Impi yamakhanda: The war of the heads

John Langalibalele Dube (1871–1946) remains one of South Africa’s most versatile luminaries. He pioneered modern Zulu nationalism and became the founding president of the South African Native National Congress, the predecessor of Nelson Mandela’s liberation movement. An impressive body of scholarship examines Dube’s politics, particularly the ways that Christianity and ethnicity shaped his activism (Marks, 1986; La Hausse, 2000; Hughes, 2011; Odendaal, 2013). Yet, to date only a few published works are devoted to the study of his life as a newspaper man in British-ruled Natal (Davis Jnr, 1997; Mokoena, 2016). He wrote ‘The man’s head’ and ‘Colour’, reproduced below. Appearing in Ilanga laseNatal (The Natal Sun), a Zulu-language weekly that he edited, these articles bookended a tumultuous period in 1906. That year Dube covered the biggest story of his career: Impi yamakhanda, the ‘war of the heads’, an insurrection fuelled by Zulu youths opposing a £1 poll tax (Hadebe, 2001; 2003). In tracing the causes and consequences of this conflict, Dube established himself as an investigative reporter. Yet while it is tempting to focus on Impi yamakhanda as the moment he realised the power of journalism to expose wrongdoing, it was Dube’s formative faith that truly sparked his interest in muckraking. 

Early on, Dube learnt about searching inquiry in a mission setting that encouraged Christians to believe that Africans deserved the same God-given opportunities and protections as settlers. He grew up in Inanda, a hamlet of converts, amakholwa, outside Durban. His father James (Ukakonina) was a Congregationalist pastor of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, known by the acronym ABCFM (Marks, 1986: 43–4; Houle 2011). Dedication to the gospel never severed James’s bond with his mother Mayembe’s traditional amaQadi lineage. He regaled his children with tales of her patriarch, the inkosi (chief) whose fame ‘excited the jealousy … of the (Zulu) king’. John Dube carried his ancestral pride into American Zulu Mission (AZM) schools, particularly Amanzimtoti Theological (Adams College) where he read New Testament primers, morality tales (Izinganekwane), and Pilgrim’s Progress, the latter being a remarkably accessible text in Africa (Hofmeyr, 2003: 27–8; Hughes, 2011: 1–3, 27). During Dube’s adolescence, mother-tongue literacy took precedence over English proficiency, which may explain his mastery of evocative isiZulu writing (Dube, 1892: 16–8). In the pages of Ilanga he seemed to delight in enlivening articles with double-edged phrases, at once stinging white rulers and baffling censorious translators (Ilanga, 25 March 1906). 

Dube encountered newspapers through American Board proselytisers whose beat was the drama of evangelism. His mission teachers had among their goals to expand the scope of religious reporting. Some served as foreign correspondents for the Missionary Herald, ABCFM’s periodical which claimed to chronicle what ailed Christian civilisation, namely primitive sin (Wilcox, 1884; 1886). For its part, Ilanga professed to record what afflicted African civilisation, if for a different purpose: to uncover colonial transgression. Young Dube admired ABCFM representatives who advanced freedom, equality and knowledge. His mentor, Reverend William Wilcox, not only cherished the First Amendment right to expression; he affirmed that a ‘white man born … in a Zulu kraal will have the thoughts and feelings of a Zulu’. When Cecil Rhodes apparently asked Wilcox for the assistance of one ‘good nigger’, Wilcox rebuked the ‘empire builder’: ‘good but I call him a man’ (Wilcox, 1925: 19, 202; Hughes, 2001; 2011: 86–91). Wilcox shepherded John into adulthood after the protégé lost his father James and mother Elizabeth (Namazi Shangase) to fatal illnesses. Together, the acolyte and reverend would introduce South Africa to the ‘industrial’ aim of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, which sought to train artisans and teachers to serve their black communities. Dube eventually implemented this ‘self-help’ curriculum in his own institute, Ohlange (Wilcox, 1927; Keita, 2009). 

Wilcox helped create Ohlange by forging an educational pipeline that facilitated the enrolment of AZM pupils in American schools promoting the Tuskegee vision (Washington, 1897). In 1887 Dube went overseas to enter the undergraduate bridging programme, or ‘preparatory department’, of Oberlin College, Wilcox’s alma mater in Ohio (Summit County Beacon, 5 October 1887). Oberlin instructors taught the composition of fact (rhetoric) and printing, journalism skills that Dube brought back with him to Natal at the end of 1891. 

