Let my people go: musings on Zuluness
The Zulu image has fascinated for centuries. Here the writer digs into family lore to lament SA’s ethnic tinder box
But who are my people? — Nat Nakasa
You Hide That You Hate Me and I Hide That I Know — Philip Gourevitch, Penguin Random House
The world watched in horror as parts of KwaZulu-Natal and then the rest of SA went up in smoke. Almost. It was a reckoning my beloved country could not postpone forever. It is also possible SA, with its well-reported gross economic and social inequality, has reached the tipping point and keeled over the cliff.
Something about it, particularly in former president Jacob Zuma’s home province, feels too orchestrated to be just a case of prophesied things falling apart. Poverty is a big deal, but it cannot be the only reason. And the cost of that “winter revolution”? A measly R50bn, some say. And images of infants thrown from burning blocks of flats.
No country since the invention of the camera has matched SA for documenting grief and tragic theatricality. Click! A premier is beating the bejesus out of a “looter” on air. Mshayezafe! Some sing songs of despair. Click! A bunch of excited Indian vigilantes are shooting Zulus for sport or “defending our communities” in what is now labelled “The Phoenix Massacre”.
Mahatma Gandhi, who held the Satyagraha concept close and wanted nothing to do with the British Raj’s imperial materialism, preferring to stomp around barefoot or in sandals, enrobed in a white shawl, would have been impressed. He once referred to black folk as “savages”.
Click! Scores of Zulu “impis” are marching in the darkness on the edges of town. Shadows move menacingly on highways, eyes red with want, lust and hate, we are told, on a mission to ransack and set malls and residential buildings on fire. Ah, but that photo faded to black. This, too, is my story. Our story. We are all implicated in this.
My past — and, I’m afraid, my children’s future narrative — is stitched deep in the seams of that land. Home. Our land. My family’s umbilical cord is buried in the depths of the earth of that geo-cultural idea called KwaZulu, on the Zulu Kingdom side, not the Colony of Natal. To this day seeds of the family are sprinkled all over that land. Unknown cousins and nieces, grandmothers and fathers twice removed, uncles we will never meet — unknown to us, the expat wing of the family, at least — are all over that province: Msinga, Glencoe, Nkandla.
My mother, Nomvula, was raised by the Mnyandus and attended a prestigious school in Inanda. Was it Ohlange? One of our great-grandfathers is exulted in family lore as “one of the founders” of the original Black Mambazo. Wild as the connection might be, it was always a matter of pride when family members made mention of legendary bones man Nobhiyana Madondo. It was he who famously gave King Shaka the heave-ho when the monarch rounded up the nation’s traditional healers, aiming to expose their chicanery. Our imagined or fictional affinity to him, by extension, affirmed our claim to the “idea” of Zuluness and through Zuluness our blackness attained an intangible swagger and some type of inner, secret strength silently shared within the larger clan.
Back in Hammanskraal, north of Pretoria, framed portraits of a lineage of Zulu kings lined our family walls: photo-perfect drawings and charcoal-on-paper lithographs of historical battles. We ran our fingers through the imaginary mohair blanket of Zuluness, as if to feel its soft, fur-thery pleasures. We clasped tight to our chests dreams of Zuluness we knew nothing about, but heard all the time rolling off family elders’ tongues, in the way pious Catholics grip rosaries in moments of doubt. We romanticised it. Fetishised it. And ultimately yearned for the fetish. Like loving backwards.
In big cities strangers who had just been informed of our family name would shower us with tall stories of their friendship with Alexandra jazz man Scorpion Madondo. But the only Madondo we knew in Alexandra was mkhulu Johannes. How could we forget him? He was always decked out in straight-cut velvet suits and bank-breaking brogues.
We spent most of our social time revolving around and wrestling with Zuluness: the idea. Running towards and running away from. We detested its existential stranglehold over us, the intangible thing around our necks. There was, and still exists, an uneasy bond between the family and the metafictions of Zuluness. For what exactly does it mean that one is Zulu, Venda, Sotho and so on in the factual mapping of migratory African cultural multiplicities?
In big cities strangers who had just been informed of our family name would shower us with tall stories of their friendship with Alexandra jazz man Scorpion Madondo. But the only Madondo we knew in Alexandra was mkhulu Johannes. How could we forget him? He was always decked out in straight-cut velvet suits and bank-breaking brogues. He called Kwa-Madala Hostel home and always spent his annual leave in KwaZulu. And every time they detected the colour of distance in our eyes, the same eager strangers would somersault and grow rapturous in song and praise, saying that we, unlike so and so, were “the true red-earth Zulus”. We never paused to ponder: is our ancestral earth truly red? Are we truly what Noni Jabavu, regarding her Cape Colony people, called the “Ochre People”? If so, how did the earth inherit all that red? Was it from the blood spilt in those wars depicted in kitsch battlefield sketches on our walls, growing up?
