African Queens Series: Nandi Ndlovukazi kaBhebe, of the eLangeni, Queen Mother of the Zulus

Queen Nandi

Portrait of Queen Nandi

Courtesy of

The history of Nandi and that of her son, Shaka, the great Zulu king and founder of the Zulu nation has mostly been gleaned from oral sources and some written references from the diary of the African trader, Henry Francis Fynn. Fynn spent a great deal of time with Shaka and was also present at the death of Nandi. There are however many inconsistincies regarding the subject. Some of the most crucial events leading up to the establishment of the Shakan empire took place within a few kilometres of Melmoth situated between modern day Eshowe and the Zulu Capital, Ulundi.

The Early Years and the Birth of Shaka

Ndlovukazi Nandi kaBhebhe eLangeni,(the sweet one) was the daughter of a minor Langeni chief, Bhebhe (also referred to as Bheki) Mhlongo and his wife Mfunda,and was born in 1766 at the eBonzini umuzi on what later became the Bull’s Run estate on the banks of the Mhlatuze river. (In close proximity to the present day Phobane Lake). Little is known about her early childhood but one can presume she grew up according to Zulu customs and fulfilled the various chores a young girl would in the household.

On her way with friends to visit relatives near the Babanango hills, she passed close to Senzagakhona’s ikhanda esiKlebe which was situated very near the area where the Babanango road turns off from the R34 Melmoth/Vryheid road. Taking the location of Siklebeni and the various watercourses in the vicinity into consideration there can be little doubt that a meeting took place between Nandi’s party and a group of young men that included Senzagakhona kaJama. This meeting took place south of the White Umfolozi river in the wooded bed of the Mkumbane river (probably upstream from the bridge where the present Melmoth/Vryheid road crosses it.) It seems as though they met again on their return journey and this time the flirting between Nandi and Senzagakhona could not have been so innocent as she fell pregnant by him.

It is claimed that Shaka was born at Senzangakhona’s household and although Nandi was betrothed to Senzagakhona, they were not yet married according to traditional custom. This however seems unlikely as the relationship was illicit and it is more than likely that Shaka was born ‘esihlahleni’ – (literally meaning, in the bushes or outside the normal social setting for a birth), in 1787 in the Langeni territory at the Nguga homestead of Nandi’s uncle. According to Zulu custom in that time pregnant women who were not married were sent away with the child, to live in obscurity and their children were never recognised as being of Royal blood.

When Nandi first reported her pregnancy to Senzangakhona the tribal elders claimed that she was not pregnant but suffering from a stomach ailment caused by the iShaka beetle- an intestinal beetle on which menstrual irregularities were usually blamed – as Nandi was said to be suffering from this because of her out-of-wedlock pregnancy. When the child was eventually born, the child and Nandi were taken to the Zulu capital with much shame and no welcoming festivities as there were no ceremonial celebration for a woman already with child. Nandi took the child to Senzangakhona and presented him with his son and named him ‘Shaka’.

Despite Senzangakona’s attempts to deny paternity, he eventually married Nandi and she was relegated to the lowly position of his third wife. According to E.A Ritter’s book (E.A Ritter – Shaka Zulu), Nandi was not only a mother but also in a interclan marriage which was forbidden. This came about because Nandi’s mother Mfunda, was the daughter of Kondlo, a Qwabe chief, with whom clan intermarriage with the Zulu was unacceptable.

Shaka and Nandi spent his early years at Senzagakona’s esiKlebeni homestead near the present day Babanango. Nandi appeared to have a fiery temperament but was devoted to her son. Although it seems the relationship between Nandi and Senzagakhona was never happy for long she did bear him a second child, a girl named Nomcuba. It seems Nandi was not very popular and found herself unwelcome and neglected. Fortunately Mkabi (the wife of Jama) to whom Nandi as Um-Lobokazi (young wife), was entrusted, was a close relation to Nandi’s mother, Mfunda, and took her under her care displaying some sympathy towards her.

The version given by Henry Francis Fynn differs from the above and although he also wasn’t present the oral representation in time frame is much closer and he may also have gleaned information from Shaka. According to Fynn, Senzangakona, was uncircumsized at the time of his encounter with Nandi. Although a chief may have set aside a group of women, the women were not allowed to conceive before his circumcision was completed. According to Fynn, Nandi was included in this group and within six months became pregnant with Senzangakona’s illigitimate child. The other women in the group publicly charged Nandi with having illicit intercourse. Senzangakona, to avoid disgrace in the estimation of his people, told the other women that she suffered from itshaka, a looseness of the bowels, and that was the cause of the swelling. In time of course, Shaka was born. Henry Francis Fynn also gives more insight as to the temperment of Nandi. He describes her as being of a ‘violent, passionate disposition and during her residence with Senzagakhona she frequently got into fits of outrageous violence’. (In the book, Natal and the Zulu Country by T.V Bulpin he states that ‘Nandi was a masculine, savage woman with a tongue like a rasp.’) Fynn also states that Nandi and Shaka’s expulsion from Senzangakhona’s presence came as a result of Nandi striking one of his leading men over the head with a knobstick. In consequence of this she was on the point of being killed, but Senzangakhona ordered her from his presence and told her to never return.

