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AmaZulu by Walton Golightly PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, 17 June 2008 08:52

(Kwela Books)

According to AmaZulu's blurb its author "weaves fact and fiction, history and myth, to create a compelling tribute to the might of Shaka".

AmaZulu certainly starts promisingly, not least because it's cleanly written, and initially one's inclined to forgive the flash-forwards at the beginning of each section that do little more than break up the linear narrative. But the early promise proves false and before long we find ourselves back in the never-never-land of TV's Shaka Zulu, more myth than history.

The figure of King Shaka KaSenzangakhona is ripe for a fictional treatment incorporating recent historical research. But no, "a key source for this novel," according to Golightly's acknowledgements, "is E.A. Ritter's much maligned Shaka Zulu."


There's a reason it's much maligned. Much of it is fiction. Ritter has long been regarded as unreliable and anyone who still doubts the book's credibility should read Dan Wylie's Savage Delight: White Myths of Shaka where he relates how Ritter's book began life as a novel only to be edited into a biography by an English gardening writer. Those who remain sceptical can move on to Wylie's magisterial Myth of Iron.

Golightly also acknowledges a debt to Donald Morris's The Washing of the Spears which deals with the rise of the Zulu nation under Shaka to their defeat by the British in 1879. Published in 1965 -- and never out of print -- it's a great read but one long overtaken, as Golightly admits, by "subsequent research". So why doesn't he make use of any of that later material? 

Golightly does acknowledge John Laband's "masterly account of the Zulu army, Rope of Sand." Which is fine, but Laband's subtitle indicates it is a bit more than that: "The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Kingdom in the Nineteenth Century". Laband's book incorporates much of the post-Morris research. 

It might seem perverse to review a book in the light of its acknowledgements but AmaZulu deals with a South African figure that remains an emotive and powerful icon in the political minefields of this country. Shaka deserves a more thoughtful treatment than this recycling of old stereotypes celebrating macho-militarism. Unfortunately Golightly prefers the legend to the facts. Shaka is a myth of iron indeed.