Right: Alec Mills, cinematographer, os set.
Senzangakhona: “What makes you think you’re worth that much?”
Nandi: “I am, and so is he (points to baby Shaka).
Senzangakhona: (Turns, walks away) “So be it! 55!”
— Senzangakhona and Nandi publicly negotiate a lobola (or, bride price) of cattle for her marriage to the Zulu king. From hour four of Shaka Zulu.
Shaka is a living bargaining chip on night two. Even his conception is a kind of devil’s bargain, as Shaka’s mother, Nandi warns his father, Senzangakhona when they first meet:
Nandi: “If I made love to you, it must be much more… more than fun.”
Senzangakhona: “So be it.”
That encounter is culled from research done by Dr. Henry Fynn during his time at Shaka’s capital of Kwa Bulawayo. He sets the scene in 1786, with an entry in his journal:
It all started, as far as I can logically work out, somewhere in the mid-1780s. The Zulus were a small and insignificant tribe. The king’s son — the young, arrogant, and reckless prince Senzangakhona — out hunting one day, was to set in motion a chain of events that would change the course of Zulu history.
That fateful act is Prince Senzangakhona’s first sexual encounter with Nandi, daughter of Bhebhe of the Elangeni. The prince is played by Conrad Magwaza, who embodies his part over 30 years, and makes for a highly magnetic screen presence. In fact, when the miniseries was edited down to a feature film, it was a full-body shot of Magwaza as Senzangakhona on the movie poster, rather than Henry Cele as Shaka. Indeed, Shaka Zulu’s father-son casting is crucial to elevating the miniseries to its height of quality, with Magwaza portraying a complicated antagonist, rather than a one-dimensional villain. Like Cele, he is also in peak physical condition, and director William C. Faure showcases it immediately, with Senzangakhona strutting and crowing his declaration of lust for Dudu Mchize’s beautiful Nandi. Both youths are fated to marry others, but find each other irresistible. Sure enough, after returning from that first tryst with Senzangakhona, Nandi is informed by Bhebhe that she is arranged to marry Gendeyana, and happily describes the lobola details:
There will be a bride price of 10 cattle, which we find most generous. And being that you will be his first wife, we have decided that no matter how many others he may marry in the future, you will remain his principal wife. And the first son you will bear will be considered principal heir to his father’s inheritance. Upon your return from the wedding of your mother’s relative to the house of Zulu, we will officially announce your betrothal to Gendeyana.
That wedding is Senzangakhona‘s, and Nandi begins a long-shot attempt at inserting herself into the Zulu prince’s life by rejecting the kindly Gendeyana’s proposal, and embarrassing her father — who takes a practical approach to making his daughter reconsider:
Bhebhe: “Nandi, Gendeyana is a good man. He has the patience to tolerate your temper, because he loves you, truly. What more do you ask for?”
Nandi: “Much more. Much more, father.”
Meanwhile, Senzangakhona returns from meeting Nandi, and is confronted by his older sister, Mkabi. Since the prince has never met his new wife-to-be (and values physical attraction), Senzangakhona asks Mkabi if she has seen his betrothed, and what she is like. This earns a cutting reply from his strong-willed sister:
Seen her? I chose her… Senzagakona, dear brother, need I remind you that the only reason you are the heir to the Zulu throne, and not me, is because of what is between your legs. Is it asking too much if you occasionally used it for the betterment of our kingdom? That is what she’s like.
At the wedding, as Bhebhe’s family joins other tribes parading past Senzangakhona and his father Jama, the king and Mkabi both notice the recklessly long glances shared by the smiling prince and Nandi. Nonetheless, Senzangakhona continues with the ceremony, which requires he sacrifice a bull… with his bare hands. Failing his first attempt (and being wounded in the stomach for his trouble), the prince recovers, grabbing the bull by its horn and snout, and breaking its neck — demonstrating an immense physical strength that will be inherited by Shaka.
However, the prince also uses his strength to bully others. He demands Nandi serve him beer from a gourd ladle, forcibly guiding her hand from the bucket to his mouth — as she smiles at the prince’s public show of attention, and seizes the moment to declare her dedication, saying, “We’ve started this together, and we’ll finish it together.” Nandi then smirks in triumph at the shocked wedding guests around her, while Senzangakhona defiantly glares at his furious father. This public spectacle is a diplomatic disaster for the Zulus, who need the prince’s marriage to secure a vital military alliance — a crisis the now-married Senzangakhona exacerbates by continuing his affair with Nandi after the wedding. Finally, Jama puts a stop to the relationship, lecturing his reckless son about the “disobedient” and “dangerous” Nandi (whom the prince tells his father is “fiery” and “beautiful”). However, Senzangakhona has already impregnated both Nandi and his new wife with sons — and the powerful isangoma, Sitayi manipulates nature’s forces to ensure their births will take place at the same time. Soon, Bhebhe sends a messenger to the Zulus requesting the prince acknowledge the paternity of Nandi’s child. However, Jama is close to death, and gives a withering reply:
Send the messenger back. He shall announce that the son of Jama remembers no one by the name of Nandi, daughter of Bhebhe. If she says she is pregnant, it is either the work of another man, or the iShaka: the disease of the beetle.
