The history of South Africa’s chiefs and kings (part 1)

Africa was home to some of the world’s greatest kingdoms. These include ancient Egypt, the Axum empire, which was in modern-day northern Ethiopia and Eritrea, and the Mali empire, which was in West Africa.

These kingdoms left an indelible mark on the world, contributing meaningfully to societal, educational, political, economic and military systems.

South Africa was also home to some of Africa’s greatest kingdoms, including the Zulu kingdom which was led by the popular king Shaka Zulu, and Mapungubwe, which was established around the Limpopo River between modern-day South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Let’s take a trip down memory lane to learn about 7 of South Africa’s famous chiefs and kings that ruled various kingdoms before and at the start of colonialism in the Southern African region.

Chief Tshwane (the mid-1700s) 

According to oral history, Chief Tshwane lived in the area that is now South Africa’s administrative capital city, Pretoria (renamed to Tshwane). He is believed to be the son of Chief Mushi, a Ndebele king who settled east of the town. 

This sculpture was done by Zelda Stroud.

The origin of the name “Tshwane” has two explanations. The first one is that “Tshwane” originates from the Setswana word “tshwana” meaning “black cow”. The word describes a rainmaking ceremony whereby water was fetched from the Tshwane River and sprinkled on a black cow. According to historical accounts, droughts were broken in this manner, giving the river the name “Tshwane” meaning “place of the black cow”. The second explanation is that “tshwane” means “we are one”. 

Chief Tshwane is a controversial historical figure, with some critics saying that he is a mythical figure perpetuated through oral history. 

King Faku (1780 – 1867) 

King Faku was a strategist, unifier, diplomat and king of the AmaMpondo in the Eastern Cape. He was able to consolidate several loosely bound clans to form a unified kingdom. The kingdom had a capable military and agriculture-based economy founded on cattle breeding and grain and maize harvests.

This sculpture was done by Xhanti Mpakama.

His skilled use of armed action, diplomacy, alliances and careful cooperation with missionaries and the European powers they represented ensured that the Mpondo kingdom thrived, even in times of disputes between the British and the Boers. 

This image and description can be found at the National Heritage Monument of South Africa at Maropeng in Johannesburg.

King Faku and his sons, Mqikela and Ndamase, defended the kingdom during the Mfecane wars during the first half of the 1800s. As a result, the kingdom remained unconquered under his rule. It was the largest of the Xhosa states and was divided only after his death in 1867 under the separate rule of his sons.

King Moshoeshoe I (1786 – 1870) 

King Moshoeshoe I was a nation builder, diplomat, statesman, defender and the founding father of the Basotho nation (Lesotho). He was born in Lepogo in the north of modern-day Lesotho and was the son of Mokhachane, chief of the Bamokoteli sub-clan.

This sculpture was done by Zelda Stroud.

As a young boy, he gained a reputation for being a skilled cattle raider and earned the name Moshoeshoe as a young adult. The name was the imitation of sounds made by a knife during shaving that symbolized his skills at cattle raiding. 

During his leadership, he defended his kingdom against the encroaching Zulu empire and won several battles against colonial settlers. He created an independent Basotho nation that escaped incorporation into a segregated South Africa. 

To protect his kingdom against falling under Zulu rule, he led his people south to Thaba Bosiu in the western Maluti Mountains. He eventually unified many small groups to form the Basotho nation. 

This image and description are from the National Heritage Museum at Maropeng in Johannesburg.

During the 1800s, Boer settlers and the Basotho fought over fertile farming lands, and in 1854, the Orange Free State became an independent Boer republic. The Basotho were defeated when fighting broke out over the borders of the Boer republic, and Moshoeshoe placed himself under British protection to secure his nation’s long-term survival. 

In 1884, the British Protectorate of Basotho was formed and was renamed Lesotho in 1966 when the nation gained independence. 

King Mgolombane Sandile Ngqika (1820 – 1878) 

King Mgolombane Sandile Ngqika was a warrior, resistance fighter and leader of the Gaiga amaRharhabe Xhosa. He was born in 1820 with one leg shorter than the other, which he concealed under a cloak or a blanket when he rose to power. 

This sculpture was done by Helena Vogelzang.

