The Mfecane in South Africa

Illustration of the death of Zulu warrior and the end of the Anglo-Boer War.
De Agostini / Biblioteca Ambrosiana / Getty Images

The word mfecane is derived from Xhosa terms: ukufaca "to become thin from hunger" and fetcani "starving intruders." In Zulu, the word means "crushing." Mfecane refers to a period of political disruption and population migration in Southern Africa which occurred during the 1820s and 1830s. It is also known by the Sotho name difaqane.

European Colonization

Euro-centric historians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries regarded the mfecane as the result of aggressive nation-building by the Zulu under the rule of Shaka and the Nbebele under Mzilikazi. Such descriptions of devastation and depopulation of Africans gave white settlers an excuse to move into the land which they considered empty.
As the Europeans moved into new territory which was not theirs, it was a time of transition during which the Zulus took advantage. That said, the Zulu expansion and the defeat of rival Nguni kingdoms would not have been possible without Shaka's dominant personality and demanding military discipline.

More destruction actually was initiated by those people that Shaka defeated, rather than by his own forces—this was the case with the Hlubi and the Ngwane. Devoid of social order, the refugees pillaged and stole wherever they went.

The impact of the Mfecane extended far beyond South Africa. People fled from Shaka’s armies as far away as Barotseland, in Zambia, to the northwest and Tanzania and Malawi in the northeast.

Shaka's Army

Shaka created an army of 40,000 fighters, separated into age groups. Cattle and grain were stolen from the communities that were defeated, but the attacks were booty for the Zulu soldiers to take what they wanted. All the property from the organized raids went to Shaka.

By the 1960s, the mfecane and Zulu nation building were being given a positive spin – considered more as a revolution in Bantu Africa, where Shaka played a leading role in the creation of a Zulu nation in Natal. Moshoeshoe similarly created the Sotho kingdom in what is now Lesotho as a defense against Zulu incursions.

Historians View of Mfecane

Modern historians challenge the suggestions that Zulu aggression caused the mfecane, citing archaeological evidence which shows that drought and environmental degradation lead to increased competition for land and water, which encouraged the migration of farmers and cattle herders throughout the region.

More extreme and highly controversial theories have been suggested, including the conspiracy theory that the myth of Zulu nation building and aggression was a root cause of the mfecane, used to cover up systematic illegal trading of African people by white settlers to feed the demand for labor in the Cape colony and neighboring Portuguese Mozambique

South African historians now posit that Europeans, and slave traders, in particular, played a significant role in the upheaval of the region during the first quarter of the 19th century, more so than was previously thought. As such, too much emphasis had been put on the impact of Shaka's rule.

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Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "The Mfecane in South Africa." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Boddy-Evans, Alistair. (2020, August 27). The Mfecane in South Africa. Retrieved from Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "The Mfecane in South Africa." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).