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Inkosi Mzilikazi: a brave, skilled warrior and a powerful ruler

This series features the brave African warrior kings and queens who gallantly fought against colonial plunder. Here are the 18 featured southern Africa’s warrior leaders alphabetically: Bhambatha, Cetswhayo, Dingane, Hintsa, Lobengula, Makgoba, Makhado, Malebogo, Mankopane, Manthatisi, Modjadji, Mokopane, Moshoeshoe, Mzilikazi, Ngungunyane, Sekhukhune, Sekonyela and Shaka.

In this instalment Inkosi Mzilikazi of the Matebele is featured with an excerpt from the book, Until Lions Document Their Heritage, by Dr Tlou Setumu

MZILIKAZI is perhaps best known for his endurance and staying power. Added to that was his military skills, leadership and tactics which saw him surviving many years of wars, travelling up and down for over thousands of kilometres from Zululand up to the present-day Zimbabwe.

Inkosi Mzilikazi was a powerful ruler of the Matebele kingdom. Even the British missionary, David Livingstone, described Mzilikazi as one of the most impressive ruler he had met in Africa.

Mzilikazi was born in around 1790 in Zululand. His name means, “The Great Road.” He was born within the small Khumalo clan, led by his father, Mashobana. His mother was Nompethu, the daughter of the Ndwandwe ruler, Zwide. When Mzilikazi was growing up, the main political groups which contested for supremacy in that area were the Ndwandwe of his maternal grandfather, Zwide and the Mthethwa of Dingiswayo.

In the ensuing game of power, Zwide had Mzilikazi’s father, Mashobana, murdered. Zwide’s Ndwandwe continued their attacks and they then targeted the Mthethwa paramountcy. In one of their raids, Zwide murdered the Mthethwa ruler, Dingiswayo.

At that time Dingiswayo’s general from the small Zulu political unit, Shaka, was a rising star. Immediately, Shaka took over the leadership of the Mthethwa after Dingiswayo’s murder and went on to build the mighty Zulu kingdom in the coming years.

Mzilikazi turned to Shaka after Zwide murdered his father, Mashobana, as well as Dingiswayo. Mzilikazi grew and learnt many things under Shaka. He came to prove himself to be a brave and skilled warrior.

As a result, Inkosi Shaka grew jealous and uncomfortable watching that growing young warrior. On his part, Mzilikazi also did not trust Shaka entirely. He himself dreamt of himself as a ruler one day. By that time he had been installed as a ruler of his small Khumalo clan. He was also one of Shaka’s advisers.

In about 1822 Shaka sent Mzilikazi to attack the small Sotho political unit under their ruler, Ranisi. Mzilikazi’s regiment easily defeated Ranisi’s people and took large herds of cattle. Instead of returning the cattle loot to Inkosi Shaka, Mzilikazi decided that it was time to rebel against Shaka with whom he had a distrustful relationship.

Indeed, Mzilikazi fled with the cattle loot, together with a few hundreds of his Khumalo people. On his way, Mzilikazi attacked and assimilated smaller groups and individuals which helped to expand his following.

Initially Mzilikazi moved towards the present day Mozambique but later he veered westwards into the present-day South Africa. In about 1823, Mzilikazi settled around the present-day Middleburg area, naming his settlement Ekupumuleni (“resting place”). It was there that the Khumalo of Mzilikazi blended with the Matebele of Ndzundza under their leader, Nxaba. The association of Mzilikazi’s people with the people known as “Matebele”, led to that name gradually sticking to them. In their later movements and expeditions, Mzilikazi’s people were permanently referred to as the Matebele, leading to the disappearance of their earlier reference as the Khumalo.

After his rest at Ekupumuleni, Inkosi Mzilikazi and his people continued to move north-westwards. Along the Lekwe (Vaal) River, and then arrived at present-day Pretoria-Magaliesberg area before proceeding westwards, to the present-day Rustenburg area.

Along the way, the Matebele attacked and disintegrated the Tswana kingdoms of Bakwena, Bapo and Bakgatla. It was at that time that Inkosi Mzilikazi warmly welcomed the European missionary, Robert Moffat in 1830. Moffat was a missionary from Scotland who was by then working to spread his kind of religion, Christianity, among the Tswana kingdoms.

Moffat’s meeting with Mzilikazi began an unusual relationship that would last for many years to come. It was during that period that Inkosi Dingane sent out his warriors from Zululand to attack the Matebele of Inkosi Mzilikazi.

The Zulu forces were defeated by the Matebele and they retreated. Mzilikazi then established his other capital, Mosega, after those raids. Thereafter, he established another grand capital, Gabeni (written as “Kapain” sometimes in colonial literature) along the Great Marico River.

