The Zulus are considered to be the most fearsome warriors Africa has ever produced and they can thank Shaka Zulu for that reputation. Shaka was the ruler of the Zulus from 1816 until his assassination in 1828. During this time, Shaka revolutionised the Zulu military. He replaced the traditional long throwing spear (Assegai) with a short stabbing spear (Iklwa) with a broader blade. The Zulu pronunciation of i-klwa is said to be the noise the spear made is at was thrust into and then withdrawn from an enemies body.
Shaka also arranged logistical support for his huge armies and arrange them into grades of regiment, each with their own distinctive names and patterns on their shields. Shaka was also responsible for developing the famous Zulu battle tactics known as the “Horns of the Buffalo” (izimpondo ze-inyathi). This tactic had originally been used by the Zulus for hunting but Shaka adapted it for battle with devastating effect.
The Buffalo Horns formation would see the Zulus split their forces into four distinct elements. Each represented a part of the Buffalo; the chest (isifuba), left & right horns (izimpondo) and the loins (umuva).
The Chest of the Buffalo would engage the enemy head on. This element of the Zulu force would usually be made up of the best warriors, proven in battle.
While the Chest of the Buffalo was pinning down the enemy, the Horns would encircle them to the left and right, surrounding the opposition. Any survivors were given the option to join the Zulus, the alternative was death. Those who joined the Zulu army became Zulus. They renounced their previous tribal loyalties and were given full Zulu train. The warriors making up the Left & Right Horns would usually be made up of younger, faster warriors who could move quickly to get behind the enemy.
The remaining Zulus, the Loins, were usually the older, more experienced warriors who were held in reserve to be used as and when necessary. The would also be kept out of sight of the battle or even facing away from the action so they did not become over excited and join the fighting too soon. Shaka or his commanders would observe and control their armies from high ground overlooking the battlefield and relay their instructions with a series of runners.
The “Buffalo Horns” tactics were used by the Zulus in tribal battles and continued to be used many years after Shaka’s death. On 22nd January 1879 when the Zulus attacked the British camp at Isandlwana, it was seen by many as a terrible British defeat but maybe it should be considered a great Zulu victory. Although the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 ultimately saw the defeat of the Zulu nation, the reputation they earned lives on. All over the world, the Zulu is remembered as a brave and formidable warrior. In the phonetic alphabet, the letter ‘Z’ is identified by the word ‘Zulu’.
Their legacy also brings tourism to this part of South Africa with people travelling to visit the battlefields of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift.