Andrew Donaldson: How JZ’s ancestors, Zulu impimpis, got Nkandla as reward

President Jacob Zuma is adept at opening his mouth to change feet. But his widely reported argument that South African land claims should begin from the 1800s sets a new standard even for one with such undeniable talent. It opened the door to a new line of inquiry by columnist Andrew Donaldson who scratched through history books to uncover info of which most 1879 Zulu War enthusiasts are unaware. Seems after its inglorious defeat at Isandlwana, the British imperialists enlisted support of Zulu traitors – the original “impimpis” – to effect revenge and eventually subjugate Cetshwayo’s kingdom. Historians record that after the war was won, these Zulu Benedict Arnolds were handsomely rewarded for their services with tracts of land. Including the Zuma clan which thus came into possession of Nkandla, a skeleton in the cupboard which logic suggests beneficiaries should keep well hidden. Particularly the current king of Nkandla, whose royal kraal was modernised at a cost of R250m to taxpayers. Then again, in verbal tradition, tales can easily become transformed, to the extent that Nkandla’s incumbent is probably unaware of his own family’s history which could subject the clan to their own land claim fight. That is, if rights of the dispossessed are allowed to stretch back into the 1800s – as Zuma has been agitating. Talk about the ultimate irony. – Alec Hogg

By Andrew Donaldson*

It is always interesting when President Jacob Zuma shares with us his vision of the past. He is, it must be said, as entertaining holding forth on history as he is with geography and mathematics.

A general view of the Nkandla home (behind the huts) of South Africa's President Jacob Zuma in Nkandla in this August 2, 2012 file photo. REUTERS/Rogan Ward
A general view of the Nkandla home (behind the huts) of South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma in Nkandla in this August 2, 2012 file photo. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

And so it was with his address on Thursday to the National House of Traditional Leaders, in which he again raised the issue of land reform – but with a suggestion that the 1913 cut-off date for land claims be rolled back to some undisclosed moment in the 19th century.

His audience reportedly expressed their approval, perhaps because many of them – members of royal houses, wastrel chiefs and other tribal nobs – were after all themselves relics of the colonial and apartheid eras.

June 19 1913 is constitutionally enshrined as the date after which any person or community deprived of property through racist and discriminatory laws and practices could claim restitution, and whenever it raises the issue, the ANC often quotes its founding secretary-general, the writer Sol Plaatje: “Awakening on Friday morning, 20 June 1913, the South African Native found himself, not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth.”

Zuma did so too, but merely to imply that Plaatje was very much mistaken, and that the South African native had in fact been a pariah in the land of his birth for decades before 1913.

Most of the land, he said, had been already taken by then, and the Land Act was merely about white colonialists grabbing whatever remaining bits and pieces they hadn’t yet snatched up. Consequently, the constitution was “lopsided against the black people”.

“What are we reclaiming?” he asked. “I believe . . .  percentage-wise, the land taken after 1913 is very insignificant . . . Eighteen-something, that’s when the biggest chunk of the land was taken.”


Here at the Mahogany Ridge we believe that, should there be a 19th century land claims cut-off date, the President would be advised to argue for one well after July 4, 1879.

The Anglo-Zulu War effectively ended on that day, when British forces gained control of Ulundi and torched it. The defeated Zulu chief, Cetshwayo, was deposed and exiled, first to Cape Town and then London before being allowed to return to Zululand in 1883.

To defeat the Zulu the British had relied not only on sophisticated weapons and disciplined troops, but also Zulu collaborators – and there were plenty of those, including the ancestors of Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma.

As the author Jacob Dlamini put it, “Far from helping build and protect the Zulu kingdom, the Zumas helped the British destroy it.”

Their treachery did not go unrewarded. The kingdom was broken into parcels of land and handed over to collaborators. In their 2014 book, Ekhaya: The Politics of Home in KwaZulu-Natal, historian Meghan Healy-Clancy and anthropologist Jason Hickel declare that Nkandla, the President’s country home, is just such a spoil.

According to Dlamini, to make their case, Healy-Clancy and Hickel drew on the research of John Wright and the late Jeff Guy, both eminent scholars of precolonial and colonial Zulu history. Guy, in particular, was doing further research into Zuma’s collaborationist roots when he sadly passed away in December 2014.

Who knows what interesting insights that would have thrown up? Sins of the fathers, and what have you?

Were it not for the 1913 cut-off date, there would, we believe, be a strong restitution case to be made regarding Nkandla.

Was a community deprived of this land through a discriminatory practice?

You bet. Practices do not get much more discriminatory than armed conflicts, and the Anglo-Zulu War was definitely such a conflict – even if only the one side had the Martini-Henry rifles.

Meanwhile, it would appear that the President was only too aware of the long-term consequences of the dismantling of the Zulu kingdom. “The dispossession of land,” he told the traditional leaders, “is the source of poverty and inequality which have become the ugly hallmark of our nation and an impediment to the future of shared prosperity.”

Perhaps Zuma should do the right thing, and just give Nkandla away. The place really does seem cursed and much more trouble than its worth. It has infected the ANC with a corruptible seed, and the grumbling over which faction of the ruling party really honestly always wanted the President to repay a portion of the gargantuan costs of those ridiculous security upgrades grows more inane with each passing day.

Ditch the place. Man up and be done with it. As it is, it really does belong to the rest of us, Zulu or otherwise, seeing as we’ve paid for it many times over.

  • This article first appeared in the Weekend Argus. Columnist Andrew Donaldson describes himself as “Writer, journalist, sloppy guitarist. Mostly happy. Sometimes bewildered. Occasionally angry.” Follow him @RidgeMahogany