The Mfecane Wars

In Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom, the former South African president talks about the AmaMfengu, people that was formed from groupings that were broken up and dispersed by King Shaka and his armies during the Mfecane wars. The name ‘Mfengu translates to ‘wanderers’ and is a reference to how the AmaMfengu came to be; although today the group have largely assimilated with Xhosa-speaking people, whose language many of them now speak, the AmaMfengu were originally closely related to Zulu speakers. It’s an interesting notion, especially with the recent bouts of xenophobia witnessed in South Africa, that people who speak one language and seem to belong to one region, can have multiple histories that tell completely different stories.

Mfecane (meaning ‘crushing) was a period of widespread chaos and warfare among African clans that took place between  around 1815 and 1840. There is much debate about the Mfecance, see here. Below is one version of what may have happened.

Declining rainfall and a ten-year drought in the early 19th century set off a competition for land and water resources; but just prior to this, in the late 18th century, populations had increased greatly in Zululand following the Portuguese introduction of maize in Mozambique. The increased population had allowed Shaka to grow his army, and large numbers, combined with the adoption of new tactics and weapons, meant that the Zulus were a force to be reckoned with.

Mfecane Africa Map
Mfecane Africa Map

In about 1817, Chief Dingiswayo of the Mthethwa, went into competition with the Ndwandwe for control of the trade routes to Delagoa Bay (now Maputo), resulting in the eventual death of Dingiswayo. After the execution of Chief Dingiswayo, Shaka’s mentor, many of the Mthethwa leaders became part of the Zulu kingdom, further strengthening Shaka’s army and allowing him to assimilate more and more clans in the area. The displacement of people caused many clans to try to dominate those in other territories, using Shaka’s own tactics, leading to widespread warfare. The death toll has never been satisfactorily determined, but estimates range from one to two million people.

Just as wars in various parts of the world today are causing people to flee their homes, so the push for territory in the early 1800s dispersed people, resulting in new associations, many of which still exist today. The Zulu kingdom under Shaka’s rule was one of the most significant outcomes of the Mfecane, but other prominent groups also emerged, including the AmaMfengu.

What do you think about this version of events related to the Mfecance? Add your opinion below.

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