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South African Show Shaka Zulu Film Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 5789 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In late 1986, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) created a television mini-series by the name of Shaka Zulu. It would prove an instant and huge success, and by 1992 it had been seen by over 350 million viewers in South Africa and abroad (Tomaselli 1992). Best described as an “historical drama”, the series centred on the first recorded encounter between blacks and whites in southeast Africa, with particular focus on the interactions between an exploratory British party, led by Lieutenant Francis Farewell (Edward Fox), and the ruler of a powerful and dangerous kingdom, the legendary Shaka Zulu (Henry Cele) (Hamilton 1998, p.171). In brief, the narrative follows Farewell’s band of men (including the story’s narrator, Henry Francis Fynn) as they head to Zululand to dissuade Shaka from an attack on the Cape Colony. They are shipwrecked, captured by the Zulus, and come to learn about how Shaka’s kingdom was built. Within this structure, Fynn’s diary is used as a mechanism for a series of flashbacks which tell Shaka’s life story: his conception and birth (he is illegitimate), his life as an outcast, and his rise to power (Hamilton 1998). It is a violent portrayal – Shaka is shown to be destined to rule through brutality (Fynn records that Shaka’s mother gave birth “to a nation of blood-stained spears”) (Faure 1986) and spends most of his time angrily taking revenge on those who have wronged him (Tomaselli 1992). Eventually, with the death of his mother, Nandi (Dudu Mkhize), Shaka is struck by a violent grief and the series ends with “the Zulu kingdom in flames” (Hamilton 1998, p.172). Farewell and company prove unable to save Shaka from himself, and the Zulu nation falls into chaos.

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Before conducting an analysis of the television series itself, it is worth examining how Shaka was remembered in Zulu culture long before the show was even commissioned. Like all history, there is no single voice in Zulu oral accounts of Shaka’s rule. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, different Zulu interests drew on different Shakas to “support their actions in a changing world” (Hamilton 1992, p.62). Thus, accounts “differ significantly about key episodes in his life and fundamentally in their evaluation of the Zulu king” and the Zulu memory of Shaka has not always been “unanimously favourable” towards him (Hamilton 1998, p.53). Having said this, Hallencreutz (1989, p.73) argues that we can roughly view the appreciative, complimentary izibongo (praise singers) as “the core of the established Zulu tradition”, and the more critical oral accounts as belonging to “other related ethnic groups”. And the fact that the legacy of the Shaka izibongo has tended to persist in situations of political crisis seems to support this claim. Thus the “myth” of Shaka, as he is remembered by Zulu oral historians, is probably best captured by those who pursue the izibongo tradition to some extent. I would suggest that the memory of Shaka is, for the most part, exemplified by poets such as Mazisi Kunene (1979 cited Hallencreutz 1989, p.75) who ends his commemoration of Shaka (based on Zulu oral accounts) as follows:

He is an Ancestral Spirit; he cannot be stabbed.

Even now they sing his song. They call his name.

They dance in the arena listening to the echoes of his epics

Till the end of time-they shall sing of him.

Till the end of time his shield shall shelter the hero from the winds

And his children shall rise like locusts.

They shall scatter the dust of our enemies,

They shall make our earth free for the Palm Race.

Thus, while it is important to note that Zulu accounts of Shaka can and do differ greatly – from hailing him as a benevolent leader to decrying him as a violent killer – it is evident that they tend to fundamentally acknowledge that “Shaka was an extraordinary man” (Cele 2001, p.119). Various factors, including a perpetual need to describe the achievements of a leader who stood up to white expansion (especially considering South Africa’s particular history), have resulted in Shaka’s “uniqueness and extraordinariness” being prominent features in almost all Zulu oral histories (Cele 2001, p.121). While not unanimously favourable towards him, Zulu oral histories about Shaka would never portray him as being dependent on or subservient to the white man.

