The history of South Africa’s chiefs and kings (part 2)

This article is a continuation of part 1, which looked at the history of seven of South Africa’s famous chiefs and kings that ruled various kingdoms before and at the start of colonialism in the Southern African region. 

Let’s take a look at the next seven kings and chiefs that fought for the kingdoms’ survival, culture and identity. 

King Hintsa kaKhawuta of the House of Phalo (1789 – 1835) 

King Hintsa, chief of the Gcaleka amaXhosa, was one of 3 sons of Khawuta kaGcaleka, the paramount chief of the Gcaleka amaXhosa in the modern-day Eastern Cape province. 

This sculpture was done by Suzanne du Toit.

During his reign, King Hintsa fought for the survival of his people. He dealt with conflict among the different amaXhosa tribes and the encroachment of European farmers and settlers who wanted cheap amaXhosa labour, cattle and land. He also faced threats from missionaries who were undermining local traditional beliefs, culture and identity. 

Through various wars, King Hintsa seized land and cattle and was able to unify different amaXhosa tribes. He developed a reputation for being an astute, fair and wise king, giving generously to the poor.

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


He was drawn into the 6th Frontier War in 1834 by the British who wanted the amaXhosa territory where he ruled. In 1835, the British made their way into Gcaleka territory, burning homes and seizing cattle. 

The British lured King Hintsa into their camp under the guise of having peace negotiations with him. When holding him hostage, the king tried to flee on his horse; however, the British caught and murdered him. The king’s death remained the cause of intense anger among the amaXhosa and the trigger of future wars.

Chief Kgamanyane Pilane (1820 – 1871) 

Chief Kgamanyane Pilane was a warrior and chief of the Bakgatla-Baga-Kgafela from 1848 to 1871. He was born to Pilane Pheto in 1820 in the modern-day town of Rustenburg, located in the North West province. 

This sculpture was done by Guy du Toit and Egon Tania.

He succeeded his father in 1848 during a time when most of the land was under Boer control. He was able to secure arable land for his people through 26 land deals by trading labour for land with the Boers in the 1850s and 1860s. 

During his reign, the Bakgatla flourished in farming, trade and raiding as his tribe was one of the few that were allowed by the Boers to keep guns. In 1868, he openly defied Paul Kruger’s request to supply labour to the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR) for the building of a dam. The chief was publicly flogged and humiliated in front of his people. After this public embarrassment, he relocated his people to Mochudi in present-day Botswana. 

This image and text is from the National Heritage Museum of South Africa at Maropeng in Johannesburg.

He died in 1871, and his son Lentswe succeeded him. Approximately 50 wives and numerous children survived him.

King Maqoma (1798 – 1873) 

King Maqoma was a warrior and king of the Ngqika amaXhosa. He is known as one of the greatest Xhosa military commanders and played an essential role in the 6th and 8th Frontier Wars during the early and mid-1800s. 

This sculpture was done by Suzanne du Toit.

He was the son of Ngqika, king of the amaRharhabe amaXhosa. He spent his life fighting to claim back the land that his father gave to the Cape Colony. He founded a new kingdom on the banks of the Kat River, located in modern-day Eastern Cape in 1822 as part of his commitment to regain his ancestral home. He faced constant raids and expulsion from the territory in 1829.

Maqoma and his brother took up arms in 1834 following increased military pressure from the Cape Colony to prevent further loss of land. In the “War of Mlanjeni” from 1850 to 1853, Maqoma used his skills as a general to lead a guerrilla campaign, which frustrated the efforts of the British military.

He was sent to Robben Island twice, where he died at the age of 75. His grave is on Robben Island. An inscription on the memorial reads, “May your spirit continue to give the current and future generations courage towards absolute freedom.”

King Sekhukhune I (1814 – 1882) 

King Sekhukhune I was a warrior, freedom fighter and the king of the Bapedi from 1861 to 1879. He settled in modern-day Steelpoort in the Limpopo province. He seized kingship from his half-brother, Mampuru II, in 1861 and built the powerful Bapedi empire using military strategy, conquests, diplomatic marriages and the inclusion of other chieftainships. 

This sculpture was done by Ruhan Janse van Vuuren.

At the beginning of his reign, the Bapedi lived peacefully with the Boers who had moved into the same territory. The first wars between the Bapedi and the Boers started in 1876, with the Bapedi remaining undefeated.

In 1877, the British annexed the area on which King Sekhukhune’s empire was built, and they demanded allegiance, land and taxes from the Bapedi, which the king refused. This refusal triggered fighting between the Bapedi and the British, with the Bapedi remaining undefeated.