Other sources (Footprints in Time-Natal, I.L.Perrett) describe the events differently. When Shaka was six years old he allowed a dog to kill one of Senzagakhona’s pet sheep. A quarrel ensued between an arrogant Nandi and Senzagakhona when he treatened Shaka with a beating. As a result Nandi, Shaka and Nomcuba, Shaka’s younger sister, were ordered to return to Nandi’s own people, the Langeni.

Senzangakhona married several other wives and appointed Bibi, the daughter of Sompisi, chief of the Ntuli tribe, as his queen. She bore him a son named, Sigujana who was to become king after Senzangakhona. Other sons, notably Mhlangane, Dingane and Mpande were born to the other wives.

Nandi, Shaka and Noncuba sought sanctuary in the Mtlatuze Valley with the eLangeni people where it seems they were not welcomed. Shaka became a herd-boy at his mother’s I-Ngugo kraal in the Elangeni area about 48 kilometres away from his father’s kraal. It was apparently not a happy time for Shaka or Nandi as she felt herself disgraced through the dismissal of Senzangakhona. Shaka himself was subjected to humiliation and bullying by the older boys who referred to him as ‘the fatherless one’. He became anti-social and unpopular. Few people liked the arrogant Nandi or her son. This unhappiness may explain Shaka’s subsequent lust for power and his hatred against the eLangeni. In Zulu cronicles Nandi is said to have soothed Shaka by saying: ‘Never mind , my Um-lilwane (Little Fire), you have the got the isibindi ( liver, meaning courage) of a lion and one day you will be the greatest chief in the land.’ (Quote from E.A Ritter – Shaka Zulu)

A few adult women defended him and were kind to him. Among these his grandmother, Mntaniya, Mkabi the chief wife of Senzangakhona and Mkhabayi Senzangakhona’s sister (Mkhabayi later played a pivotal role in the death of Shaka).

It seems throughout his childhood, Mkabi (Senzangakhona’s step mother) and Mkabayi, his older sister, visited Nandi and Shaka. Shaka never forgot this and when he came into power he placed them in the highest positions in the land- they became reigning queens of his military kraals and he maintained them there to his death. Shaka idolised Nandi and he had great resentment for the way Nandi had been treated by Senzangakhona and the people of the eLangeni tribe who referred to his illigitimate birth. On the one hand he exalted those who treated his mother well but revenged all those who had slighted Nandi and ridiculed him.

According to the Diary of Henry Fynn, Nandi had married a ‘commoner of the Langeni tribe named, Gendeyana (Ngendeyana) and bore him a son called Ngwadi’. In about 1802 the eLangeni were affected by a great famine and Nandi, unable to provide food for her children, moved the family to the Mpahla flats, east of Eshowe near the Amatikulu river. In the book Shaka Zulu by E.A Ritter, Nandi at this time went to join Gendeyana, by whom she already had a child and who lived among the Ama-Mbedweni people, a sub-clan of the Qwabes. She was well received but Shaka (15) felt no rightful place and was sent by Nandi to live with Macingwane of the Cunu clan. Shortly after,Nandi again sent Shaka to live with her father’s sister in Mtetwaland north of the present day Kwambonambi. Shaka Zulu and Nandi found refuge with her aunt at the mDletsheni clan which dwelt directly under the powerful Mthethwa and their aging king Jobe. Jobe was succeeded by his son Dingiswayo – Godongwane. E.A Ritter states, Nandi, Shaka and his siblings all went to live in the area presided by Ngomane, son of Mqombolo of the Dletsheni clan and a chieftain under the rule of King Jobe.

It was 1803 and for the first time in many years Nandi and Shaka were treated with kindness and sympathy at the Mthetwa home of her aunt. Shaka became a herdboy for Ngomane and lived with Mbiya, who became a foster-father to him. In 1809, Jobe died and his son, Dingiswayo returned home and became chief.

Shaka was about twenty-three years old when Dingiswayo called up the emDlatsheni Intanga(age group) of which he was part, and incorporated it in the iziCwe regiment. All the young men of Shaka’s age group were called up and Shaka became a soldier living the Ema-Ngweni kraal under the leadership of Buza. Shaka served as a Mthethwa warrior for six years, and distinguished himself with his courage, rising to a general.

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    1. Dear Gamezulu, I’ve found very little on the Internet on Queen Nyamazane. If you can find material, please send it through and we can publish it.



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