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Mthwa and Hlubi

by Mbizo Mzamane


We Africans do not refer to ourselves as coming from or being members of “tribes”. Both presently and historically the term used to indicate the people you were borne of is “clan”. My family is descendant of a number of clans. One is Mthwa (masculine) or Mthwakazi (feminine); others are Msimango, Nothabizolo, and Hlubi (masculine) or Hlubikazi (feminine). Each clan name has a personality and story that stretches back generations to the origins of our people. My story is the focus on two of these clan names: Mthwa and Hlubi. We, the Mzamanes, trace our heritage back to the time of the Bathwa, also known as the San People, or in more Eurocentric terms, the Bushmen.

In the early 1700s there lived a man we refer to as Mthwa. This, naturally, was not his real name but the name of the clan. Mthwa was a member of the San people and thus a hunter-gatherer. He consequently traveled all over the land. Annually he would arrive where our ancestral families lived, in communities near the east coast of Southern Africa. He was notably quite an indolent man and would time his arrival to coincide with the beginning of harvest celebrations rather than the work and harvest period themselves. In this time of harvest celebrations there was much slaughtering of livestock and millet harvesting (including the brewing of millet beer), and there was general feasting and festivity.  During the festivities was the ever-present art and tradition of storytelling.

Mthwa himself was a brilliant storyteller and the people eagerly awaited the opportunity to hear him tell his stories. He was like an annual publication for people were centered on an oral tradition. It was Mthwa who reported to them what was going on all over the land. He would be the one who would, for example, tell them of the “unexplainable ghosts” (Europeans) who came from out of the water onto their shores. He would describe how they had skin unlike ours and didn’t seem to have any toes (as their feet were covered by shoes). Other years he would give them accounts of the “ghosts” stealing people’s cattle and when the people went to retrieve their cattle they were killed and bullied back. He would tell them tales of seeing horses and interacting with Europeans. Many of his stories would be geared toward adults, particularly the men, but often children would sneak in to listen.

Now there was a young, bold and lively girl in the clan by the name of Nondi, or Nonti by some accounts. Nondi loved Mthwa’s stories and whenever he was around she would follow him, wanting to hear more. So every year she would look forward to his arrival; and every year she grew and matured a little more. In time Nondi became an attractive young woman, and one year Mthwa, who was also somewhat roguish, with a glint in his eye, and was attracted to ladies of varying descriptions, seduced her. However, it should be remembered that Nondi was herself quite forward and liked Mthwa very much, so that it was possible that she herself could have been the seducer. In any case, Nondi became pregnant by Mthwa.

In those days, when a young woman became pregnant out of wedlock it was seen as a scandal and a shame. As it was a dishonor brought upon the family, it was dealt with in severe fashion. Sometimes the family, particularly the side of the mother, would be rusticated. Once they kicked him out, Mthwa decided to take the pregnant Nondi with him.

There was a kingdom, adjacent to the clan of Msimango, under the rule of a king by the name of Dingiswayo; he was the king of the Mthethwa clan. Dingiswayo was a kind hearted, accepting and generous king, so much so that people who were in trouble in other kingdoms came to him to seek solace, comfort and protection. In this spirit Mthwa traveled to Dingiswayo’s kingdom with the pregnant Nondi. Dingiswayo took them in. He promised them a place to stay, to provide for them and make sure that they were well. However, once Nondi had settled in and was guaranteed peace, Mthwa did what he knew best: he wandered away. As such, Mthwa disappeared from the kingdom never to be seen or heard of again.

Nondi remained in the Mthethwa clan and flourished as a single mother. Now it chanced that there was another woman who was in the same position, and who was just as beautiful – her name was Nandi. Nandi had been impregnated, also out of wedlock, by a man named Senzangakhona, who was a chief in a kingdom not too far from Dingiswayo’s. But because of his stature in society, when news came of her pregnancy, he was able to proclaim his innocence and say it was not he: “It must have been a reed.” Thus when she gave birth to a baby boy he was named Shaka, which, in Zulu, means “a reed”.

So it was that Shaka, son of Nandi, and Hlubi, son of Nondi, were born under the guidance of Dingiswayo, who became their foster father, and whose kingdom became theirs. Both boys were bright and ambitious. They would tell one another stories and dream together about life and its offerings. Shaka, however, had a different agenda to Hlubi. More than anything else, he wanted to avenge his mother and make up for her humiliation and mistreatment. He was determined to succeed. But Hlubi was not set in this way; no one in his family was particularly royal and he was not vengeful in nature. However, as they grew into men, they were absorbed into Dingiswayo’s army and proved to be outstanding soldiers. It was Shaka, though, who was more the military type while Hlubi was a thinker and a diplomat. He would often advise Shaka on how it wasn’t only about force, but also about tactics. Then, as time went by, Dingiswayo, who understood Shaka’s desire to avenge his mother, made it possible for him to do so.

Shaka wanted to claim his rightful place as chief after his father, Senzangakhona, so Dingiswayo gave Shaka and Hlubi troops to attack Senzangakhona’s kingdom after he died. Shaka succeeded and was soon after joined by Dingiswayo in an alliance. Together they expanded  their kingdoms and laid the foundation for the Zulu empire.

Thereafter Shaka ruled with Hlubi as his right hand man; Hlubi was an advisor, confidant, and military general. It is important to understand that in those days one did not become a king only or necessarily by heredity. One could come to power through prowess and distinction. One could even be chosen as king if people saw that you had something to offer the society. Thus, Hlubi himself could have been king, if it were not for his loyalty to his foster brother Shaka. For Shaka knew very well, in that regard, that he was his greatest rival. Indeed, Hlubi, besides being himself a shrewd diplomat, leader and gifted military expert, was well liked amongst the people while Shaka was more feared than revered and respected.

However, Shaka, in one of the many illustrations of his brilliance, devised a plan to protect his throne. He would send his rivals on military expeditions. This policy accomplished two things: First, it was a method of expanding his empire. Secondly, and more importantly, it ensured that his rivals were far from the kingdom and therefore his throne. Moreover, he was a strict and often brutal ruler who did not take lightly to failure. If one did not succeed in an expedition, it was better to stay away than risk his wrath. Shaka sent Hlubi on one of these expeditions. Being well aware of the insinuation and being of a different nature to Shaka, Hlubi decided that once he conqueredhis adversaries, he would remain in their land and not return to the heart of the Zulu kingdom.

Hlubi’s military expedition took him south of the Zulu kingdom, toward the bottom of the Maluti (Drakensberg) mountain range. Here he established his own community. Thereafter his clan and community intermarried with other Nguni peoples (Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele, and Swazi) and expanded to occupy the areas even further south, into what is known as the Eastern Cape Province. It is in this land that Hlubi and his descendants intermarried to form clans of syncretism with the Xhosa. My grandfather’s side of the family is from Eastern Cape and we, amongst other things, are Xhosa. The Xhosa were, in fact, amongst the first peoples to oppose, both militarily and politically, the European settlements on the west and south coasts, this being where the English and the Dutch first landed. Also, they were some of the first to be baptized and given European education, attending European schools.