As I am arguing that Shaka Zulu demonstrates how myth can be stripped down and re-imagined, it is also necessary for the purposes of this essay, to illustrate how and why Shaka’s story in Zulu oral history falls under the broad banner of “myth” (as used in the scholarly sense). Obviously, the definition of “myth” is a contested one. Nevertheless, I would argue that the Shaka legend, as remembered in Zulu culture, is “mythic” in almost every sense of the word. For instance, Mircea Eliade (cited Segal 2004, p.60) suggests that the mere ritualistic recitation of the highpoints in a character’s biography (as demonstrated by the Zulu izibongo) posits that character’s life as myth. The simple act of creating an oral biography for a famous historical figure like Shaka can “transform them into near-gods and their sagas into myths” (Eliade cited Segal 2004, p.53). Certainly, the Shaka story seems to comply with Levi-Strauss’ assertion that it is almost a prerequisite of myth that it “starts out as an oral tradition” (Leach 1974, p.56). In recording Shaka’s life in oral form, historical truths are “transfigured”, resulting in a new reality with a highly “mythic character” as chief protagonist (Mersham 1993). Hence, by the time the Shaka Zulu television show was commissioned in 1986, Zulu culture had already transfigured Shaka’s history into something quite mythic.

Various elements of the Shaka story also closely resemble many of the telltale characteristics of “myth” as defined by theorists. For instance, Segal (2004, p.5) states that it is a prerequisite of myths that the main figures be “personalities – divine, human, or even animal”. Shaka certainly fits this bill, as his presence tends to dominate Zulu folklore, where he is positioned somewhere in between divine and human (and he was even hailed as the “great elephant” by his praise singers) (Kunene 1979, p.13). Both Mersham (1993) and Cele (2001) go so far as to suggest that the man was (and is) for some Zulus a “black Jesus Christ” – a symbol of deliverance from outside oppressors. Shaka’s story also evidences such highly mythic themes such as fratricide (Shaka was assassinated by his half brothers, Dingane and Mhlangana). This “underrating of blood relations” is a key feature of myth in Levi-Strauss’ terms (Leach 1974, p.76). Otto Rank (cited Segal 2004, p.96), in The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, suggests that dislike of two brothers for each other is often traceable to the competition for the tender devotion and love of the mother”. While this isn’t necessarily the case with Shaka’s story, his love for his mother, Nandi, is well-documented (and is a key element in the Shaka myth). Shaka’s life, as it is remembered in Zulu culture, essentially is, by Northrop Frye’s definition (cited Segal 2004, 81), a “quest-myth” – it is the “myth of the life of the hero”. His life story conforms closely to Frye’s four stages of birth, triumph, isolation, and the hero’s defeat. As Rank (cited Segal 2004, p.96) states, the mythological hero is heroic and triumphant “because he rises from [relative] obscurity to, typically, the throne”. And usually, like Shaka, he is a victim of Fate.

Further, the Shaka narrative is mythic in the way it operates within the community which invests in it. Wylie (1997) argues that Shaka’s life story has achieved the status of “myth”, simply by virtue of the fact that it has garnered an “authority of its own which is unthinkingly followed and repeated despite historical changes or the surfacing of contrary evidence”. In being simplified and made innocent to its receivers, history has become myth, and myth is “given a natural and eternal justification” (Barthes 1993, p.143). Mythic history is above questioning and bereft of factual detail. It is not so much an explanation of events as it is a “statement of fact” (Barthes 1993, p.143). This is a key hallmark of myth, allowing it to function as it does in modern society. Myth, says Levi-Strauss (cited Leach 1974, p.59) is powerful in that “novices of the society who hear the myths for the first time are being indoctrinated by the bearers of the tradition – a tradition, which in theory at any rate, has been handed down from long dead ancestors. ” Through the recitation of this “tradition” and the passing of time, says Barthes (1993, p.142), “things lose the memory that they were once made”. In the case of the Shaka myth, this “untouchability” of a mythic character’s life story has had very real social and political ramifications (as will be discussed later).