Five years later he returned to the US, accompanied by his wife Nokutela. John Dube attended Union Missionary Training Institute in Brooklyn, completing a theology course that culminated in his ordination as a Congregational minister (Wilcox, 1963: 42–4; Marable, 1979: 23–38). The couple stayed three years in a nation overrun by white vigilantes who lynched black men accused of violating white womanhood. Prominent African Americans such as Henry McNeal Turner, Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, assailed this mind set: ‘Southern (white) fanatics’ declare ‘(t)hat if you free the negro he will want to marry our daughters and sisters.’ He questioned the presumption: ‘What do we want with their daughters and sisters? We have as much beauty as they’ (quoted in Feimster, 2009: 53). 

Lynching was an ordinary occurrence when John and Nokutela toured East Coast states to ‘solicit aid’ for their proposed Tuskegee in Natal. In November 1896, their ‘refined’ presentations won praise from the New York Tribune (Hughes, 2011: 65). Months later this paper sensationalised the killing of Samuel Holt, an African American suspected of assault and homicide. A white mob in Georgia burned him at the stake and cut away ‘his ears, fingers, and other portions of his body’ (Patterson, 1998: 194–5). A few years before Dube departed for Oberlin settlers in his colony, frenzied by ‘rape scares’, also instigated vigilante aggression, although they stopped short of extra-judicial executions of Zulu-speaking Africans (Martens, 2002: 379–400). 

In May 1897 John Dube likely passed through Georgia on his way to Alabama to meet Washington and give a commencement address at Tuskegee (Birmingham News, Montgomery Advertiser; both 28 May 1897); this event inspired his ‘Zulu’s message,’ a future plea to ‘Afro-Americans’ to uplift Natal natives (Vinson & Edgar, 2008: 243–4). In May 1897 Dube also told graduating ‘sons and daughters’ of Hampton Institute in Virginia: ‘your forefathers came from Africa … (while) I have come … to learn something of industrial education. … (and) I think a few of you might go out and teach as you are taught … (to) revolutionize … the Zulus.’ In terms celebrating Ethiopianism – a prophetic creed rejecting white-controlled Christianity in fulfilment of Psalm 68:31, ‘Ethiopia shall soon stretch her hands unto God’ – Dube offered a refuge: ‘(I)f the Negro is ever really to have a country it will be Africa’ (Southern Workman, 1 July 1897). 

In due course Natal authorities would blame ‘exported’ Ethiopianism for stoking ‘primitive’ Zulu violence in 1906, an accusation Dube denied, if obliquely: ‘if the people of this country were to be taught the Gospel, then it could not be taught … by Europeans’ (Evidence, Natal Native Commission, 1906–7: 962). He alluded to this sentiment in a letter to the Tuskegee founder (Harlan, 1989: 338–9). Still, Dube was careful about airing radical thoughts, giving himself cover by criticising Ethiopian-type adherents who wanted to overthrow white rule (Ilanga, 2 March 1906; 16 March 1906). Most important, his 1897 American speeches signalled his coming of age as a nascent Pan-Africanist echoing Henry Turner. The next year this AME Bishop visited South Africa to enfold ‘native’ Christians, Xhosas and Zulus among them, in a movement settling his black brethren on ‘the continent’ to spur development from Liberia to the Cape Colony (Campbell, 1995: 136–8). This ideal of traversing borders and boosting Africans appealed to Dube (La Hausse, 2000: 13). He valued connections fostered by crossing the Atlantic, especially journeys that enabled him and his brother Charles to study in the US (Charles attended Wilberforce, an Ohio AME-supported university). 

AME revivalism coincided with American expansionism. The latter, in turn, animated the US press headlining ‘Yankee’ imperialism in Cuba and comparing the ‘war spirit’, vented on the home front through ‘sundry lynchings’, to ‘Great Britain’s aggression in South Africa’ (Washington Post, 31 August 1900). With the Dubes residing in Brooklyn, a notorious incident of ‘lynch-law’ deposed the multi-racial elected government in Wilmington, North Carolina. The Red Shirts, a group venerating the Ku Klux Klan, executed this coup d’etat in 1898, reinforced by white veterans shooting a Gatling gun from the Cuban theatre. The paramilitary murdered black bystanders and drove their families into nearby swamps. An associate of Turner, Baptist Reverend Charles Morris, was so traumatised by the massacre that he left America to preach ‘(a)mong the Zulus’ (Cleveland Gazette, 31 March 1900; Carton & Vinson, 2017: 59–70); his ‘Negro’ evangelism was featured in Ilanga (Ilanga, 16 March 1906). As ‘Colour’ went to press, Dube was cataloguing evidence of lethal attacks by vengeful Natal soldiers on non-combatant Zulus. Indeed, by August 1906 – the month the article was conceived – he was not only well aware of the shared legacy of racial retribution in South Africa and the United States, but Dube likely anticipated the echo over international telegraph lines carrying news that Booker Washington’s ‘Negro improvement’ activism had incited white marauders to kill African Americans in Atlanta (Painter, 1987: 216–9). 