The king then turns to his son, and speaks a final reprimand:
Senzangakhona, my son, you send me to our ancestors with a lie.
Yet, Jama has left a deadly plan in place to resolve his son’s affair. A heavily pregnant Nandi is summoned to what she thinks is a nighttime forest meeting with Senzangakhona. Instead, she is ambushed by a Zulu assassin, who tries to strangle the screaming soon-to-be mother. Suddenly, out of the darkness, a supernatural light erupts, and Sitayi appears, setting her pack of pet hyenas on the assassin, before assuring the rattled Nandi that she will give birth to a nation-building son. Soon after, Senzangakhona becomes the new Zulu king during a funeral ceremony that sees Jama buried with an unlucky attendant whose neck is snapped, before he is thrown in the grave just ahead of the late Zulu chief. Next, Senzangakhona is adorned in kingly Zulu regalia, and presented with the royal assegai (or, throwing spear) handed down through generations, cementing the transfer of power.
Cut to a stormy night in the month of Untulikazi (July, 1787), as both Nandi and Senzangakhona‘s wife go into labor. Amidst heavy wind and rain, Sitayi tends an outdoor campfire, calling down powers to sway the labors of both new mothers. When Senzangakhona is woken to the news that his wife has given birth, he dismisses a post-coital pile of harem girls from his bed, and walks out into the rainstorm, where he meets his own isangoma, holding a still-born Zulu prince. Meanwhile, following a difficult labor and birth for Nandi, baby Shaka is born very much alive. When Nandi’s mother calls the infant “the son of a chief,” her daughter echoes the earlier reply to Bhebhe about her life’s ambition, declaring, “He’s much more, mother. Much more.”
With the death of Senzangakhona‘s first son, Nandi and her Elangeni kinsmen pursue their demand that the new Zulu king take her as one of his wives, and accept Shaka as his son and heir. A large retinue of Elangeni journey to the Zulu capital, and on the eve of their arrival, Mkabi advises her brother of his options:
The way I see it, the king’s hands are tied. He has only two choices: accept the child and face ridicule, or reject it and face war with Elangeni. I suggest the path that is best for your people…
The king chooses the former option, and has a tense public reunion with Nandi and their infant son. Finally, he signals his acceptance by breaking protocol, and contemptuously negotiating lobola with Nandi, angering her father:
Bhebhe: “That’s an insult, prince. To negotiate lobola here in front of these people is an insult to my daughter and myself.”
Senzangakhona: “Since you have chosen to turn this affair into an open spectacle, why not take it further?”
They settle on a bride price of 55 cattle, but we soon cut to nine years later, and another wedding for Senzangakhona. Nandi now has a daughter by the king, but she and her children are treated with contempt by the ruler. When Nandi remains standing during the wedding ceremony, Senzangakhona stares her down, until she kneels. However, a seething young Shaka (played by Khumbulani Cele, the real-life son of adult Shaka actor, Henry Cele) defiantly refuses to kneel, until Nandi gently guides him to do so — mother and son never breaking eye contact with the king. Nandi then looks across the dissatisfied faces of the king’s nine other wives that he’s taken since her, and murmurs, “Incredible what a man will do out of spite.”
During the wedding dance, Senzangakhona whips the tail of his costume across Nandi’s face like a slap, and turns to look at her, ensuring she knows it was intentional. Later, during the feast, the king is drunk on beer, and demands Nandi bring him more. Shaka is watching, and anticipates another indignity for his mother. Sure enough, the king grabs her, and calls out to the crowd, “Hail, Nandi, queen of the Zulus. The whore who trapped the mighty leopard with a bastard son!” Incensed, young Shaka grabs the royal assegai, and pounces on Senzangakhona, holding the weapon’s blade to his father’s throat as he growls, “If you hurt my mother again, I will kill you.” The king pushes the boy off, and calls him arrogant. Later, though, Senzangakhona‘s chief advisor Mudli tells him that Shaka is the feared child of the Zulu prophecy — and how the late Jama tried to have Nandi killed while pregnant. When asked why, Mudli answers bluntly:
Fear. Fear, baba, of what the child would do to the nation. It was as the prophets predicted. He was born in Untulikazi, the month of the prophecy. He was illegitimate, the condition of the prophecy. And then, his moment of birth coincided with your principle wife’s son. That too is the curse of the prophecy.