Finally, I would suggest that myths that are “successful” in modern-day societies almost always go some way to explaining and commemorating the founding of that society. The Shaka myth – both in its original form and as it is recreated for the television show – is a classic embodiment of the myth of a “founding community – an origin” (Tomaselli & Shepperson 2002, p.132). It is typically mythic in that it explains how one state of affairs became another: how a “plurality of tribes” became a nation (and the rendition of the myth in the television series ultimately served to legitimate KwaZulu’s leaders rights to rule in 1986)(Mersham 1993). The man who played the central part in the establishment of the nation is the main figure. The “cult” of Shaka is mythological in that it honours his role in the establishment of the Zulu nation (Segal 2004, p.59). But where the myth described by Zulu oral historians focuses on the creation of the nation under Shaka, the television show emphasises an equally mythic but quite different side to the king’s rule: his downfall. The myth as depicted in Shaka Zulu closely matches the native American myths that so intrigued Levi-Strauss – myths where:

The entire story aims at explaining why after their first beginning, a given clan or lineage or group of lineages have overcome a great many ordeals, known periods of success and periods of failures, and have been progressively led towards a disastrous ending. It is an extremely pessimistic story, really the history of a downfall.

(Levi-Strauss 1989, p.38)

I will argue that the filmmakers (and their SABC backers) adopted this approach to the myth as a means of “warning against violence in the pursuit of power” (Tomaselli & Shepperson 2002, p.132). Thus, a highly mythic story element was used to serve a very real function. A new myth, with a very different message, was manufactured to replace the old.

How filmmakers able make myth

It should now be evident how the Shaka myth developed and endured in Zulu oral histories. However, I will argue further that the creators of the Shaka Zulu television show essentially took this and recreated their own, new mythology to suit their own purposes. According to Barthes (1982 cited Wylie 1997), myth is an empty parasitical form, enabling it to be reformulated and reconstituted in various incarnations. While initially based in history, it is “necessarily incomplete, accepted as truth but effectively divorced from the contingency of events” (Wylie 1997). Thus, the line between history and mythology – and I would argue, an original mythology and reinvented mythology as in the series – is effectively blurred. Thus, there is room for new mythologies to effectively be invented which claim to be based on the same historical truths which inspired the original narratives. As Levi-Strauss (1989, p.38) asks, “where does mythology end and where does history start?”. The “simple opposition between mythology and history” which has traditionally been treated as a given is “not at all a clear-cut one” (Levi-Strauss 1989, p.40), and space is made for new mythologies to be created on essentially the same histories. In short, the creators of Shaka Zulu created a new mythology based on an old mythology originally linked to an almost two-hundred year old history.

Hence, I argue that the Shaka Zulu television series adapted the Shaka Zulu myth for “western” eyes. For instance, grotesque witchdoctors were included in the show to serve the narrative function of “magical creatures who aid or threaten the hero’s quest” (Parks 1982 cited in Tomaselli 1992). While historically inaccurate and politically dubious, magical elements are included for television as they are integral to the western “mythical formula” (Tomaselli 1992). Tomaselli (1992) goes so far as to suggest that the very fact that television is a “Western form of expression” doomed Shaka Zulu to being a “white, Western interpretation” of the myth from the start. I would not necessarily go that far, but I would maintain that series was, either consciously or unconsciously, fashioned to conform to western notions of myth. Like the witchdoctors, the white crew’s sea voyage into a mysterious and dangerous land in Part One of the series hearkens back to some of the oldest myths in western culture. Likewise, the television show is laden with western notions of “prophecy”. Shaka’s rise to power is explained almost entirely in terms of the witchdoctor, Sitayi’s prophecy. Before the party leave for Zululand, Fynn talks of a “prophetic child” who it is said will “bring with him an era in which the name amaZulu will signify terror and death.” (Faure 1986). Similarly, with his birth, the narration talks of how “the prophecy was about to begin its determined path” (Faure 1986). The links with other canonical western myths such as that of Oedipus are self-evident. Thus, Shaka Zulu, in its efforts to subscribe to the conventions of the mythic form familiar to western audiences, deviates notably from the mythology evidenced in Zulu oral accounts. Where Zulu mythologies about Shaka tended to “cut through the bizarre to the essence of depictions”, Shaka Zulu was obsessed with the surreal (Tomaselli 1992). The inevitable result was an “othering” of the Zulu people in a show almost unrecognisable alongside the history it professed to present.

