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By Jan Hennop
South Africans of all races are gearing up to mark a historic Zulu uprising against British colonial masters a century ago, seen as the birth of black resistance that later ended apartheid.
Soldiers in uniform and Zulu warriors dressed in traditional leopard skins on Sunday will commemorate the 100th year of the Bhambatha rebellion in protest against an unpopular British tax.
Also on Sunday, South African President Thabo Mbeki is expected to restore a traditional chieftainship to the relatives of chief Bhambatha, a largely forgotten hero, at a ceremony at his homestead at Mpanza in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province.
A commemorative stamp will be issued and a street is to be renamed in Bhambatha's honour, organisers said.
The story of Bhambatha and his rebellion started in 1905 when colonial rulers in the Natal province decided to impose a poll tax of one British pound on all adult men in order to fill coffers emptied by the recently-ended Anglo-Boer War.
In reality, the tax was meant to keep poor black labourers on white-owned farms and mines as they would not have been able to pay it without those jobs.
"The imposition of poll tax led to a great deal of opposition by black people in the province and many tribes were split as a result of it," said Ken Gillings, a military historian and expert on KwaZulu-Natal history.
As black discontent spread and white fears grew with sporadic clashes between black tribes and white tax collectors in the sub-tropical and densely forested province, a Zulu chief named Bhambatha of the small but influential amaZondi clan was fingered as the main culprit.
Colonial powers stripped him of his chieftaincy and together with his rebels, Bhambatha fled into the densely forested area of Nkandla near the small hamlet of Greytown, about 150km northwest of the port city of Durban.
On June 10, 1906, Bhambatha's rebels, who engaged in guerilla-style hit-and-run tactics, were surrounded by colonial forces at the nearby Mome Gorge valley.
As the sun rose, colonial soldiers opened fire with machine guns and cannon.
"The shooting wreaked absolute havoc," Gillings told AFP, pointing out that most rebels were only armed with traditional assegais (spears) and knobkerries (fighting sticks) and cowhide shields.
After the battle, in which some 575 rebels were killed, soldiers chopped off the head of the man they believed was Bhambatha and sent it around the province as a warning.
The historic significance of the Bhambatha rebellion is often overlooked, Gillings told AFP this week.
"Although wars had been fought previously between the British and the Zulus, the rebellion was the first real black resistance against colonial oppression and is where the seeds of black consciousness were sown," he said.
It was also the last armed resistance of Africans until the adoption of the armed struggle by former president Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) in the 1960s, which eventually led to all-race democratic elections in South Africa in 1994.
"The Bhambatha rebellion served as an inspiration to our freedom fighters," said John Nkadimeng a stalwart who belonged to the ANC's armed wing uMkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation).
Many believe that the head lobbed off by colonial forces after the rebellion was in fact not that of Bhambatha and that he escaped to neighbouring Mozambique to live to a ripe old age.
"The mystery and legend is that Bhambatha escaped and that the head was definitely not his," said Oscar Zondi, a relative of Bhambatha and spokesperson for the Zondi clan.
He said his family was proud to have an ancestor honoured a century later.
"For us Zondis it's with a sense of dignity and pride to have our ancestor honoured like this," he told AFP this week.
"We hope this event will continue to promote reconciliation and peace among South Africans of all colours," Zondi said. - Sapa-AFP