The Mfecane or Difaqane

The Mfecane was a holocaust that took place between 1795 and 1870 as a series of conflicts among the Nguni and Sotho-speaking peoples of Southern Africa. It set in motion a chain-reaction of bloodshed and devastation that had catastrophic repercussions. The Nguni-speaking peoples, who lived in south-east Africa between the mountains and the sea, referred to these wars as the Mfecane, meaning 'crushing', in the sense of large-scale destruction, mainly because they invariably got the upper hand. The Sotho-speaking peoples, who lived on the highveld, called it the Difaqane or Lifaqane ('L' is pronounced 'D' in Sotho), meaning 'forced migration' or 'scattering'. For some years, there was wide-ranging chaos as the Sotho-speakers competed with Nguni groups and with one another for dwindling herds of cattle and stores of grain. Old communities were abandoned, and as ancient chiefdoms vanished, their traditions went with them; new groups consolidated and in turn disintegrated. When food became short, demoralization set in and some groups turned to cannibalism. This holocaust affected the lives of people from the Cape frontier to central East Africa and its effects were felt well into the 1870s.


Our knowledge of these events comes from the notes of a few missionaries, from officials and travellers who were eyewitnesses, and from oral traditions of many of the peoples involved, which were later written down by historians such as A T Bryant and G M Theal. Their versions had flaws, for they were alien to the societies they were describing, but they do give us a sense of the period. These population upheavals, hardships, and political amalgamations are usually attributed to Shaka the warrior-king's rise to power in 1816, and the rapid expansion of the Zulu Empire thereafter. But the origins of the Mfecane, in fact, went further back to the 18th century, before Shaka's accession.

The Time of Troubles

Over the years, the northern Nguni-speaking peoples had encountered shipwrecked sailors and European ideas. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, several quite separate epicentres of political instability were emerging in south-east Africa owing to the expansion of the ivory trade and other goods traded through Portuguese-owned Delagoa Bay. This increased the wealth of neighbouring black chiefdoms, but led to intense competition among them. Out of this emerged the amabutho, an age-graded regimental system, which the stronger Nguni chiefs used to help them maintain political power both to police their societies and as a means of attack and defence.

The Ndwandwe

Before Shaka's rise to power the Ndwandwe lived in northern Zululand under the leadership of a ferocious chieftain called Zwide, who stripped his victims of their cattle, emptied their granaries and put whole populations to flight.

Matiwane's Ngwane

The Ndwandwe fell upon a group of the Ngwane under Matiwane, who fled with his people to the foothills of the Drakensberg where lived the Hlubi. Matiwane drove the Hlubi across the mountains into the eastern parts of the present Free State. The Hlubi in turn put the Sotho to flight; and so began the time of troubles commonly referred to as the Mfecane or Difaqane.

The Mthethwa

With only one great rival left to beat, Zwide faced up to Dingiswayo who by this time was a great chief of the Mthethwa confederacy and ruled most of the land between the Thukela River in the south and the Mfolozi River in the north. Both Zwide and Dingiswayo had strong armies and sought to outwit each other.


At the age of twenty-three Shaka joined the army of Dingiswayo and showed such courage he became a commander of one of Dingiswayo's regiments. After his father Senzangakhona's death in 1816, and with Dingiswayo's support, Shaka usurped the Zulu chiefdom. While Dingiswayo was still alive, Shaka contented himself with plundering neighbouring tribes. But, in 1818, the Ndwandwe captured and subsequently murdered Dingiswayo. After his death, Shaka took control of the Mthethwa army, immediately refining his regimental system to the extent that he was able to rout Zwide's Ndwandwe. Then Shaka picked up the shattered pieces of the Mthethwa kingdom and moulded them into the Zulu kingdom. Unlike Dingiswayo, Shaka sought to destroy absolutely the power of the enemy. By 1820, he had learned to use his highly centralized, tightly disciplined amabutho with devastating effect.

The Ndwandwe migrations

The defeated Ndwandwe broke up into three groups: Zwide was still powerful enough to reconsolidate in what we know as the Mpumalanga lowveld; the second group, led by Shoshangane, settled in Mozambique and became the Shangane people. Zwangendaba migrated with the third group to Lake Malawi where they became the Ngoni (Angoni) nation.

The Swazi

In due course Zwide defeated his neighbours, another group of the Ngwane, and drove them across the Phongolo River. Led by Sobhuza I, they in turn subjugated the local Nguni and Sotho chieftains, so creating the Swazi nation, who live in today's kingdom of Swaziland, adjacent to KwaZulu/Natal.

