Ndebele Exodus from Zululand

This entry is part 3 of 20 in the series History of the amaNdebele

It was an apprehensive Mzilikazi who slowly emerged from the Ngome forests and cautiously led his people northwards out of Zululand. Incrementally the vulnerable body of women, children and fighting men probed forward, frequently pausing to take stock, fearing at the same time an attack from behind and a hostile reception from the fore. Slowly Mzilikazi found himself drifting beyond the known world and into the territories of groups and peoples that he knew nothing about. Remaining east of the northern Drakensberg Escarpment he initially maintained a north-westerly direction until he arrived somewhere in the vicinity of present day Piet Retief. From there he veered west and made his way up through the Compies River Valley to tentatively emerge for the first time on the South African highveld.

Any anxiety that Mzilikazi might have felt about encountering an armed and hostile response above the escarpment evaporated the moment that he observed the local Basutho tribesmen fleeing in panic at the advance of his half naked, heavily armed and menacing troops. The reputation of the Zulu was by then widely appreciated, and even here probing raids by small groups of Zulu had seeded sufficient terror for the mere sight of a Zulu, or Zulu type detachment of armed men to raise the spectre among the local people of a general slaughter.

In this way the Khumalo continued on until they reached the vicinity of present day Ermelo where a combination of want, exhaustion and the bitter cold of the highveld winter forced Mzilikazi to order a halt in order to rest and replenish supplies. By then the hinterland of active raiding by the Zulu had long been passed and a degree of peace and plenty prevailed on the landscape. Bearing in mind therefore the principal skills of his own small corps of some 300 fighting men the solution to this immediate problem of supply and sustenance was obvious.

Temporary bivouacs were established while small patrols were sent out in roving reconnaissance until in due course Mzilikazi had established a broad picture of the local layout of villages, gardens and cattle emplacements. Opting initially for a cautious approach he deployed small guerrilla bands at night to use the unfamiliar tactic of surprise attacks against soft targets. These attacks usually commenced with the firing of thatched huts and concluded with the rapid slaughter of confused villagers and the accumulation of their cattle and food stocks. In a very short time Mzilikazi had solved his supply problems, and by the means some would say of an unnecessarily genocidal storm of violence he had cleared the surrounding countryside of its human population while energising himself, his small army, and to some degree sowing the seeds of his future raison d’être.

It is interesting here to note that while Mzilikazi and his Khumalo followers were finding their feet, and embarking on their first independent actions as an occupying force, two important aspects of future amaNdebele policy were born. The first was that Mzilikazi made no deviation from the strategy of his mentor in adopting extreme terror as a basic tactic of war, and secondly he began selectively to spare from the general slaughter those best suited to contribute to the bloodstock of the Nguni core that made up the small corps of his followers. Thus as the mopping up of any operation took place a selection of the best and the brightest were spared and incorporated directly into the army, first as porters and carriers to weed out the weak, and then directly into the fighting forces as raw recruits. Women were spared and integrated in a similar way for the sake of portage and breeding stock. These people in the evolving class system of the amaNdebele became known as the abEnhla, or Those from the North, as distinct from the abeZanzi, or those abaNguni or amaSwazi stock of the original refugees. Thus Mzilikazi set about building his nation, and by the simple laws of natural selection a resilient, violent and intractable bloodstock was bound to emerge.

It is also at this point that Mzilikazi began to find his feet as an independent leader, and moreover as a potentially great leader. He discovered, perhaps as much to his surprise as any, that the greater the destruction wrought upon a community, and the more extreme the cruelty and violence applied in the process, the more likely it was that those who were spared and incorporated into his group would permanently submit. By this process he found himself venerated in the same way that Shaka had been, discovering as he proceeded that violence did not automatically seed a culture of revulsion, but rather one of unquestioning adoration. He went on to shape, develop and use this phenomenon to rapidly multiplying effect.

In this way the Khumalo soon became a horde, not remaining static for long, but continuing north, laying waste to the countryside, and growing stronger in numbers and confidence all the while. The pattern was simple. The best and strongest were kept and the rest killed. The survivors were loaded with booty and cattle rounded up before the growing force moved on. Mzilikazi’s principal weapon was the Zulu military doctrine, a weapon he applied with merciless ferocity. Newcomers were pummelled into shape, divided into units and put into the field. Commanders were usually selected from among the Nguni, but regiments of young men of Sotho stock increasingly began to form the main strike forces. Meanwhile other fugitives from the work of Shaka continued to catch up with and join the horde, helping to diversify an emerging class of Nguni aristocrats.

The momentum of all this carried the Khumalo as far as the Middelburg region east of Pretoria before the accumulated weight of people, booty and cattle forced Mzilikazi to call a tentative halt in order to take stock and re-organise. A settlement was raised called ekuPumuleni, or Place of Rest, after which the old and the new of the Khumalo clan were given leave to filter out into the countryside and settle.

Mzilikazi’s first order of business was to organise a strict regimental system along Zulu lines in order to instil an esprit de corps into an army that had neither common roots nor ethnic unity. Units were formed and quickly turned around and put into the field, and under conditions of unrelenting action they achieved and maintained a high level of fighting discipline. The pace was frenetic and growth explosive. Huge herds of cattle were accumulated and slaves incorporated. The name amaNdebele dates from this period, when sentinels on the hilltops would shout AmaTebele as the Khumalo approached. AmaTebele is a black soldier ant common to the veld that marches in aggressive hordes, very similar one could imagine to a naked legion of grim warriors approaching from a distance.

