Theses Doctoral

Sifuna umlando wethu (We are Searching for Our History): Oral Literature and the Meanings of the Past in Post-apartheid South Africa

Buthelezi, Mbongiseni Patrick

In post-apartheid South Africa, working through the distortions of identity and history of the formerly colonized, as well as the traumas suffered by black South Africans as a result of the alienation of land by European settlers is an ongoing project of the state. The state's attempts to formulate an appropriate national myth with founding heroes and significant events that resonate with the majority has resulted in the promotion of certain figures as heroes. Not all black South Africans who are exhorted to identify with these figures consider them heroes. Some trace the beginnings of the fragmentation of their historical identities to the conquest actions of these figures. Shaka kaSenzangakhona, founder of the Zulu kingdom, is one such figure who is being promoted as the heritage of all Zulus by the state, especially at the level of the province of KwaZulu-Natal, for purposes of constructing a heritage for the province and of encouraging tourism. This promotion of Shaka is seen by some as the perpetuation under the post-1994 dispensation of the suppression of their histories and the disallowing of engagement with a longer history than the reorganization of chieftainship from 1927 and the seizure of land belonging to Africans from 1913. Hence has sprung up groups convening around pre-Zulu kinship identities since the early 1990's in which people attempt to find answers to the question "Who am I?" For most people, this question is driven by a sense that their conceptions of the country's past and of their historical selves (i.e. of the experiences of their predecessors that have brought them to where they are in the present) have been either influenced, mis(in)formed or distorted by the national master narratives that crystallized under European colonial rule and apartheid, even as they were simultaneously being resisted. Informed in part the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the late 1990's and the state's attempts to "redress the imbalances of the past," many feel they need to work through the meanings of the past in their personal lives in order to inhabit the present with a fuller sense of how they have come to be who they are and so that they can imagine and create different futures for themselves.

In this project I examine the attempt of people who trace their history to the Ndwandwe kingdom that was destroyed by Shaka's Zulu forces in the 1820's who have organized themselves into an association named the uBumbano lwamaZwide (Unity Association of the Zwides) to engage with questions of identity and the meanings of the past. The association comprises a group of activists in different parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces who have been meeting since 2003 to attempt to bring together on a large scale people of Ndwandwe, Nxumalo and other historically-associated clans to recall and/or construct a heroic past in post-apartheid South Africa. Implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, the assembly of the Ndwandwe calls into question the definition as Zulu of those Ndwandwe whose forebears were incorporated into the Zulu kingdom in the 1820's.I analyze the use of the idiom of heritage as well as a traditional idiom of kinship that has come to be handed down as a Zulu language for mediating social relations by the uBumbano in ways that challenge the centrality given to Shaka in narrations of the past. I argue that the uBumbano is using these idioms against how they are commonly understood - heritage as a mode of engaging with the past for its feel-good features and kinship as a Zulu idiom in KwaZulu-Natal province. Through an analysis of three closely related oral artistic forms - the izibongo (personal praises) of Shaka in his promotion and the ihubo lesizwe (`national' hymn), izithakazelo (kinship group or clan address names) of the Ndwandwe as well as the personal praises of Zwide, the last Ndwandwe ruler before the fall of the kingdom - I argue that the uBumbano is deploying these forms in subtle ways to overturn the dominance of Shaka in public discourse. Moreover, I contend, the uBumbano is turning on its head the permission to recall their ancestors under the authority of the Zulu ruling elite that Ndwandwe people who were incorporated into the Zulu kingdom have been permitted for almost two centuries. I demonstrate how the language of being an isizwe (`nation') was permitted and perpetuated a Ndwandwe identity that has held the potential to be asserted more forcefully to overturn its secondary position to an overarching Zulu identity.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Slaughter, Joseph R.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 1, 2014