Shaka Zulu is a profound historical fiction of the life of the founder of the Zulu Kingdom, Chaka, (sometimes spelled Chaka) who built a mighty empire during the first quarter of the 19th century. As an epic tragedy, the story’s arc followed the normal curve or the inverted ‘U’, where events are built up to the peak and begin to descend uncontrollably ending in the demise of the main character, Shaka.
In this novel, Mofolo mixes facts with fiction to recreate the legendary and wondrous life of one of Africa’s most mysterious and highly enigmatic figures. The eventful reign of Shaka (Chaka) became the epic tragedy of a heroic figure whose overweening ambition drove him to insane cruelty and ultimate ruin.
“I do not believe,” Mofolo writes, “that there was ever a human being whose life was as full of mystery as that of Shaka.” An attempt to capture this mystery led Mofolo to write Chaka in 1910. But his missionary publishers were so freaked out by the novel that they refused to publish it until 1925.
Shaka, born out of wedlock, became the first male child of Senzangakhona, the tribal king, who was previously without male children. He decided to marry again so that he can have a male offspring for the kingship. He became attracted to Nandi and, overcame by her beauty, took her when they were yet to be married, in violation of tribal law. She became pregnant, whereupon the two got married secretly. Shaka was born afterward.
His position, however, became precarious after Senzangakhona’s senior wives began to bear him male children. The other wives were jealous of Nandi and her son Shaka, conspiring and imposing on Senzangakhona to send Shaka and Nandi away from the palace. They threatened to expose Senzangakhona for impregnating Nandi before marriage. Fearing that his tabooed deed might be found out, Senzangakhona acceded to his wives’ demands. In spite of this, and perhaps exacerbated by it, the news of Shaka’s rejection and his illegitimacy spread through the villages, making him object of ridicule and persecution.
Like any oppressed soul, Shaka believed that things would change since right and justice was on his side. That illusion however faded away when he heard his father order his death, even as he stared Shaka in the eye.
Shaka was on the run from assassins when he met one of the most ruthless witchdoctors that ever graced the pages of an African novel, Isanusi. Isanusi, who liked the young man and promised him that if he will obey in all things, he will one day inherit his father’s kingship, which was rightfully his by birth. Isanusi was the guy who made things happen. He was the magician, the sorcerer, the therapist, the priest, the conman, the strategist, the visionary, the confidante, the doctor, the hit-man, the fixer—the everything man— that every great empire-builder in history has had by his side.
He was the one who “inoculated” Chaka with the “medicine of blood.” “If you do not spill blood,” Isanusi explains to Shaka, “it will turn against you and kill you instead. Your sole purpose should be to kill without mercy, and thus clear the path that leads to the glory of your kingship.”
Isanusi turned Shaka into a killing machine. A man who had been hunted all his life had returned to bring the world to its knees.
By living up to this mandate to kill or be killed, Shaka instituted a political order never before imagined in his part of the world. But the blood on which his beautiful empire was built did not stay still forever. Shaka was eventually consumed by the violence that made him king and lived out the rest of his days in what can be described as schizophrenia.
The story of great emperors gone mad is old and familiar, but Mofolo tells it with all the dark, romantic flair of an African storyteller—sorcery, the supernatural, graphic violence, and tragic love. According to Mofolo himself
“The events in Shaka’s life were overwhelming because they were so numerous and of such tremendous import; they were like great mysteries which were beyond the people’s understanding.”
Mofolo’s novel is a dark, mysterious, and poetic critique of the principle of violence that defines all empires. There are novelists in Africa—a multitude of novelists. But there’s only a handful of storytellers. Mofolo was one.