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The ‘House’ and Zulu Political Structure in the Nineteenth Century1

  • Adam Kuper (a1)

The rise of the Zulu power in the early nineteenth century has conventionally been treated as the outstanding example of a contemporary southern African process of ‘state-formation’, which was associated with revolutionary social changes. This paper advances an alternative view, that there were strong continuities with established forms of chieftaincy in the region, and in particular that the Zulu political system was based on a traditional, pan-Nguni homestead form of organization.

The Zulu homestead was divided into right and left sections, each with its own identity and destiny. This opposition was mapped into the layout of ordinary homesteads and royal settlements. It was carried through into the organization of regiments. The homestead and its segments provided both the geographical and the structural nodes of the society. The developmental cycle of the homestead ideally followed a set pattern, creating a fresh alignment of units in each generation. The points of segmentation were provided by the ‘houses’, constituted for each major wife and her designated heir. Each of these houses represented the impact, within the homestead, of relationships sealed by marriage with outside groups, whose leaders threw their weight behind particular factions in the political processes within the family.

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2 Bryant, A. T., Olden Times in Zululand and Natal (London, 1929), 70–1.

3 Wright, John and Hamilton, Carolyn, ‘Traditions and transformations: the Phongolo-Mzimbkhulu region in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries’, in Duminy, Andrew and Guest, Bill (eds.), Natal and Zululand: From Earliest Times to 1910: A New History (Pietermaritzburg, 1989), 4982, citation, 57.

4 For the Zulu case see, e.g. Guy, J. J., ‘The political structure of the Zulu kingdom during the reign of Cetshwayo kaMpande’, in Peires, J. (ed.), Before and After Shaka: Papers in Nguni History (Grahamstown, 1979), 4974; Guy, J. J., ‘Ecological factors in the rise of Shaka and the Zulu kingdom’, in Marks, S. and Atmore, A. (eds.), Economy and Society in Pre-industrial South Africa (London, 1980), 102–19.

5 A valuable critical survey of these hypotheses, with special reference to the rise of the Zulu state, may be found in Wright, John, ‘The dynamics of power and conflict in the Thukela-Mzinkhulu region in the late 18th and early 19th centuries: a critical reconstruction’ (Doctoral thesis, University of the Witwatersrand, 1989). The arguments are summed up in Wright and Hamilton, ‘Traditions and transformations’, 59–74.

6 See Cobbing, Julian, ‘The mfecane as alibi: thoughts on Dithakong and Mbolompo’, J. Afr. Hist., XXIX (1988), 487519. Cf. Eldredge, Elizabeth A., ‘The “mfecane” reconsidered’, J. Afr. Hist., XXXIII (1992), 135 and Hamilton, Carolyn Anne, ‘The character and objects of Chaka’, J. Afr. Hist., XXXIII (1992), 3763.

7 For a thorough discussion of oral traditions among the northern Nguni, see Hamilton, Carolyn, ‘Ideology, oral traditions and the struggle for power in the early Zulu kingdom’ (MA thesis, University of the Witwatersrand, 1985).

8 Hall, Martin, The Changing Past: Farmers, Kings and Traders in Southern Africa, 200–1860 (Cape Town, 1987), 124–8.

9 Maggs, T., ‘The Iron Age farming communities’, in Duminy and Guest, Natal and Zululand, 2848.

10 Kuper, Hilda, An African Aristocracy: Rank Among the Swazi (London, 1947), 11.

11 See Kuper, A., Wives for Cattle: Bridewealth and Marriage in Southern Africa (London, 1982), ch. 4; Kuper, A., ‘Lineage theory: a critical retrospect’, Annual Review for Anthropology, 11 (1982), 7195. The development of this theory is the subject of my book, The Invention of Primitive Society: Transformations of an Illusion (London, 1988).

12 Hammond-Tooke, D. W., ‘In search of the lineage: the Cape Nguni case’, Man, XIX (1984), 7793.

13 Wright, John and Manson, Andrew, The Hlubi Chiefdom in Zululand-Natal: A History (Ladysmith, 1983).

14 For some relevant early Africanist work upon which this new discourse built, see Goody, J. (ed.), The Developmental Cycle in Domestic Groups (Cambridge, 1958); Gray, R. F. and Gulliver, P. H. (eds.), The Family Estate in Africa: Studies in the Role of Property in Family Structure and Lineage Continuity (London, 1964). The modern argument was inspired largely by Lévi-Strauss and he provides a convenient summary of his views in the entry ‘Maison’, in Bonte, Pierre and Izard, Michel (eds.), Dictionnaire de l'ethologie et de l'anthropologie (Paris, 1991). See also his essay ‘L'organisation sociale des Kwakiutl’, in La voie des masques (Paris, 1984); and several essays in his collection, Anthropology and Myth (Oxford, 1987). Cf. Bourdieu, P., The Logic of Practice (Cambridge, 1990), especially 271–83; Macdonald, C. (ed.), De la hutte au palais (Paris, 1987); Gudeman, S. and Rivera, A., Conversations in Columbia: The Domestic Economy in Life and Text (Cambridge, 1990).

