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Difaqane / Mfecane Wars - 1818-1835

This period of revolutionary change--known as the mfecane ("Crushing" or "hammering") by the Zulu and the difaqane (“The Crushing”) by the Sotho--is also often referred to as "the time of troubles". The Difaqane/Mfecane was a period of "disturbance" or "scattering" between 1815 and 1835. This period is characterized by the rise of the Zulu State under Shaka. While the factual details of this "disturbance" or "scattering" of people remain widely disputed, what is certain is that it had the consequence of dispersing people to the various Southern African countries and thus entrenching cultural inter-connectivity with our region and beyond. The Difaqane/Mfecane spread its influence over an enormous area stretching from the Cape Colony to East and Central Africa.

Shaka started the Mfecane wars round about 1818. A combination of local factors--population growth, the depletion of natural resources, and devastating drought and famine--led to revolutionary changes in the political, economic, and social structure of Bantu-speaking communities in southern Africa in the first half of the nineteenth century. Thousands of people died because of ecological catastrophe and warfare; thousands more were displaced. Large centralized states of tens of thousands of people with standing armies of up to 40,000 men and autocratic leaders emerged where before there had been only small-scale political entities and no chief had had total power.

The causes of the mfecane were emerging by the end of the eighteenth century, when population levels increased rapidly, and ecological resources were sometimes scarce. Communities that previously had often spread across the countryside or had repeatedly divided and moved along the frontier became more settled and more concentrated. The introduction of corn from the Americas through the Portuguese in Mozambique was one major reason for this trend. Corn produced more food than indigenous grasses on the same land, and thus could sustain a larger population. Trade in ivory with the Portuguese in Delagoa Bay was another factor that induced people to settle just south of Mozambique. Moreover, possibilities for population movement had become much more limited by the end of the eighteenth century because land was in short supply. Bantu-speaking farmers had reached the margins of arable land on the edge of the Kalahari Desert in the northwest and in the mountains on the southern border of the Highveld, and people settling in the area found their access to water more and more limited.

Declining rainfall in the last decades of the eighteenth century, followed by a calamitous ten-year drought that began about 1800, caused massive disruption and suffering. The adoption of corn as a major staple gave this drought an even greater impact than those of the past because corn needed much more water than local grains in order to produce. When the rains failed, therefore, the effect was devastating. People fought one another for meager supplies of grain and cattle, hunted down whatever game they could find, and sought out any remaining water supplies in a desperate attempt to survive. Warfare erupted, and two kingdoms--the Ndwandwe under the leadership of Zwide, and the Mthethwa under Dingiswayo--battled for control of resources. Both kingdoms became more centralized and militarized, their young men banded together in age regiments that became the basis for standing armies, and their kings became more autocratic as they fought for survival. The Ndwandwe appeared victorious in 1818 when Dingiswayo was killed and his forces scattered, but they were soon overcome by Shaka, founder of the Zulu state.

During most of the 1820s, Shaka consolidated his power through a series of wars against neighboring peoples. His armies raided for cattle and food; they attacked any who challenged the authority of the Zulu monarch; and they extended the limits of Shaka's realm north to the borders of present-day Mozambique, west across the Drakensberg Mountains, and south to the margins of the area that would later become the Transkei homeland. He also welcomed British traders to his kingdom and sent diplomatic emissaries to the British king.

Shaka was assassinated at the height of his powers in 1828 and was succeeded by Dingane, his half-brother and one of the assassins. Dingane was a much less accomplished ruler than the founder of the Zulu state. His weak claim to the throne and his constant fear of assassination made him a despotic ruler. Dingane maintained the centralized and militarized organization of the Zulu state and sent his armies out on raiding missions. Victories, however, were few because of the growing strength of neighboring African kingdoms, and by the end of the 1830s Dingane's hold on power was being challenged by internal discontent and external threats.

Shaka was regarded as being the major cause of conflict during this period. However, historians are moving away from the idea of mfecane/difaqane, which is linked to outdated, colonial-era ideas of the centrality of the ‘wars of Shaka’. Wars and disruptions took place, but most of them were not caused by Shaka and the Zulu.

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. Although the mfecane in many ways promoted the political development of southern Africa, it also caused great suffering. Thousands died because of famine and warfare, and thousands more were uprooted from their homes and were forced to travel great distances, many to become refugee laborers in the Cape who sought work at any wage. Perhaps the most significant result in terms of the future was that large areas of South Africa were temporarily depopulated, making it seem to Europeans that there were unclaimed lands in the interior into which they could expand.

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