Monday, 29 August 2011

Writing a new, unified history

RESPLENDENT in her colourful traditional Zulu dress, she dances confidently as she moves across the field.

A seated man, demure in his traditional Xhosa garb, leaps from the crowd with determination in his eye, charges towards her. His stride grows in length. Behind him the crowd cheers. Still running, he pulls at the white blanket at his shoulders. In a single movement it slips free, releasing his upper body from its confining weight.

Within a metre of her he comes to a sudden halt. There is a moment’s pause. He lifts his arms, the blanket. His movements are quick and with clear intention. The blanket falls gently about her shoulders and together they synchronise their movements and begin to dance as one. The crowd finds its full voice, louder than before. Together as a nation, as abaThembu, they cheer their brother and sister.


A COMBINED VOICE: From across the country  abaThembu, including various Amakhosi, gathered at the historical Curries Fountain to celebrate the first step, a meeting, in unifying the clan. Pictures by Tom van der Leij 



Not long after the two are seated the stadium again bursts into song and dance. This is a moment they have been waiting for. The Amakhosi (chiefs) have arrived.

In front, dressed in a simple suit, is Inkosi Enkhulu Buyelekhaya Zwelibanzi Dalindyebo, king of the Eastern Cape abaThembu. Close behind him in full traditional regalia is Prince Thulani Zulu, from the Zulu royal house, followed by Inkosi Zwelivelile Mandlasizwe Mandela, also in traditional attire, as well as Amakhosi of the KwaZulu-Natal Thembu clan.

Together the king, chiefs, princes, and their entourage walk the length of the packed grandstand and back, waving at more than 1500 Thembu, from all over South Africa, assembled to witness history in the making.

This was the scene at Durban’s Curries Fountain Stadium on Sunday 22nd September. The first meeting after nearly five hundred years. Its aim, to unify a scattered and diverse clan towards affirming a new and distinct identity.

A central Interim Thembu Committee was established with regional branches constituted across KZN and EC. These branches are being used to disseminate the message and rally Thembus around the country. Special registration forms were handed out at the gathering with participants encouraged to fill in their particulars which will be captured in a central database.

“Firstly we want unity,” said one attendee, “Unity of the abaThembu in KZN and Eastern Cape, as well as all those living in other parts of the country.”


The Thembu, like most of Southern Africa’s black African ethnic groups, originated in the Great Lakes of Central Africa before migrating south and settling in present-day KwaZulu-Natal. An 11th century ruler, Zwide, is acknowledged as the clan’s founding father and it was his descendant, Thembu, who lead some of the clan out of KZN around the 16th century, eventually settling in the Eastern Cape.

The campaign is an interesting attempt at ethnic nation building. Most of the commonly known black South African ethnic groupings are relatively new, largely entrenched by the homeland system which began as early as 1913.

Through contact with whites, individual clan names were mistakenly taken to be the name of the language as well as all clans in a particular language grouping; Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho. These new ethnic categories created larger clusters of clans under a single identity even though some had no blood relation.


This history, now commonly accepted, makes the task of unifying more challenging. However, it is an undertaking that organisers say is increasingly significant. The world of today is getting bigger, its tribes smaller.

Inkosi Mandela, while jovial, commented on the seriousness of the responsibility behind the gathering:

“[w]e are living in the twenty-first century where globalisation is making this world increasingly smaller. We find that a lot of borders are being eroded and we are now looking at ensuring that we are not part of the undoing of our own heritage…This gathering is significant as a further step toward holding onto our roots and our heritage, towards deepening our understanding of this democracy, this state we have inherited, as well as all the current challenges that face us; all of which must be interpreted through a traditional lens.”

The task of uniting the Thembu clan represents an attempt by cultural-based institutions to adapt to the present while also providing traditional responses to modern challenges.

“I believe that the greatest single need of any human being is to belong,” says interim committee secretary, Dr. Nomcebo Mthembu. “Once someone belongs to the abaThembu they will know that these are the rules, the culture, the norms of their people”. The product of this, she says, is a better sense of self resulting in a more stable individual and, by extension, society.

The proceedings included a number of speeches, traditional song and dance, a prayer ceremony by a number of priests as well as the blessing and slaughter of four cows, to honour and invite the ancestors and feed the congregation.

A number of dignitaries attended the event. Among them was Inkosi Bovulengwe Mfundo Mtirara, of the EC Thembu, who married Princess Nandi, daughter of Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, in 2002. The union captured the world media’s attention as a possible sign of warming relations between Xhosa and Zulu.


Also in attendance was Inkosi Sphamandla Mthembu Ngoza of the abaThembu ancestral home of Msinga as well as Amakhosi from the Empangeni and Donnybrook areas. Singer Ringo Madlingozi, son of a Thembu woman, as well as former National African Federated Chamber of Commerce and Industry president, Lydia Mzoneli, were also among dignitaries.


The event was notably characterised by an open and friendly atmosphere. One foreign press member was handed a registration form and jokingly told: “hey my friend, we are going to change your name to Mthembu”.

Speculation in the media during the run up hinted at behind the scenes politicking, Mandela’s desire to draw the KZN Thembu under EC Thembu control, as well as possible clashes with the Zulu royal house.

These reports were repeatedly dismissed by officials and the general assembly. Elvis Mvelase, a regional organiser from Vryheid, said they would not allow the day to be spoilt by such rumours.

“This has nothing to do with politics and hopefully today will change that notion of these (Zulu) and those (Xhosa) because we are one in the same. Also, this thing of politics is a young thing, much younger than the history of our clan. Politics has come, and it may go, but one thing is for sure, it will never change who we are.”


The response to the event, says Vusi Mvelase, interim committee chairperson and MC on the day, has been significant. With the first phase, a gathering, successfully completed organisers say they will begin working towards the second phase, the setting up of a Thembu trust which will be used to help Thembus in need. Focus areas will include education, business and employment opportunities.

There are also plans underway for the committee to use Heritage Month to visit Nelson Mandela to consult him around an official ceremony, to honour the great Thembu son, in October.

Meanwhile, Mandla Mandela sees the day as an extension of the important work of heritage preservation, to which he is duty bound as a chief. He also commented on the hope that other kingdoms in South Africa would follow suit.

The Mandela heir’s call echoes that of a well-known former traditional leader. During a speech in 1970, first president of Botswana and Paramount Chief of the Bamangwato, Seretse Khama stressed the importance of reclaiming heritage: 

“We were taught, sometimes in a very positive way, to despise ourselves and our ways of life. We were made to believe that we had no past to speak of, no history to boast of…It seemed we were in for a definite period of foreign tutelage, without any hope of our ever again becoming our own masters. The end result of all this was that our self-pride and our self-confidence were badly undermined.”

Khama’s challenge at the time was “to try to retrieve what we can of our past. We should write our own history books to prove that we did have a past, and that it was a past that was just as worth writing and learning about as any other. We must do this for the simple reason that a nation without a past is a lost nation, and a people without a past is a people without a soul.”

And so history was rewritten today. Tomorrow a new story will be told. A story of the day that Xhosa and Zulu sang and danced side-by-side, not as Xhosa and Zulu, but as family, as abaThembu. 


The story originally appeared in The Weekender newspaper 05 September 2009

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