Arriving in Johannesburg in the early 1990s, the first thing I wanted to be was a bona fide Zulu. To achieve that I found myself chasing a girl all the way to her Natal University dormitory, where I learnt to memorise street names in Durban. In those days no other city in the country — at least that I had been in — had vernacular street names. Umbilo Road, Isipingo, Umgeni : u-this, i-that. Lilting. I delighted in the musicality of the language, marvelled at the “true Africanity” of the space. Got sucked into the joy of what a truly Asiatic/Indo-African cultural and spiritual bond portended: the “Union”, were it to be allowed its flourish, knots and all. It all felt like my own private fairy tale. My Alec in Zululand fairy ride.
For once, I forgot about 1949. I waved off, or attempted to, the story of the “scoundrel” — maybe he’d be labelled a “looter” today; maybe this writer would be fulminating from the high perch of his Twitter account: “Arrest the criminal!” — George Madondo. Ol’ George was accused of stealing from an Indian shopkeeper, a stone’s throw from the Juma Masjid mosque in Grey Street, Durban. Cornered, Madondo threw a series of punches, putting the shop’s assistants on their backs, before tumbling out onto the pavement, entangled in a bear hug with the shopkeeper. And, on that sweltering January 13 1949, lighting up a calamity his pea-brain couldn’t possibly have foretold: the 1949 riots.
The Zulu-Indian riots spread from the bowels of the city to as far away as Cato Manor, where Zulus and Indians lived alongside one another, if admittedly with lingering rancour caused by the higher rentals Zulus felt Indians were extorting from them. When they ended, the riots had claimed 187 lives, with thousands injured on both sides, the majority of them Africans. But by the mid-1990s, my spirits had been soothed by an Indo-Zulu Peace Summit initiated by that prophet in a sari, Fatima Meer, among others. Of course, the “olive bridge” was inadequate. Nothing is ever adequate in SA. But it was all the city could muster, then. The “convergence” between the two, at least at a conversational level, was rendered profound by its inadequacy.
BEWITCHED still by the tropical metropolis and its sun-sprinkled charms, I wondered how the “other side” lived. To satiate the curiosity I buried myself in the pages of the Sunday Times Indian Extra and attended Indian classical dance soirées at the Playhouse. It was falling into the vortex of Victoria “Busi” Mhlongo’s complex genius, journeys of creation, longings and ailment that ultimately burnished that damn city and the sound of its tongues across my heart. In her work I felt at home like never before. Here was an irrevocably Zulu spirit conductor with a global, nay, European and West African sensibility. Yet linguistically, her Zuluness could not be denied. She was not an exception. Something about the city grabbed me by my waist and off we tangoed into the depth of autobiography.
My first mainstream newspaper gig as a “cub” sent me on weekly Durban assignments. What was that about? Unlikely, and cosmopolitan as it was, Durban animated me into an imagined Zuluness, no matter that it was the least Zulu of all towns in the province. Parachuting in and out of the city via SAA when not road-tripping in long-haul luxury coaches or choo-choo-makhala, my fate was sealed. Again, first the landscape of the entire province and then the humidity of the city had me by my tits. Madness descended upon me, and me upon the city. I began aligning, in my head, my favourite writers — Mafika Gwala, Nat Nakasa, Lewis Nkosi and reporters Khaba Mkhize, Fraser Mtshali — with Zuluness and paired artistic light to landscape. Two plus two equalled, for me, five. Who cared? [In my kinky-dread head] they were brilliant because they were Zulus, not because they happened to be restless artists dedicated to their craft, I reasoned.
The Eastern Cape dazzled with its San and Khoi-inflected click songs, and KwaZulu-Natal had its “e-hes” peppering everyday speech, and street colloquia. At first it was not easily apparent, but along the way I realised I had mysteriously developed some kind of indeterminate pride, which I chalked down to my Zuluness. Was the heretic, nay, prodigal, son ready to go home? This pride, however, was distinct from my expatriate family’s in the 1950s to 1980s. This endowed me with a kind of an ethnic glow. This did not feel inherited. This felt earned. Twenty-five years later I’ve “developed” out of all that which rendered me physically unfulfilled or unqualified to be Zulu. Back in my expatriate village the family still performed ukuphahla traditional ceremonies in our improvised isiZulu.