Extension of Zulu Power

Meanwhile, after the defeat of the Ndwandwe, Shaka's armies attacked Matiwane's Ngwane and they once again set upon the Hlubi. Then Shaka brought under his sway all the peoples between the Phongolo and Mkomazi rivers. Zulu armies moved into the chiefdoms formerly ruled by Zwide, and even further north into present day Mozambique, where the chiefdoms of the Mabhudu and Ronga were forced to pay tribute to Shaka and share control of the valuable trade routes from Delagoa Bay. In all these newly subordinated chiefdoms, young men were compulsorily drawn into the Zulu amabutho. They were segregated into specially built royal homesteads called amakhanda and forbidden to marry without royal permission. Women were also placed, according to age, in female amabutho to await the king's permission to marry. Even the king's own establishments of women, the izigodlo, were kept secluded in the royal quarters at his amakhanda, waiting to be disposed of in marriage, or given as tribute to those he favoured. Delayed marriage thus became a device to control men and women.

The effect of the campaigns

Although countless numbers lost their lives, neither these regions nor the interior regions were entirely depopulated. After each victorious campaign, the Zulu leaders returned driving vast herds of plundered cattle. The king added the best beasts to the royal herds, and then redistributed the others to important office holders and warriors. Meanwhile other peoples defeated by the Zulu armies also fanned out, displacing those in their way. South of the Thukela River the Bhele, the Thembu, the Chunu and others destroyed communal life.

Zulu dominance

Once the extension of the Zulu kingdom had placed agricultural and grazing lands at the disposal of the king, a new society began to emerge. This consisted of the king and an aristocracy (izikhulu), who were drawn from loyal chiefs in the land; the Zulu-dominated commoners; and, lowest rung on the social ladder, those who were subjugated in the final phases of Zulu expansion. Though they were not all Zulu, all the people in this society called themselves Zulu. But, despite its strength, all was not well with the Zulu monarchy. It faced strong resistance from its subject groups, and within the Zulu leadership, tensions ran high.

The Ndebele

Perhaps the most remarkable of the migrations was the epic journey of Mzilikazi of the Khumalo chiefdom, who were rebellious subjects of Shaka. Mzilikazi's wanderings took him from Zululand in about 1823, to what is now southern Zimbabwe, in 1838. Starting out with just 500 warriors, who became known as the Ndebele (or Matabele), and with Shaka's impis in hot pursuit, Mzilikazi moved westwards. Seizing the opportunity to enhance his personal power and prestige, Mzilikazi defeated and absorbed the local Sotho peoples until he had hordes of followers and a kingdom of his own. Ultimately the Voortrekkers assisted by the Griqua and Tswana defeated Mzilikazi, who migrated north-westwards with his people. After crossing the Limpopo River, they formed the Ndebele state in what is now Zimbabwe.

The Mfengu

By the mid-1820s, the Zulu armies were raiding as far south as the land of the Mpondo. Refugees fled southwards into the eastern part of the Cape Colony, where they became known as the Mfengu (Fingo). They became a distinct group who generally tended to collaborate with the British colonial authorities and many became Christians.

The South Sotho

Other disrupted peoples fled to the mountains of today's Lesotho, where Moshoeshoe (Moshesh, Moshweshwe) forged a new, powerful kingdom at Thaba Bosiu.

Shaka's reign was marked by bloodthirsty massacres, often explained as mania, though some historians now say that the tyrannical nature of his reign is perhaps better explained by a desire to stamp out conspiracies and a need to seize opportunities to rid political opponents. Nevertheless, it is hard to explain away Shaka's excesses as anything else but madness when considering that on the death of Shaka's mother Nandi in 1827 some 7,000 people were killed for not displaying enough grief.


Notwithstanding his formidable power and his endeavours to be on guard at all times, while Shaka's army was away campaigning against Shoshangane in September 1828, the great despot was assassinated by two of his half-brothers, Dingane and Mhlangana, assisted by Mbopha ka Sitayi, his senior personal assistant. When the dejected Zulu army returned from Mozambique after their campaign against Shoshangane had failed, they found to their great relief that instead of facing death for failure, they had a new, more conciliatory king -- Dingane. The Zulu monarchy proved to be strong enough to maintain itself as the ruling power for fifty years after Shaka's death, and Zulu became the most widely spoken African language in Southern Africa.

-Penny Howcroft