Shaka Zulu:

Written by
Christian Niedan

Series Intro


Shaka: “Look at them, Ngomane. They must be asking themselves, ‘What is Shaka? Where is he going? What does he want?’”

Ngomane: “And what does he want?”

Shaka: “Oh, they’ll soon learn, Ngomane. There will be but one reality — War.”

Ngomane: “And when there are no wars?”

Shaka: “I’ll create them, Ngomane.”

— Shaka watches his people celebrate, after killing his half-brother and seizing the Zulu throne. From hour six of Shaka Zulu.

10 years to the week after PBS Masterpiece Theatre scored big ratings by bringing American viewers the BBC-produced I Claudius, the young Fox television network aired a South African miniseries about the life of 19th Century Zulu warrior king Shaka kaSenzangakhona to relatively little fanfare. On Monday, November 2nd 1987, The New York Times began its review of the week-long miniseries event thusly:

Seemingly coming out of nowhere, with a minimum of advance local hoopla, a 10-hour mini-series entitled ”Shaka Zulu” is certainly this week’s most intriguing chunk of television. Being presented and distributed by an organization called Harmony Gold, ”Shaka Zulu” was made largely in South Africa’s province of Zululand and traces the true story of Shaka, the warrior who in the early 19th century would forcibly, and at times brutally, unite the tribes of his African region into a single Zulu nation.

For five nights that week, beginning at 8 PM, primetime viewers of channel 5 WNYW in America’s largest TV market of greater New York City watched the dramatic retelling of Shaka’s blood-soaked rise to power over a large swath of Southern Africa. WNYW had become the local Fox affiliate a little over a year earlier, when Rupert Murdoch launched the network in October 1986. It was Murdoch’s mission to add Fox to the ranks of the dominant “Big 3” networks of the time: CBS, NBC, and ABC. That meant taking risks on programming that would draw big viewership — and a South African miniseries produced in the midst of an international cultural boycott over that country’s racial policy of apartheid certainly qualified as a risk (to say nothing of the partial nudity, graphic stabbings, and impalements portrayed throughout). What made it possible was securing a middleman distributor, Harmony Gold, to handle the series in the U.S. so that interested networks wouldn’t feel they were violating the cultural boycott. This was crucial, because the South African Broadcasting Corporation (or SABC) did not commission the miniseries in the same fashion that the British Broadcasting Corporation (or BBC) had overseen I, Claudius. Rather, Shaka Zulu’s production team circumvented their country’s main television power by gauging foreign syndication interest first, as series director William C. Faure described while promoting Shaka Zulu in the U.S.:

In 1977, I desperately wanted to do Shaka Zulu for personal reasons, and I just couldn’t get the SABC interested, because it was a black subject, and they were not prepared to spend that kind of money. But in the meantime, a writer called Joshua Sinclair got hold of me, and he said, “I believe that you want to do this production. I also want to do this production. Let’s pool our resources. If you can’t get the backing here, we’ll find it elsewhere.” And he came into Hollywood, met up with Frank Agrama from Harmony Gold, it began rolling, we got some pre-sales.

And at that point, in southern Africa, the SABC realized that there’s no ways they could remain uninvolved, and they then had to buy in to the production. But by that time, they had to buy. They had to simply be one of the buyers. Which suited us beautifully, because it meant that there was no control going to be exercised from that side at all. And they became like a facility. They gave us a few facilities, and so on, and that’s the way the thing was structured. 

With SABC and German company Tele München Fernseh Produktionsgesellschaft (or TMG) invested in the production, and Harmony Gold handling U.S distribution, interested TV networks were presented with an attractively gripping miniseries centered on a nuanced character study of a dynamic black African king, with no apparent propaganda for white-enforced apartheid. However, that appearance didn’t happen by chance — coming at a financial cost for miniseries writer, Joshua Sinclair. 

