If amaHlubi king Langalibalele wasn’t a victor in any conventional sense, the impact of his temerity in resisting colonial demands was far-reaching enough, writes Michael Morris.
Cape Town - There is a piratical aspect to amaHlubi king Langalibalele in what are perhaps the best-known pictures of him, kitted out in double-breasted tunic and slouch hat and filling the spacehe occupies with the confidence of a winner.
He was, by account, tall and well-built, and as dignified in appearance as would befit a king who, according to his 1972 entry in the South African Dictionary of Biography, “ruled his tribe carefully and conscientiously”.
When those famous pictures of him were taken, however, he was a prisoner, and standing trial for refusing to submit to colonial authority in Natal.
If he wasn’t a victor in any conventional sense, the impact of his temerity in resisting colonial demands was far-reaching enough.
Langalibalele would eventually be imprisoned on Robben Island, and later confined - ironically, given its name - to Uitvlugt farm, straddling present-day Pinelands and Langa.
The township is generally accepted to have been named for the unbowed monarch's stay on the land it would later occupy.
Langa is “sun” in Xhosa; the king’s name in Hlubi means, variously, “boiling sun” or “scorching sun”, and he certainly burned bright for a while in the colonial consciousness, and not without consequence.
According to amaHlubi oral tradition, Langalibalele’s dynastic line can be traced from the early 1300s and the rule of King Chibi in the Congo basin.
His father, Mthimkhulu II, became king in 1800 of a people who occupied some 5 000km² of what today is the north-western corner of KwaZulu-Natal.
Langalibalele, first known as Mthethwa, was born in about 1814.
His early life was marked by the displacement and murderous rivalry that seems almost to have been pervasive during the territorial upheavals of much of the 19th century.
After the death of his father, his uncle, Mahwanqa, and his brother Dlomo in clashes with Dingiswayo and Dingane between 1818 and the early 1830s, Langalibalele became king of the Hlubi in 1836.
As in the case of Sekhukhune’s Bapedi mine-working subjects at this time, the Hlubi men returning with guns bolstered the military potence - or, from the colonial point of view, threat - of another kingdom the British were anxious to swallow peaceably.
This was the setting for the showdown with Langalibalele in 1873 - the consequences of which are credited with fatally undermining Secretary of State for the colonies Lord Carnarvon’s plan, floated a year later, in 1874, for a co-operative confederation in southern Africa.
This scheme would depend on everyone knuckling down to the same agenda.
If independent-minded kings building up their own fire-power was not part of it, nor was the Cape's furious reaction to what it considered the mistreatment of Langalibalele.
It all began when Escourt magistrate John Macfarlane ordered Langalibalele to have his men’s guns registered, in line with the formal requirement in Natal at the time. The king refused, saying he didn’t know who held guns. After his incarceration, he remained in the Cape until 1887 when he was permitted to return to Natal, though, once there, was confined to the Swartkop location, and never regained his position as amaHlubi leader. He died in 1889.
Langalibalele’s legacy lives on in the vicarious association with Langa - itself a prominent cipher of the later struggle against apartheid.
Remarkably, the Hlubi consciousness of their interrupted dynastic line is another vivid legacy; a decade ago, they made a formal claim for official recognition as a nation with its own king.
Though, in 2010, the Nhlapo Commission found that, since the amaHlubi had been dispersed before the colonial era, they did not have a claim to a kingship, and were relegated into a chieftaincy under the Zulu Kingdom.
Only a few months ago, it was announced the Hlubi intended going to court to assert their right to enthrone their king. He bears the name Ingonyama Muziwenkosi ka Tatazela ka Siyephu ka Langalibalele, otherwise known as Langalibalele II.
* A statue of Langalibalele - along with statues of early Cape interpreter and resistance leader Doman, and kings Cetshwayo and Sekhukhune - will be unveiled at the Castle on Tuesdayh as part of the 350th anniversary of the construction of the stone fort.