Maverick Life


Matthew Blackman and Nick Dall’s Spoilt Ballots: 200 years of electoral dysfunction in South Africa

Matthew Blackman and Nick Dall’s Spoilt Ballots: 200 years of electoral dysfunction in South Africa
Image: Penguin Random House SA/The Reading List

Entertaining and impeccably researched, the book dishes the dirt on pivotal events in our history, but it also sheds light on some lesser-known contests, starting with the assassination of King Shaka and ending with the anointing of President Cyril Ramaphosa at Nasrec in 2017.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from Chapter 1, which looks at the murder of Shaka in September 1828 – an event as undemocratic as they come. Still, the power struggle that ensued between his brothers Dingane and Mhlangana bore many of the hallmarks of a modern election. 


“Dingane in Ordinary and Dancing Dresses”, by Captain Allen Francis Gardiner (Wikipedia)


‘Stealthy-mover like a water snake’

Perhaps, as he lay dying on that September evening in 1828, Shaka asked himself why he had not had his brothers killed all those years before. 

No sooner had Shaka breathed his last than the electioneering began. Somewhat ironically, considering they had removed Shaka because of the brutal nature of his rule, the first thing the abantwana did was to execute several of Shaka’s closest advisors. They then performed a sacred ballad honouring the great deeds of their ancestors and sacrificed a black ox in Senzangakhona’s honour. The crowds, who had fled as soon as the killers set upon Shaka, now returned to participate in the ceremony.

But the celebrations were short-lived, and, writes historian John Laband, Dingane and Mhlangana “soon became involved in a dispute that laid bare the smouldering rivalry they had succeeded in damping down while Shaka still lived”. After those who had performed the sacrifice had drunk the ox’s gall, it was Zulu custom for the instigator of the sacrifice to wear the empty gall bladder on their arm. Predictably, both Dingane and Mhlangana insisted that they deserved this privilege. Before the brothers could come to blows, Mbopha, simpering third wheel that he was, stepped in and offered to wear the gall bladder on his arm (i.e. act as king) until the army returned from the Bhalule impi (a military campaign extending as far as present-day Swaziland) and made their choice of successor clear.

Shaka’s corpse was left outside overnight as it was believed hyenas would never disturb the body of a king. But come daybreak, the stiff and mutilated body of “the voracious one of Senzangakhona” could be ignored no longer. In what might well be another case of history being dictated by the victors, Mhlangana apparently suggested feeding Shaka to the crocs, but the more level-headed Dingane insisted on a proper burial – a process that involved the body sitting in state (tied to the central pole of a dedicated funeral hut and kept company night and day) until everything the king had ever worn or used had been gathered “from across the kingdom to join him in his grave”. The only thing he would not be buried with was his spears – lest he come back from the spirit world to avenge his killing. Shaka was eventually buried, accompanied by his most elite advisors (talk about taking one for the team) and, according to Fynn, gagged with a piece of his own buttock covering to prevent his malevolent spirit from escaping.

Worried that the Zulu nation might descend into civil war, the European traders based at Port Natal (now Durban) decided to sit out the succession battle in Port Elizabeth. But, much like their white descendants who fled South Africa in the lead-up to the 1994 elections, they had underestimated the Zulus’ ability to resolve issues politically.

With the men of the Bhalule impi still away on campaign, Dingane and Mhlangana took up residence in separate ikhanda, and Mbopha continued his role as acting king. While the once-inseparable brothers succeeded in being outwardly civil to one another, notes Laband, what lay beneath was anything but: “while they nervously trod water, the two princes eyed each other with increasing distrust and antagonism, their old intimacy shrivelling in the heat of mutual suspicion and intensifying ambition”.

The conflict between the brothers assumed centre stage once they’d put aside their differences to exterminate Ngwadi, a pesky upstart whom Shaka had allowed to assemble his own army. In late November, some two months after Shaka’s killing, “the senior members of the royal house and the great nobles of the realm were summoned to meet and discuss the succession”.

Then as now, the rules were bent by the senior backroom strategists in order to achieve the desired outcome. And none was more senior or influential than Mnkabayi ka Jama, Shaka’s unmarried aunt who was said to “place” (choose/anoint) Zulu kings. In the kind of absurd debate that could easily take place in most modern parliaments, Mhlangana insisted that he should assume the throne because he had played the greater role in Shaka’s killing and only he had ritually jumped over the corpse.

Mnkabayi countered that this was precisely the reason why Mhlangana was unfit to rule. As she put it, “The one with the red assegai shall not rule.” Her preferred candidate was Dingane. To justify this decision, Mnkabayi called into question Mhlangana’s genealogical claim to the throne by celebrating the senior status of Dingane’s mother, Mphikase. Conveniently, Dingane’s own role in the murder was downplayed, with Mnkabayi decreeing that he was fit to rule as he had only held Shaka during the assassination, while the others stabbed him.

