Central Zululand – the Zulu heartland – radiates out from the unlovely modern town of Ulundi, some 30km west of the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park. At the height of its influence in the 1820s and 1830s, under King Shaka, the core of the Zulu state lay between the Black Imfolozi River in the north and the Tugela River in the south, which discharges into the Indian Ocean roughly 100km north of Durban.
Contained in a relatively small area to the west of the heartland is a series of nineteenth-century battlefield sites, where Zulus and Boers, then Zulus and the British, and finally Boers and Brits came to blows. Don’t attempt to visit this area on your own: all you’ll see is empty veld with a few memorials. Far better is to join a tour with one of the several excellent guides who make it their business to bring the region’s dramatic history alive (see Battlefield guides).
Don’t expect to see “tribal” people who conform to the Zulu myth outside theme parks like Shakaland, near Eshowe. Traditional dress and the traditional lifestyle are largely a nineteenth-century phenomenon, deliberately smashed by the British a century ago when they imposed a poll tax that had to be paid in cash – thus ending Zulu self-sufficiency, generating urbanization and forcing the Africans into the modern industrial economy, where they were needed as workers.
You will find beautiful Zulu crafts in this part of the country, the best examples being in museums such as the little-known but outstanding Vukani Zulu Cultural Museum in Eshowe. Also worth checking out is the reconstructed royal enclosure of Cetshwayo, the last king of the independent Zulu, at Ondini, near Ulundi.
The truth behind the Zulus is difficult to separate from the mythology, which was fed by the Zulus themselves as well as white settlers. Accounts of the Zulu kingdom in the 1820s rely heavily on the diaries of the two adventurers, Henry Fynn and Nathaniel Isaacs, who portrayed King Shaka as a mercurial and bloodthirsty tyrant who killed his subjects willy-nilly for a bit of fun. In a letter from Isaacs to Fynn, uncovered in the 1940s, Isaacs encourages his friend to depict the Zulu kings as “bloodthirsty as you can, and describe frivolous crimes people lose their lives for. It all tends to swell up the work and make it interesting.”
A current debate divides historians about the real extent of the Zulu empire during the nineteenth century. What we do know is that in the 1820s Shaka consolidated a state that was one of the most powerful political forces on the subcontinent, and that internal dissent to his rule culminated in his assassination by his half-brothers Dingane and Mhlangana in 1828.
In the 1830s, pressure from whites exacerbated internal tensions in the Zulu state, and reached a climax when a relatively small party of Boers defeated Dingane’s army at Blood River. This led to a split in the Zulu state, with one half following King Mpande, and collapse threatened when Mpande’s sons Mbuyazi and Cetshwayo led opposing forces in a pitched battle for the succession. Cetshwayo emerged victorious and successfully set about rebuilding the state, but too late. Seeing a powerful Zulu state as a threat to a confederated South Africa under British control, the British high commissioner, Sir Bartle Frere, delivered a Hobson’s choice of an ultimatum on the banks of the Tugela River, demanding that Cetshwayo should dismantle his polity or face invasion.
In January 1879, the British army crossed the Tugela and suffered a humiliating disaster at Isandlwana – the British army’s worst defeat ever at the hands of native armies – only for the tide to turn that same evening when just over a hundred British soldiers repulsed a force of between three- and four thousand Zulus at Rorke’s Drift. By the end of July, Zulu independence had been snuffed, when the British lured the reluctant (and effectively already broken) Zulus, who were now eager for peace, into battle at Ulundi. The British set alight Cetshwayo’s capital at Ondini – a fire that blazed for four days – and the king was taken prisoner and held in the Castle in Cape Town.Read More
In September and October KwaZulu-Natal is host to three significant Zulu festivals that until recently were only attended by the actual participants, though it’s now possible to witness these with the Eshowe-based Zululand Eco-Adventures. If you’re not around in September or October, Zululand Eco-Adventures can arrange for you to attend several lower-key Zulu ceremonies that give an authentic, non-touristy insight into various aspects of Zulu life. These range from sangoma healing ceremonies (Wed & Sun), Zulu weddings (Sat & Sun), coming-of-age ceremonies (Sat & Sun) and a visit to a Zulu gospel church (Sun).
The Royal Reed Dance
In the second week of September, the Zulu King hosts a four-day celebration at his royal residence at Nongoma. The event is both a rite of passage to womanhood for the young maidens of the Zulu nation, and a chance for them to show off their singing and dancing talents. The festival, known as Umkhosi woMhlanga in Zulu, takes its name from the riverbed reeds that play a significant role in Zulu life. Young women carry the reed sticks, which symbolize the power of nature, to the king. According to Zulu mythology, only virgins should take part, and if a woman participant is not a virgin, this will be revealed by her reed stick breaking. A second Reed Dance takes place in the last week of September at the king’s other residence in Ingwavuma.
King Shaka Day
In honour of King Shaka, a celebration is held yearly on September 24 in KwaDukuza, Shaka’s original homestead and the place where he was murdered in 1828 by his brothers Dingane and Mhlangana. It was Shaka who brought together smaller tribes and formed them into the greatest warrior nation in Southern Africa. Today, the celebration is attended by a who’s who of South African Zulu society; there are speeches by the likes of Inkatha Freedom Party leader Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, along with music and fantastic displays of warrior dancing, the men decked out in full ceremonial gear and armed with traditional weapons.
Held in mid- to late October in Judea, near Eshowe, the Shembe Festival is the culmination of weeks of endless rituals, dancing and prayers held throughout KwaZulu-Natal. Some thirty thousand members of the Shembe Church return here every year to meet their leader and celebrate their religion with prayer dances and displays of drumming.
Zulu theme parks
Zulu theme parks
North of Eshowe, the winding R66 leaves behind the softer vistas of the Dlinza Forest, the citrus groves and green seas of cane plantations and looks across huge views of the valleys that figure in the creation mythology of the Zulu nation. In no time you’re into thornveld (acacias, rocky koppies and aloes) and theme park country.
Most accessible of these “Zulu-village hotels” is Shakaland, 14km north of Eshowe off the R68 at Norman Hurst Farm, Nkwalini (035 460 0912, www.shakaland.com). Built in 1984 as the set for the wildly romanticized TV series Shaka Zulu, Shakaland is a reconstruction of a nineteenth-century Zulu kraal and quite unrepresentative of how people live today. However, the theme park just about manages to remain on the acceptable side of exploiting ethnic culture, and offers the chance to sample Zulu food. Tours for day visitors include an audiovisual presentation about the origin of the Zulus, a guided walk around the huts, an explanation of traditional social organization, spear-making, a beer-drinking ceremony and a buffet lunch with traditional food. The highlight, however, is probably one of the best choreographed Zulu dancing shows in the country, with the dramatic landscape as the backdrop; it’s worthwhile putting up with all the other stuff just to see it.
In a different league, Simunye Zulu Lodge (035 450 0101, www.simunyelodge.co.za), along the D256, off the R34 and 6km north of Melmoth, offers a far more authentic experience of Zulu culture, introducing guests to contemporary ways of life as well as traditional customs. Visitors are conveyed to the camp by horse, ox wagon or 4WD, and get to see dancing, visit a working kraal and meet local people.
There is traditional-style accommodation at both places. Shakaland offers comfortable beehive huts, with untraditional luxuries such as electricity and en-suite bathrooms. At Simunye you can also choose to sleep in beehive huts, or opt for rondavels at a kraal or stone-and-thatch cottages carved into the cliffside.