Growing up in the urban mélange of Hammanskraal — where Sotho speakers and young Venda boys and girls freely brushed up against Shangaan neighbours and “Bushies”, and we were all undesirable “Matabeles” in Lucas Mangope’s heaven of Bophuthatswana — everyone without exception desired to be Zulu. The attraction was, and still is, inexplicable. It rippled beyond isiZulu being the lingua franca of just about three major metros out of seven in the republic. On the path to subjective black identity — and I am speaking of the decades formative to my growth, the 1970s and ’80s — irony stalked us ceaselessly because contemporary Zuluness, untethered to geography, was as associated with backwardness as it was with sophistication. It was the raging fire that scorched your pants’ knees in winter, but which you could not live without. Such is the grand metaphor upon which dominant perceptions of Zulu identity are hard-wired.
Growing up, I derived pride from carrying a Zulu name, and concealed that pride. I was not alone. Zuluness, as an aspiration, target and bloated field of study has never been a lonesome project. From the 17th century on, the “image” of the Zulu has fascinated and frightened the colonial imagination. The British fascination with Zulus was all but cast in stone after that surprise party in Rorke’s Drift in 1879, when a breakaway column of Zulus attacked the Brits mercilessly. The mythology afflicted other “natives”, who had been fed tall tales of Zulu cannibalism from Shaka’s time onwards. Beneath the conceit are tales of Zulus as half-human and/or colonial subalterns in service of the white superior. The myth lives on in the form of u-Mantshingilane, the Zulu night watchman who is feared and loathed, especially by his fellow blacks.
Centuries later, Zulus came to occupy the space of radical refuseniks (their refusal being to send their sons to the white man’s first grand barbaric global war. A case in point? There is no single Zulu man among casualties in the Mendi tragedy). The blinding and binding myth of Zulu power and unassailable pride had, by the end of the 19th century, and certainly in the mid-20th, morphed into a byword for African authenticity, eclipsing the Yoruba or Mandinka as the prototypical “negro”. History is littered with stories in which Zulus are reduced to circus fare or exhibition freaks: Zulus on display.
Canadian-born Farini’s Friendly Zulus series — portraits of young men and women photographed in “native” dress — were as ubiquitous a practice in the 19th and 20th centuries as the exhibition of the “pigmy”, Ota Benga, young Khoisan woman Sarah Baartman and all sorts of “natives” exhibited alongside animals and vegetation. To European adventure-seekers bored out of their skulls with social mores and stifling religions, the opportunity to delight in this spectacle was spurred on by the search for authentic creation, or even God’s mistakes in the act of creation.
At the bioscope Zulu myths spilled and spooled, from reel to reel, blood, gore and bumble-foolery: 'The Wild Geese', 'Zulu Dawn', 'The Dogs of War' and so forth. The bumbling Zulu fool stereotype was only knocked off the indigenous box office by the irrepressible nativity of the 'Bushman', who proved beyond doubt that the African gods must be crazy indeed.
Farini’s exploits were far from being the roots of othering. That social and economic malaise precedes slavery and is known to afflict all societies, Africans included. Ostensibly, the issue of authenticity evokes questions of “purity” and its cultural signifiers. It has never been a one-way affair in which Africans are always shaped by the gaze of others. Identity authenticity is perhaps a figment of imagination that community-making cannot succeed without and is, by definition, a contested affair. For example, there are now, as there have always been, groups within geopolitical Zuluness that exult at being “pure”, therefore “true”, Zulus.
However, by the third decade of the 20th century and to now, with a minor digression from 1970 to 1994, largely due to Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s stroke of cultural PR ingenuity towards the idea of empire recreation, the image of Zulus as subservient, bumbling fools and, ultimately, spies in service to the colonial and apartheid project was all but cast in stone. Zulu mythology, largely derived from stories exulting and ruthlessly mocking Zulu warriors’ tactics in their blood-filled battles with the British and Dutch settlers, travelled far and wide.
Growing up in the early 1980s some of us delighted in reading about the exploits of hip hop MC and producer Afrika Bambaataa and his made-in-the Bronx cultural gang, The Zulu Nation. It went down the wires, down here, that the New York borough’s hip hop induna and his cohort fashioned their concrete jungle “Nation” on the template on the South’s proudest cultural formation, New Orleans’s Zulu Nation. It never occurred to us — considering N’w Awlinz’s foundational place in the origins of Mardi Gras culture, jazz, ragtime, the blues, boogie-woogie and modern entertainment economy — that evocations of “The Zulu Nation” were an affirmation of us. And yet it was clear that the hip hop drew a direct, if fictional line that stretched from umGungundlovu straight to the American bayous. The original “gangstah” king, Dingane, would have been proud. And yet the myths proliferated.
