Bambatha at MpanzaThe Making of a Rebel

Bambatha at MpanzaThe Making of a Rebel

  • Author: P S Thompson
  • Publisher: Private
  • ISBN: 0-620-31692-6

Review By : Ian Knight

Outside South Africa, there remains a tendency to see the British invasion of Zululand in 1879 as an isolated act of conquest. In fact, of course, it was part of a wider process of European penetration and dispossession that began with the arrival of the first white adventurers at King Shaka’s court in the 1820s, and arguably lasted until the ruthless suppression of the 1906 Rebellion. It is this latter part of the story which is attracting increasing attention as the centenary looms, and it is an area which has remained controversial, not merely because of the harsh reaction of the Natal authorities to the ‘uprising’, but because of its contemporary resonance.

 Whereas the early phase of resistance to conquest, the age of the great Zulu kings, has largely been appropriated by Zulu traditionalists, the 1906 Rebellion has always been viewed in a more modern light. The catalyst for the rebellion, a minor inkosi named Bambatha kaMancinza, lived in the Greytown area, and his people, the amaZondi, had been colonial subjects for a generation; they were not subjects of the Zulu king, and basis of their protest were the injustices of colonial rule, and in particular the imposition of a poll tax. This has secured for Bambatha a place in the pantheon of ANC heroes who struggled against European rule after the fact, and will no doubt ensure that the anniversary of his supposed demise at the battle of Mome Gorge will attract considerable high-level political comment. In fact, as this new book by well-known author on Zulu history, Dr Paul Thompson, suggests, Bambatha’s motives were complex, and in truth he cuts an unlikely figure as a hero.

 Still young at the time of the rebellion, he was a quarrelsome man, addicted to faction-fights, popular with the younger generation of his chiefdom – those upon whom the burden of the new tax fell heaviest - but regarded by many elders as irresponsible. Most of his people lived on white-owned farm-land and, along with their chief, had been impoverished by their obligation to provide labour for a pittance, and by the exhausted and overcrowded landscape in which they lived, and which barely supported a viable degree of subsistence farming. Bambatha was in debt to white money-lenders, and unpopular with the local magistrate; for him, the imposition of the poll tax was the final straw. This book charts the events that drove him inexorably to rebellion, and explores the part played by the Zulu king, Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo. Although many academics have been traditionally uncomfortable about the use of the term ‘Zulu’ to label the rebellion – indeed, the current trend (ironic to anyone who remembers the Thatcher years in the UK) is to refer to ‘poll tax disturbances’ and ‘resistors’ - the fact is that Bambatha visited Dinuzulu and appealed to him to provide a way out of his troubles. For Bambatha, the Zulu king represented a return to a nostalgic age of independent African authority, and throughout the coming rebellion the rebels sought to draw on the imagery of the great Zulu kings to give their disparate cause a common identity. As Dr Thompson observes, Dinuzulu’s true reaction to these events is almost impossible to determine; although still young himself, he was largely broken in spirit, sick in body, and ruined by alcohol dependence. He probably offered Bambatha some words of comfort in an attempt to sit squarely on the fence.

 Bouyed up by this, however, Bambatha returned to his location and armed his young men; when the Greytown magistrate and an escort of Mounted Police rode out to investigate, Bambatha ambushed them by the road at Mpanza. He then fled across the border and took refuge in Zululand where, significantly, only a few amakosi rose to join him. His flight to Zululand marks the beginning of real hostilities, and the end of this book, but through his meticulous research (and occasionally eccentric style) Dr Thompson paints a detailed and intimate portrait of the tensions which beset the hot and arid Mpanza valley, and which led to such a dramatic outbreak.

Thursday 12th of January 2006 08:45:11 PM