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“Nomadic Cannibals” Ilanga Newspaper’s Historical take on Amabhele

  • Posted on December 12, 2012

Imbongi James Mbhele in Musa Hlatshwayo's 'uZulu noQwabe'.
Photographer: Val Adamson Imbongi James Mbhele in Musa Hlatshwayo's 'uZulu noQwabe'. Photographer: Val Adamson
Earlier this year KZN’s leading newspaper Ilanga, published an article about the history of ‘AmaBhele’ entitled ‘Abezitika ngabantu amaBhele’. This article was written by one of this newspaper’s writers, Eric Ndiyane and was published on page 11 of the Ilanga of July 23-25. I visited Imbongi James Mbhele and Imbongi Mehlwemamba Ntuli, both of whom are young historians, to get their responses to Eric Ndiyane’s article. This was also a means of reconnecting Ndiyane’s article with our article ‘Ukwehla Ngesilulu’ , where we first met both these historians on their accounts of the history of Amabhele and the concept of Ukwehla Ngesilulu. Our first point of discussion moved around the dissatisfaction of both these gentleman with the choice of Ndiyane’s title ‘Abezitika ngabantu amaBhele’ , which loosely translates as ‘The Bhele were always feasting on people’. 

Ndiyane’s article implies that amaBhele had a secret lifestyle of cannibalism. He renders a few examples that confirm his allegations as justifiable.  He states that AmaBhele were not big on stock farming, preferred staying in the wild and were nomadic in nature. He also mentions that it was common that after every battle that involved amaBhele, no casualties or corpses would be found on the battlefield the morning after the battle. He also mentions that in some instances herdboys would escape from the amaBhele’s attempts to capture them and then return home to report on the incidents. All of these, he suggests, are part of the evidence that indeed they ‘feasted’ on human flesh – hence the title of his article.

“UNdiyane uphazama kakhulu. AmaBhele ebaziwa ngokufuya imihlambi yezinkomo hhayi imbijana njengoba esho. Igama imbijana liphikisa imihlambi lokho okwenza babonakale njengesizwe esasiswele. Yingakho uNdlela ebeqhuba umhlambi wezinkomo kwaze kwadaleka uthuli eya eMbongolwane lapho impi kaShaka eyayiqube khona ize ibuza inkosi uShaka ukuthi abakwabani abazoqhamuka laphaya. Yabe isiphendula inkosi ithi abakwaNtuli ngoba ibona uthuli oluqutshukiswa izinkomo. Yingakho amaBhele ezibiza ngoNtuli zankomo ngokwethiwa uShaka.  Lokho kukodwa nje kukhomba khona ukuthi amaBhele abefuye imihlambi yezinkomo, engaswele,” kusho uMbhele.

“Ndiyane is mistaken. AmaBhele have always been known for their herds of cattle, not just a few like he states. The word ‘imbijana’ implies that they were poor.  Ndlela was herding herds of cattle that raised clouds of dust on his way to Mbongolwane, where King Shaka’s warriors were when they then asked him who he thought was approaching. He then responded saying it is those from ‘the dust’ because all he could see was a cloud of dust from the cattle stampede.  That is why amaBhele are now refered to oNtuli zankomo, the dusty ones from the cattle stampede, as named by King Shaka. That alone justifies that amaBhele were not a poor clan,” says Mbhele. 

“Asikuphiki ukuthi kukhona izigameko lapho kwenzeka khona. Ubufakazi balokho igama elithi ‘Godide’ elisukela kumzukulu kaSompisi elichaza isu ebekubanjwa ngalo abantu engeke sithi bebebanjelwa ukudliwa ngasosonke isikhathi. Bekumbiwa igodi elide kubekwe isikhumba phezu kwalo bese kuthiwa akahlale esikhumbeni alungiselwe okuya ethunjini bese engena emgodini bese ebulawelwa ukudliwa. Mhlawumbe lesisimo kwakuyisimo sangaleso sikhathi esaqalwa izimo esingazazi thina. Nalabo ababadla abantu baphoqwa isimo sendlala ukuze babadle abantu okwaleso’skhathi.  Babenendlela nesu lokubamba izihambi ezaziphambukela emaBheleni, nakhona hhayi ukuthi bababambele ukubadla bonke, njalo ngoba bezitika njengokusho kukaNdiyane,” kusho uNtuli noMbhele.

