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State Formation

Whether European rule was excusable or justifiable, whether nations calling themselves civilised had any good warrant for forcing what they called civilisation upon those they regarded as savage, for seizing their lands and making servants of them, is a question by itself. Existing divisions in African societies, conflicts between chiefdoms, and the lack of central states contributed to a rapid loss of independence and territory in some areas. A series of experiments in state building was undertaken by African leaders, employing existing institutions of their own society in new ways to respond to the critical situations which confronted them.

By the eighteenth century, several groups of immigrants from the north, known for their skill in smelting iron and in metalworking, had occupied the mountains along the Limpopo River. This heterogeneous population had coalesced into a number of chiefdoms, known as the Venda, or VaVenda. In the southern Highveld, the powerful Tswana-speaking kingdom known as the Rolong had split, giving rise to the Tlhaping (BaTlhaping) and the Taung. The Taung were named for a legendary military leader (Tau) among the Rolong.

One of several Khoisan-European populations in the interior in the eighteenth century was that of the Griqua, most of whom spoke Dutch as their first language and had adopted Christianity. A unique Griqua culture emerged, based on hunting, herding, and trade with both Africans and Europeans along the Orange River. The Xhosa and related groups were the westernmost of the Nguni-speaking societies between the southern Highveld and the coast. Rivalries among Xhosa chiefs were common, however, and their society was weakened by repeated clashes with Europeans, especially over land between the Sundays River and the Great Fish River. By the late eighteenth century, the Ndwandwe, Mthethwa, and Ngwane were emerging as powerful kingdoms south of the Highveld. The Zulu were still a small group among the Mthethwa and had not yet begun the conquest and assimilation of neighboring groups that would characterize much of the early nineteenth century.

As great variety obtained in Bantu polity and methods of government as were to be found on a grander scale on the Continent of Europe. The three forms of government ranged first from the conquering despot, lord of many chiefs and tribes which he has subdued; and second to the Bechuana or Basuto chief, whose family had secured pre-eminence over other similar families in a tribe or nation, so that he was king or chief over the other headmen and over the whole tribe, which he governed with their advice and support. The third from of South African tribes were those which had no such central chief as in the case of the Basutos or Bechuanas — only a number of sheiks or headmen.

Every native tribe knew well how far its territory extended from the central town. In paths radiating from that town they knew when the traveller would come to their last hunting station; where in times of peace their hunters met with the men of the next tribe. From each of these farthest points or meeting-places it would be easy to draw a line, which, from a European point of view, would be the boundary line of the tribal territory. The advance of white men, and the dissemination of white men's ideas, have led to more careful action by some of the Bechuana tribes as to boundary lines, and some neighbouring tribes have settled these matters, and raised beacon-marks to indicate their tribal boundaries, by mutual consent.

Tribes Without Chiefs

Many South African tribes had no central chief as in the case of the Basutos or Bechuanas — only a number of sheiks or headmen, each one of whom was independent of all the others, with whom he never assembled in council for the consideration of the affairs common to their tribe as a whole. The Mashona, the Makalaka or Banyai, and the Damaras, furnished illustrations of this most elementary form of government. The Bushmen also lived thus in families; but as vassals of the other tribes they were not to be reckoned with those who are members of independent tribes. The tribes living thus, in a disconnected manner as to their internal affairs, have suffered very severely at the hands of their neighbours living under a more organised form.

The patriarchal Makalaka and Banyai fell a comparatively easy prey to the warriors of the Matabele. This has been true also of the Mashona [in modern Zimbabwe], the most industrious and skilful tribe in all South Africa. Infinitely superior to the Matabele in the arts of peace, their want of a central government left the Mashona completely at the mercy of the Matabele, when the latter attacked them. Growing their own cotton, and weaving their own blankets and shawls, the latter of which they had learned to dye blue, the Mashona are also first among all the tribes for their knowledge of agriculture, their skill in smelting metals, and especially for their superior work in iron implements, such as spears, hoes, axes, adzes, &c.

