Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

THE ASSASSINATION OF KING SHAKA: Zulu History’s Dramatic  MomentJohn LabandJonathan Ball Publishers

King Shaka is an enigmatic figure in South African history. He’s a symbol of the formation of the Zulu kingdom and identity, as well as the military brilliance with which it resisted colonial intrusion and expansion. But Shaka’s rule was also a period of widespread ferocity and violence for many communities in the eastern interior of SA.

How much value people attach to either side of this complex historical coin largely depends on their cultural backgrounds, the weight of history or perhaps a combination of both.

All of these complexities are on display in The Assassination of King Shaka: Zulu History’s Dramatic Moment — a new book by expert Zulu historian John Laband.

Prior to becoming professor emeritus of history at Wilfred Laurier University in Ontario, Canada, Laband taught history at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He is a specialist of 19th century Zulu history and has written several books on the subject, including the Historical Dictionary of the Zulu Wars, The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Nation and Zulu Warriors: The Battle for the South African Frontier.

Laband is careful not to frame the book as a study of Zulu history. He states that his "objective is not to undertake another scholarly investigation into the formation of the Zulu kingdom in the reign of King Shaka", because other historians have already done so.

Rather, he is attempting "a focused inquiry into a single, pivotal event in Shaka’s life: his assassination". He explains that the book should be read as an account of how the event provides important insights into the dynamics of the formation of the Zulu kingdom and illuminates the seemingly mysterious character of Shaka.

Throughout the book, Laband illustrates how the power of single events can significantly shape the present and ripple into the future.

"By teasing out the circumstances surrounding the plot to slay him, by investigating the individuals involved and their possible motives and by considering the implications and consequences of the violent deed," Laband hopes "to throw some strong light on the functioning of the early Zulu kingdom and the elusive character of Shaka."

His extensive knowledge is on display throughout The Assassination of King Shaka. One of the most important features of the book is his use of Zulu words and terminology related to the structuring of early Zulu communities, which helps to give it a localised disposition.

Much to the reward of readers, he relies on praise poems and songs throughout the book to help illustrate the cultural topography informing the historical significance of the formation of the Zulu kingdom.

Laband demonstrates how the assassination of Shaka was wrapped up in a wider struggle for control of the Zulu kingdom and was an expression of a community that valued honour, strength, aggression and military might over all else.

While he was the eldest son of Senzangakhona, this didn’t mean Shaka was automatically the heir to the throne. With the help of Dingiswayo, who had assassinated his own brother, Shaka was to become king. This fratricidal violence was part and parcel of the formation of the Zulu kingdom and led to a variety of claims about the legitimacy of the throne.

Shaka was no stranger to assassinations. The book begins by recounting a failed assassination attempt in 1824, which had devastating consequences for many other communities in the region. Over the course of the book, the act of assassination seems to take the shape of an aggressive kingdom that relied — to a fault — on honour and its military might to express itself.

In an effort to make sense of the formation of the Zulu kingdom, it seems counterintuitive to do so by examining the termination of its leader, but the complexity of this contrast is an enjoyable way to gain a deeper understanding of Shaka.

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