Once Dingane had performed a spontaneous victory dance (he wasn’t yet king, but he now knew he would be), Mnkabayi moved to the next item on her string-pulling agenda: what to do with Mhlangana. While she was convinced that he must be killed, she was equally certain that his death must be made to appear if not accidental then at least provoked.

With the help of the ever-scheming Mbopha, she convinced Dingane and Mhlangana respectively that their death was being plotted by the other. “Egged on and assisted by his aunt”, in a supposed show of reconciliation, Dingane invited Mhlangana to bathe with him in the nearby Mavivane River, where Mnkabayi’s hitmen lurked. While the words below come from Dingane’s izibongo, they would probably be more appropriate in Mnkabayi’s praises:

Deep river pool at Mavivane, Dingana,
The pool is silent and overpowering,
It drowned someone intending to wash
And he vanished headring and all.

While receiving Mnkabayi’s blessing was as big a deal as Zuma or Ramaphosa being elected leader of the ANC, Dingane did – like them – still have to tick the final box by appealing to the majority of the populace.

Around a week after Mhlangana’s death, the vanquished regiments of the Bhalule impi began to arrive home in dribs and drabs. So disastrous had the campaign been that many of the survivors had been forced to soak their cowhide shields in water and eat them, while others took to gnawing on the sinew that bound the blades of their spears.

Suffice to say that Dingane, like all ANC presidential candidates since 1994, had a pretty easy time winning the “general election”. Styling himself as uMalamulela, meaning “saviour [from the] ‘tyranny’ of King Shaka”, he went on to make a number of legislative changes that were guaranteed to win over the people, most notably lifting Shaka’s ban on unmarried warriors having premarital sex and allowing older regiments to marry. As the famous Zulu scholar Sibusiso Nyembezi explains:

Young men and women … could not marry until Shaka had given his sanction. He would release a certain regiment of old men to marry and would also release a regiment from which the men could choose their wives … so girls found themselves compelled to marry men they did not love. Again, all the beautiful girls were for the king and for him alone … It was from this life that Dingana freed the people and was thus hailed as a rescuer.

With both Shaka and Mhlangana out of the way, and with the all-important backing of aunt Mnkabayi, the stage was finally set for Dingane’s ukubuzana. And who better to describe what this ceremony was all about than future Zulu king Cetshwayo?

On the days of Ukubuzana, i.e. questioning one another, when the kingship of the country is being transferred from the deceased to the son, all the great men of the country assemble and talk to one another about the heir, whom they look on as king already … They say, “That man is king as appointed by the past king, and how are you going to treat him? You have killed some of your former kings, and how do you intend treating this one? You must take care of this king and not act out of an evil heart against him.”’ They simply talk in this manner to advise one another; they do not talk in anger to one another … The heir then goes up from his kraal, where he has been staying as prince, to the former chief king’s kraal as king.

Of course, once Dingane had assumed the throne, many of the election promises could be thrown out the window. Indeed, his izibongo describes him as a “Stealthy-mover like a damsel going to her lover; Stealthy-mover like a water snake”.

That said, there is little doubt that for the average Zulu subject, life under Dingane was much more pleasant than it had been during Shaka’s reign. We’ve already seen why he was praised as “saviour of wives and husbands, spinsters and their suitors” and, more generally, writes Ndlovu, his “izibongo provide evidence highlighting Dingane’s good heart, generosity and liberality with cattle and food for his needy subjects. His praise-names include … ’Giver of cows with full udders’.”

But Dingane also quickly realised that violence was an occupational hazard of leading the Zulu nation. As his trusted advisor Nzobo kaSobadli put it, “the killing of people is a proper practice, for if no killing is done there will be no fear”. It didn’t take long for Dingane to wheel out his best Shaka impersonation, declaring to anyone who would listen that the king’s vultures must be fed. 

And Dingane didn’t just feed his vultures any old human flesh. Whereas Shaka prided himself on only ever killing one of his brothers, the supposedly gentler Dingane bumped off no fewer than seven of his male siblings, not to mention around seventy other senior members of the royal house, including the deceitful Mbopha. Why Dingane spared Mpande, who would later seize the throne from him, is anyone’s guess. DM/ ML

Spoilt Ballots: The Elections that Shaped South Africa, from Shaka to Cyril, by Matthew Blackman and Nick Dall is published by Penguin Random House SA (R300). Visit The Reading List for South African book news – including excerpts! – daily.


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