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The myth about the childhood of Shaka, king of the Zulus

Few historical leaders have such an extraordinary legacy as Shaka kaSenzangakhona, the founding king of the Zulus. He was, according to popular legend, either a heroic warrior king who led his nation to power and glory or a brutal tyrant whose lust for bloodshed saw him commit countless atrocities. However, the myths started long before he became king, and the events of his childhood are mired in contradiction.

The myth The popular version of events reads like this: Born in south-eastern Africa in 1787 to a minor chief named Senzangakhona, Shaka never stood a chance of being his true heir because he was said to have been conceived out of wedlock after his father had a dalliance with a woman called Nandi from the eLangeni clan. The Zulu, mortified at the embarrassment caused by their young prince impregnating a woman before marriage, denied Nandi's pregnancy, and accused an intestinal beetle known as 'itshaka' of causing her stomach to swell. Senzangakhona eventually accepted responsibility and was forced to marry Nandi to avoid war between the Zulu and eLangeni, but Shaka and Nandi endured such humiliation at the hands of the Zulu that they took refuge with the eLangeni. There too, they were harassed and eventually driven into the wilderness, nearly dying of starvation. The facts The truth is there is no real proof - apart from several conflicting Zulu oral accounts - that Shaka was illegitimate, or that he and his mother were even driven from the Zulu - it is, rather, their insolent behaviour including an act of violence against a Zulu councillor, that is said by some sources to have caused their problems. The same may have been the case among the eLangeni. In addition, it is highly likely Shaka's half-brother Dingane, who took over from Shaka after assassinating him, invented propaganda about Shaka's childhood in order to cast aspersions on his legitimacy. It's even doubtful Shaka was initially named Shaka - it seems his father called him Sikiti, and that the name Shaka only arose much later from Shaka's mentor, Dingiswayo. Furthermore, Dingiswayo's reference to the intestinal beetle is unlikely. He gave Shaka the praise-name 'He who beats but is not beaten' (uSitshaka ka Sitshayeki). That may well be the origin of the name Shaka. The only fact regarding Shaka's childhood - and indeed much of his life - is that there is nothing that people know for sure.

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