Queen Mantfombi Dlamini, has already died though, in November 2020. The name of the late king's successor is not immediately clear thanks to such a convoluted family grouping. The queen acts as regent during this period.


Shiyiwe Mantfombi Dlamini Zulu

Queen and wife. Died unexpectedly, aged 65, 30 Apr 2021.


Just a month after assuming the position of regent during the succession process, Queen Mantfombi Dlamini dies unexpectedly. Some local reports suggest that she had been ill for some time, while accusations of poisoning and forgery also fly about. On 7 May Her son, Prince Misuzulu Zulu, is formally announced as the designated successor to the throne.


Prince Misuzulu Zulu

Son and designated successor. Born 1974.

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