Actual analysis show


There can be little doubt that much of the show’s actual content is, at best, dubious in its portrayal of the Zulu people and the history of Shaka’s rule. The Zulus portrayed are a “bizarre and violent people” (Tomaselli 1992). The first scenes in which Zululand are shown are typified by bloody warfare and crying infants. In fact, when we first encounter Shaka’s kingdom in Part One of the series, we do so through the eyes of the bewildered white party – surrounded by sweating masses speaking a strange language, mysterious drum beats and an almost constant procession of war parties running around for no apparent reason (Faure 1986). Certainly, little effort has been made by the filmmakers to portray the everyday, mundane life of the Zulu people – the emphasis is almost wholly on public, frequently violent rituals (Tomaselli 1992). The act of making the Other a “spectacle” is principal characteristic of western, bourgeois myth, says Barthes (1993, p.152), and this is process is patent in Shaka Zulu. Like his subjects, Shaka is also “othered” as a “barbarian megalomaniac” with an “obsessive desire for revenge” (Mersham 1993). Failure to please him carries the penalty of him “killing every member” of the party (Faure 1986). And, like all the Zulus, he is dictated to by superstition and ritual – “Have the armies assembled by the next full moon” is one of the first commands we hear (Faure 1986). And perhaps the most startling subversion of history and myth comes in the form of the show’s “witchdoctors”. What in truth were perfectly ordinary natural healers are depicted as “superhuman, grotesque individuals” (Tomaselli & Shepperson 2002, p.135). “Scary and monsterish”, their arrival in a scene is almost always accompanied by thunder and lightning and rain (Tomaselli & Shepperson 2002, p.135). In truth, these izangoma were welcomed as an “integral part of the community – a far cry from the creatures with glowing eyes that command packs of hyenas and maintain dens of dwarfs” (Hamilton 1998, p.179). Thus, Zulu ritual is presented as being “disgusting and frightening”. (Hamilton 1998, p.179). Tomaselli and Shepperson (2002, p.135) argue that such a typical white misinterpretation of Zulu cultural practice is “legitimised” by the show positing itself as a “mythology” – not, I would argue, a mythology familiar to Zulu history, but one that has been manufactured by white producers for audiences in 1986. It is a typically white version of a “native” myth (as evidenced by an almost Pocahontas-like scene of Nandi as a young Zulu maiden being watched as she washes at a misty waterfall) (Faure 1986). It is a myth reconfigured to make a modern-day impact.


The series is also notable for the clear stylistic decisions on how it was shot. There is a very obvious distinction made between those shots that depict the Zulu nation and those featuring the whites in the Cape Colony. The “tribal” Zulu scenes are largely shot through a sepia filter, with an over-emphasis on yellows, browns and bloody reds. The only deviation from this formula comes during the night-time scenes – “chilling blue”, rife with thunder and lightning, and loaded with imagery of “sorcery, magic and the supernatural” (Tomaselli & Shepperson 2002, p.134). Tomaselli and Shepperson (2002, p.134) argue that ethnographic detail is deliberately obscured by the hazy sepia lighting, the clouds of smoke made by fog machines and the mass of shiny, sweaty (oiled) black skins. The end product is “a smudge of objects and people, depicted as an incomprehensible writhing, pulsating and faceless dark mass as they dart about the landscape in a storm of dust.” (Tomaselli & Shepperson 2002, p.134). Again, I would argue there is something quite mythic about this hazy, blurry portrayal of a people. This is in stark contrast to the shots of white people in the Cape Colony, which are “whiter”, “truer” and do not contain the clashes between “hot and chilling colours” (Tom & Shepperson, p.134). Thus, the binary oppositions that Levi-Strauss argues are so integral to myth are blatant: white vs black; light vs darkness; civilisation vs barbarity; rationality vs magic; “normal” behaviour vs ritual; peace vs war and order vs chaos (Tomaselli & Shepperson 2002, p.134). Again, conscious decisions from the filmmakers have resulted in a new, subverted mythology. And I would argue that this essentially racist version of Shaka’s story professes to audiences to be the canonical version of the myth.

