MPANZA, South Africa: Sounds of Zulu war dances and a military parade filled the air Sunday as South Africans hailed a forgotten Zulu hero whose rebellion a century ago sowed the first seeds of black resistance.
Soldiers and Zulu warriors, dressed in traditional leopard skins, joined thousands to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Bhambatha rebellion, a little-known event that had huge ramifications in South African history.
“We are here today to pay tribute to the great heroes of our people like Nkosi (chief) Bhambatha kaMancinza,” South African President Thabo Mbeki said.
“Today we are free because of what leaders like he did and we must never forget what we owe them,” Mbeki said at a ceremony at Bhambatha’s traditional home of Mpanza, in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province.
The ceremony, attended by high profile dignitaries including former deputy president Jacob Zuma, Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini and members of the Bhambatha’s Zondi clan, also saw Bhambatha posthumously reinstated as a Zulu chief.
The story of Bhambatha and his rebellion began in 1905 when colonial rulers in the Natal province decided to impose a poll tax of one British pound on all adult men in order to boost coffers emptied by the recently-ended Anglo-Boer War.
In reality, the tax was meant to keep poor black labourers in white-owned farms and mines, because they needed the work to pay the tax.
“The imposition of poll tax lead to a great deal of opposition by black people,” said Ken Gillings, a military historian and expert on KwaZulu-Natal history.
As black discontent spread and white fears grew, with sporadic clashes between black tribes and white tax collectors in the sub-tropical and densely forested province, a Zulu chief named Bhambatha of the small but influential amaZondi clan was fingered as the main culprit of the unrest.
Colonial powers stripped him of his chieftaincy and he rebelled, fleeing with his rebels into the densely forested area of Nkandla near the small hamlet of Greytown, about 150 kilometres north-west of the port city of Durban on the African east coast.