This dissertation traces the permutations of Zulu martial heritage in the present-day KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa from the era of Shaka Zulu (ca. 1816) to the present-day through the prism of the amabutho (regiments, age-grades). Although officially outlawed in 1879 by the British colonial regime, Zulu chiefs continue to form amabutho to the present day, utilizing these youth structures for labor recruitment and military conscription, as well as accessing metaphors associated with amabutho to garner political support, vocalize resistance to state-sponsored racism, and express their identities as Zulu in a new South Africa. The amabutho’s linkages to the Zulu royal house also provide a window for tracking the changing role and status of the Zulu Royal House following its dissolution alongside the military system. While state authorities feared the influence that Shaka’s successors held amongst Zulu speakers, they also recognized the potential for utilizing these figureheads as leverage for their own ends. Take, for example, Solomon ka Dinuzulu whom authorities surveilled constantly to mediate his contact with young Zulu men, but turned to at the outbreak of World War I to access the language and imagery of the amabutho to recruit volunteers from Natal and Zululand. Later, the invocation of the Zulu nation’s warrior legacy by Zulu nationalist political organizations was used to demonstrates not only the continuing relevance of Zulu martial heritage for garnering support, but also a recognition of the dangerous potential of this rhetoric from outsiders’ perspectives. Today, the role of Zulu regiments continues to evolve as King Zwelithini ka Bhekuzulu draws on martial metaphors to recruit young men to circumcise for HIV/AIDS prevention and Jacob Zuma accesses martial language to defend his deviant sexual politics. By tracking these shifts over the longue durée, my research builds upon the growing literature on African military history while simultaneously shedding new light on the socio-cultural dimensions of Zulu identities and their changing and contested nature.
Far from a static institution, by the time of the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879, the amabutho as an institution had already gone multiple shifts and changes (chapter one). In the wake of the official disbanding of the Zulu military system following the Anglo-Zulu War and the stripping of chiefly authority in Natal and Zululand, colonial authorities sought to define and restrict public expressions of masculinity, exposing the limitations of the colonial regime in legislating against these public symbols and functions (chapter two). Additionally, in the early- to mid-twentieth century, it quickly became clear that the amabutho, while continuing to represent a central tool of social organization, offered practical utility in managing the potential of African men in Natal and Zululand, particularly in the face of global military struggles that necessitated the use of African labor for British military success. At the same time, however, as the Zulu king’s influence over men throughout Natal and Zululand was utilized to harness the potential of Zulu labor and loyalty for the success of the Union, white authorities also felt the need to exact more control over the role of the Zulu king for fear of another rebellion like the Bambatha Rebellion of 1906 (chapter three). At the same time as these struggles over the roles of traditional authorities and the utilizations of the regimental structure for different purposes unfolded in Natal and Zululand, the use of the amabutho and its associated martial masculine expressions played out quite differently amongst migrant populations in Durban and the Witswatersrand. In addition to manifesting in the broader struggles for racial equality beginning in the 1920s, martial metaphors found new expressions in literature, music, and sports (chapter four). The rise of ethnic nationalism with the founding of the Inkatha Freedom Party in the KwaZulu Bantustan elevated these invocations of Zulu martial heritage to the national level, as cultural leaders turned to well-trodden language to solicit political support for their cause. At the same time, these metaphors also appeared in the pages of major newspapers, as the language surrounding amabutho became synonymous with a brand of dangerous, violent Zulu masculinity (chapter five). With the end of apartheid and the waning of Zulu political nationalism, martial heritage became more central as cultural stakeholders turned to these traditions to find a new way forward in the post-apartheid dispensation. Facing legislation that challenged both the role of traditional authorities and the right to public performances of culture, martial masculine rhetoric provided a key platform for the crystallization of public sympathies in support of the Zulu king and his counterparts (chapter six). The final chapter (seven) turns away from a chronological focus to interrogate the role of amabutho and its associated language and symbols in the fight against HIV/AIDS, revealing both the invocations of ethnicity and martial heritage in the KwaZulu-Natal province’s response to this epidemic.
The historiographical significance of these findings is threefold. First, my dissertation builds on other studies of martial masculinity throughout Africa which feature manifestations of these traditions in response to particular stimuli at particular times. This study builds on and goes beyond these studies by taking a more macro-approach in examining Zulu martial masculinity across the longue durée, showing the varied expressions of this tradition in different eras and illustrating the evolutions of Zulu martial identit(ies) in response to social, political, and economic pressures to the present day. Second, my dissertation also explores the complicated relationship between white anxieties over the violent potential of young African men in Natal and Zululand and their need for access to this same demographic for labor and social control. By exposing these conflicting views of Africans as threatening but also essential to political and economic successes, this dissertation shows how the amabutho as an institution has been shaped as much by white anxieties as by any African proclivities to violence, a phenomenon extending to the present day. Third, my study has relevance to contemporary South African debates over the role of chiefs and ethnic identity politics in postcolonial African politics and society. Given the amabutho’s connections to traditional authorities at the most basic level, a study of this institution necessitates a consideration of the shifting role of chiefs and kings in South Africa from the precolonial era to the present. While on a local level, the proliferation of martial masculinity amongst Zulu speakers reflects a shared heritage, it also reflects the insecurities felt by traditional authorities who turned to amabutho to display their ability to garner support and protect their status in rapidly changing circumstances.