When John Dube returned to Natal from his second American sojourn, he well recognised how the ‘lynch-law’ mentality – particularly its calculated terror and transnational reach – posed an existential threat to black people enduring white supremacy. Thus, he accelerated his plan to create two institutions that would ensure ‘the last shall be first’. The police surveilling Dube’s ‘seditious’ activity recorded this biblical phrase, along with ‘and the first shall be last’ (quoted in Vinson & Edgar, 2008: 244). 

In 1901 John and Nokutela Dube finished the construction of Ohlange. This vocational oasis gave Zulus a chance, he proclaimed, to ‘keep pace with (white) civilization’, unlike ‘the Red Indians of America’ (Evidence, Natal Native Commission, 1906–7: 961). Two years later, in February, the Dubes launched Ilanga laseNatal. It followed the trail originally blazed by Ipepa loHlanga (National Newspaper), if not this periodical’s final trajectory. In 1903 Ipepa loHlanga, edited by Mark Hadebe, headed for closure (Mokoena, 2016: 369–70). Committed to publishing isiZulu articles along with a few columns in English, isiXhosa and Sesotho, Ilanga adopted a didactic tone, commending piety and admonishing sycophancy. Dube reserved special ire for peers collaborating with ‘foreigners’ to restrict oral and printed Zulu ‘literature’. One editorial scolded the AZM teacher Ngazana Lutuli for aiding a government effort to codify isiZulu orthography (La Hausse, 2000: 12). 

During the paper’s first decade one subject seemed to overshadow all others, spreading protests against a £1 poll tax imposed on unmarried men over the age of eighteen (Hadebe, 2001; 2003). The revenue-raising measure targeted single African migrant labourers earning cash (Marks, 1970: 138– 42). Dube set out to discover whether this unrest portended something more ominous. Were the combative youths, he wondered, enflaming generational struggles between junior commoners and traditional leaders? No other newspaper so clarified the combustible interplay between politics and culture provoking war in 1906. Dube referenced generational struggles in Natal as African patriarchs were surrendering more resources to settlers (soon after a succession of environmental disasters – rinderpest, drought and locusts – had devastated crops and livestock). Seeing their material birthright diminished, some Zulu youths perceived the apparent elder acquiescence to colonial exactions as an act of betrayal, and increasingly defied senior authority by flouting filial obligations (Carton, 2000). Ilanga illuminated these dynamics to warn government that it had disturbed a hornet’s nest, and to alert readers that reactive opposition to the poll tax, incited by intense social discord, made all Africans vulnerable to the firepower of vindictive colonists. The sources informing Dube were probably associated with his Ngcobo Qadi lineage as well as AZM counterparts who lived along the coast, north from Durban to the Tugela River, like the Maphumulo division. At another remove, he likely received tips from Zulus in Pietermaritzburg and southern reserves around Ixopo, an area dotted by ABCFM stations. Finally, his most prized informants may have been ‘native interpreters’ – and Ilanga supporters – serving the magistrate. 

