Shaka Zulu: Night 3

Written by
Christian Niedan

Night 3 Hour 2



Strategy, speed, and physical contact. The leopard hunts, waiting for the best moment to strike. Next, he uses his speed to outrun the victim. And finally, physical contact, when he sinks his fangs into the impala’s throat. Our [current] strategy’s ludicrous. We go out of our way to make our presence known. And our warfare has no physical contact, and no close combat. In fact, we toss away our weapons, hoping that the enemy will be courteous enough to return them to us. Our strategy will come later. Let’s start with speed. Take off your sandals! In return for your dedication, I promise you glory. If anyone here feels that bruised feet are too high a price to pay for glory, he must say so now! Run!”— Shaka teaches his warriors new tactics, using the iklwa. From hour six of Shaka Zulu.

Napoleon Bonaparte lost the Battle of Waterloo in June of 1815 — thus ending a decades-long era of continental warfare, named for the famous French general who had risen from lowly artillery officer to rule as emperor over a vast swath of Europe. Napoleon’s legacy is that of a tactical genius, who used cannon to devastating effect, as French soldiers prospered from the slaughter wrought by the big guns behind them. European armies had been exploiting next-level distance weapons since the 14th Century, when the English army incorporated the Welsh armor-piercing longbow during the 100 Years War with the French. Yet, in 1815 southeastern Africa, Shaka sees firsthand that local war is still waged ceremonially with hand-thrown assegais, which will never pile up enemy bodies like the sky-darkening swarms of longbow arrows some 500 years earlier. His response is an overhaul of fighting tactics that will win him supreme power over many vanquished tribes, inspired by the deadly close-combat spear of his own design: the iklwa.

Shaka commissions the crafting of his new spear from a supernatural source. He visits an isolated ironworks decorated with dead bodies, where deformed denizens greet him, while glowing red eyes watch from the surrounding nighttime darkness. As Shaka waits by a campfire of this hellscape for blacksmiths to complete their work, the demonic red-eyed “Nameless One” emerges from the misty shadows of the nearby forest. The specter is presented with the iklwa’s glowing hot spearhead, and imbues it with fiery magic — after warning Shaka of the price:

Nameless One: “As you possess this blade, it will possess you.”

Shaka: “So be it.”

Nameless One: “The spirit of the blade speaks.”

Shaka: “No. The spirit of Shaka speaks.”

Nameless One: “So be it, son of Zulu. Take this spear, and with it, let the sun cast your powers to the ends of this earth.”

The exchange is a devil’s bargain between Shaka’s Faust and the Nameless One’s Mephistopheles — with the mixed reward being Shaka’s soul intertwined with a blade which will grant him power, while demanding never-ending war and death. With vengeance foremost on his mind, it is a price that Shaka is eager to pay. Now, an emboldened Shaka confronts Mthethwa general Bhuza with a demonstration of his new tactics, utilizing the iklwa, and a larger shield designed to deflect thrown assegais. He sums up his battle strategy with bullet point-style simplicity:

Move in closer, man to man. Contact. Lock the enemy’s shield, exposing his flank, and aim for the heart.

When a shocked Bhuza asks if the demonstration is a game, Shaka responds with wild-eyed conviction:

For the lack of a better word, general, we call it war! Impi! 

King Dingiswayo endorses the creation of a reserve unit of 50 Mthethwa warriors who will use Shaka’s method in battle against the Buthelezis, who have declared war as part of an opportunistic alliance with the Zulus. Shaka puts his all-volunteer regiment through rigorous physical training that shapes them into “the separate links that form to make the backbone of an animal,” and tells them, “In combat, we are one person, one mind.” Armed with iklwas, this single-minded regiment acts out a three-phased attack that evokes the body, head, and horns of an attacking bull. After utilizing their large shields to deflect airborne spears of the Buthelezis, Shaka’s regiment advances, encircles, and kills the enemy warriors with a brutal efficiency that immediately dampens the festive atmosphere of the battlefield spectators (including Senzangakhona) – a momentous event, which Dr. Henry Fynn sums up in his journal voiceover:

With this one battle, Shaka had reshaped the form of African warfare. Never again would battles in this region of the continent be the same. For Shaka was about to begin what was to become known as the Mfecane — a reign of terror that would be unparalleled in Africa’s turbulent history.

Shaka’s conquered tribes include his mother Nandi’s own Elangeni, which provides a chance for personal revenge. When King Makedama surrenders, Shaka brings forward the childhood tormenter, Nzabo, who burned his family’s granary. Then, in perhaps the most graphic moment of the miniseries, both Nzabo and his father Mphepha are rectally impaled on tall poles for all to see. Shaka then turns his attention back to their king:

Shaka: “You disapprove of me, Makedama?”

Makedama: “No, Shaka. I disapprove of the great Sigidi. The man who fights like a million.”

Shaka: “You were kind to my mother and me, and I won’t forget that. I’ll not kill you, or your people.”

Makedama: “I’m glad to see that you have grown in the ways of justice, Shaka. I wonder how many see you for what you really are. A killer. A killer who’s contaminated his armies with his own coldblooded thirst for revenge. Building the Mthethwa confederacy is a pretense. The wars you wage are in fact very private, and concern only a chosen few. Each of your battles is a trial in which the enemy is condemned to death for having caused your family hardship. Each village you burn to the ground is the home you were denied. Each man whose lungs you burst open is responsible for Nandi’s suffering. Stop it, Shaka! Your thirst for revenge has already been quenched a million times over, Sigidi!”

Having taken revenge on the Elangeni, Shaka is soon given an easy opportunity to do the same to the Zulus. In 1817, Senzangakhona dies, leaving Shaka’s weak half-brother Sigujana as king. In response, Shaka crowns himself the new ruler, and enters the Zulu camp with his warriors unopposed. Shaka then publicly intimidates Sigujana into fatally stabbing chief advisor Mudli, before having his half-brother renounce his royal claim and swear allegiance. Shaka then stabs Sigujana, and snaps the royal assegai — replacing it with his iklwa, and underscoring his promise to Mudli that “nothing will be as it was ever again.”

Indeed, with the arrival of the European “Swallows”, Shaka will harness explosive new technology that will elevate his regional power to unprecedented heights, while creating new enemies for himself – both real and imagined.