He led his people in the 8th and 9th Frontier Wars against the British between 1846 and 1879. He was captured in 1847 during the War of the Axe and was granted land by the British when he was released. King Sandile refused to submit to British rule, flaring up tensions that saw renewed fighting between the British and the amaRharhabe. 

This image and description are from the National Heritage Monument of South Africa at Maropeng in Johannesburg.

He died in 1878 after being wounded in a battle with British troops. According to myth, his body was buried along with two British soldiers to convince his followers that his spirit would not roam.

Queen Labotsibeni Mdluli (1838 – 1923) 

Queen Labotsibeni was the Queen Regent of eSwatini (previously known as Swaziland). She is known as one of the greatest Queen mothers and Queen Regents in Swati history and earned the name “Gwamile”, meaning “the indomitable one” for her ability to manage colonial encroachment and protect eSwatini’s sovereignty and culture. 

This sculpture is done by Jean Doyle Foundry.

She became Queen Regent when her subjects felt that the natural heirs to the throne were not ready to lead after the death of her husband in 1889. During her reign, she worked towards buying back land that her husband sold to Dutch and British settlers during the 1820s and 1880s. 

Her campaign coincided with protests against South Africa’s 1913 Natives’ Land Act, which forcibly took away land from the country’s majority black population in favour of the minority white population. 

In solidarity with South Africa’s fight against racial injustice, she gave funding to the 1914 South African Native National Congress (SANNC, which later became the African National Congress – ANC) delegation to Britain to protest the act. In 1921, she and Crown Prince Sobhuza, later King Sobhuza II, financed the Abantu-Batho newspaper, which was the mouthpiece of the SANNC. 

King Shaka (1781 – 1828)

King Shaka is one of the most famous figures in South African history. He was a warrior, strategist and leader of the Zulu kingdom. 

This sculpture was done by Xhanti Mpakama.

Over 12 years through expansion by conquest, he amassed numerous clans to create the large and powerful Zulu kingdom. His military innovations include the use of the short spear in battle, the “bull horn” formation to surprise and encircle the enemy, and age-based regiments known for their self-discipline and military strength. 

Some historians believe that negative portrayals of Shaka as a ruthless tyrant may have stemmed from colonial powers who were threatened by the might of the Zulu kingdom. During the last few years of his rule, the Zulu kingdom was at its strongest and represented an obstacle to colonial interests. 

His two half-brothers assassinated King Shaka in 1828, one of whom, Dingane, succeeded him as the king of the Zulus.

King Dingane kaSenzangakhona (1828 – 1840) 

King Dingane succeeded King Shaka from 1828. He was the son of Inkosi Senzangakhona and his 6th Queen, Mpikase. 

This sculpture was done by Francois de Wet.

King Dingane found it challenging to control the enormous army he had inherited from King Shaka. None of his wars were significant successes, including the fight against King Mzilikazi’s Ndebele kingdom. He also encountered problems with the growing influx of European settlers into the area which is now KwaZulu-Natal. Shaka had already granted land to European traders at Port Natal (now the city of Durban), and Dingane allowed missionaries into the area in 1834.

This image and description are from the National Heritage Monument of South Africa at Maropeng in Johannesburg.

During this time, Boer farmers were moving north away from the British administration of the Cape Colony. A disputed part of his rule states that in 1838, Dingane ordered the killing of Boer leader Piet Retief and his party in the capital, uMgungundlovu, near Ulundi.

After continued fighting following the killings, Dingane’s army faced defeat at the Ncome River on the 16th of December 1838. This battle is known as the Battle of Blood River, where the Zulu army lost to the Boer’s firepower.

Dingane’s half-brother Mpande then took thousands of Zulu with him to the south to partner with the Boers under the leadership of Andries Pretorius, and together, they defeated Dingane’s army near the Pongola River in northern KwaZulu-Natal in 1840.

Dingane then fled into neighbouring eSwatini, where he met his death in the Lebombo Mountains at the hands of his Swati rivals.

Exhibition details

These sculptures are part of the Long March to Freedom exhibition by the National Heritage Monument of South Africa. You can visit it at Maropeng – Cradle of Humankind. 

When visiting Maropeng between 9 am and 5 pm on weekdays and weekends, you’ll be able to see the exhibition before walking into the museum. 

* images taken by me all at the National Heritage Museum of South Africa.

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