15 ‘Symbolic dimensions of the Southern Bantu homestead’, Africa, L (1980), 823, reprinted as chapter 10 (‘The system on the ground’) in Wives for Cattle (London, 1982).

16 See, e.g. Huffman, T., ‘Archaeological evidence and conventional explanations of southern Bantu settlement patterns’, Africa, LVI (1986), 280–98; Hall, M., The Changing Past, 6973.

17 Holleman, J. F., ‘Die twee-einheidsbeginsel in die sosiale en politieke samelweing van die Zulu’, Bantu Studies, XIV (1940), 3175; ‘Die Zulu isigodi’, Bantu Studies, XV (1941), 91118, 245276.

18 Holleman, J. F., ‘The structure of the Zulu ward’, African Studies, XIV (1986), 109–33.

19 Holleman, J. F., ‘Die twee-einheidsbeginsel’, 31.

20 Cf. Bryant on the u Yise wamuzi, in ‘The Zulu family and state organization’, Bantu Studies, L (1923), 4751.

21 This particular case-study is expanded, with detailed genealogical and census material, in the two-part paper published by Holleman in 1941. The English translation of part one of that paper (Holleman, 1986) fills out the brief outline I have given here.

22 Holleman, , ‘Die twee-eeinheidsbeginsel’, 65–7. A case in point can be reconstructed in some detail from the Stuart Archive. See Webb, C. de B. and Wright, J. B. (eds.), The James Stuart Archive (4 vols.) (Pietermaritzburg and Durban, 19761986), iv, 84–6.

23 Holleman, , ‘Die twee-eenheidsbeginsel’, 65.

24 Barnes, J. A., Politics in a Changing Society: A Political History of the Fort Jameson Ngoni (London, 1954), 6.

25 Ibid. 9–12.

26 Reader, D. H., Zulu Tribe in Transition: The Makhanya of Southern Natal (Manchester, 1966), 90.

27 Ibid. 87–90.

28 Four volumes of the James Stuart Archive see n. 22, have been published by the University of Natal Press. More volumes are planned. This is a resource which has transformed the basis of Zulu historical scholarship.

29 Bryant, , Olden Times, 3940.

30 The James Stuart Archive, vol. ii, 210.

31 The James Stuart Archive, vol. iii, 265.

32 Bryant, , Olden Times, 4562.

33 Ibid. 55.

34 Ibid. 119–20.

35 Ibid. 37, 43.

36 Kuper, Wives for Cattle, ch. 7.

37 The James Stuart Archive, vol. iii, 249–57.

38 Bryant, , Olden Times, 3940.

39 Grout, Lewis, The IsiZulu: A Grammar of the Zulu Language (London, 1859), 377; Bryant, , Olden Times, 34–5; James Stuart Archive, vol. iv, 169.

40 Bryant, , Olden Times, 41.

41 Spohr, O. (ed.), The Natal Diaries of Dr. W. H. I. Bleek (Cape Town, 1965), 82.

42 Hamilton, Carolyn, ‘Ideology’, 120.

43 Bryant, , Olden Times, 55.

44 Ibid. 63.

45 Ibid. 203; Stuart Archives, vol. ii, 216.

46 Bryant, , Olden Times, 163; James Stuart Archive, i, 176–7; ii, 186–7; iii, 232, 245; iv, 106, 198, 218.

47 Kuper, Hilda, An African Aristocracy, 14.

48 The most interesting analysis of the isiGodlo and of marriage is to be found in Hamilton, ‘Ideology’, ch. seven.

49 James Stuart Archive, iii, 232, 245; iv, 48, 106, 198, 218.

50 Bryant, , Olden Times, 320–1; James Stuart Archive, i, 149–50; Hilda Kuper, An African Aristocracy, 14.

51 Hamilton, , ‘Ideology’, 449. There was also the house of Hamu. Hamu was fathered by Mpande for his full brother, Nzibe, who had died without an heir. Hamu was treated by both Mpande and Cetshwayo as an independent chief, and even had his own isiGodlo. He became a major player in the Zululand of Cetshwayo. Nzibe would have represented the junior house of Mpande's side of Senzangakhona's family, and so Hamu was a largely autonomous baron in the generations of Mpande and Mpande's sons. See Laband, J. and Thompson, P., ‘The reduction of Zululand: 1878–1904’, in Duminy and Guest, Natal and Zululand, 205–15; James Stuart Archive, iii, 267; iv, 117–8, 301.

52 James Stuart Archive, iii, 203. Cf. 102–4, 267.

53 Laband, J., ‘The cohesion of the Zulu polity under the impact of the Anglo-Zulu war: a reassessment’, Journal of Natal and Zulu History, VIII (1985), 34.

1 A grant from the Nuffield Foundation allowed me to conduct undisturbed research on pre-conquest Southern Bantu political processes during the academic year 1991–2. This article is one of the products of that period. I am extremely grateful to Professor J. F. Holleman and Dr Robert Ross, both of Leiden University, for their helpful comments on a draft of this paper, and to Carolyn Hamilton of the University of the Witwatersrand for a radical and creative critique that led me to recast the argument.

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