“We are not disputing that there were instances where it happened. The name ‘Godide’ is evidence of that. This name come from Sompisi’s grandson and describes a plan that they used to capture these people, which does not again mean that they were always captured to be eaten. They used to dig a whole and cover it with cow hide and then invite the trespasser to sit on it so that ‘they could fix him something to eat’. He would then fall into it where he would be killed. Maybe this situation was for that particular period forced by circumstances that we do not know. They had a mechanism that they used to trap the invaders, and it’s not that they always captured them to feast on them. They didn’t go out hunting for people on the grazing lands as Ndiyane so puts it,” say Ntulli and Mbhele.

According to Ndiyane, Mgangatho’s son MaHlaphahlapha fled from Lenge with his son Balule after realising that there was no life in Lenge. He mentions that a few of his family members also followed along and crossed the Mzinyathi River where they collectively then continued with ‘feasting’ on people. According to Mbele and Ntuli, their history says it was Sompisi who had a plan to escape from Lenge using isilulu (a round like container), where he put his two sons Gwajaza and and Ndlela as well as his daughter Bibi. He was running away from the family after realising that his siblings’ habit of cannibalism was drawing nearer to his own children. Fleeing was a mechanism of distancing himself from this habit. In that way, he could not cross the Mzinyathi and continue ‘feasting’ on people as Ndiyane puts it. Both Mehlwemamba and James lament Ndiyane’s choice of language even when talking about their ancestors’ passing on as he states in his article: 

“UNdiyane ukhuluma ngesizwe sethu usibiza ‘ngalaba bantu’ uphinde uthi inkosi yethu yafa…inhlamba ephindiwe ukuthi umuntu wakithi ufile ikakhulukazi inkosi. Inja efayo. Umuntu wendulela kweliphakade okanye uyedlula emhlabeni. Inkosi ke yona iyakhothama,” kusho uNtuli.

“Ndiyane refers to of our kinship group as ‘these people’ and also says our Chief ‘died’. A dog that ‘dies’.  A human being ‘transfers to the eternal world’ or ‘passes on’. A chief or King, ‘bows out,’ says Ntuli.

References and Sources for the amaBhele History?

Both Mbhele and Ntuli also question Ndiyane’s references, as he also does not mention the origins of his information. Instead he presents it as his own. This prompted me to ask my two interviewees about the sources of their own information and how it is they are confident that it is correct. They first reminded me of the fact that even though they share the same ancestry, they have only got to know each other recently. Mehlwemamba is from iNkandla in the north of KwaZulu-Natal while James is originally from Ndlovuzulu (otherwise known as St. Faith’s) in the South of KZN.  Mehlwemamba now resides in Umlazi which is situated on the South East of Durban while James now lives in EZimbokodweni which is located on the South West slightly out of Durban. Their interaction even now that they know each other is very minimal and as geographical distance still separates them, thus allowing them different sources and perspectives on their history. Yet they both agree with each other’s rendition of the history of amaBhele.

They were both born into families of historians and traditional healers.  Both their lifestyles were based on the traditional and cultural practices with both their families fully embracing a rural traditional lifestyle. Story telling was part of their upbringing. Lessons on family history were shared around the fire amongst the elders and even on the grazing lands amongst the herd boys.  While they both did attend school, it is the education they got at home that most resonated and that they most connected with. Each of them then later discovered that they had a calling of story telling through ubumbongi (praise singing). Mehlwemamba then later discovered that he also had a calling to be a sangoma. He then also pursued that journey and is now a practicing sangoma. He was kind enough to share this journey with us through a series of interviews reported on in ‘Heeding the Call of the Ancestors Part I  and Part II.