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Intentions etc

Like all stories, re-imagined mythologies such as that on show in Shaka Zulu are “clouded by the conventions of narrative in terms of prevailing worldviews” (Tomaselli 1992). In other words, the creators of Shaka Zulu were dictated to in their mythmaking by the established ideologies of the time. The show is, thus, inextricably linked to the socio-political situation in South Africa at the time of its creation (Tomaselli 1992). Further, any author cannot help but impart something of his or her worldview on audiences when broadcasting a creation to the public domain. As van Jaarsveld (cited Mersham 1993) argues, as soon as an author (in this case, director William C Faure) presents an interpretation of the past, they are putting forward an “arsenal” of arguments for “formulating decisions about the future”. Thus, it was not by accident that the Shaka myth (and message) presented on screen differed so greatly from that recounted by Zulu oral historians.

Director William C Faure’s stated intentions for the series were explicit: to bring the story of Shaka Zulu “home to the Zulu people” (Faure 1986). He is quoted (cited Tomaselli 1992) as saying:

Shaka’s life was originally recorded by white historians who imposed upon their accounts bigoted and sensationalist values – often labelling the Zulus as savage and barbaric. It is our intention with this series to change that view.

However, as Barthes posits, all myths are founded on a “concealment of some meanings and the interested promotion of others” (Rylance 1994, p.47) and there was more motivating Faure than just the desire to right historical wrongs. He also hoped that show would “shed light on South Africa, correct misconceptions and change the system” (Hamilton 1992, p.181). It appears to have been his deepest wish that the show would “balance international perceptions” about the conflict in 1980s South Africa, and thus whatever intentions he had to redress the injustices of history became distorted by his commitment to this objective (Tomaselli & Shepperson 2002, p.131). Thus, Tomaselli and Shepperson (2002, p.133) argue that Faure’s project was “couched, perhaps unintentionally, within apartheid discourse, and does no justice to either Shaka or history”. This is just further evidence that mythology as a story form is manufactured to suit prevailing worldviews.

From the off, Faure’s creation was fraught with apparent political interference. The series’ writer, Joshua Sinclair, removed himself from the production when he was made aware of the director’s links with South African Military Intelligence (Blignaut cited Tomaselli 1992). Faure was also convinced out of using Zulu poet, Mazisi Kunene’s epic Emperor Shaka the Great as source material, as it was deemed to be overly critical of white people and because Kunene was an exiled member of the African National Congress (ANC) (Tomaselli & Shepperson 2002, p.130). However, the relationship between the filmmaker and the SABC (and the state) was by no means a straightforward one. Faure liaised equally closely with not only the Zulu royal family (inviting the Zulu prince Gideon onto set as a “cultural advisor”) but also the Zulu government (Tomaselli 1992). Yet even with these efforts to seek Zulu approval, we shall see that the level of state involvement was tangible. The key to Shaka Zulu’s unique success was in that it was able to establish a myth that was acceptable to both those who already had their own version of Shaka’s story and those largely unfamiliar with it.

The apartheid government saw Shaka Zulu as an opportunity to reformulate the myth in a way that would more closely suit their plans. Initially a powerful tale of a hero resisting white oppression, the myth was transformed into something quite different. At the time of Shaka Zulu’s release, South Africa was in a state of violent political turmoil. The apartheid regime was fast coming around to the idea that solutions to the violence in South African society had to be found. Thus, Faure’s proposed television series offered the state and the SABC a key opportunity to present all South Africans with “a drama advocating interracial collaboration and portraying the dangers of its failure” (Hamilton 1998, p.181). As Barthes (1993, p.156) states, mythology “harmonises with the world, not as it is, but as it wants to create itself”. The mythology of Shaka Zulu was, in effect, a reflection of how the government thought South Africa should be. Shaka Zulu represented an opportunity for the government to promote a resolution based on “order” (apparently best reflected by the capitalist Inkatha Freedom Party) over “disorder” (basically, the socialist ANC freedom fighters) (Tomaselli 1992). To the apartheid government, “order” implied keeping “nations” separate according to “tribal” homeland, and Tomaselli (1992) argues that the series’ insistence on manufacturing a “dichotomy between savagery and civilisation” only served to endorse apartheid discourse that black people should be allowed to “develop in their ‘own’ way in their ‘own’ areas”. The government also needed cooperative, authoritarian black leaders to implement their visions of peaceful segregation. Someone, says Hamilton (1998, p.184) like Shaka Zulu. The closest match was the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, whose links with Zulu royalty made him and his fellow party leaders the show’s perfect target audience.