The Matabele could not make such spears, they could not make spears of any kind; but they could buy them or seize them from the Mashona, and then return armed with them as a war-party consisting of several regiments, and put the people of a small Mashona town to death—seizing their children and their cattle as booty to be brought to their chief. The neighboring Mashona towns would take flight into inaccessible mountains and caves—not helping their neighbours, and not themselves to be helped when their turn came. Alas, that such has been the fate of the most advanced of the South African tribes. The complete devotion of the Mashona to peaceful industry, and the entire absence of concentration, and of the military idea, even for intelligent self-defence, led to the complete breaking up of the Makalaka and Banyai, and almost to the destruction of the Mashona.

Limited Chieftainship

A second form of government might be called a Limited Chieftainship. In every Bechuana town the chief is assisted in the government of the tribe by those who are called his "younger brothers," which includes, with those who were his own brothers, the headmen whose "houses" were next to the chiefs own house in rank. A wise Bechuana chief acted along with his headmen, carrying them with him in his policy. They had frequent meetings, which were regarded as confidential. When a course of policy had been resolved on, a public pitsho or council is called of all the freemen of the tribe. Here there may be hours of oratory — each headman being well backed up by his own people. It rarely happened, however, that the course of action practically resolved on by chief and headmen in secret, was practically overturned by the speeches of the commoners in the public pitsho.

But if the measure of the chief is opposed by an opinionative headman or headmen, the latter's views are sure to be eloquently brought forward by one or other of his own people; and the ill effects of the proposed course are fully described; and examples are given, if possible, from the history of the tribe, in illustration of the views which are enforced.

The difference therefore between an ordinary man among the Bechuanas and Basutos and an ordinary man (who is always an enrolled soldier) among the warlike tribes, was very great indeed. The Bechuana man can influence his own headman, who was a member of the chiefs council; and he himself had the right of free speech in the public councils of the tribe. The Matabele soldier has no voice in what is done by the chief; he would go or come, like soldiers everywhere, at the word of command. Thus, when despotic power was overthrown, as in Zululand, its subjects were completely at a loss; while the past history of the Basutos or Bechuanas showed them qualified for managing their own local or town affairs.

Military Despotism

In South Africa there were several illustrations of military despotism, with which Europe was only too familiar. The most notable instance of this form of government was exhibited in the history of the Zulus under Tshaka, Mdigane, Mpande, and Cetywayo. Hardly less remarkable was the history of those warlike Kaffir tribes — Amaxosa, Abatembu, &c.— inhabiting what used to be known as Kaffirland, and was included in the Cape Colony. But by the end of the 19th Century all had been swept away, including that of Gungunhama, son of 'Mzila, who ruled in Gazaland, but with a power already broken, and since 1896 deported by the Portuguese.

A number of tribes may exist in juxtaposition for several generations, and be preyed upon by their neighbours, until some day a strong man arises among them and organises them in a military manner, and then they move on and conquer new territories. The Zulus made such a movement from the north, probably some time in the last century, and crossed the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers, and passed down south into Zululand. They probably broke up some minor organisations on their way, and in Mashonaland annihilated the last of the Monomotapa power. A band of them broke off under Mzila, and founded the Gaza kingdom, east of the Sabi river; and another band, under Mzilikazi, marched north, and formed the Matabili power. The latter has been more warlike than the former, but its decline seems to be more rapid. The Matabili people tell their king, Lobengula, that he should conquer a new country for them, as his father did ; but there was no new country left for him to conquer.

Yonah Seleti notes that "The use of the initiation age regiments for defensive purposes and for military purposes such as expanding a chiefdom's range of grazing, cultivating and hunting land had been practiced widely in southern African societies. However, it was in the Northern Nguni states that the initiation age regiments were increasingly brought under the centralised authority of powerful kings and used as standing armies for military campaigns in state-building experiments."

Shaka incorporated the Mthethwa under his rule, and established the Zulu state as the dominant power among the northern Nguni. By the mid-1820s, Shaka ruled a kingdom of more than 100,000 people with a standing army of 40,000 men. He centralized power in the person of the king and his court, collected tribute from regional chiefs, and placed regiments throughout his state to ensure compliance with his orders. As a result of the mfecane, a series of states formed throughout southern Africa as people banded together to secure access to foodstuffs and to protect themselves from Zulu marauders. Sobhuza, leader of the Ngwane people to the north of the Zulu, built a defensive state that eventually took the name of his son and heir Mswati to form the basis of the modern Swazi nation, Swaziland. Moshoeshoe, another contemporary (b. 1786) of Shaka, forged a strong Sotho kingdom on the southern Highveld in the 1820s and 1830s. This kingdom became the foundation for the modern state of Lesotho. A fourth major African state formed in South Africa during the 1820s and 1830s was the Ndebele state ruled by Mzilikazi.

