In the course of reconstructing our heritage, we should avoid competing with one another in an orgy of criticism.
DECEIVED by its heading, “Let’s look again at Shaka’s legacy” by Musa Xulu, an ethnomusicologist and senior official in the Premier’s Office (The Mercury, October 4), I enthusiastically started to read the article.
However, I was rather taken aback by its simplicity and denunciation of others. The professor accused KwaZulu-Natal of having a history of marching against national trends, and the then KwaZulu government of “reviving the Reed Dance in order to nurture and spread the conservative ideals of the past and set traditionalist political agenda among the youth aimed at postponing the future”. In essence, the professor accuses the majority of us who attend and observe Zulu cultural ceremonies – which are funded by the current KwaZulu-Natal government and attended by senior leaders, such as Zweli Mkhlze, Weziwe Thusi, Jacob Zuma, Peggy Nkonyeni and Kwazi Mbanjwa – of being part of the conservative traditionalist agenda.
It is indeed alarming that such confusion, denialism and vitriolic attacks can be traced to the highest office in the province. However, in many ways the article confirms that, like all communities of intellectuals, African intellectuals will always be able to resist the transitory call of passing fads, material detraction and mystification. At best, it reveals to the public the tension between intellectuals and academics representing His Majesty, King Goodwill Zwelithini and, on the other hand, government historians whose main task is always to advance government’s perspective on history.
The tension is around, among other things, who should be the custodian of Zulu history and cultural heritage; where does historical knowledge originate from; and how do government historians articulate the relationship between official and popular histories.
In an attempt to address this quagmire, in 2005 the king, through the Isithangami Somlando kaZulu (Zulu History Colloquium), instituted a national dialogue on the need to rewrite certain aspects of Zulu history. Various sessions were held and articles were written in the press, which resulted in widespread interest. This was done with the understanding that the causes, consequences and impact of indigenous history are complex and variable. Large gaps exist in Zulu history.
In its interpretation of the “Zulu system”, the king’s initiative focuses on broad research into Zulu cultural ceremonies and beliefs in an attempt to prove they are a muddle of myths and superstitions without constituency or significance but that they should be seen to constitute a coherent and internally constituent system of thought. It is to show that such a system (can) provide a philosophical foundation for the development of Zulu cultural heritage and contributes to nation building.To this end, the king’s initiative has forged partnerships with numerous research and repository institutions in South Africa and elsewhere.
In his arguments, the learned professor fell victim to the sins committed by colonial historiography; the sins of one-sidedness and idealization. Firstly; he assumes that the history of the Zulus starts with the Shaka era and that Zulu history was both, a historical and asocial – a historical in the sense that it talked only of a glorious past uninterrupted by conflict and reversals; and asocial in the sense that it failed to deal with the social contradictions that drive all social history. While it can be argued that it was through Shaka that the Zulu kingdom became a world historical force, it is, however, fallacious to argue that he is the panacea for Zulu cultural ceremonies, beliefs and history.
Another sin committed by the professor is that of attempting to disassociate Zulus from the rest of Africa, hence he boldly argues that the Reed Dance was a “Swazi thing” insinuating that there’s a difference between Swazis and Zulus besides geography and language. Zulu cultural ceremonies and other practices cannot be divorced from the rest of Africa.
This has been confirmed by scholars such as Jabulani Maphalala, Chukwunyere Kamalu, John Mbiti, Abiola Irele and Cheik Diop to name a few, who have over the years succeeded in demonstrating the linkage. It will indeed be interesting to have an opportunity to examine any new research that contradicts already existing research. The KwaZulu-Natal government has since its tenure of office prioritized our heritage in the province as one of the foremost areas of intervention. It has, among other things, attempted to correct the distortions of the past and highlight the legacies left behind by great heroes and heroines.
So instead of vitriolic at· tacks and generalization from one of their own, the premier’s office should deepen the culture that respects robust contestation of ideas, as no one – including government historians – can claim monopoly on the truth. For those of us who are involved in Zulu heritage, as a point of departure, we should accept that Zulus (like any other group) have a history of contradictions, a history that is fraught with tragedy as well as triumph.
So in the course of reconstructing our heritage, we should avoid seeking to compete with one another in an orgy of criticism and denunciations. We should instead engage with one another with the intention of advancing new Zulu scholarship. This scholarship should be without any mission other than the discovery of truth and one that will not tremble with fear when it is contrary to what one prefers to believe. It should contribute to the greater understanding of Zulu past, by reconstructing the past, interpreting the present and mapping out visions of the future.
• Nhlanhla Mtaka is Programme Leader: King Zwelithini Cultural Heritage Initiative.