Shaka Zulu effectively acted as a means for the government to communicate its reformist visions to Buthelezi and his leadership. For instance, the chaos of the Zulu kingdom portrayed in the final episode after Shaka’s rejection of white interaction came as a stern warning to black politicians such as Buthelezi of the consequences of “trying to go it alone” (Hamilton 1998, p.184) (as an interesting aside, it is worth noting how this all fits into Levi-Strauss’ insistence that the chief moral implication of myth is that “self-interest is the source of all evil”) (cited Leach 1974, p.81). Refusal to cooperate with the apartheid state (just like Shaka’s refusal to establish a truce with the Cape Colony in the show) would only result “in flames and chaos will prevail” (Hamilton cited Tomaselli & Shepperson 2002, p.32). Again the myth of the downfall on screen was used to warn against risking the Zulu nation’s downfall in the “real”, physical world. The message behind the new myth was clear.

The project was not without its critics. The production was universally rejected by anti-apartheid who were fighting for non-racial democracy. Most white anti-apartheid historians were appalled by the series’ historical inaccuracies (Tomaselli 1992). Wright (cited Mersham 1993) slated the show for pandering to “a whole range of colonial and racist stereotypes” about the Zulus – a people reduced to “singing, dancing, fighting”. Hamilton states that the multitude of “‘Unzulu’ untraditional features” had many critics baffled as to how the series gained royal approval (Hamilton 1998, p.185). Also, while the series did show Shaka to be “a leader of calibre and talent”, Hamilton (1998) argues that it was guilty of repeating older stereotypes of his “psychological imbalances and bloodthirstiness”. Mazisi Kunene (cited Tomaselli 1992) lambasted the series as a “rotten” – “a propaganda tool aimed at aimed at projecting the Zulu people and their king as bloodthirsty savages and whites as their saviours”. Yet for all the show’s obvious failings, the show was an immense success – evidence, in my opinion, of the power of the mythic form.


Curiously, the Shaka Zulu myth would prove to be as acceptable to the Zulu leadership as it was to the forces that influenced its creation. This has a lot to do with the anxieties within Zulu society at the time of the show’s release. Ernst Cassirer wrote in The Myth of the State (1946 cited Segal 2004, p.39) that myth resurfaces as a means of explanation when “the rational forces that resist the rise of the old mythical conceptions are no longer sure of themselves”. “In these moments”, he says, “the time for myth has come again” (1946 cited Segal 2004, p.39). Late apartheid South Africa was such a time. Myth is dangerous in that it is a “social-psychological paradigm catering for a particular anxiety in society”, yet still – as in the case of Shaka Zulu – presents itself as something born out of historical truths (Wylie 1997). Thus, myth tends to give a “natural justification” to the worldviews it supports (Barthes 1993, p.142). Historical veracity becomes far less important than the ways in which the myth is appropriated and utilised. As Barthes (1993, p.144) states: “Men do not have with myth a relationship based on truth but on use”. For Buthelezi and the IFP, the truthfulness of the myth was far less important than the socio-political purposes it could serve.

