Isandlwana: The defeat that stunned Victorian Britain

22 January was the anniversary of the battle of Isandlwana. I wrote this article in 2014, it may be of interest to you. The battle of Isandlwana in 1879 - in which a force of 20,000 Zulus annihilated a British contingent of 1,800 men - became a symbol to black South Africans that white domination was not inevitable. The stories are still being told today.

An imposing Sphinx-like mountain stands against a blue summer sky. Dotted along the slopes are mounds of whitewashed stones and granite grave markers.

Mphiwa Ntanzi, his two sons, Ntando and Musa, and their friend Nqaba, are wandering through the long grass that surrounds the graves.

Mphiwa has brought the young men here to pass on the stories he knows of the Zulu victory. Keeping memory alive through oral history is an ancient African tradition.

“These graves belong to the British people,” Mphiwa begins, indicating the piles of white stones.

“The Zulus fought them and won the battle. The British left their dead here on the battlefield and only came back to bury them months later, so each mound has six or seven, or even more, bodies.

“The bones were white and scattered when they came back, so they did not know who was who and they buried them together in mass graves.”

He points to a hilltop in the distance. “The Zulus took their dead and buried them on that mountain.”

Mphiwa is carrying a rusted spear and a knobkerrie club in his hand, both of which he flourishes as he talks to the young men.

“This is known as iwisa,” he says as he sweeps the knobkerrie low over the ground and then raises it to come swinging rapidly downwards.

“The Zulus would attack the knees first and then smash the head or the shoulder.” The young men listen intently.

“This was my grandfather’s spear,” Mphiwa adds, bringing the rusted weapon up to show the young men. “It is known as iklwa.”

He shoves the spear forward into the air and draws it back slowly. “That was the sound,” he says, “of the flesh sucking at the blade when the warriors pulled it out of the British stomachs.”

The defeat at Isandlwana stunned the Victorian world. Was this the beginning of the end of the notion of white supremacy?

For a British public the old controversy over whether Lord Chelmsford or Colonel Durnford was ultimately responsible for the defeat is an ongoing historical debate.

But for Mphiwa and many other Zulus, which British officer was at fault is a sideshow. For them, the memory of the battle is about pride. It is a victory passed down from father to son, like Mphiwa is doing today.

“My grandfather and my great-grandfather fought here,” Mphiwa tells me. “My great-grandfather was in the veteran regiment, he had fought in many wars, but this was the first battle for my grandfather.”

Through all the years of colonial oppression and apartheid, Isandlwana became more than merely a Zulu victory but a symbol to all black South Africans that white domination was not inevitable and could be defeated.

Still, the scars of those years have not disappeared from South Africa. The area around the battlefield is a remote region of poverty, with high levels of unemployment and illiteracy.

Mphiwa himself had no job for many years until the Department of Tourism offered him a course in studying history and tourism management.

It was only then that he understood that the courage of his grandfathers could still change his life today.

“I did not care so much about the management,” he laughs, “but I loved the history. I knew that I had found what I wanted.”

Now he has a regular income, and has even begun work on a book about his forefathers’ lives and experiences.

Tens of thousands of tourists come every year to see the old battlefield, and there are scores of people like Mphiwa who work in the lodges and hotels nearby.

“I was born after my grandfather died,” Mphiwa says, “but my father told me all the stories. And now I tell them to all the visitors who come here every day.”

So, too, as interest in the battle grows, more and more is learned about Zulu history and traditions, much of which was ignored in the past.

Late that afternoon, I go to Mphiwa’s home. It is a simple, round, mud-walled grass hut with no electricity. A coal stove burns inside, the evening meal cooking on its glowing top.

The women sit on one side of the hut and the men on the other. Mphiwa lays the iwisa and the ikwla gently against the curve of the wall.

“We are lucky,” he tells me. “We remember our ancestors, and they are still here with us, even today.”

Winner of the Standard Bank Sikuvile Journalism Awards for Columns and Opinion, 2023.

Winner of the 2022 National Press Club’s Journalist of the Year: Print/Online Features/ Investigative Journalism Award.

Author of 10 novels, including Red Air and House of War.

Author of a best-selling children’s adventure series called Arabella.

In television, he has worked for a number of international networks, including National Geographic, CNN, BBC, NBC, Al Jazeera English, ZDF, and ARD.

He has written hundreds of articles for publications including BBC, National Geographic Traveler, GQ, Maclean’s Magazine in Canada, TravelAfrica in the UK, The New Zealand Herald, The Buffalo News in the US, The Sunday Times, Business Day, The Sunday Independent in Johannesburg and many others.