This image is from the National Heritage Museum of South Africa at Maropeng in Johannesburg.

However, in 1879, the Bapedi were defeated in a war against a combined force of the British, the Boers and 8,000 Swati troops. The king was captured in December 1879 together with some of his family and generals. They were imprisoned in Pretoria (renamed to Tshwane). He was released in 1881 and allowed to return to his people. 

King Sekhukhune was murdered by his half-brother, Mampuru II, in 1882. Mampuru II claimed that he was still the lawful king of the Bapedi. He was captured and hanged in Pretoria for the murder.

King Mzilikazi Khumalo (1795 – 1868) 

King Mzilikazi Khumalo was a military leader and founder and king of Matabeleland. He was born to Mashobane, ruler of a section of the Khumalos in Zululand. He was born in a time of great military innovation when rulers embarked on conquests and expanded their kingdoms. 

This sculpture was done by Mike Mawdley.

In the 1820s, Mzilikazi fled from Zululand with some of his loyal men and their families after disputes with King Shaka. Over the next two decades, Mzilikazi and his people clashed with various tribes including the Basotho, Bapedi, and the Griqua. He and his people absorbed these tribes into their own as they moved up north towards modern-day Zimbabwe.

In 1840, he settled in South Zambezia (present-day Zimbabwe) to establish his kingdom known as Matabeleland near Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. The people of Matabeleland only called themselves amaNdebele in the 19th century. Before then, they emphasized their origins as either Zulu or Mangoni.

Mzilikazi spent the next two decades of his reign expanding his kingdom by absorbing existing Shona kingdoms or by forcing those kingdoms to pay tribute to him. He died in 1868 after a long illness. He is considered as one of the most excellent empire builders in Southern Africa, and is still remembered as “Umdabuli we Sizwe”, meaning “maker of the nation.”

Chief Kgalusi Leboho (Maleboho) (1844 – 1939)

Chief Kgalusi Leboho was the chief of the Bahananwa, who lived at the foothills of the Blouberg Mountains in present-day Polokwane in the Limpopo province. 

This sculpture was done by Sarah Lovejoy.

The Bahananwa are known for their resistance to the invasion of the Afrikaners of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR) under President Paul Kruger from the late 1800s onwards.

In 1894, the demands of the Afrikaners on the Bahananwa for land, mine labour, livestock and game were increasing, and the campaign to oust Malehobo began when he refused to pay hut taxes to the ZAR. The Afrikaners then laid siege to the Bahananwa, building several forts around the kingdom to cut it from all water and food supplies. They also used dynamite to blow up the Bahananwa’s caves.

Maleboho and his people eventually surrendered, and he along with 200 of his councillors faced imprisonment in Pretoria (renamed to Tshwane). He was found guilty by the military court but never convicted. Back home in Bahananwa, many women and children were distributed as spoils of war by the Boers. The Boers used them as unpaid labour.

This image and text is from the National Heritage Museum of South Africa at Maropeng in Johannesburg.

Maleboho fought on the side of the British during the South African war of 1899 – 1902, a move which secured his release from prison in 1900. He returned home to Bahananwa to take up leadership that remained uneventful until his death in 1939 at the age of 95.

King Makhado Ramabulana (1825 – 1895) 

King Makhado was a warrior and king of the dominant Singo tribe of the Vhavenda from 1864 to 1895. He was the youngest son of King Ravele’s nine sons and was chosen to become king because he was considered brave and was the most popular of all his brothers. 

This sculpture was done by Andre Prinsloo.

Boers settlers, who were allowed to settle near the Vhavenda kingdom during King Ravele’s reign in the 1850s, demanded taxes when King Makhado ascended the throne. The Boers tried to confine the Vhavenda to a reserve determined by Europeans to chase King Makhado off his land. General Paul Kruger backed this decision.

The king became known as the “lion of the North” for resisting these attempts to chase him off his land with much ferocity. He earned the name “Tshilwavhusiku tsha Ramabulana” or “Night Fighter of Ramabulana” because he attacked at night with men who knew the area well.

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

He successfully commanded his regiments in outmanoeuvring the Boers and kept them at bay until his death. He died in 1895 from suspected food poisoning by his first wife and some of his lieutenants. The Boer settlers defeated his successor Mphephu in one of the last wars of resistance in the Transvaal, which is now modern-day Gauteng.

King Makhado is remembered as a strong king, leading his people from the front, and a skilled and strategic warrior.

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 at the National Heritage Museum of South Africa.

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