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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

Emperor Shaka the Great

Mazisi Kunene

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To purchase Emperor Shaka the Great

Title: Emperor Shaka the Great
Author: Mazisi Kunene
Genre: Poem
Written: (Eng. 1979)
Length: 453 pages
Original in: Zulu
Availability: Emperor Shaka the Great - US
Emperor Shaka the Great - UK
Emperor Shaka the Great - Canada
  • A Zulu Epic
  • isiZulu title: UNodumehlezi KaMenzi
  • Translated by the author
  • Originally published in its English translation (1979)
  • isiZulu original published 2017

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Our Assessment:

B+ : effective (if historically and biographically limited) epic of a life and times

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Africa . 51:1 (1/1981) Alan Barnard

  From the Reviews:
  • "In English translation much of it reads like prose (.....) The epic is good reading, but the introduction would have benefited from more detail on style and performance in Nguni poetry." - Alan Barnard, Africa

  • "(O)ne of the best African poems in English." - John Haynes, Times Literary Supplement (18/1/1991)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Like Thomas Mofolo's Chaka, Mazisi Kunene's Emperor Shaka the Great is an account of the historic founder of the Zulu empire who lived ca. 1787 to 1828. Written in Zulu but first published in an English translation by the author, this verse-epic relies also on oral sources and includes 'poems of excellence' -- though Kunene notes that he has: "included only abridged versions", as: "their full meaning can only be realized through a performance in a social context". Kunene also acknowledges that his translation does not: "correspond word for word with the original Zulu epic"; disappointingly, he also admits that he has: "cut out a great deal of material which would seem to be a digression from the story, a style unacceptable in English but characteristic of deep scholarship in Zulu".
       The epic is presented in seventeen books, as well as a concluding 'Dirge of the Palm Race'. At the beginning of each book is a brief paragraph of summary in prose of the events surrounding Shaka in the period then covered. The epic itself is in very loose verse; while one can easily imagine it chanted or declaimed, the bulk of the writing reads much like prose. Fairly accessible and direct, only some of the jumps in the story might cause some confusion; guides listing the names of the characters involved are helpfully presented at the beginning of the work.
       Mofolo's more compact Chaka is a useful introduction to the man and more detailed than Kunene's about Shaka's difficult childhood and the experiences that shaped him; Kunene frequently alludes to these in explaining Shaka's later attitude and behavior, but does not describe the humiliations and challenges that Mofolo devotes considerable space to in nearly as much (and vivid) detail. Shaka's father, the "playboy king, Senzangakhona", is relegated to a smaller role, and his dismissal of Shaka's mother Nandi and the child even more summary and absolute -- amusingly first reported back to Nandi when the Langas ask the Zulus to take a stand on the issue:

They have denied responsibility for the child,
Claiming her pregnancy was only an illness of intestinal beetles,
A disease that invades the mind with madness.
       Her "memorable grudge" then is indeed something to behold, and her adoration of her son is made clear throughout the story -- even as it eventually also interferes with Shaka's duties once he has assumed great power. And among the great crises his empire comes to suffer is when he goes completely overboard in mourning her death:
     There shall be no ploughing and no reaping,
No cows shall be milked throughout the land;
No man shall sleep with his wife in the year of mourning;
No woman shall be pregnant in the year of mourning.
       Unsurprisingly, this not only does not go over well, it's a catastrophe -- but it takes a while until anyone points that out to the grieving leader and he sees the consequences of his demands, and snaps out of it. It is such scenes of extreme emotion and action that are among the most effective in the narrative.
       When Shaka is young, Senzangakhona can't avoid all his responsibilities towards him, but this displeases the rest of his family, a tension that will continue until the final confrontation. Displaying the qualities a future warrior and leader needs from early on, he can't win -- at least not popular favor:
Despite Shaka's feats of courage and many poems of praise
He did not win the love of all,
Many cursed him for fomenting these eternal wars.
       Senzangakhona, too, isn't thrilled by the promise Shaka shows, seeing it as a threat to his own position. When Nandi and Shaka join the Qwabes, Prince Gendeyana: "was like a father to the young Prince Shaka" but others are jealous and goad him, and while Shaka doesn't forget the kindness, "Shaka never forgot these insults", either. It is only when joining the Mthethwa, and under the leadership of Dingiswayo, that Shaka flourishes. Here:
The shadows of the past dissolved in the new sun.
He grew proud and generous and full of confidence
       Here, Shaka emerges as warrior and strategist. Annoyed by the form of conflict that sees no finality -- the goal subjugation rather than destruction, which allows the vanquished to rise up again and again -- Shaka insists:
Yet victory must be final.
The enemy must be chased and trapped in his own home.
Then he shall not raise his head again.
       This was a completely new model of warfare, contrary to the universally accepted model of the times.
       Beyond that, Shaka also devised a new form of combat. While everyone relied on long but flimsy spears, flung from a distance, he wanted an entirely new weapon designed:
I want a spear made short and of the toughest wood.
Even as I stab the trunk of a tree, let it remain firm.
       His other great innovation was to dispense with the encumbering footwear that slowed the warriors down. For Shaka, speed and maneuverability was of the essence:
Speed is of the feet not encumbered by sandals.
Speed is embedded in the shape of my spear.
By this our heroes shall reap the enemy in close combat.
       He has some difficulty convincing the powers that be (and the soldiers) -- "people prefer to be persuaded slowly about their customs", he is gently reminded -- but Shaka insists on radical change -- and finds great success when it is implemented.
       More controversially, he eventually is able to put in place a policy that he already touts early on:
'War is not a joke of lovers. Had it been in my power
I would proclaim that none should marry until they matured.
Strict loyalties of families
Often undermine the devotion and sacrifice for the nation.'
None took his words seriously.
       Loyalties -- and disloyalties -- in family are something he is all too familiar with, and will eventually cause his own downfall. Tellingly, too, he never starts a family of his own, arguing, for example, once in power:
As long as I am still building this nation
I must postpone the joys of my domestic life.
I fear lest my ligaments be eaten by such a progeny,
For a strong man often weakens after having children.
       Indeed, among his greatest crises is when his mother -- who: "still yearned for her own grandchild" -- connives to save a child Shaka has (as he does quietly sleep around some) with Mbuzikazi. Shaka is devastated -- "never have I faced so great a challenge", as he worries about: "what shall be the death of our house", --, not least because the betrayal (as he sees it) comes from the mother he always trusted so, going behind his back.
       One reason Shaka can't have a family or child is because he feels he has to set an example, holding himself up to the highest standards (and convinced: "Should I fail, the nation itself shall disintegrate"). Even as he does, it is hard for all to follow, and this policy -- of enforced bachelorhood for the (huge) fighting male population -- continues to be a source of tension; only very late on, when Shaka has consolidated a greater Zulu empire, does he begin to consider easing his stand.
       Shaka shows himself to be a master warrior and strategist; he flourishes on the battlefield, and the best parts of Emperor Shaka the Great are the extended battle-scenes, notably the conflicts with Zwide. Old and new strategies and approaches to warfare clash here, and despite being outnumbered, Shaka and his forces repeatedly gain the advantage. Among the amusing smaller challenges is the storming of the seemingly "impregnable fortress of Phisweni", atop a mountain with sheer faces. Here as elsewhere on the battlefields, Kunene's vivid descriptions are both powerful and quite exciting.
       At a certain point war becomes essentially superfluous. As Shaka points out:
     'My brothers, our journey is now pointless.
Everywhere we go we find only those who acknowledge our authority.
Zulu power no longer issues from conquest
But from a bond of all-embracing nationhood.
       There are lingering concerns: for one, there are relatives who don't think they're being properly treated or deferred to ("They were embittered, too, at being given no powers of command") and want greater power. But before they become the greatest threat there is a novel one: the appearance of the 'Pumpkin Race':
They resemble us but in appearance are the colour of pumpkin porridge.
They speak a language no different from that of nestling birds,
Quick and given to staccato sounds like wild animals.
They are rude of manner and are without any graces or refinement.
They carry a long stick of fire.
With this they kill and loot from many nations.
       Thus begins the long chess-game between Shaka and the English. He is suspicious of them -- if their lands are so rich, why would they bother venturing so far abroad ? -- and suspects their intentions:
We have encountered a race of red ants,
So desperate they would bore into the bowels of stone.
It is clear while they speak in soft and round tones
They know what targets they aim for.
It is wise for us patiently to follow their plans.
       The English offer empty promises -- notably an elixir of life, which Shaka desperately hopes for (even as he seems recognize that they do not really have what they claim). The cat and mouse games the two sides play are interestingly drawn out; the whites remain largely peripheral in the story, and it does not come to real outright conflict, but clearly here a growing sense of menace is discernible -- something Shaka is aware of while those seeking to topple him remain oblivious. Shaka says: "I want peace between the people of Zulu and of George", and he is forthcoming -- but one can sense how both sides are merely positioning themselves for the future.
       Shaka grows more pensive as he and his nation settle down. His place is the battlefield, but there is much less need for battling; meanwhile, he finds: "the posture of authority often exhausts the mind". There are major events -- the capital is moved, his mother dies -- but a certain restlessness makes it difficult for Shaka to settle into the role of political leader -- well-captured by Kunene.
       Ultimately, too, as those plotting against him understand:
People, my brother, are like water; they follow the gulleys.
If one digs a tunnel the water goes that way.
       For all Shaka's accomplishments, there is also much dissatisfaction -- specifically among the powerful, each wanting greater personal glory -- and the challenges to Shaka eventually build up. Shaka, meanwhile, does not take the necessary steps to protect himself: he does not see it as necessary, refusing to accept that so many around him are so much baser than he is. His noble spirit, of course, ultimately doesn't stand a chance -- though Kunene also nicely shows how the ill-prepared perpetrators quickly fail and turn on each in the disastrous outcome.
       Emperor Shaka the Great is, historically and biographically, actually a quite limited account. This is very much a poem exalting the great military man; even what flaws and weaknesses Kunene allows for are a reflection of how much better a person he is than those around him; it is a one-sided portrait of a much more complex man. And while the military strategy is well-related, the more complex politics do get rather short shrift, giving only limited sense into the empire-building of the time.
       As drama, however, Emperor Shaka the Great impresses. The battle scenes are particularly strong -- grand entertainment -- and if Kunene only occasionally manages to bring to life the personal antagonisms that Mofolo presents so well in Chaka, he does offer two remarkable portraits in Nandi and Princess Mkhabayi, both women figuring significantly in much of the action.
       Overall, this is a fine, large-scale entertainment -- indeed, despite its length, there could have easily been more -- and a good read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 October 2018

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Emperor Shaka the Great: Mazisi Kunene: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       South African author Mazisi Kunene lived 1930 to 2006.

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© 2018-2022 the complete review

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