The only Europeans who appeared to have been unwelcomed by Mzilikazi were the Voortrekkers. The Voortrekkers were a group of Dutch descendants who were escaping the British authority from the Cape into the interior. In their inland exodus known as the Great Trek, the Voortrekkers had different leaders. In about 1836, the Voortrekkers led by Louis Trichardt and Hans van Rensberg crossed the Lekwe River into Mzilikazi’s territory. Towards the end of 1836, Mzilikazi was angered by the Boer trespasses and was also furious to hear that those they were also poaching game.

The Voortrekkers were attacked and most of them were killed. Hendrik Potgieter then set up a laager of wagons at Vegkop on 16 October 1836. The Matebele forces led by one of Inkosi Mzilikazi’s generals, Kalipi, attacked the laager, but could not penetrate it. The Matebele then retreated, taking with them large herds of cattle. It was the Barolong who saved Hendrik Potgieter’s party by taking them to Thaba Nchu where they re-united with the larger group of the Voortrekkers under Gerit Maritz.

The recuperated Voortrekkers attacked the Matebele capital of Mosega in early January 1837. The Zulu warriors, who had been eager to defeat Mzilikazi, also attacked the Matebele. Inkosi Mzilikazi suffered heavy losses and he moved to his other capital of Gabeni on the banks of Great Marico River.

Towards the end of 1837 the Voortrekkers, now jointly led by Hendrik Potgieter, Gerit Maritz and Piet Uys, attacked Mzilikazi’s capital of Gabeni. Mzilikazi was effectively defeated by the Voortrekkers. Before they could finish him off and possibly capture him, he fled with his remaining followers. They crossed the Udi (Limpopo) River into the present-day Botswana where they split into two groups. Later they moved ahead into the present-day Zimbabwe where they easily subjugated and incorporated the local Shona, Kalanga and Rozwi people. Mzilikazi then established his new capital at Nyathi, near the Matopo Hills, which he named Bulawayo, after his mentor’s (Shaka’s) capital back in Zululand.

Missionary Robert Moffat followed his old “fried” Mzilikazi and he visited him at his new palace at Bulawayo in 1854, 1857, and 1859. Moffat was shocked by his old “friend” whose health was deteriorating. Moffat even assisted Inkosi Mzilikazi in organising medication for him and his people. Inkosi Mzilikazi allowed Robert Moffat’s son, John, to work as a missionary among the Matebele. Inkosi Mzilikazi continued to welcome Europeans in his kingdom, but this time on condition that they supplied him with firearms. Henry Hartley was one of the European hunters welcomed into the Matebele territory and in 1865 he was the first European to be made aware of gold in Mzilikazi’s territory. The gold incident was a “big discovery”, at least for Europeans, because as for black people, gold had long been mined and used in that area. In Great Zimbabwe and Mapungubwe, for instance, gold had been known and processed long before the arrival of Europeans.

After that “discovery”, European prospectors and miners flocked to the north into the Matebele territory. However, only those who were friendly to Inkosi Mzilikazi were allowed to prospect for gold. The Boers of the Transvaal (ZAR) government were not allowed that privilege. Inkosi Mzilikazi still remembered how they defeated him almost thirty years ago.

Inkosi Mzilikazi died in September 1868. Following Mzilikazi’s death, Lobengula appeared to have been the obvious successor as he was his only surviving son. However, not all the Matebele welcomed Lobengula as the successor to the throne. Some of those who did not favour Lobengula’s coronation argued that he was born from a stranger, a Swazi princess, Fulatha. After serious fighting, Lobengula’s warriors defeated their opponents, paving the way for his eventual ascension to the Matebele throne. Lobengula was finally crowned in 1869 in a spectacular ceremony decorated by armed warriors.

After so many years of leading his people as far back as Zululand, and after so many years of wars and conflicts against so many groups, black and white, Inkosi Mzilikazi’s life journey eventually ended in his capital Bulawayo. After prolonged ceremonies Inkosi Mzilikazi was finally laid to rest in November 1868. His body was buried in a cave at Entumbane on the northern side of the Matopo Hill.

Dr. Tlou Setumu is Author and Researcher of History, Heritage and Culture. His books include: Biographies of Bra Ike Maphoto, TT Cholo and Max Mojapelo; His Story is History; The Land Bought, the Land Never Sold; Ideas with no Space; Footsteps of Our Ancestors; etc. Books are available on tlousetumu@ webmail.co.za; and also in Polokwane – Academic Bookshop (opposite CNA Checkers Centre); and Budget Bookshop (c/o Rissik and Landros Mare Streets).

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