Sinclair was part of Shaka Zulu‘s crucial 3-pronged creative force — the other two being series director Faure, and cinematographer Alec Mills, who spent 14 months filming the miniseries around the Zululand region of South Africa. In a 2013 interview for my film site Camera In The Sun, Sinclair recalled that while Faure and Mills were shooting the series in South Africa, he collaborated remotely from Europe:

They had to send me all the dailies to make sure that it was being done properly. I was in contact constantly with Alec Mills. At the end of the day, Alec was the one who was responsible for the look of Shaka. Bill worked with the actors, and he did a good job. Alec didn’t just do camera. He did set-ups. He did everything. He storyboarded it, then sent me the storyboard. I had storyboarded it first, sent it to Alec, and met with him in London before he went to South Africa. And at the same time, I worked with the publicity of Shaka, together with the Artists Against Apartheid.

Sinclair had signed an agreement with the United Nations not to return to South Africa until apartheid was abolished — a move that purportedly cost him 8% of Shaka Zulu‘s substantial profits. However, he successfully sued South Africa through the International Court to ensure the miniseries shooting script would meet his approval, and not be altered for use as propaganda. 

Since the narrative of Shaka Zulu is framed around white Europeans encountering black Zulus, American viewers got a rare even-handed screen story about that colonial encounter — with Henry Cele’s iconic portrayal of Shaka at its center. In the 1980s era of home video rental, viewers had access to two previous cinematic depictions of Shaka’s heirs. The first was 1964 film, Zulu, which introduced film audiences to Michael Caine, and cast Zulu tribal leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi as his own great-grandfather, King Cetshwayo kaMpande. The film recreates the Battle of Rorke’s Drift in January 1879 from the perspective of (rifle-wielding) British defenders, portraying a heroic stand against a vastly larger force of relentless (spear-wielding) Zulu warriors — with Sinclair admiring its cinematic rendition:

Zulu was a fabulous film. Not just the acting, which was fabulous. But the way the Zulus [fought at the Battle of Rorke’s Drift] is shown so well in that film. They understood the rifle, and that it had to reload. They figured that it would take 3-4 seconds for a good Brit to reload. But they had expendable armies. So they said, “We’ll send one row forward to die.” That’s the way the Zulus were. “The next will be so fast, that we’ll be on top of them.” The Brits would never think that they would send 1,000 men to die. And behind them were the guys that were going to kill you.

The results of this battle frame the opening scene of Shaka Zulu — as do the reasons behind the battle. Specifically, in December 1878, King Cetshwayo had been given a 13-point ultimatum by the British High Commissioner for Southern Africa, Sir Henry Bartle Frere, which included two crucial demands:

— “That the Zulu army be disbanded and the men allowed to home.”

— “That the Zulu military system be discontinued and other military regulations be adopted, to be decided upon after conciliation with the Great Council and British Representatives.”

Since the death of Shaka 50 years earlier, Zulu society had continued to shape itself around his war machine. However, crucially, the battlefield technology for arming its warriors had evolved little beyond the iklwa spear and cowhide shield — adding a small number of antiquated rifles. Now, Frere claimed such a force posed a native threat to British colonial dominion over Southern Africa, and orchestrated a final showdown. So, when Cetshwayo was unresponsive to Frere’s ultimatum, a five-column British army force crossed over the Buffalo River, and into Zululand. On January 22nd, the forces clashed at the Battle of Isandlwana, where a spear-wielding force of Zulus overcame a technological disadvantage to defeat 1,800 rifle-wielding British soldiers (killing 1,300, including 52 officers). As the Zulus closed in on final victory that afternoon, a solar eclipse took place at around 2:30, plunging the battlefield into deep shadow — a cosmic exclamation to the worst military defeat to a technologically inferior opponent in British colonial history (and the subject of rentable 1979 film, Zulu Dawn).

Survivors of the battle retreated across the Buffalo River, and out of Zululand to the small supply depot and hospital at Rorke’s Drift. What happened next would have far-reaching consequences for the Zulu people. Defying Cetshwayo’s orders to only wage a defensive war within Zululand, the king’s brother-in-law Dabulamanzi kaMpande crossed the Buffalo River, invading British territory with 4,000 fresh warriors, who had been held in reserve during Isandlwana. However, at Rorke’s Drift, they failed to defeat the 150 British fighters firing devastating vollies with Martini-Henry breach-loading rifles from behind walls of mealie bags and biscuit boxes, which killed 350 Zulus (and wounding 500) over 10 hours of fighting, while the British lost 17 soldiers (and 15 wounded). The ensuing Anglo-Zulu war would result in Cetshwayo’s capture and exile, and is where hour one of Shaka Zulu begins.

