With the African drums providing a steady background rhythm, I was sitting under a tree in a traditional Shangaan village waiting for a colleague to meet me.
Linah Lamula, dressed in traditional “shweshwe”, was leading a group of guests on a tour of the village and I overheard her explaining that the Shangaan are the “left people”.
The left people?
Linah the storyteller in the Shangaan traditional village.
I had not heard that before, and I was immediately interested in learning more. Not only because I wanted to know how the story came about, but also because the majority of people in Southern Africa, particularly in the region in and around Kruger National Park, are proud to call themselves descendants of the Shangaan or “Amashangana”.
Were they the left people, or was this a reference to something else? With the help of Linah, an actual Gogo of Shangaan descent, my research started with South Africa’s Mfecane.
What is the Mfecane?
The history of many southern African groups is heavily influenced by Shaka Zulu. A famous aggressor and conqueror, Shaka’s campaigns to expand his empire contributed to what is sometimes referred to by historians as Mfecane. Meaning “the crushing”, Mfecane describes a series of wars during the early decades of the nineteenth century that tore apart or displaced many societies of the southern African interior. Interestingly,Mfecane is the word used by the conquering groups. Difaqane, or “the scattering” is the term used by the victims.
For many of the details of this period of African history, historians rely on oral storytelling. However, in 2004 then President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, appointed a commission on tribal leadership disputes and claims, and the findings of that commission help to clarify (rather than ratify) some of the historical assumptions that have already been made.
Mfecane 1818 – 1835
The “King of Blood”
Linah tells me that she knows Shaka as “the king of blood”. According to Linah, this was a young man whose mother, Nandi, was not of royal lineage and so was banished from the royal AmaZulu household when Shaka was born.
“But it was clear that this was the son of a king” says Linah. “According to all evidence and stories that we are told, Shaka was extremely fierce and had an influence over other young men like no other leader. He was taught about organised fighting and he rallied young men, inspiring a militant feeling in them. When he was old enough, he put together a small army and was able to defeat his brother and assume leadership of the Zulus. He was known for his military expertise, but also for his cruelty, from setting hyenas on prisoners, to sacrificing young men at his mother’s funeral.”
Linah and Shaka Zulu
Soshangane Breaks Away
After winning back power of the Zulu kingdom, Shaka embarked on a campaign to incorporate neighbouring clans into his own. One of those clans was called “amaNdwandwe”. Shaka quickly defeated amaNdwandwe, killing the chief and leaving the clan’s military commander, Soshangane, in a precarious position.
One version of the story, supported by Linah, suggests that Soshangane was absorbed into Shaka’s army and sent to Mozambique on a military campaign. Another version suggests that Soshangane refused to be incorporated into the Zulu kingdom and fled with his followers to southern Mozambique.
What we do know is that Soshangane made it to Mozambique and, once there, did not return to the Zulu kingdom (in fact Shaka sent military troops after Soshangana).
Linah – while acknowledging that her story is the “shortened version” – postulates that Soshangane and his followers assimilated into the Mozambican “Thonga” communities, instating many of their own traditions, while adopting others, and formed the Amashangana community.
They abandoned their responsibilities to Shaka.
They chose not to return to a kingdom where they were regarded as “subjects”. They had found a new home, and settled amongst the Thonga.
“This is why the Shangaan are the ‘left people’” explains Linah. “Not because they were left, but because they themselves left their children and families behind when they settled in Mozambique. It was only supposed to be a raid, but they ended up leaving Zululand forever.
Many years later, during the Mozambican civil war of the 1980s, many Shangaan people fled Mozambique, travelling over the Lebombo Mountains, across the Kruger National Park, and settling in the area between the Kruger and the Drakensberg Mountains. Because this group of people spoke Tsonga, they were easily incorporated and welcomed into the South African Tsonga community that already existed in this area.”
As part of the Londolozi village tour, visitors are able to see a model of a traditional Shangaan village. Linah is a superb interpreter of culture, weaving into the history an understanding of how the ancient Shangaan political and social systems worked.
Have you been on a village walk with Linah? Are there any questions that you would like to ask about Shangaan history and culture? Please feel feel to ask in the comments section and I will discuss the question with Linah and offer her comments. We might even get some ideas for future blog posts.