The Mfecane (a Zulu word which translates to “the crushing”) or Difiqane (a Sotho word which translates to “forced removal) was a series of Nguni and other Zulu wars and forced migrations from the 1820s. The Mfecane is characterised as a revolutionary period and over a period up until the 1830s its’ influence spread over a vast area, stretching from the Cape Colony to East and Central Africa. Some historians argue that it was set off by the rise of Zulu Kingdom under King Shaka Zulu (that formed part of the Mthethwa Chiefdom). While other historians argue that there is too much emphasis placed on the role of Shaka as the Mfecane began prior to the reign of Shaka. Some historians refer to the competition for control over trade and resources from the 1810s as the start of the Mfecane.

In the east: break-up of the Ndwandwe kingdom and rise of the Zulu state and its consolidation under Dingane

As a child, Shaka Zulu was in exile from the Zulu kingdom while his father, Shaka Senzangakhona ruled the Zulu kingdom. Shaka Zulu lived with the Mthethwa led by Dingiswayo. Shaka Zulu grew up in the court of Dingiswayo and became a soldier in the Mthethwaamabutho. On the death of Senzangakhona, Dingiswayo provided Shaka Zulu with the aid of the amabuthoto overthrow Shaka’s brother, Sigujana, from the thrown. Yet while Shaka Zulu became the new king of the Zulu kingdom, he remained a vassal of Dingiswayo.

In 1817 the rival Ndwande chiefdom defeated the Mthethwa and raided their cattle. According to Zulu oral tradition, the Zulu retaliated in 1819 when they attacked the Ndwandwe, destroyed Zwide’s capital and broke up the kingdom. More recently, historians argue that internal conflict also led to the fragmentation of the Ndwandwe Kingdom. Disagreement among the Ndwandwe about whether they should fight the Zulu or focus on the trade in the north (with trade links to Delagoa Bay) led to internal divisions.

Those who disagreed with fighting the Zulu moved to regions nearer to Delagoa Bay and established independent groups. Zwide moved northwards into a region which is now known as southern Swaziland. There Zwide established a smaller kingdom. Thus the area further south of the new kingdom was left open for Shaka to take control of. Shaka ordered the amambuthoto raid other smaller chiefdoms in order to expand the Zulu Kingdom. Some historians claim that these were bloodthirsty raids where 50 000 of Shaka’s men killed almost one million people.

Historians oppose the argument of Shaka solely using violence as an expansion tactic, but argue that peaceful diplomacy was commonly used in persuading chiefdoms to join the Zulu Kingdom. If a chiefdom was not a threat, Shaka would accept its’ independence and he offered protection in return for their loyalty

The consolidation of the Zulu kingdom

Under Shaka Zulu, the Zulu kingdom became more militarised. Shaka also incorporated young women into the amabutho. The hierarchy in the Zulu society was divided into three tiers. The aristocracy or izikhuluwas at the top and included the Zulu royal family, the king and other leaders of Zulu chiefdoms. The second tier or level was the amabutho, including their families. The third tier or lowest level of society was the rest of the population who did ‘ordinary’ tasks such as herding the cattle. Trade links with the Portuguese at Delagoa Bay increased the power of the Zulu kingdom. The Zulu traded ivory and cattle in return for guns and cloth from the Portuguese.

After 1824 the Zulu also started to trade with the British at Port Natal. The Zulu bought firearms and other manufactured goods from the British.Historians believe that the Shaka’s obtainment of firearms led to him attacking the Ndwandwe kingdom again in 1826. Traders from Port Natal assisted Shaka in the attack. The Ndwandwe were defeated at Izondolwane hills and many of their cattle were seized and killed. Hence the Ndwandwe kingdom collapsed and many Ndwandwe promised loyalty to the Zulu kingdom or fled.

Tensions and divisions rose within the Zulu kingdom as Shaka became more ruthless against those who opposed him. After the Ndwandwe were defeated the divisions became more prominent. In 1827, after the death of Nandi, Shaka’s mother, he had many of his opponents killed. Zulu leaders clandestinely met and plotted to overthrow Shaka. In 1828 Shaka was assassinated on the orders of his half-brothers, Mhlanga and Dingane. Dingane became the next king and ousted all chiefs loyal to Shaka. Dingane gained the support of the amabuthoas he allowed more of the soldiers to marry and set up their own homesteads. He wanted stronger control over the trade route to Delagoa Bay and when he felt that his control of it was under threat, he attacked the fort at Delagoa Bay and killed the Portuguese governor.

Northern interior: rise of the Ndebele kingdom under Mzilikazi

In 1819, when the Zulu first defeated the Ndwandwe, a group of chiefdoms known as the Khumalo, split from the Ndwandwe to escape the violent upheavels and wars between the Zulu, Mthethwa and Ndwandwe. The Ndwandwe refugees moved nearby the Vaal River where they raided cattle from farmers. In 1826 more Ndwandwe escaped Zulu control to join the Ndwandwe refugees. This escapee group was under the leadership of Mzilikazi and by 1823 these refugees were known as marauders (Ndebelein Nguni languages or Matebelein Sotho).

