Three extracts from the long Zulu Praise-Poem about Shaka, the Zulu king. Shaka succeeded Dingiswayo as head of the Zulu clan in 1818: by the time of his assassination by Dingane in 1828, he had become King of the Zulu nation. This transformation was brought about by his military genius and, in particular, by his defeat and incorporation into his kingdom of two rival clans, the Qwabe under Phakathwayo and the Ndwandwe under Zwide. Zwide had earlier defeated Dingiswayo when Shaka was living under Dingiswayo’s protection, so this victory was a revenge as well as a triumph and is celebrated in the Praise-Poem with special pleasure.

The first extract consists of the opening lines of the Praise-Poem, describing Shaka in general terms. This is followed by an account of Shaka’s amazing catalogue of victories, culminating in the two defeats of Zwide in 1818 and 1819. The final extract is the Praise-Poem’s concluding lines.

Shaka is a poem of amazing power and energy. It bursts the bounds of the ordinary Praise-Poem to give a narrative account of historical events. It is not so much concerned with the character of an individual ruler as with the emergence of a nation under a leader of genius. The victories and destructions are described in detail. The images are of lions, leopards, elephants, fires, furnaces, axes and spears, hawks and vipers, and so on. The qualities praised are bravery, ferocity, vigour and strength, and the tone is confident and aggressive, Shaka setting his own stamp on the nation.

Dlungwana son of Ndaba! (1)
Ferocious one of the Mbelebele brigade, (2)
Who raged among the large kraals,
So that until dawn the huts were being turned upside down.
He who is famous without effort, son of Menzi, (3)
He who beats but is not beaten, unlike water,
Axe that surpasses other axes in sharpness;
Shaka, I fear to say he is Shaka,
Shaka, he is the chief of the Mashobas. (4)
He of the shrill whistle, the lion;
He who armed in the forest, who is like a madman,
The madman who is in full view of the men.
He who trudged wearily the plain going to Mfene;
The voracious one of Senzangakhona,
Spear that is red even on the handle…

The attacker has been long attacking them: (5)
He attacked Phungashe of the Buthelezi clan,
He attacked Sondaba of Mthanda as he sat in council,
He attacked Macingwane at Ngonyameni,
He attacked Mangcengeza of the Mbatha clan,
He attacked Dladlama of the Majolas,
He attacked Nxaba son of Mbhekane,
He attacked Gambushe in Pondoland,
He attacked Faku in Pondoland.

The young viper grows as it sits, (6)
Always in a great rage
With a shield on its knees.

He who while devouring some devoured others
And as he devoured others he devoured some more;
He who while devouring some devoured others
And as he devoured others he devoured some more;
He who while devouring some devoured others
And as he devoured others he devoured some more;
He who while devouring some devoured others
And as he devoured others he devoured some more;
He who while devouring some devoured others
And as he devoured others he devoured some more.

Painful stabber, they will exhort one another, (7)
Those who are with the enemy and those who are at home.
He who is dark as the bile of a goat.

Butterfly of Phunga (8)
With colours in circles as if they had been painted on; (9)
He who is hazy as the shadows of the mountains,
When it is dark the evil-doers move about.

The rival of Phunga and Mageba
Which looked at me until I got accustomed to it.

Powerful limbs, calf of a beast,
The kicking of this beast puzzled me, (10)
It kicked the milker and left the one holding it.

Hawk that I saw descending from the hills of Mangoengaza, (11)
And from those of Phungashe he disappeared;
They said, ‘Hawk, here he is, there he is’,
Whereas he was silent in the forests like the leopards and lions.

Shaka went and erected temporary huts
Between the Nsuze and the Thukela,
In the country of Nyanya son of Manzawane;
He ate up Mantondo son of Tayi,
He felt him tasteless and spat him out,
He devoured Sihayo.

He who came dancing on the hillsides of the Phuthiles,
And overcame Msikazi among the Ndimoshes.

He met a long line of ibises
When he was going to raid the foolish Pondos;
Shaka did not raid herds of cattle,
He raided herds of buck. (12)

The one who gets stiff! (13)
The one who was cooked in the deep pot of Ntombazi,
He was cooked and got stiff.

