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South Africa Table of Contents

South Africa

Historical Background

Precolonial Warfare

Bantu-speaking populations began moving into southern Africa from the center of the continent around A.D. 500 (see Southern African Societies to ca. 1600, ch. 1). In the process, they encountered the generally peaceful San and Khoikhoi populations who had preceded them in southern Africa by at least several centuries. Warfare and the desire for better land had been among the causes for the gradual southern migration, and some of these early chiefdoms routinely seized cattle from their neighbors. But warfare was not central to their culture or traditions. Most of southern Africa was sparsely settled, so fights over land were relatively rare. Ambitious men sought to control people, more than land. For example, during the seventeenth-century expansion of the Nguni-speaking Xhosa chiefdoms along the southern African coast, many Khoikhoi were peacefully incorporated into Xhosa society, and at least one Khoikhoi elder became a Xhosa chief.

The cultural emphasis on the value of cattle, which was strong among Nguni-speaking societies, prompted increasingly frequent cattle raids by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In dry areas, such as the southern fringe of the Kalahari Desert, and in dry years, sporadic battles over land and water occurred. These clashes were generally limited in scope and were conducted under strict rules of engagement. Weapons were often spears (about two meters long) thrown at a distance, or knobkerries (wooden clubs) used in close combat. Bystanders sometimes cheered on the participants, and a battle often ended when one side admitted defeat but was not annihilated.

During the eighteenth century, Nguni-speaking Zulu warriors earned a reputation as the most fearsome fighters in the region. They sometimes defied tradition and fought in close combat with broken spears, or assegais; in this way, they inflicted unusually large numbers of casualties. The Zulu men's age-groups, close-knit fraternities organized primarily for social and religious purposes, provided armies when called on by their chiefs. By the late eighteenth century, these groups increasingly served as trained armed regiments to conduct raids and to fend off challenges from neighboring groups.

Under the leadership of Shaka Zulu (r. 1817-28), Zulu armies redefined military tradition, using new strategies, tactics, and formations. As Shaka's warriors became more skilled and ruthless, they overran their weaker neighbors and drew conquered clans into a confederacy under the Zulu monarchy. In the upheaval that followed, known as the mfecane (or crushing--see Glossary), thousands of Africans moved north and west, out of the expanding boundaries of the Zulu kingdom that was located in the area that would later become KwaZulu (see fig. 5).

Throughout the nineteenth century, European population growth and thirst for land added to the regional upheaval, in part because European immigrants sometimes forced African populations off land they had only recently settled and because Europeans sometimes used their superior weapons to annihilate or to subjugate indigenous populations. By the late nineteenth century, Zulu expansion had been halted. British forces eliminated the few remaining African leaders who defied them and finally subdued the Zulu army just before the outbreak of the most devastating in a series of Anglo-Boer (see Glossary) wars, the South African War of 1899-1902 (see Industrialization and Imperialism, 1870-1910, ch. 1). Military traditions and values continued to be central to the Zulu culture throughout the twentieth century and were reflected in Zulu political rhetoric of the 1990s.

Data as of May 1996