The period of peace and plenty at ekuPumuleni however proved to be brief. That year was a dry year on the highveld, and the first season’s crops failed. The question of rain, however, as absorbing as it was, was not at that point critical to the survival of the amaNdebele. With or without rain a spectacularly successful season of raiding had seen the accumulation of significant stocks of grain and livestock, and as Mzilikazi began to ponder another move it perhaps had more to do with his own restless energy than any authentic concerns for the viability of the landscape. He was deeply troubled by the fact that his growing military formation, although formidable by any standards, would buckle under a sustained assault from the Zulu, and it was this probably more than anything that convinced him to keep moving.

Reconnaissance groups were despatched west and northwest to explore the country as far north as the Limpopo River, and over the course of the next few months Mzilikazi was gratified to receive back reports of passive peoples occupying fair lands that were ripe for plunder. Even taking into account the likelihood of exaggeration the prospects of the deep interior were intriguing, and Mzilikazi wasted no time in preparing for an evacuation of ekuPumuleni in preparation for a the second great movement west.

In the autumn of 1925 this second chapter in the evolution of the amaNdebele began. Settlements were torched and the population gathered together their herds and their belongings and set off. Within two months this body of several thousand people spread over a large area began to approach the district of present day Rustenburg, situated more or less between the Magaliesberg Mountains and the upper Limpopo River. This was the land of Bakwena, or the Crocodile People, a people so far innocent of trauma and untouched by the militancy that hung like a dark shadow over much of the rest of the country.

As the amaNdebele cautiously moved in among the Bakwena and began to disperse they were watched by armed bands that offered up no resistance, and indeed greeted them without any particular hostility. Upon locating a suitable position Mzilikazi ordered the construction of a temporary headquarters from where he sent out scouting parties, gathered intelligence and pondered a strategy for the campaign ahead.

Mzilikazi was impressed by both the character of the countryside and the design and size of the Bakwena settlements. Enormous village structures punctuated a well-watered landscape of soft plains, low hills and kopjes. Bakwena settlements made up of large congregated villages suggested that a long period of peace had been underway, while extensive herds of large stock and numerous granaries spoke of relative prosperity. Moreover, despite their health, prosperity and apparent proliferation of arms, the Bakwena military potential was obviously inferior to his. Mzilikazi did not have any expectation of organised opposition when the first raiding parties were sent out, but even he was surprised at the complete and utter lack of resistance that his men experienced, and the comprehensive rout that followed.

The Bakwena Campaign of 1825/6 took on the by now established character of amaNdebele campaigning. The initial attacks were overtly ruthless and cruel, with many instances of excessive violence and unnecessary slaughter, and in particular the callous practice of leaving a razed settlement’s infants and children alive among the smouldering ruins to die of exposure, or worse, to be eaten alive by hyena and other predatory wildlife. Later Mzilikazi altered his policy slightly by ordering that all the infants and children of a village be massed in the centre of the village, stacked with tinder and firewood and set alight.

Thus the first impact of the amaNdebele arrival in the territory of the Bakwena was the rapid and complete annihilation of all traces of life and commerce. It was only later that Mzilikazi returned to the notion that here was a resource from which he could extract something more enduring that the passing impact of horror and death. He began once again to spare the lives of those who could augment his military with carriers and slaves, and perhaps at a later date to become trainees and recruits. He spared women who could stand the rigours of slavery under the ruthless code of the amaNdebele, after which they could be relied upon to breed well and produce offspring suitably robust to be named and accepted among a growing nation of rigorous fighting men.

It was in this way that the original nucleus of the Khumalo continued to be rapidly diluted by the inclusion in the ranks of the amaNdebele of many diverse sons and daughters of Basutho stock. Likewise many of the Bakwena were absorbed into the ranks of the amaNdebele once the weak and the fearful had been weeded out. This left behind only the most robust, aggressive and determined of their number to either find and accept identity with the amaNdebele, or to die.

By early 1826 the campaign to dispossess the Bakwena had been completed. A once extensive and prosperous people had been reduced to small groups of wandering and starving remnants, a few of whom found refuge with the northern baTswana, while others took to cave dwelling and cannibalism. Conversely the amaNdebele now existed in a status of established dominance, and had grown into a fearfully powerful, ruthless and prosperous people. Mzilikazi himself had emerged from his self-imposed regime of conquest and subjugation as a leader and commander of enormous power and stature. He was thirty-six years, old and about to embark on the penultimate phase of his long career.

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  • Mache

    This is all interesting, but sounds nothing like a collection of stories told between different groups and put together without editing / getting second opinions. The author makes no reference to recognize the contributors as if He(she) was a part of that grou then.
    More importantly, there are dates related typo’s which in this particular storytale, errors play a critical and misleading roles : refer paragraph starting with “In the autumn of 1925…” , and 3-4th paragraphs mentioning similar continuation of story, but just a century out : “The Bakwena Campaign of 1825/6…”

    Let us remember that, due to the fact the pre-colonial stories were only told and not written, most new comers in literature are solely relying on the internet, and take whatever data at face-value to be correct as it cannot be “falsified” by any research methodology (sources deceased, etc).
    Editing and validation is key.

    Nonetheless, well done Mr Baxter. I follow a lot of your African Literatures

  • Sthembiso

    I agree Mache, I feel like Mr Baxter is writing a novel here fortifying it with his own words. Not a problem, but when writing about a nation’s history colouring and flowering is abhorred. I’m Ndebele but I can’t affiliate what he’s written here with what my forefathers told me, and to think this is a 20 part series, makes me go eish…