History is constantly being rewritten as new evidence comes to light. Here in the first of a new series in the Business Weekly, we discuss a dispute over the origin story of one of Zimbabwe’s most important pre-colonial leaders.
What’s the mainstream version about Mzilikazi’s origin story? Very little is known about Mzilikazi’s first 25 years of life. He was born in central KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa,
in the 1790s. Mzilikazi’s father, Matshobana, was head of a branch of the Kumalo clan, which itself was headed by a man known as Magugu.
Soon after Mzilikazi’s birth, Matshobana and several other leading Kumalos each led a group away from Magugu and founded new chiefdoms nearby.
Who was his mother?
The traditional belief is that Mzilikazi’s mother was Nompethu Nxumalo, a daughter of Zwide, the power chief of the Ndwandwe. Allegedly Nompethu was Matshobana’s senior wife, making Mzilikazi the heir-apparent.
We do not know what eventually happens to her. She either died early or remained in KwaZulu-Natal when Mzilikazi left in 1821.
This account is often repeated as originating from Olden Times in Zululand and Natal first published in 1929 by missionary Alfred T. Bryant. T
his cannot be correct as earlier writers such as Robert Moffat also alluded to Mzilikazi’s maternal parentage as early as 1835 while Nompethu is first identified as the King’s mother in 1907 in The Story of the Zulus by James Gibson.
What is the new research suggesting?
With The Story of Amangwe: Unpacking King Mzilikazi’s Maternity, a booklet published in 2012, Pathisa Nyathi and Kudzai Chikomo argue that Cikose Ndiweni is a better candidate as Mzilikazi’s mother.
She was the daughter of Ndiweni, a twin son of Zwane, who escaped a traditional ritual death by being hidden in a clay pot by his aunts.
When Ndiweni was old enough, he was presented to his father who killed a steer that escaped the boma at the same time Ndiweni arrived at the royal homestead. Ndiweni later got married and had a daughter who grew up in the Ngome area, not far from Mzilikazi.
How do they back up their claims?
Nyathi and Chikomo point to the fact that the Ndiweni section of the Amangwe people (who are ultimately of Sotho origin) provided more chiefs than any other group of people during Mzilikazi’s reign.
The king never married an Ndiweni woman because, arguably, it would have been the same as marrying his “mother.”
There are praise songs among the Ndiwenis today which include the line “Abasisu esihle esalala inkosi uMzilikazi,” translated as “those with a beautiful womb in which King Mzilikazi slept.”
Khondwane (Gundwane) Ndiweni, also known as Khaliphi, rose to prominence among the Ndebele and was tasked by Mzilikazi to lead half of the Nation northwards in 1838.
The Ndiweni chiefs in interviews over the years have repeatedly stated that Khondwane was Mzilikazi’s uncle, explaining why he would have been trusted with such an important role. (Today Khondwane is better remembered for his treasonous act in anointing Nkulumane as king during the two year absence of King Mzilikazi from 1838-1839.)
Does it matter who Mzilikazi’s mother was?
This topic may seem like it should only be important to academic historians safe in their ivory towers. It has implications in deciding chieftainship successions and even the role and rights of different families in Ndebele politics. Today the Amangwe clan is spread across southern parts of Zimbabwe, Swaziland and South Africa. Recently, we have seen several meetings and celebrations of Amangwe culture in the three countries, and the revival of the concept that Ndebele royalty owes its privilege to the Zwanes, Ndiwenis and Mbambos who presumably sacrificed so much to put Mzilikazi on the throne.
Is there historical justification for these attitudes?
Mzilikazi grew up in a time of unprecedented change. For the first time, the clans around him were joining to form larger groups. Serious wars were fought to cement these unions.
Mzilikazi’s grandfather Zwide led one of these groups, and was among the most successful of these early nation builders. Zwide was competing with Dingiswayo, chief of the Mthethwa, who was eventually captured and beheaded in 1817.
This paved the way for one of Dingiswayo’s subordinates, Tshaka, to seize the reigns of power.
The Khumalo chiefdoms preferred to remain aloof during Zwide’s campaigns but were eventually attacked by him as suspected allies of Dingiswayo.
Mzilikazi’s father Matshobana was killed in 1816 and his arm severed and removed. Khumalo fighters chased the murderers down and recovered the arm so that Matshobana could be buried.
According to legend, once the Khumalos finished propitiating their ancestors after the attack, a three-legged leopard was seen; this animal has since become an important symbol to the royal clans of the Ndebele. During all of this conflict, Mzilikazi was living with his maternal uncles, the Amangwe.
Once he had assumed control over his people, Tshaka began his campaign to end Zwide’s reign. In about 1818, their armies met in a battle near the White Umfolozi River; the result was drawn but it was at this time that Mzilikazi defected to Tshaka, together with several of his followers.
This volte-face was partially due to his mistrust of Zwide after the murder of Matshobana and a realisation that Tshaka now controlled the area where his maternal family – the Amangwe – lived.
Tshaka accepted Mzilikazi’s defection but insisted he live close by and take command of the Khumalos, and the Amangwe soon followed. Khondwane was influential in the latter event and indeed, is rumoured to have even stolen powerful medicines from Tshaka to administer on Mzilikazi.
When Mzilikazi left Tshaka’s kingdom, Khondwane became one of his most trusted deputies while several other Amangwe, including Mncumbatha, also rose to powerful positions. Nyathi and Chikomo argue this is all largely due to Cikose Ndiweni, who was his mother.
How can we evaluate who is right?
Like so many others, Ndebele history is based on a mixture of written history, oral tradition, myth and legend. With the evidence currently to hand, the idea that Cikose Ndiweni was Mzilikazi’s mother cannot be definitively proved but her case is all the more stronger with better evidence for her existence and closer familial links to King Mzilikazi.
Nompethu’s role is indistinct in comparison and it may even be possible that her name was another one for Cikose, in line with the custom of the Nguni having several names in their lifetime, based on their age, status and lineage!