)The Ndebele caused disruption in the interior of southern Africa as they raided and attacked other chiefdoms in the 1820s and 1830s. The Ndebele raided northwards to the Venda kingdom in the Soutpansbergmountains (located in present-day Limpopo). They raided west as far as the Marico River (which runs through present day North-West Province, Limpopo all the way to Botswana). They attacked south as far as the Caledon River (rising from the part Drakensberg Mountains in the present-day Free State Province and Lesotho). Such violent activities are associated with the Ndebele.

The violent raids and wars caused by the Ndebele are also associated with the Mfecane. Between 1827 and 1828 the Ndebele migrated north to the area of present-day Pretoria(orTswane) where they attacked chiefdoms such as the Bahurutshe and Bakwena. In 1832 the Zulu leader, Dingane, ordered the attack of Mzilikazi’s chiefdom and the Ndebele retreated, moving westwards to the upper Marico River and settled in the Bahurutshe territory. Other chiefdoms in the region, such as the Buhurutshe, Bakwena and Bakgatla were taken over by the Ndebele. Andrew Smith, leader of an expedition sent from the Cape Colony, visited Mzilikazi in 1835. Smith wrote of his experience in the Ndebele kingdom and estimated that is had a population of around 20 000.Rulers of the Ndebele kingdom were part of the Khumalo who descended from the Ndwandwe kingdom. During the 1820s and 1830s, Sotho communities joined the Ndebele and kingdom and became known as abasenhla(Sotho phrase meaning “those from higher communities”).

By the mid-1830s, the Ndebele dominated a vast region across present-day Gauteng, Mpumalanga, North West and Limpopo. In 1836, the Ndebele were defeated by a group of Dutch farmers (or Boers) who left the Cape Colony. Mzilikazi decided that the Ndebele would withdraw and migrated north, settling in an area now known as Matabeleland in present-day Zimbabwe.

Southern interior: role of Boer, Kora and Griqua raiders

The Boer raiders were frontier farmers who from the Cape Colony. They raided areas outside of the Colony and captured San women and children as forced labourers. In 1828 the British colonial troops joined frontier farmers and attacked an area west of present-day Umtata. They seized cattle andpeople and forced the captured into labour. Kora (or Korana) raiders were groups of Tswana, Khoi and San who lost their land and livestock. The Kora were also joined by runaway slaves and deserters from the Cape Colony. During raids on settler farms, they obtained guns, livestock and horses.

They also raided and attacked chiefdoms north of the Gariep River (or Orange River). In 1828 and 1834, Jan Blum, a Kora leader, raided the Ndebele kingdom where they captured cattle. The Griqua, herders of Khoi and mixed descent, occupied Namaqualand and areas near the Gariep River. Some of the Griqua raided settler farms areas in the interior throughout the 1820s, while other Griqua settled on mission stations at Philippolis, in present-day Free State, and Griquatown, in present-day Northern Cape.

Emergence of Sotho kingdom under Moshoeshoe and his relations with his neighbours

The Caledon Valley (located on the border of present-day Lesotho and the Free State) was destabilised by the Boer, Griqua and Kora raids. Bamokotedi, a Sesotho speaking community, was led by Moshoeshoe who gained alliances with other Sesotho communities to strengthen their defence against the raids. The Bamokotedi lived on a mountain called ThabaBosiu (meaning the “mountain of the night”). It was easy to defend against raiders on ThabaBosiu therefore more of the Sesotho moved there for protection. They were able to successfully fend off the raiders. However, Moshoeshoe also led raids of the Thembu in the Drakensberg Mountains to obtain cattle. Unlike the Zulu and the Ndebele kingdom, the Sotho or Basotho kingdom did not have an amabutho. Moshoeshoe gained protection from Sotho communities in return for cattle.

King Moshoeshoe Image source

The Sotho kingdom was decentralised as it consisted of smaller chiefdoms which were independently run. Moshoeshoe did not confront other states, but used diplomatic means to gain alliances. For example, he sent presents to Shaka in return for protection. Moshoeshoe also bought guns and horses from traders who came from the Cape Colony. Thus Moshoeshoe’skingdom was well protected and was able to defeat a Ndebele raid in 1831. Moshoeshoe had a policy of multiculturalismas he made sure that people from different cultural backgrounds were welcomed into his the Sotho Kingdom including the Tswana, Nguni, San, Kora and Griqua. These different groups kept their own customs, cultures and language yet they had to pay tribute to Moshoeshoe.

