The Zulu Kingdom has never had a void in selfless leadership. This was a time when traditional leaders also took to the battle to defend their land and their people. Their leadership style was beyond delegating – they led from the front! Shaka had instilled those values, because he too led his own army in tribal battles. This was a time when Amakhosi and warriors served their King, their country, and communities, with distinction. One unsung hero who comes to mind is Mkhosana Biyela of the Biyela clan, the son of Mvundlana Biyela. He lived at a crucial time in the history of the Zulu people during the Anglo-Zulu War. He died at Isandlwana, but he did not die in vain: I am here to tell his story.
When it became clear to King Cetshwayo and the Zulus that Lt General Lord Chelmsford’s ultimatum was untenable (which amongst other things demanded that the Zulus disarm, and Cetshwayo forsake his sovereignty), the king had no choice but to prepare his +/-20,000 warriors for what was to become the greatest defeat the British ever suffered at the hands of men armed with only shields and spears.
BACKGROUND: ANGLO-ZULU WAR
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, umtwana wakwaPhindangene, during the unveiling of Inkosi Mthiyaqhwa kaDidi of the Biyela Clan, described the battle of Isandlwana very succinctly when he said: “The resistance to colonial rule in Southern Africa reached a climax when the British colonial powers deployed a force larger than the force that they used to conquer the continent of India, in order to destroy the Zulu Kingdom. A full-scale war took place in order to destroy the old Zulu order, and to subjugate the Zulu nation. It was our ancestor, King Cetshwayo ka Mpande, whose regiments took on the British forces. The British at that time had the mightiest army in the world. King Cetshwayo’s regiments were only armed with their spears and their shields”.
It was on 22 January 1879 that the Zulu army, led by Ntshingwayo kaMahole Khoza, (a Senior General Commander and hereditary Chief of the Khoza in north-western Zululand, an old man in his 70s) were prepared to lay down their lives to defend their land, to fight the battle which they had never wanted in the first place. Ntshingwayo kaMahole Khoza, along with his men, had run all the way from Ulundi (about 92 km) to Isandlwana over 4 days, to lead his warriors against the invading the British. His high rank in the kingdom and his recognised abilities as a warrior made him a natural choice as a senior commander. Amongst the regiments which fought there were the mighty Ingoba Makhosi, Uthulwana, Udududu, Udloko, Indlondlo, Umcijo, Imbonambi, and Uve regiments, to name just a few.
Mkhosana kaMvundlana Biyela led the Ukhandampevu regiment (identifiable by their black-and-white shields). He did this against the request of the king, who had asked him to stay behind. His excuse was that “Ngeke ngilibheme igudu noKhandampevu uma ngingayanga eSandlwana, ngiyofela eSandlwana”: “I may never smoke the pipe again with my regiment, Ukhandampevu, if I don’t go with them to Isandlwana. I’d rather die at Isandlwana than stay behind.” The King gave him his blessing and he left for Isandlwana. What a remarkable and dedicated leader he was, determined to fight alongside his comrades!
When the British were firing their Martini-Henry rifles, the Zulu army became shaky, with most warriors already pinned down on their bellies to escape the bullets, almost as though they were ready to surrender. Something remarkable happed at that very moment! uMkhosana kaMvundlana stood up like a Colossus in front of his men. Turning his back on the British, he shouted “Yeyinina Laphaya Ningabaleki”, followed by the reciting of the king’s praises: “Isilo Uhlamvana Bhulumlilo Kashonga Njalo”—”Don’t Run, Don’t Run, The Little Branches of trees that extinguish the Great Fires gave us no such order”, He had barely uttered those words then the British shot him right through the head. He died instantly. As the brave warrior fell on the ground, after this selfless act, not a single warrior moved back an inch: they all rallied forward, more determined than ever to annihilate the British army. By sheer numbers and force of attack, the Zulu regiments won the Battle of Isandlwana. King Cetshwayo celebrated this victory. Had Mkhosana not intervened at the time he did, something could have gone seriously amiss, and today we would be living a different story!
Mkhosana was buried by his brother; weeks later his family went to Isandlwana to fetch his body so they could afford him a proper burial. However, the vultures had eaten his body, leaving only his traditional regalia —so the family buried his traditional regalia. He made the nation, the king, his commander, and his warriors proud. Ukhandampevu, (his regiment) was then known as “Ukhandampevu olwenqaka amatshe ezulu”, meaning the Ukhandampevu regiment which caught the hailstones…hailstones being the bullets!
How many of us today would be prepared to serve our country the way Mkhosana did? Would we expose ourselves to bullets like he did? Do we take the responsibility when our colleagues stumble, and try to inspire them? What kind of a man would abandon his own special occasion such as his wedding, choosing rather to go to battle? Mkhosana kaMvundlana Biyela was that man! I am eternally grateful to him and to many of his people for the respect which the Zulu people embrace today. It is the spirit of these warriors that kept the flames of our Zulu Culture burning. Ndabezitha! wena owadela uzimba emaNgisini Esandlwana!
By Soka Mthembu