Because South Africa celebrates Women`s Month in August, I took a moment to reflect on certain captivating stories of some of the greatest women that the Zulu nation has been very fortunate to have – women of courage, who made their decisions and stuck to them. I wished earnestly to explore their struggles, heroic acts, and the roles they’ve played in shaping the Zulu Kingdom. The early sacrifices of women require retelling and there’s no moment more opportune than now to revisit those stories.
I wanted to write about the story of Ingcugce, a regiment of young females in 1876, that, when troops were ordered by King Cetshwayo to intermarry with the Indlondlo regiment (a regiment comprising much older men), defied the king’s order, coining the Zulu phrase “Ucu alulingani entanyeni”, loosely translated, “the love necklace does not fit around neck”. The women managed to escape, only for many of them to be captured and brutally killed.
Here was a story for me about the bravery of young women who refused to be used as a reward to the older male regiment in their post-military service, sacrificing their lives in the process.
There was also a story of Queen Christina Sibiya, first wife of Zulu King Solomon, who, in 1931, when subjected to abuse, experiencing discontent in the royal household, had the courage to leave, at a time when divorce was alien to the Zulu nation. Christina’s moving narrative was beautifully captured by Rebecca Hourwich Reyherin, in her book: Zulu Woman.
To my mind, these courageous acts dispel the notion that Zulu women are overly submissive, refusing to challenge the status quo.
The thought occurred to me that I should explore the story of Queen Nandi, mother of the Great King Shaka. Nandi (the sweet one) was the daughter of an Inkosi of eLangeni – Bhebhe, also known as Mdingi of the Mhlongo clan. She was born around 1760, with 1766 being most quoted as her year of birth.
The aspect I wished to refer to, a side often not told, is that she was one of the greatest single parents who ever lived. When confronted by animosity, rejection, insults, and humiliation, she nevertheless raised her son (Shaka) the best way she could — never to give up on life —to have strength of will, and to believe in his destiny. She raised him to believe in the power of unity, and in the concept of “We are the same”. Nandi devoted her life to her son and his siblings, protecting them the best she knew how, seeking refuge, and later finding him the best mentors in Inkosi Dingiswayo of the Mthethwa clan, and Ngomane, his Prime Minister, amongst others.
In 1787 Shaka was born, after Nandi and Senzangakhona had earlier engaged in an act of ukuhlobonga/ukusoma or sex without penetration, allowed to unmarried couples at the time, also known as “the fun of the roads” (amahlaya endlela). Needless to say, Nandi and Senzakhona went beyond ukuhlobonga, resulting in Nandi’s pregnancy.
When the eLangeni people announced to Senzangakhona and the Zulu tribe that Nandi was expecting a child, the Zulu replied through a senior relative and Prime Minister of Senzangakhona, Mudli kaNkwelo Zulu, that “the girl” was not pregnant, but suffering from a stomach ailment caused by the iShaka beetle, an intestinal beetle on which menstrual irregularities were usually blamed.
A few months later the Zulu prince was born; Nandi sarcastically named him Shaka to spite Senzangakhona, who reminded her that she had said earlier that she was not pregnant, but suffering from ishaka. Nandi would intimately refer to Shaka as her umlilwana – little blazing fire.
From that very moment Nandi suffered great humiliation, rejection, and disparagement. Women of the eLangeni, and praise-poets/singers also didn’t waste time in denigrating her, such as in this line taken from her praise-poem:
“USontanti, Omathanga kahlangani, ahlangani ngokubona umyeni” – The Floater, whose thighs are never pressed together, except at sight of a man”. This was made with reference to her failing to practise “Ukuhlobonga”, resulting in the birth of an illegitimate son. Wrong as the slurs might have been, they were hurtful and insulting.
Nandi never lost hope in life; she was resilient; she never succumbed to pressure, and she knew her worth. She instilled these values into her son, shaping him into one of the greatest leaders we have had. Nandi always reminded her son that, despite his circumstances, he would one day be greatest king. She did her best, despite all the adversities she encountered along the way’
There were times when Nandi was unable to put food on the table for Shaka and his sister, Nomcoba, especially during the 1802 great food shortage, referred to as “Madlathule – Eat and be quiet”, a period in which people were not prepared to share food because of its scarcity. She travelled long distances on foot to seek help in other areas, enabling her to provide for her children.
Nandi was to also exercise a great deal of influence over affairs of the kingdom during King Shaka’s reign. She, with other women surrounding Shaka, was put in charge of military kraals and given power to govern while Shaka was on campaign. It is said that Nandi was a force for moderation in Shaka’s life, suggesting various political compromises to him rather than encouraging violent action. Through Nandi’s standing beside Shaka, the kingdom grew by leaps and bounds over a short period of 12 years, despite a proclamation by the wives of Nomgabhi and many others who had said that Shaka would never rule —he’d never be the king.
It is therefore understandable that King Shaka held women in high esteem, because he understood their power and resilience. He had a deep respect for his mother, Nandi, and his aunts, princesses Mkabayi, Mmama, and Nomawa. This can be witnessed by the period known as, “Isililo SikaNandi” or “mourning of death of Queen Nandi”) the declaration of the longest mourning period (where those who showed insufficient grief were executed), however cruel the event.
Because women are about more than merely giving birth and raising children, Nandi is not only important because she gave birth to the great leader, Shaka, but because of her strong will, resilience, and her setting an example to millions of women not to settle for less.
By Soka Mthembu
• The royal women of the Zulu monarchy through the keyhole of oral history:
Queens Nandi (c. 1764 – c.1827) and Monase (c. 1797 – 1880) by Maxwell Z. Shamase
• Shaka Social, Political and Military Ideas by Jordan K. Ngubane
• Shaka’s Children: A History of the Zulu people, published in 1994 by Stephen Taylor