The one who goes along making fires and leaving behind conflagrations,
Who when he was rubbed flared up like a fire;
There was no longer a beast lowing at little Ntombazi’s,
It was now lowing at our place at Bulawayo. (14)

Our own bringer of poverty at Bulawayo,
Who made Zwide destitute by great strides.

The sky that rumbled, the sky of Mageba, (15)
That thundered above Nomangci mountain,
It thundered behind the kraal at Kuqhobekeni and struck,
It took the shields of the Maphela and Mankayiya,
And the head decorations of the Zimpaka were left in the bushes;
He devoured Nomahlanjana son of Zwide of the Maphelas, (16)
He devoured Mphepha son of Zwide of the Maphelas,
He devoured Nombengula son of Zwide of the Maphelas,
He devoured Dayingubo son of Zwide of the Maphelas,
He devoured Sonsukwana son of Zwide of the Maphelas,
He devoured the chief’s wife, daughter of Lubongo,
He devoured Mtimona son of Gaqa of the Maphelas,
He devoured Mpondo-phumela-kwezinde of the Maphelas,
He devoured Ndengezi-mashumi of the Maphelas,
He devoured Sihla- mthini-munye of Zwide’s people,
He devoured Nqwangube son of Lundiyane,
He belonged to our side, having turned round his shield.

Return, Trickster, indeed you have finished this matter,
As for Zwide, you have made him into a homeless criminal,
And now today you have done the same to the son… (17)

Young raging one of Nbaba!
He lives in a great rage,
And his shield he keeps on his knees;
He has not let them settle down, he keeps them in a state of excitement,
Those among the enemy and those at home.

Mandla kaNgome! (18)
He crossed over and founded the Ntontela regiment,
They said he would not found it and he founded it.

He who attempted the ocean without crossing it, (19)
It was crossed by swallows and white people.

He who sets out at midday, son of Ndaba, or even afternoon;
Pursuer of a person and he pursues him persistently,
For he pursued Mbemba born among the Gozas,
He pursued him until he put him at Silutshana…

Axe of Senzangakhona,
Which when it was chopping worked very energetically,

He who saw the cattle right on top of the hill,
And brought them down by means of long spears and they came down…
Little leopard that goes about preventing other little leopards at the fords. (20)

Finisher off! Black finisher off!

from Izibongo: Zulu Praise-Poems
collected by J. Stuart


  1. Dlungwana: a praise-name meaning ‘the One who Rages’. See Ndaba.
  2. Mbelebele brigade: Mbelebelebeni was one of Shaka’s military barracks.
  3. Menzi: the word means ‘Creator’ and is a praise-name of Senzangakhona, Shaka’s father.
  4. The Mashobas: the name of the village where Shaka first became prominent.
  5. The attacker: the people listed in these lines were all rival clan­-leaders whom Shaka defeated.
  6. The Young Viper: one of Ndaba’s praises, here used also of Shaka. The five-fold repetition in the lines which follow is overwhelmingly impressive in performance.
  7. Painful stabber: one of Senzangakhona’s praises here applied also to Shaka and emphasising the breadth of his military reputation.
  8. Phunga and Mugeba: the names of ancestors.
  9. The colours may refer to Shaka’s bloody appearance in battle.
  10. The kicking of this beast: this is striking as the only praise in the whole poem which implies criticism of Shaka’s restlessness.
  11. Hawk that I saw: the following lines refer once again to rival clan­ leaders whom Shaka defeated.
  12. Herds of buck: the implication is that Shaka was fast enough to capture buck.
  13. He who gets stiff: the reference is to Zwide, whose mother was Ntombazi. This line introduces the section of 30 lines dealing with the defeat of Zwide.
  14. Bulawayo: Shaka’s capital.
  15. The sky that rumbled: the Praise-Poet sets the scene for the battle, describing the storm breaking over the battle site as an image of Shaka’s army.
  16. The following long list of names is of the sons of Zwide who were killed.
  17. The same to the son: Shaka defeated the remnant of the Ndwandwe clan at a further battle in 1826.
  18. Mandla kaNgome: a praise-name which may mean Mighty Power.
  19. He who attempted the ocean: Shaka despatched a diplomatic mission to King George IV of Britain in 1827.
  20. Other little leopards at the fords: the meaning is that Shaka controlled the whole country, river passages being key strategic points in Zululand.