The largest of the Bantu polities of the colonial period are conventionally termed kingdoms, and their rulers, kings. . In standard western parlance, an empire is ruled by an emperor, a kingdom by a king, a principality by a prince and a duchy by a duke. An emperor would rule multiple kingdoms, while princes and dukes ruled lesser realms and might owe fealty to a king or emperor. Historically, a European Kingdom would be a sizeable realm, extending for hundreds of thousands of square kilometers [modern Belgium, at 30,000 km2, is at the very low end of the spectrum]. And a kingdom would have a correspondingly large population - by one estimate the population of Medieval France was about 10 to 15 million people, while that of Portugal was possibly about a million. These polities are estimated to have had populations on the order of about 100,000, not much more than a duchy by European standards.

It has become a well-established cliche to say that the Zulu state and its Nguni off-shoots, such as the Ndebele of Mzilikazi and his son, Lobengula, were 'military states', and that at the root of their social and political organizations lay the 'regimental system'. The assumptions that Ndebele settlement was purely militarily orientated and that it was composed of a hierarchy of 'regiments' and 'divisions' are false. The parallels between the Ndebele ibutho and the English regiment are so tenuous that some suggest the translation is best dispensed with.

Yonah Seleti notes that in the early 19th Century "Only the Northern Nguni developed into powerful states that vested immense power in the structures of the central state and developed elaborate state structures for governing their societies. The Xhosa to the south were fragmenting. The Southern Sotho were split into many chiefdoms, although a process of consolidation could be seen. The Western Sotho were divided into small chiefdoms. Among the Venda and the Pedi, the process of nation building was in its infancy. The Tsonga had been displaced by the Tembe and both were small kingdoms." Basutoland (now Lesotho--pronounced le-SOO-too) was sparsely populated by San bushmen (Qhuaique) until the end of the 16th century. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, refugees from surrounding areas gradually formed the Basotho ethnic group. In 1818, Moshoeshoe I (pronounced mo-SHWAY-shway) consolidated various Basotho groupings and became their King. During Moshoeshoe's reign (1823-1870), a series of wars with South Africa (1856-68) resulted in the loss of extensive Basotho land, now known as the "Lost Territory." In order to protect his people, Moshoeshoe appealed to Queen Victoria for assistance, and in 1868 the land that is present-day Lesotho was placed under British protection.

In the 19th century, hostilities broke out between the Batswana and Boer settlers from the Transvaal. After appeals by the Batswana for assistance, the British Government in 1885 put "Bechuanaland" under its protection. The northern territory remained under direct administration and is today's Botswana, while the southern territory became part of the Cape Colony and is now part of the northwest province of South Africa; the majority of Setswana-speaking people today live in South Africa.

According to tradition, the people of the present Swazi nation migrated south before the 16th century from what is now Mozambique. Following a series of conflicts with people living in the area of modern Maputo, the Swazis settled in northern Zululand in about 1750. Unable to match the growing Zulu strength, the Swazis moved gradually northward in the 1800s and established themselves in the area of modern or present Swaziland. They consolidated their hold under several able leaders. The most important was Mswati II, from whom the Swazis derive their name. Under his leadership in the 1840s, the Swazis expanded their territory to the northwest and stabilized the southern frontier with the Zulus. Contact with the British came early in Mswati's reign, when he asked British authorities in South Africa for assistance against Zulu raids into Swaziland. It also was during Mswati's reign that the first whites settled in the country. Following Mswati's death, the Swazis reached agreements with British and South African authorities over a range of issues, including independence, claims on resources by Europeans, administrative authority, and security. South Africans administered the Swazi interests from 1894 to 1902. In 1902 the British assumed control.

Despite South African pressure, in 1909 inhabitants of the Bechuanaland Protectorate, Basutoland (now Lesotho), and Swaziland asked for and received British assurances that they would not be included in the proposed Union of South Africa.

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Page last modified: 25-10-2012 15:44:15 ZULU