Moshoeshoe also welcomed missionaries as a source of support. In 1833 the first missionaries from the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society and Wesleyans arrived in the Sotho kingdom. Due to his endorsement of the support of missionaries he was able to form good relations with the Cape Colony. However, as you shall see in Topic Five, good relations between the Moshoeshoe and the Cape Colony were not sustained.

Other states and paramountcies: Gaza, Swazi, Pedi, Mpondo, southern Tswana

In this section we provide short overviews of other chiefdoms which developed during the Mfecane. These chiefdoms include the Gaza, Swazi, Pedi, Mpondo and southern Tswana.

The Gaza kingdom was established after a group of Ndwandwe fled after they were defeated by the Zulu in a battle in 1819. Under the leadership of Shoshangane the Gaza kingdom was established in the north-east region of South Africa (or present-day Limpopo), stretching into Mozambique. The centre of the kingdom was at the Limpopo River.The Gaza kingdom became a powerful chiefdom during the 1820s and 1830s under the rule of Shoshangane. The Gaza kingdom’s significance is largely neglected by South African historians, as the kingdom was predominantly located in Mozambique. As a result of the Gaza trading ivory at Delagoa Bay and another Portuguese trading post, Inhambane in the north of present-day Mozambique, the Gaza kingdom’s power increased.

In 1828, Shoshangane defeated Zulu warriors sent by Shaka Zulu. Later, Shoshangane also resisted attempted attacks sent by the Zulu King, Dingane. In 1834, Shoshangane defeated Portuguese forces at the Inhambane trading post. Later he was also able to successfully defend Delagoa Bay from an attempted takeover by Dingane’s forces. After defeating Dingane’s forces, the Gaza kingdom dominated a broad region from Delagoa Bay to the north.

Once the Ndwandwe kingdom collapsed in 1826, smaller states emerged in its place. The Swazi kingdom was one these small emerging states, controlled by Dlamini clans. After being defeated by Zwide in 1815, Dlamini clans fled to present-day Swaziland where they established their chiefdom. The Swazi fled under the leadership of Sobhuza who preferred to avoid conflict with neighbouring kingdoms and used marriage alliances to strengthen his power. For example, Sobhuza himself married a daughter of Zwide and two of Sobhuza’s daughters were married to Shaka Zulu. After the death of Shaka in 1828, Sobhuza spread his influence by taking over smaller Sotho and Nguni chiefdoms. In 1836 the Swazi defeated a raid by the Zulu. The Swazi remained a small kingdom, but were well organised.

By 1650, the Pedi settled near the Steelpoort River in present-day Limpopo. In the eighteenth century, the Pedi emerged as a powerful chiefdom due to its’ increasing control over trade routes from the interior to Delagoa Bay. At its’ height in power during the reign of Thulare, who ruled from 1790-1820, the Pedi were invaded by the Ndwandwe from the southeast. In the early nineteenth century, the Pedi kingdom was broken up due to the invasion of the Ndwandwe. After a period of dislocation, the polity was re-established under Thulare’s son,Sekwati. Sekwati engaged in negotiations and struggles for control over labour and land with the Boers who were settled in the region.Sekwati established a fortified hilltop settlement at Phiring, between the Olifants and Steelpoort Rivers, which gave protection to refugees. The Pedi was not a centralised kingdom, but were able to unitarily defeat the Swazi in the 1830s.

Mpondo(or Pondo) was a relatively large kingdom and the strongest power south of the MzimkhuluRiver, in present-day KwaZulu-Natal. The Mpondo were a sub-group of the Xhosa, but had distinct cultural practices. The Mpondo was at its’ peak in power under the reign of FakukaNgqungungqushe who led since 1824. KaNgqungqungqushe welcomed missionaries who first arrived in Pondoland in 1830. The Mpondo were able to defend themselves against waves of refugees fighting in the north during the Mfecane. However, they could not protect all their cattle which were stolen by refugees who fled from Zulu domination. By 1843 the Pondos managed to replace stolen herds of cattle. KaNgqungqungqushe’s power increased as he represented groups who fought against Zulu rule. In 1844 he signed a treaty with the Cape Colonial government who recognised his authority and offered protection from the trekkers in Natal.

The southern Tswana groups such as the Barolong and Bathlaping were disrupted by raids in the 1820s. The southern Tswana formed an alliance with the Griqua in 1823 and in the same year they won the battle of Dithakong, against Sotho raiders. The Griqua broke the alliance and continued to attack them. The Ndebele also frequently attacked the southern Tswana. Many of the Bathlaping Tswana converted to Christianity after settling around a missionary station, established in 1816 in Kuruman in present-day Northern Cape. However, the missionaries moved to Griquatown and the Bathalaping moved to the Harts Valley, Northern Cape. There were frequent colonial raids of San people to be captured as forced labourers. As a result of the raids, the Bathlaping came to dominate the area in the 1830s.

Collections in the Archives