After finishing school both Mehlwemamba and James then started looking for ways of surviving. They each them relocated to Durban in pursuit of employment. While they both have tried working in firms and other places, it was their calling into ubumbongi that best articulated their deepest passion and calling. It was then during my call for auditions that saw the two of them meeting for the first time in 2009 and working together as Izimbongi, for the first time in a theatrical production entitled ‘Ndlovukazi!’, a multimedia production I directed.

Mbhele and Ntuli’s Resources and Concerns

They both credit the elders in their families and the community at large as the sources of most of their knowledge and information on their history. These as they say are their ‘oral indigenous archives’. They also credit a number of books that they frequently consult including Uphoko by R.S. Khumalo, INqolobane Yesizwe by S’busiso Nyembezi, Umsamo Iziko Lamathongo by V.O. Mkhize and many others. They also listen to a lot of radio programmes about family histories on radio stations like uKhozi FM, iKora FM as well as their local community radio stations.

Ntuli and Mbhele also then drew my attention to an organisation of amaBhele called AmaBhele AseLenge. This is a fully functioning non-profit organisation whose intention is to promote and preserve the history and the identity of amaBhele. Section 2.4 of this organisation’s constitution encourages everyone, including them, to research their history, promote it and share it with the rest of the world - provided it is verified. This organisation also has a website that they also use as a resource whenever they have information or knowledge that they need to verify: http://www.amabhele.org/. This then allows them to not only rely on their own knowledge and that of their elders.

They also gain other perspectives from other regions, which they then bring back to their elders. Both Ntuli and Mbhele then wondered if at all Ndiyane had used any of the information and contacts provided on this website or any other means of verifying his information and where he had actually gathered his information as it differs and exaggerates certain matters over others compared to the information given by their own resources.  Ndiyane’s article was indeed not referenced.

The major reason behind both my interviewees publicly raising their concerns about the issues stated herewith comes out of great concern about what people are going to learn as a factual rendition of their history from a public newspaper as powerful as Ilanga. According to them, the story perpetuates wrong information. Attempts to get hold of Ndiyane for his response were not successful until the day of publication. 

Musa Hlatshwayo is an Archival Platform correspondent based in KwaZulu Natal

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  • Wow i am so honored to know that there are people who are still and are intrested in the history of amabhele,this serves me great information about my identity,eg as to finding out how the Mbhele fore-names came about and much more.Carry on with the good work and stay blessed.

    By Sinegugu Mbele on 22/02/2013
  • siyabonga Sinegugu

    By Musa Hlatshwayo on 01/03/2013
  • It is quite a great honour to get to know more about “imvelaphi yami” now being the only male in my family blood line and not knowing any of my father’s relatives except for him I am learning a lot

    By mahlathini joseph mbele on 04/06/2013
  • Thanks for reminding us with our history. On my growing I us to hear that mbhele also know as amazim zim, of what confuse me, that we name as ntuli because we were running away for amazimu, that is where surname of ntuli started any one can explain angena kanjani amazimu kwa Mbhele

    By Bhele lase leselenge lehla ngeslulu on 23/11/2013
  • Yebo!!!kwakuhle ukuthola abantu abaqopha ngendabuko yabo, ngiyajabula kakhulu ngoba “IZINGANE ZETHU ZOSIZAKALA”.

    By Sibusiso on 20/03/2014
  • Ndicela ukwazi ngabantu bakwaMbhele ukuthi bayashata na nabakwaNtshangase kuba ndithandene noNtshangase ndizithwele umntwana wakhe kodwa ngoku ndiva amahemhem okuba siyazalana njani kodwa ? UMbele no Ntshangase I’m confused I don’t know what must I do.

    By Vuyiswa on 15/04/2014
  • Ngyabonga ukwazi ngama qhawe nangomlando wakithi unwele olude bazimu aselenge

    By sphamandla b m mbhele on 06/05/2014