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Review: Dan Wylie's 'Shaka'

Updated on March 2, 2017
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Michael has been an online freelancer and writer for many years and loves discovering and sharing about new experiences and opportunities.

Shaka: A Closer Look

Dan Wylie is able to successfully prove that authors can be bigoted, biased, and boisterous about what they represent as fact. Indeed, his pocket biography, Shaka, is less about Shaka as the man himself than it is about the inadequacies of reports about him throughout history. Indeed, the legend of Shaka—the Zulu King—has become more myth and magic rather than representation over the past two centuries, and Wylie strikes at the heart of questions that have been seemingly overlooked: What are the sources of such misinformation? In a world of sensationalizing historical figures, who was the real Shaka?

Wylie’s goal is to break the monolithic stereotype created by films, newspapers, and novels pretending to be nonfiction. In his journey to bring to life the complexities and multi-dimensional personality of the Zulu king, he strikes at the heart of what it means to analyze global and historical sources. Indeed, he is a staunch reminder of journalism’s true purpose: Unbiased representation of fact without influence from the reader, the marketing or the author. It is about unravelling sources that have “no other object in view but their own personal advantage” (17), something that was rampant throughout Shaka’s time, and by their very nature should be disqualified as evidence.

Wylie himself admits that he would love to write “a proper ‘biography’” of Shaka, but “the material on which to base one doesn’t exist” (96). Even Zulu sources are unreliable due to their “dangerously long retrospect” (96-97). It’s stressed that we don’t know what Shaka looked like, what his stature was or even where he was born, and this is something that the book manages, as a credit to the writing, to convey without sharing any of the actual details—because they are unknown. Indeed, they were unknown even when Henry Cele was cast to portray him. And yet, Shaka still brings to life a character that is otherworldly and gives a taste of the power of a man who brought together millions. It gives an understanding of why we remember Shaka, and why it is important to remember how his legend has been shaped throughout history.

A large portion of the book focuses on the prevailing conditions of his time period. What we learn is that Shaka inherited a culture of violence and his rule was built on the foundation of those before him, in which many of his atrocities were part of the local customs and ethics. As Wylie notes, “by Shaka’s time, these dynamics of violence were well established” (32). Moreover, violence continued for many reasons well after Shaka died, culminating in white colonization in the late 19th century. Shaka was part of a continuum, born into a world already laden with growing violence, aggression and slave trading. We have a quote of Shaka himself stating, “If I were not to [kill], they would think me an old woman, a coward, and kill me themselves” (100).

Yet, Wylie manages to convey the missing puzzle pieces alongside the pigeonholing of Shaka: “For every story of an apparently arbitrary execution, we have one in which someone is well treated” (105). This book is an enlightening read after coming into contact with the ‘historical’ and media representation of Shaka. He murdered a lot of his potential rivals for his own power (likely including his own father), yes. But, he was also a wily diplomat, making use of the Whites encroaching on his land to advance his own tribe. He himself even stayed away from deadly battle to ensure his own longevity.

In a wider context, this book is about facing off the inaccuracies of history. While there is reference to historical materials, it is written as an evolving story that focuses on justifying itself more than feeding the hunger to learn of Shaka’s gruesome rule. This objective, though, makes the motive of Shakaitself questionable. Is it just a segue from Wylie’s other books on Shaka, or is it pure-hearted in its attempt to set the story straight? That’s up to you to decide. However, the very clear message that Dan Wiley of Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa, leaves us with: We should be doing research on the people doing research, because no one is inherently trustworthy.

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Photo Credits:

  1. Rod Waddington Warrior, Dassanech Tribe, Ethiopia via photopin (license);
  2. 10b travelling Tribal views via photopin(license);
  3. E. Krall via photopin (license);


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