The white version of the Shaka Zulu myth arrived on South African television screens at a time of great political strife in the Zulu “homeland” of KwaZulu. Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party was involved in a bloody conflict with the African National Congress for legitimate rule. Where the ANC sought multi-party democracy, the IFP stood for Zulu independence, and thus Shaka Zulu’s emphasis on “ethnicity” and equating it with “nationhood” proved to be more than acceptable fillip to Buthelezi (Tomaselli & Shepperson 2002, p.133). Mangosuthu Buthelezi was very conscious of the power of the Shaka myth. At political rallies, the IFP leader would be seen wearing the same kind of Zulu royal regalia that Shaka is shown to wear in the series (Tomaselli 1992). In fact, the wearing of traditional, ceremonial skin garments became a marker of “Zuluness” for IFP politicians (causing many anti-IFP Zulu-speakers to take offence to the notion that they should become “postcard” Zulus) (Klopper 1996, p.55). Thus, I argue that it is no contradiction that Shaka Zulu could simultaneously portray the Zulu people as “backward, uncivilised and tribal” and be a vehicle for legitimating the IFP leadership (Mersham 1993). Tribalism helped the IFP’s cause. Further, Buthelezi would explicitly compare himself with the Zulu royalty of Shaka’s time throughout the 1980s as a means of gaining political credibility with the Zulu people. Thus, the fact that the Shaka Zulu myth was so fresh in the Zulu consciousness with the show’s broadcast, became a means for the IFP to bestow its leadership “with legitimate authority” (Tomaselli 1992). Like Shaka once did, Buthelezi now became the man who would lead his nation “against its colonial oppressors” (Tomaselli 1992). Tomaselli (1992) even argues that Inkatha’s militia wing was mobilised as a reincarnation of Shaka’s impi (military), as a means of inspiring popular support for their (frequently violent) cause. Within the Zulu community, Buthelezi’s cause was strengthened by Inkatha’s close identification with the loyalty, discipline and “bowing and scraping” for Shaka shown in the show (Mersham 1993). Obedience to the leader in the TV series’ myth was shown to be an innate aspect of Zulu culture – questioning Buthelezi was implied to be “unZulu”. Despite its flaws – both in terms of historical accuracy and prejudiced portrayals – the Shaka Zulu myth was lauded by the Inkatha leadership as being “faithful” to their king, and a “positive mobilising force for Zulu nationalism” (Tomaselli 1992). Thus the Shaka Zulu show became a mechanism for the IFP to portray itself as “inheritor and protector of the ‘historical pride’ of the Zulu nation” (Tomaselli 1992). The unsavoury aspects of the show’s portrayal of the Zulu people and the downfall of Shaka were superfluous. The myth of a great Zulu leader standing up to outside oppression and the implied suggestion that a new leader had it in him to do likewise were all that mattered. Buthelezi was happy to “ride on the dramatic success of the series”, even if a perceived concession of the series’ objectionable features was the price to pay. (Hamilton 1998, p.186).


What I have tried to show is that in certain viewing contexts, Shaka Zulu offered a legitimacy for both ruling government and anti-apartheid elements (eg. the Kwa Zulu legislature and Inkatha).

Barthes, R., 1993. Mythologies. London: Vintage.

Cele, TT., 2001. Qualities of King Shaka as Portrayed in Zulu Oral Testimony and in Izibongo. South African Journal of African Languages, 2, 118-131.

Fernandez, JW., 1967. The Shaka Complex. Transition, 29, 11-14. Available from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2934231 [Accessed 8 January 2010]

Hallencreutz, CF., 1989. Tradition and Theology in Mofolo’s “Chaka”. Journal of Religion in Africa, 19 (1), 71-85. Available from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1581183 [Accessed 8 January 2010]

Hamilton, C., 1998. Terrific Majesty: The Powers of Shaka Zulu and the Limits of Historical Invention. Cape Town: David Philip Publishers.

Hamilton, C., 1992. ‘The Character and Objects of Chaka’: A Reconsideration of the Making of Shaka as ‘Mfecane’ Motor. The Journal of African History, 33 (1), 37-63. Available from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/182274 [Accessed 15 December 2009]

Harries, P. 1993. Imagery, Symbolism and Tradition in a South African Bantustan: Mangosuthu Buthelezi, Inkatha, and Zulu History. History and Theory, 32 (4), 105-125. Available f


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