We open with a title card, reading “Epilogue: Death of An Empire”. It is August of 1882 in England, the Zulu wars are now ended, and King Cetshwayo (again played by Mangosuthu Buthelezi) is meeting with Queen Victoria to attempt a negotiated return of Zululand to his control. Looming over the proceedings is the specter of Shaka’s legacy to his people, so Victoria is given a brief presentation about the importance of the long-dead king to the Zulus by Professor Bramston:

Shaka Zulu, your majesty. Yes, the founder of the greater Zulu nation, and the Zulu empire, reigned from 1816 to 1828. Most definitely one of the greatest military geniuses in history. Certainly on the level of a Caesar or an Alexander the Great. Imagine if you will the prodigious feat accomplished by this 19th-century African Achilles, Shaka Zulu. In less than 12 years, he transformed a handful of idyllic, relatively harmless herdsmen (who were by nature reluctant to engage in any form of warfare) into a Spartan army of over 80,000 highly trained ruthless warriors. Extending his influence over most of southeast Africa. An empire comparable in extension and might to that of Napoleon, and in treachery to that of Genghis Khan. Your majesty, gentlemen, the war machine created by Shaka Zulu was so monolithic, it has survived his death by almost half a century. Yes, yes, the crown has now defeated it. But that defeat is purely temporary. It can and will rise again and again if we do not stop it once and for all. And why? 

Here, the professor shifts his gaze to Cetshwayo, his voice taking on an accusatory tone:

Because king Shaka was no ordinary mortal. He was a messiah, a god figure. Like an African Mephistopheles, he gave the Zulus glory in return for their souls. Wielding the forces of life and death on an endless battlefield of blood and carnage… 

The professor is cut off by Lord Kimberley, who advises Victoria to inflict harsh measures on the Zulus: 

Ma’am, the threat is real, and the decision before us clear. Therefore, the colonial office suggests that we constitute within the Zulu kingdom a progressive destruction and dislocation of the military and economic system. So doing, we feel that the Zulu people, deprived of central leadership, will revert to the state of innocuous bliss that they enjoyed before the insane conditioning of Shaka. 

Victoria eventually dismisses her advisors, and has a private exchange with Cetshwayo:

Victoria: “Tell me, what does Shaka Zulu mean to you?”

Cetshwayo: “He was one of those rare men who had the courage to live his ideals, and to instill his dreams into the hearts of his countrymen.”

Victoria: “That is precisely why we cannot give you back your realm. Shaka Zulu is more alive today than ever. His military strength still prevails. You are the king. But it is his spirit which rules your people. We are a practical woman, your highness. We will not form an alliance with a legend.”

Cue the voiceover of Dr. Henry Fynn, who will serve as narrator throughout the miniseries:

And so it was that the empire created by Shaka Zulu some six decades earlier was disbanded — the king’s territory subdivided and placed under British supervision. The resultant political mismanagement, continual white interference, and the ensuing strife would effectively destroy the house of Shaka. From this time on, the Zulu people would only be able to dream of the dignity and the glory given them by their legendary king. This then is his story…

When I interviewed Sinclair, he noted that the audience for Shaka’s story was one largely unaware of his existence:The Zulus were probably the most interesting tribe in Africa, next to the Maasai. But in Europe and the States, people didn’t really know that much about the Zulus — and they’d certainly never heard of Shaka. Now, Shaka has become important, because [Shaka Zulu] has been shown so many times on television. But back when I was writing it, he wasn’t important — and in the days of George IV, he was even less important. The Zulus were “The who?” Later, the Zulus were the first colonial army to defeat England ever [at the Battle of Isandlwana]. 

Over five nights in November of 1987, American TV viewers would learn more about what Shaka was, where he was going, and what he wanted. Now, At Large looks back at the 10-hour miniseries of his story, and its production.