At the bioscope Zulu myths spilt and spooled, from reel to reel, blood, gore and bumble-foolery: The Wild Geese, Zulu Dawn, The Dogs of War and so forth. The bumbling Zulu fool stereotype was only knocked off the indigenous box office by the irrepressible nativity of the “Bushman”, who proved beyond doubt that the African gods must be crazy indeed.
It is a fiction — and one that even some Zulus have bought into — that Zulus are inherently violent. The violent rapture of a fortnight ago, which could have happened anywhere (but did not, and perhaps will not at that scale) evoked the so-called Limpopo “heart of darkness”. In 2016 Vuwani exploded into violent protests that promised to go on forever. Schools and private property were set on fire. It may be helpful, in dealing with the political trauma of the winter of 2021, to note that the residents of Vuwani were not protesting for the release of a geriatric populist leader. At the heart of their social breakdown was decades-old tribalism between Venda-speaking communities and their neighbouring Tsonga and Pedi neighbours.
Tribalism is rampant in the country, however hard we try to avert our eyes from it. Could it be that a critical feature of the recent riots was actually “ethnic mobilisation”, as President Cyril Ramaphosa charged, perhaps in frustration, inertia or political paranoia, before he was instantly forced to withdraw it? Political analysts Moeletsi Mbeki and Sam Mkokeli have argued that it is reckless to blame the “Winter of Social Collapse” on Zulu tribalism or associate Zuma with Zulu ethnic mobilisation. Of course, I disagree, but only to an extent. The former president may well have mobilised latent frustration into what can be only called “insurrection”, which he then stoked on the basis of Zulu pride or resistance. Zuma’s siege mentality — from which he has derived and constructed an impressive underdog/outlaw hero heft with “Man of the People” cachet — has always been dramatised on the basis that he and people like him, “common men”, uncertificated, inarticulate, in the colonial English lens, “bumbling fools”, are denied a voice and a platform by the elite. For the past decade Zulu nationalism has refashioned itself into an apolitical cultural sentiment built around the persona of King Goodwill Zwelithini ka Dinizulu. But that was as toothless as it was potentially politically lucrative. It was toothless because Zwelithini, like all traditional leaders, was essentially a state employee. But it is lucrative because of what a manipulative mastermind can utilise it for.
However, using it to speak no evil, and averting our gaze, won’t wish it away. Tribal chauvinism and ethnic nationalism are a fact of our being. We live not in opposition to, but definitely with the tribalism and/or ethnic problem my ancestors inherited from the Nats’ policies of divide and rule. That problem was federated into a nightmare by the ANC-led Government of National Unity in 1994.
Moreover, Zuma, a president who created a state within a state, a hydra beast with a parallel intelligence service at its head, understood long ago what traditionalists of all stripes do: that paternalism breeds infantilism. It is disingenuous to scoff at a “Zulu mobilisation project”, though I understand why no-one wants to talk about “ethnic mobilisation”. It is part and parcel of the ANC’s denialism and self-delusion, crafted, understandably, to prevent the very ugly ghost of tribalism from rearing its head. It is also part of the ruling party’s obfuscation politics, which found fertile ground in an African society that thrives on metaphor and poking fun at hardship and the enemy by speaking in tongues, foregrounding the opposite to illustrate that which they are hurt by. This is the politics not so much of erasure as of subversion.
However, using it to speak no evil, and averting our gaze, won’t wish it away. Tribal chauvinism and ethnic nationalism are a fact of our being. We live not in opposition to, but definitely with the tribalism and/or ethnic problem my ancestors inherited from the Nats’ policies of divide and rule. That problem was federated into a nightmare by the ANC-led Government of National Unity in 1994. It is as much the loose rope mapped around our necks as it is the ANC’s inherited poison gift to us. It is in how we speak about them, not denying them, that we will begin to understand ourselves anew. We will never know lasting peace until KwaZulu-Natal arrives at a spiritual and historical peace.
Often — and this became manifest with the recent uprising — I dream about a different personal act, one at odds with my childhood cultural longing, my romance. I dream of walking away from it all. And as I do, Chief Albert Luthuli’s liturgical words pursue me with a vengeance. But I cannot run any more. And I am the wrong target. Those words should rather be haunting Jacob Zuma: let my people go.
• Bongani Madondo is an essayist, filmmaker and the author of Sigh, the Beloved Country (Picador Africa), among other titles. He writes on photography, poetry and race.