The Bambatha Rebellion - a last armed stand against colonialism
The violent clash over land
From the time Europeans set foot on Southern African soil they were in conflict with the indigenous inhabitants. This conflict was at first expressed in low level violence but at times, as the pressure for land grew more intense, it exploded in full-scale war.
Wars along the frontier between the Cape Colony and the black people to the east was an almost constant factor during the 19th Century as the colonists pushed their settlements further east. The superior weaponry of the colonists ensured their success – spears and clubs are not much of a match against rifles and field guns.
By the dawn of the 20th Century the colonists had subdued, sometimes with incredible cruelty, the indigenous people, imposing the laws of the colonies and forcing, by various strategies, the capitulation of traditional farming to wage slavery. The major stratagem employed by the colonial authorities to accomplish this was the imposition of various taxes which had to be paid in cash. To earn the cash needed to pay the taxes, blacks were forced to work for wages as farm labourers and, increasingly, on the fast-developing mines of Kimberley and the Witwatersrand (diamonds and gold, respectively).
The last attempt at armed resistance to this form of coercion occurred in the early years of the 20th Century when the colonial government of Natal was debating and passing into law a provision for the imposition of a “poll” tax on all blacks in the colony. Typically, the law was designed to force blacks to work for the labour-starved white farmers since they would not be able to raise the £3 tax without being engaged in wage labour.
The report on Bambatha's post-mortem body
DETAILS OF THE WOUNDS, AND DEATH OF "BAMBATA"( Rebel Chief.) IN THE "MOME GORGE" N'KANDHLA,
On the morning of the 10th June,1906.soon after the fighting had commenced, at the mouth of the Mome Gorge,Mehlokazulu,and Bambata,were talking together some few yards downstream from where Mehlokazulu eventually met his end. They were both intact at that time and had followers with them(one of whom was afterwards brought up to Colonel Royston, out of the Spruit and he was then man who gave the information as to where Mehlokazulu,was to be found).
Mehlokazulu, and Bambata, argued the point, as to what to do , while they were together, Bambata, decided to go down-stream towards the Insuzi River, and Mehlokazulu decided to go up-stream into the Mome Gorge, Bambata, was followed by a native who is now in our employ and tells us that as they were running down-stream towards the Pear-shaped Bush[a],Bambata, received his first bullet wound, this was one in the left arm, which broke it a few inches above the elbow. They got to the base of the Pear-shaped Bush, and then parted company (informant and Bambata) It is very evident that after they had parted company, Bambata must have got wounded in the back under the right shoulder-blade, the bullet coming out under the right breast. His third wound was an assegai stab about 2 inches below the left nipple which must have been fatal. This wound was without doubt given by one of M'fungela's[b] native Levies, who afterwards described to the authorities, how he had lost his assegai blade in trying to withdraw it from a native whom he had stabbed (you will notice the assegai-blade sticking in the body, in my photo graph of Bambata)in a melée,which took place between the Rebels, and themselves, at about the spot where Bambata's body was found. The native who deal this blow then Qa-Qa'd[c] him according to native custom.
Subsequent to this, there was a wound from an expending bullet, which entering at the base of the back of the skull, and passing out of the vicinity of the left eye, removed the eye, and a portion of the frontal bone and cheek. There were also one or two scratches, evidently from assegais, probably received during the fight with the native.
a. The 'Pear-shaped Bush' is the Dobo Forest, near the entrance to the Mome Gorge.
b. Mfungelwa was an influential Inkosi from Zululand who committed his tribe to the Colonial authorities.
c. This involved slitting one's victim from groin to sternum to enable the spirit to escape, failing which it was believed that the instigator would experience a swelling of the stomach, similar to the victim.
The last armed resistance to colonialism
Needless to say this tax was widely resented by blacks. Matters came to a head in February 1906 when two white policemen were killed in the Richmond District of Natal. The colonial government declared martial law and in April twelve suspects were arrested, court martialed and shot.
The colonial militia, under Colonel Duncan McKenzie, was sent to restore order. The troops went through the tribal territories meting out summary punishments, burning huts, crops and kraals, and confiscating cattle.
Chiefs known to be against the tax were also summarily sacked by McKenzie and replaced by more compliant men. So it happened that a chief of the small Zondi clan, Bambatha, came back to his home after a visit to Zululand to find his uncle, Magwababa, had been installed as chief.
Bambatha kidnapped his uncle and took refuge with a clan of artisans in the Nkandla Forest nearby, led by a very old chief Sigananda, who was then 96 years old. Sigananda was ordered by the colonial authorities to hand Bambatha over, but he refused.
Hundreds of young warriors came to the forest to join what they thought would be a popular revolt against the colonial government.
Instead, on 10 June, the group of warriors following Bambatha, were massacred in the narrow Mome Gorge. The colonial militia had surrounded their camp in the night and when dawn came the warriors were mown down by relentless machine gun and rifle fire.
Bambatha's head was cut off and paraded through the countryside. Sigananda was humiliated after he was arrested that day.
Unrest continued in Natal for the rest of that year and into 1907. The toll on blacks was enormous - between 3500 and 4000 blacks were killed as against about 24 whites.
A positive outcome was the black unity that arose in response to the heavy-handed and cruel white suppression of the rebellion.
Alfred Mangena, who at the time was studying law in London, laid a charge against the Governor of Natal for illegally declaring martial law. In response the Natal Government tried to discredit Mangena. He in turn sued for, and was awarded, damages. Mangena later came back to South Africa as the first black Barrister-at-Law.
An interesting recent addition to the generally-known information about Bambatha and the rebellion is recounted in an article by Ken Gillings in the South African Military History Journal of December 2002 Vol 12 No 4 entitled The "Death" of Bhambatha Zondi which tells of the discovery in England of an old trunk in which a lock of hair, said to be Bambatha's, and a report describing his body post-mortem was found. The report is shown in the box at right.
The accompanying photograph of Chief Sigananda tells a story of white arrogance and utter disregard for the dignity of someone like Sigananda, who in black culture would have been a revered figure on account of both his age and his position within the clan. The picture is so eloquent of a complete lack of cultural understanding.
Chief Sigananda Shezi of the amaCube was one of the most interesting characters in the history of Natal. His father Zokufa was a cousin of King Shaka and an induna (councillor) in King Cetshwayo's Great Place at Mlambongwenya. Zokufa was a skilled ironsmith.
Sigananda was born in about 1811 and had witnessed the killing of voortrekker leader Piet Retief and his party at King Dingane's Great Place Mgungundlovu in February 1838. He had also participated in many of the great events of Zulu history and was highly regarded by his people.
The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2010