When Senzangakhona dismisses the value of magic-wielding isangomas, Mudli reminds him of their importance to his royal position, noting, “A king’s power to rule over his subjects is in itself magical. The witch doctor’s magic is the king’s magic. If he loses it, he is no longer king.” He then urges Senzangakhona to immediately kill Shaka, and for assurance calls upon the short-statured (but greatly powerful) isangoma, Nondumo, who confirms that Shaka is indeed the prophetic child — thus, marking him for death.
However, during the night, Nandi, Shaka, and his sister are secreted out of the Zulu capital by sympathetic warrior (and Senzangakhona‘s close friend) Gazi, who believes in their claim to the Zulu throne. Senzangakhona watches their escape, but does nothing to prevent it — still troubled by the prospect of killing his only son, regardless of any prophecy. When he confronts Gazi about the escape, it is revealed that Mkabi orchestrated it. However, needing a scapegoat to save his honor, Senzangakhona tearfully stabs Gazi dead.
Nandi and her children then make an arduous hike back to her Elangeni home, where she comes upon the funeral of her father. Their flight has prompted Mudli to push Senzangakhona to demand Nandi and the children be returned, on threat of war, which he predicts will lead to Shaka’s murder by others in order to prevent conflict — thus preserving Senzangakhona‘s honor. Instead, the king takes a more passive (yet effectively vindictive) approach:
If I risk war to get her back, half the people will think I had cared for her. If I forget about her… the punishment for her son will be worse than death. Not a Zulu. No longer an Elangeni. He will be a boy without a clan. Go and tell the people.
When Senzangakhona confronts Mkabi about her part in the escape, she dismisses Mudli’s opinion of the prophecy:
Mudli is right about only one thing. The boy’s exile is the work of fate. Now, he will have a chance to prove his valor far away from those who fear the prophecy and this child. Because he will bring a new world, a new order, a new society. What our father and his generation called evil is the future — and it is not evil. Of that I’m convinced.
Meanwhile, the Elangeni king tells Nandi that Senzangakhona‘s strategy has made her persona non grata among her former tribe. So, though Nandi chooses to keep her family together near her girlhood home, she soon receives insults and abuse from a group of rude local youths. Shaka defends his mother and sister with a spear, holding it to the throat of the group’s leader, Nzabo, and telling the older boy, “I’m the son of the king, and my mother is a queen. Remember that,” then drives them away. However, the next day the youths return with torches and burn down the family granary. When Shaka angrily pursues them, he falls into an ambush, but wrestles and fights Nzabo with his spear to an advantage — and is about to kill the older boy, when his grandmother Mfunda stops him. The old woman extracts five cattle for their family from Nzabo’s father, Mphepha as compensation for the insults and lost granary, yet this also fails to resolve the conflict. An unarmed Shaka is again ambushed by the youths while gathering water, and is beaten near death by Nzabo. After Nandi carries her wounded son back home, she scolds Mfunda for preventing Shaka from killing the older boy:
Mother, never again will he leave an enemy behind.
This sentiment will echo again and again from Shaka over the rest of the miniseries, with deadly results for many “enemies.” For now, though, his family must find a safer home. The Elangeni king advises Nandi to leave the village, but offers to take in Mfunda, noting how she may be too old to travel. Nandi thanks him for the kind offer, but points out, “I think she would like to stay near Shaka. She’s afraid without the proper guidance, he’ll become like me, a misfit.” As the family wanders the sun-parched landscape, living off roots, and battling wind and dust, more of Mfunda’s parenting advice echoes in Nandi’s dehydrated mind:
Give [Shaka] room to breathe, Nandi. If you truly love him, let him believe that tomorrow the light will return. Let there be love, not hate.
Finally, the old woman dies of starvation and exhaustion. A desperate Nandi then decides to take her family to the home of Gendeyana. En route, she recalls selfishly rebuffing his long-ago twin offers of marriage, and to claim Shaka as his own biological son. Instead, Nandi replied, “I don’t love you. I could never love you,” and pursued marriage to Senzangakhona Now, she arrives in a much-humbled state, yet Gendeyana’s affection for Nandi is still intact, as Fynn describes in the night’s closing journal entry:
And so it was that after all those years, Nandi found refuge with the man she had so determinedly refused to marry. Under his protection, Shaka would grow and develop into a strong young warrior.
That young warrior will soon return to haunt all those who failed to help his family during their desperate time, as we shall see in future hours of Shaka Zulu.