When ‘The man’s head’ first appeared, Dube’s public insistence on payment of the new £1 obligation was well known (Ilanga, 26 February 1906). Seeming to play a different tune, his March 1906 article portrayed anti-poll tax as a reasonable outcry expressed with slogans and mock war-dancing, ukugiya, that physically harmed no one. Displeased with this characterisation, Natal authorities indignantly summoned Dube. Their showdown gave Ilanga a chance to present the editor’s starring role in a scene titled, ‘I Governor noMafukuzela’, where Dube, the ‘tireless man’ (uMafukuzela), addressed the overlord’s rebukes (Ilanga, 28 May 1906). Soon protestors abandoned their voluble approach and, instead, wielded spears in regiments that confronted law enforcers; several white policemen were slain. In Ixopo and Dumisa, militants rallied to the promises of ‘Ethiopianism’ (Report Magistrate, Lower Umzimkulu, January 1906; Report Inspector Philips, Dumisa, April 1906). By April, some of them had joined armed rebels streaming towards the Tugela Valley. Deploying hit-and-run tactics, they skirmished the Natal army, coiled to strike with Gatling guns and field batteries. The guerrillas called their campaign impi yamakhanda. Colonists, however, coined it Bhambatha’s uprising, so designated for the ringleader, amaZondi inkosi Bhambatha kaMancinza who was either accused by whites of plotting treason or honoured by Zulus for galvanising resistance. In June, Bhambatha’s forces concentrated in the Nkandla forest. It was a fatal error; government troops trapped the rebels and annihilated them with cannon fire. ‘Mop up’ units then scoured the countryside, targeting real and imagined insurgents, torching homesteads and selling seized livestock to fund these operations (Marks, 1970: 239–40; Carton, 2000: 122). Over the next two months another phase of impi yamakhanda turned Maphumulo into a war zone (Guy, 2005). That settlers embraced their self-appointed prerogative in these martial zones – of ‘licking the niggers into shape’ and ‘knocking the hell out of them’ (Marks, 1970: 177) – did not surprise Ilanga. In ‘Colour’ Dube urged Zulu readers to see their predicament, as hunted people, in the way that African Americans understood the peril of lynching. Vengeful colonists pervaded South Africa, he asserted, so one could not separate them from ordinary ‘natives’, and vice versa. Thus, it was incumbent on abantu (Africans) and abelungu (Europeans) to stem the hatred spawned by white supremacy. In the wake of ‘Umbala’, Dube contacted his Tuskegee hero, explaining that ‘the prejudice of our white people’ grimly mirrored ‘the Southern States in America’ (Harlan, 1989: 339). 

‘The man’s head’ depicts this hatred and the predatory men like Colonel Leuchars who embodied it. The article describes a series of events, beginning one morning in February 1906, when George Leuchars, a former minister of Native Affairs, and his ‘vultures’ hovered on the horizon while inkosi Gobizembe paraded his young men before Magistrate Ernst Dunn. Directed to hand over their £1, they refused and stormed off, according to Dunn’s memos. The magistrate moved to another location in Maphumulo to meet inkosi Swayimani [sic] and his ‘boys’ (Statement Nkomonopondo, March 1906; Minute Magistrate Dunn, February 1906). These young men thrusted sticks in the air, Dunn noted, and shouted ‘(t)hey had no money’ (Statement Swayimana, March 1906; Statement Sergeant Mhlazana, March 1906). Swayimani [sic] cracked his sjambok, a whip, striking some ‘boys’ but these lashes ‘had not the desired effect’. After the assembly dispersed, Dunn quipped, ‘the whole were … ungovernable by either myself or their Chief ’. Hours later he summoned poll tax payers of inkosi Meseni to Galliard’s Store. A crowd formed and jeered, ‘they were being eaten up by Government’. Dunn blustered: ‘(i)f they were here to pay, well and good, if not they had to go’ (Minute Magistrate Dunn, February 1906). They left. 

Galliard’s was Dunn’s last afternoon stop. Back at the magistracy he penned a document sounding the alarm: ‘the brutes here … shout at me “Iya asikutela gade satsho enza ngokutanda” (Get away. We are not going to pay … Do as you please), and gwiya [e.g., simulate combat in dance steps]’ (Minute Magistrate Dunn to Under Secretary for Native Affairs, February 1906). Dunn witnessed the sparks of a gathering blaze. The narratives of ‘The man’s head’ coincided with the magistrate’s reports. With no apparent access to Dunn’s records, Dube probably reconstructed what happened from details supplied by eyewitnesses who remembered the day the poll tax collection failed. Convinced force would defuse strife in Maphumulo, Leuchars told Gobizembe to surrender 300 poll tax evaders. Unsatisfied with the turnout, Leuchars ordered the inkosi to clear out his homestead and blew it up. Within days, Gobizembe was banished. Leuchars wanted similarly to punish Meseni and Swayimani [sic] (Interview, Colonel Leuchars & Swayimana, March 1906; Stuart 1913: 149–50). 


