Will it be a Zulu‘Game of Thrones’?

Shaka, the legend-encrusted founder of the Zulu kingdom, is seldom far from the public eye. It is, however, mostly the legends themselves that keep resurfacing — not least in that now hoary old 1986 TV series Shaka Zulu, directed by Bill Faure, which was re-screened last year and attracted a reported two million viewers.

What’s not to like? Pulsating music, pitched battles, witches radiating blue light, men impaled on stakes, a hyper-evil king, the leering smile and oiled physique of footballer Henry Cele in the title role. I was no expert in Zulu history and culture back in 1986, but I had studied the Shakan period under Julian Cobbing at Rhodes University and knew enough to believe that Shaka Zulu was not it.

I disliked it so much, in fact, that it set me off on a couple of decades’ exploration of literary and visual representations of Shaka, and subsequently a search for the “real” historical man. Thanks, Bill Faure!

The representations of Shaka evolved roughly along two not wholly compatible lines. The Evil Monster line started with the first white men to meet and write about Shaka in the 1820s. Although he actually treated them rather generously, they vilified him mainly in order to deflect attention from their own misdeeds and ambitions.

It suited the colonials who followed in the 1840s to credit Shaka with having depopulated vast areas into which they could conveniently settle. This “myth of the empty land” has long been comprehensively disproven. Later still, writers like Donald Morris would attribute Shaka’s alleged cruelties and manic imperial ambitions to some sort of warped sexuality and/or a traumatised childhood. The TV series largely reinforced this narrative.

Partly overlapping the Evil Monster depiction is the nation-building Military Genius line. In this story, a heroic and brilliant Shaka conjures, out of nothing much, an overwhelming military machine that conquers everyone within reach and sends whole peoples scattering across the subcontinent — a self-generated explosion of violence that became known as the “mfecane”. Although some people did doubt the Evil Monster picture before the fifties, the Heroic Genius story really only took off with E.A. Ritter’s 1955 Shaka Zulu, a novel whose battles and love story were almost entirely inventions, but rapidly became the accepted “history”. Forget stamping on devil thorns, the steamy love affair with Pampata, the archetypal Battle of Qokli Hill — Ritter made all of them up. The TV series leant heavily on Ritter — and of course Shaka as military founder has become a fundamental constituent of Zulu self-identity. This is why Andries Botha’s statue of Shaka for the new airport near Durban was rejected by the Zulu royal house in 2010 — it was not sufficiently warlike.

Both narratives find some echoes in indigenous memory as well as later literary texts. Some of the monstrous depiction began as propaganda emanating from Dingane, who needed to justify having assassinated his half-brother Shaka (he had to slaughter a sizeable number of Shaka’s adherents too). But solid evidence either way is frankly thin. The early white sources are riddled with lies and bias, and the extant local oral histories are patchy and contradictory. We don’t know when Shaka was born, what he looked like or exactly when he died, let alone what he really thought, planned or dreamed.

Still, 30 years of careful scholarship by a number of historians, including John Wright, Jabulani Sithole, Norman Etherington and John Laband, have excavated an overall picture rather different from the stereotypes. Unsurprisingly, Shaka emerges as neither the ultra-evil child-murdering demon nor the dazzlingly flawless superhero, but a tough and capable but not always successful leader, a real man grappling with real conditions of political turmoil and environmental constraints — and simply doing it better than his surrounding peers.

There isn’t complete agreement among the historians, but broadly I would say the new picture is as follows. Shaka and the Zulu state did not suddenly explode into being in a vacuum: they were responding to a sub-continental situation which was already turbulent and violent.

In many ways, the Zulu became a stabilising haven, not the primary or only motor of violence. Though clearly the Zulu became more militarily effective than their contemporaries, and Shaka’s warriors fought some set-piece battles, he neither obliterated neighbours nor chased many off. He was more interested in absorbing their vital resources and manpower into his own polity. To that end, around a quite limited secure core region between the Mfolozi and Thukela rivers, he organised a ring of client-polities or near-equal alliances, with the Cele, Qwabe and Mkhize people, for example. A complex, opportunistic and subtle combination of force, tribute-extraction, targeted assassinations, marriage alliances, genealogical manipulation and partnerships characterised the emerging but still patchwork Zulu “state”.

Shaka seems to have been as much canny politician as imperial conqueror. Of the six or seven major aggressive raids for which we have any detailed evidence, only two were obvious successes, the rest were at best iffy, and two were comprehensive disasters. Finally, the real upsurge in violence in the region occurs after Shaka’s death in 1828, and has multiple sources, including internecine conflict, Mozambique-based slaving and the British and Boer invasions from 1836 onwards. This makes the notion of the mfecane increasingly fuzzy and of dubious analytic value.

So what now? The Anglo-Zulu war of 1879 and the Battle of Isandhlwana spawned hundreds of books and films, but earlier Zulu history remains comparatively neglected. Shaka, for all his mythic presence, has attracted only a couple of devoted and substantial scholarly biographical studies — unlike Cecil John Rhodes, for example, who has been the subject of 20 or more, some fawningly hagiographic, some denouncing him, some studiously neutral. Why not more on Shaka, especially from Zulu historians? A study by a rank outsider like me provides only one of the many possible perspectives which ought to be quarrelsomely out in the public arena. Nor do we yet have in-depth biographies of either Dingane or Mpande who, over half a century, really built up the Zulu polity to its 1879 power. Some good signs: at least one school history textbook presents Shaka not in some idealised light, kowtowing to this or that political orthodoxy, but offers a series of problems to be argued over, if not resolved. Jive Productions’ new graphic novels (the first,Shaka Rising, is out; the sequel is in the works) make a point of highlighting their own fictional elements, and append both cultural information and historical puzzles for young readers to debate. Such debate, it is too often forgotten, is what makes history exciting, and in the course of debate, relevance is discovered — even created.

Now M-Net is reportedly planning a new 12-episode television series on Shaka, Shaka-Ilembe, with a whole new crew of advisers and writers. They will have to navigate some very tricky lines between the extant narratives, competing political interests, fluid notions of Zulu identity, and the entertainment demands of their intended international audience. Precisely because hard facts about Shaka are, well, hard to come by, they will have to think about what imaginings are going to fill up all that space, starting with what Shaka is to look like. Decisions, decisions — this is in the nature of historical fictions, of course, and it also tends to be where extraneous political influence sneaks in. In short, what manner of Shaka is going to be created to address our current conditions?

I imagine that the scriptwriters will be debating at least some of the following questions. They reportedly want to be inclusive of the perspectives of Zulu neighbours, the amaHlubi, amaNdwandwe, and so on — peoples who still exist, and so could not have been eradicated by Evil Monster Shaka. They may have been lumped together as “Zulu” under colonial overrule, but have of late been asserting their own “royal” lineages and status, hoping to match that of King Goodwill Zwelithini. Including their views is an admirable goal, and good luck negotiating that complex of competing interests.

The film-makers also vow to do thorough research in order to ensure “authenticity”, whatever that is. How to avoid the stereotyped Zulu cultural village syndrome — exactly what was spawned by Faure’s film?

At the same time, they say they want to produce a Zulu Game of Thrones. Oh dear, are we to have KZN equivalents of dragons and related paranormal witchery, lashings of irrelevant sex, slow-mo gory battles in spectacular landscapes, and obvious and simplistic politics?

All this is, of course, exactly what the intended international audience desires — exotically costumed black savages slaughtering each other has always been especially satisfying in the West (and in Japan, apparently). So I look forward to seeing how M-Net’s laudable wish to take “our stories to the rest of the world” can avoid collapsing into the very stereotypes that make such epics saleable. A tension, you could say, between the reifying studiousness of localised cultural anthropology and the swiftly moving media of global modernity.

The advertised epic reach also raises the question of scale: they will have no problem, Shaka-Ilembe’s planners say, in raising 20 000 soldiers for a battle scene. They might economise here: Shaka is unlikely ever to have raised more than one or two thousand warriors for even his grandest encounters. Sometimes an impi sent out to extract tribute from a neighbouring tribe consisted of just four men. We can’t glibly read the massed army of 1879 back half a century, and we shouldn’t be deceived either by the exaggerations of Shaka’s own izibongo, or by the popular comparisons of Shaka with Napoleon or Genghis Khan. Shaka’s core of control extended no more than 100 kilometres across — hardly the distance from Spain to Moscow.

We are in danger, perhaps, of exaggerating rather parochial squabbles to epic proportions — but I suppose the same could be said of what Homer did with the Trojan War. It’s in the nature of epic itself.

Above all, perhaps, the scriptwriters, indeed, we all, will have to probe the cultural place of violence. Most nations obsessively valorise past military exploits, sometimes even when they are miserable defeats — think of Gallipoli, Vietnam, Isandhlwana itself.

What does a nation like the Zulu, whose legend-laden warrior prowess is an all but ineradicable part of its identity, do with that state-sanctioned violence, now that it’s enveloped in a larger, legally democratic state?

How does the warrior ethic play into, or differ from, the political violence plaguing KwaZulu-Natal today (the focus of the Moerane report)?

Is the new television creation going to revel in historic militarism, running the risk of re-sanctifying violence as a political tool, or treat it with some measure of critical distance? Can — or should — Shaka metaphorically lay down his spears, as in Botha’s rejected statue, in the interests of our new, avowedly more peaceable, electoral and multi-ethnic dispensation?

Some 25 years ago, an African-American enterprise foreshadowed today’s flavour-of-the-month Black Panther by producing a comic book about one Zwanna, son of Shaka. Superhero Zwanna, his veins empowered by the venom of a radioactive, DDT-crazed cobra, heads across the Atlantic to go and sort out the mess that is New York.

In their production, M-Net once again aims to take Shaka’s drawing power into the messy heart of global media. We will just have to wait and see what blend of realism and fantasy they come up with.