South African history has produced many notorious figures, one of whom is the second king of the Zulu nation, Dingane kaSenzangakhona. Nervous about white encroachment on his land, he had a party of Boers murdered in February 1838; the Boers retaliated by defeating the Zulu at the Battle of Blood River, which culminated in Dingane’s overthrow and assassination. This article profiles one of South Africa’s most divisive historical characters.
Dingane was born in about 1790 to Senzangakhona kaJama, the chief of the Zulu, a militarily insignificant clan that coexisted peacefully with other clans in the valley of the White Mfolozi River in southeastern Africa. The Zulu was subordinate to a larger clan, the Mtetwa, to whom they paid allegiance.
Dingane’s upbringing was comfortable; as one of the elder sons of a chief he enjoyed many privileges. In addition, there was a chance he might at some future point be considered his father’s heir, particularly as the eldest son, Shaka, had been born under questionable circumstances, and was later driven from the royal house.
But in about 1816 Senzangakhona died after naming a younger son, Sigujana, as his heir. Shaka, who had been carving out a reputation as a warrior among the Mtetwa, returned with military assistance to assassinate Sigujana and usurp the Zulu throne. If Dingane and his half-brothers felt cheated, they didn’t let on, although some say Dingane fled the Zulu clan, fearing Shaka would kill him next.
As it turned out, however, the new king was well-disposed towards his siblings and they were permitted to thrive under his protection. The arrival of a ragtag band of whites from the British Cape colony in May 1824 changed everything; Shaka was apparently seduced by the power of the whites’ weapons as he realised he could exploit them to his advantage. This annoyed many Zulu, and an unsuccessful assassination attempt against the king appears to have originated from within the royal house.
As the years passed, Shaka became more despotic. In one particularly cruel incident, he ordered a pregnant woman to be slit open so he could see how the baby lay in her womb, an act that appalled his subjects. After his mother’s death from dysentery in 1827, Shaka imposed severe restrictions on his people and persisted in sending his army on futile campaigns. A false rumour, spread perhaps by Dingane and his half-brothers, suggested Shaka had stabbed his mother to death.
In late 1828, Dingane, his half-brother Mhlangane, and Shaka’s personal attendant Mbopha kaSitayi, surprised the king at his kwaDukuza homestead and stabbed him to death. Legend suggests his last words were: ‘Are you stabbing me, kings of the earth? You will come to an end through killing one another.’
Although Dingane regarded himself as Shaka’s natural successor, his path to the throne wasn’t straightforward. First, he had to overcome Mhlangane’s claim to succeed Shaka. Second, he had to persuade the army he’d make a fitting replacement for the great warrior-king he’d helped assassinate. And third, he had to prove that he hadn’t actually stabbed Shaka since that would disqualify him from the succession. He faced obstacles on all three levels but once his allies in the royal house connived to murder Mhlangane and Shaka’s military commander, Mdlaka kaNcidi, it was only a matter of time before Dingane’s convenient (and highly improbable) version of Shaka’s assassination was accepted by the Zulu council.
Dingane initially acted as a peacemaker by ending the warfare that had characterised Shaka’s reign. Weary men could now return home to enjoy family life. The new king moulded his court – built in the heart of the kingdom and named uMgungundlovu (Place of the Great Elephant) – around dancing and general merriment. Indeed, Dingane was entranced by beads and clothes, and spent countless hours coordinating dances and designing costumes for his harem.
But he soon revealed a talent for treachery. Surrounded by so many half-brothers who might try to usurp him, Dingane hatched a calculating plot to eliminate them. He invited them into his harem to enjoy its carnal delights, but all was not as it seemed – sex with the king’s women was punishable by death. Having lulled his siblings into a false sense of security, Dingane appeared the following morning, wearing only a black blanket, and ordered his warriors to bludgeon his half-brothers to death. Only three of Senzangakhona’s many sons survived the purge.
Meanwhile, potential enemies were gathering outside the kingdom. Dingane had a fractious relationship with the white traders whom Shaka had so indulged, and who were lodged at their base of Port Natal in present-day Durban. The king wanted guns but to his disappointment neither the traders nor the missionaries were prepared to oblige – at least not willingly. Soon, another threat emerged in the form of the Boers. Disgruntled with British rule in the Cape colony, they had headed north towards the Zulu interior in about 1837 and were looking for land on which to settle.
Led by Piet Retief, a party of Boers negotiated with Dingane in the hope they could get him to sign over a slice of land. Suspicious of the Boers’ motives, Dingane dithered before agreeing to sign. On 6 February 1838, he persuaded Retief and his party – numbering about 100 men – to disarm before entering uMgungundlovu to enjoy a Zulu war dance. It was a ruse: during the festivities, Dingane rose from his throne and ordered his warriors to kill the entire party. Retief was forced to watch as his comrades were clubbed to death before he too was executed. His heart and liver were placed in the path of the remaining Boers in an attempt to bewitch them.
The surviving Boers regrouped and, on 16 December 1838, decisively defeated Dingane’s forces at the Battle of Blood River – so named because the river alongside the battlefield ran red with the blood of Zulu warriors. Dingane deserted uMgungundlovu and rebuilt another capital out of the Boers’ reach, but he faced a fatal blow to his authority when Mpande, a half-brother who had evaded assassination, joined forces with the Boers to overthrow Dingane. The Zulu nation, so successfully united by Shaka, was now divided between two of his half-brothers.
With his enemies closing in, Dingane’s day of reckoning arrived on 29 January 1840 at the Battle of Maqongqo Hills. His forces were defeated by Mpande’s men who were no doubt buoyed by the fact they could call on Boer firepower should the need arise. In the event, Dingane fled with a small group of followers to the hills of the Swazi kingdom, where he was soon afterwards fatally stabbed during a raid.
When Mpande became king, his praise-singer recited a dirge that reflected the enduring Zulu perception of Dingane: ‘You thrust an evil spear into Zululand!’ Yet, many historians profess sympathy for Dingane’s predicament: he ruled the kingdom during a particularly challenging era in which it was clear that, unless the Zulu found ways to match the whites’ firepower, they would be encircled and eventually defeated.