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The Man’s Head 

John Dube, Ilanga laseNatal, 26 February 1906 

Translated by Benedict Carton, with assistance from Dingani Mthethwa and J. Sabelo Ntshangase 

Our attention has been with Maphumulo and Ixopo, now we turn our focus to the place of Dumisa where inkosi Jack together with his headmen, or councillors, went to the magistrate to report that their young men refused to pay the poll tax.Today I learned something new about black people.Amakhosi find a way to settle the problem with white authority by blaming angry boys for refusing to pay for the tax, and thereby maintain good standing with government.On the other hand, when the boys are caught they blame amakhosi for having instructed them to refuse paying taxes.Therefore, Gobizembe was arrested because those young men of his father who performed a dance simulating combat (ukugiya) in the face of the magistrate, chanting ‘we will never pay,’ now smear Gobizembe ‘with poop on his face,’ blaming him for instructing the boys not to obey (government) agreeably.Jack is now imprisoned, he is saying that his people refuse to pay, but who knows, when they are brought to book perhaps they will say that Jack is lying.I don’t understand people anymore.When you look at all these things you wonder if armed resistance can be launched by these people! Ilanga said this amounts to nothing.Members of the taxing authority do not accept the spears brought by Gobizembe’s people, they believed those spears are not the weapons typically carried in war.The spears brought forward were dug-up throw-aways from the trash heap.Shoo! Do you think they will bring their real fighting spears right away? Lushazi (Colonel Leuchars) is ready to confiscate Gobizembe’s cattle and sell them.

Mshofeni has already paid one hundred cows for refusing to identify his people who show contempt to the high political power.

The question is whether Gobizembe’s people will be divided up under other amakhosi or a new inkosi will be appointed over them, you will never know the intentions of the authorities.

On Monday there was a trial against the people who killed policemen at Mafuze district.The trial was handled in the government court.Manjongwe and others did not attend the trial because they were sick.Twenty people were convicted that day.

The vultures are hovering and it seems the days are numbered for amakhosi Meseni and Swayimani [sic] (they are the next target).It is said that Meseni, inkosi of the Qwabe has been commanded to give up one hundred men who defied the Magistrate at Gillands [Galliard’s] on February 1st.Swayimani [sic] was also made to produce fifty young men who defied the Magistrate on the same day.Leuchars (called umfo ka) knows the power of a conquering warrior, he will eat up (seize) their cattle too.We pity Gobizembe, while death awaits many others.

Just before going to press we hear that Gobizembe and his brother Paul are in Stanger, the site of the magistrate.Leuchars appears not satisfied with the severe punishment inflicted on them.There is a lesson delivered to the man who disobeys government.The whites want to prove to us that we are really under their heel.There is turmoil at Swayimani [sic] and Meseni because they have been directed to hand over the boys who defied the Magistrate.If they fail to surrender those men, Leuchars is out there ready to bring the heavy hand and nobody can stop him from enforcing compliance.


John Dube, Ilanga laseNatal, 28 September 1928 

Translated by Benedict Carton, with assistance from Dingani Mthethwa and J. Sabelo Ntshangase 

The question of colour has become the pressing topic! [In this opening sentence, the idiom, indaba egudwini, means ‘everyone is talking about an electrifying topic’.The locative, egudwini, refers to the igudu, a communal pipe passed between smokers.] Bad news came by telegraph that thirty black people were killed in America following a dispute over women [the killing refers to the August 1906 Atlanta ‘race riots’].The whites have said that the blacks violated [ukupoqa, ‘to force in a violating way’, alluding to sexual assault] white women and black people have said the same with regard to their own women.Bishop Turner of the African Methodist Church speaking in New York said it would be a good thing if the black people of America were taken across to West Africa.He is now speaking to rich Americans to help transport black people [from the United States] to West Africa.There is a conflict between white and black colour when they come together.Although Bishop Turner makes this argument, the question is will he prevent white people from going to West Africa? As soon as the white people arrive in West Africa, the conflict will kindle there.Before the arrival of white people in our country, there was no problem between the whites and blacks.Now it has started.The black people in America have been well educated yet the hatred in the [former Confederate] South is serious.We are begging our white authorities [listen closely], arrange better ways of treating black people so that the time will not arise that hatred between white people and black people will become as serious as it is in the Southern States of America where the black person is falsely accused of committing a violent act against a white woman and taken from the prison cell and shot without a trial.You who are the Natal authorities protect the future generations and avoid everything causing the hatred that can pass to our children.What you have seen in America and other places are sufficient to make you wise and to encourage you to establish the best treatment for black people.

Featured Image: John Langalibalele Dube. Image: News24