The reason for Sekhukhune’s success as a leader centred on his understanding of two key issues, writes Dougie Oakes.
In December 1879 a Bapedi king named Sekhukhune made what proved to be a remarkably accurate prediction: “After me,” he said, “no other king will be able to stand up to Pretoria, since they will all be its tools. No other king will ever defeat Pretoria unless all people of black hair unite as one against Pretoria, or we shall forever be its servant.”
In the 16 years since he had become king in a coup that had swept aside his half-brother Mampuru, Sekhukhune had become a constant thorn in the side of Boer predators who coveted Pedi land between the Vaal and Limpopo rivers, and Imperial Britain, who saw southern Africa’s black people as sources of cheap labour.
The reason for Sekhukhune’s success as a leader centred on his understanding of two key issues: firstly, that in a tumultuously unstable region, the gun was king; secondly, great leaders chose the sites of their battles carefully.
Sekhukhune was quick to realise the threat posed by the Boers, initially, and by the British later. In 1863, shortly after declaring himself king, he summoned royal councillors, advisers and other high officials to his headquarters to issue what in many ways was a new political manifesto.
His audience listened attentively as he reminded them how his great-grandfather and father had buckled under foreign pressure. He would not suffer the same fate, he promised.
He announced that all peace treaties his father had signed with the Boers, Zulus and Swazis would be cancelled, effectively putting the kingdom on a war footing. In return, he demanded just one thing: total loyalty from all Bapedi.
Sekhukhune set about arming those who would be required to defend the kingdom in a novel way, sending thousands of young men of the kingdom to work on white farms and at the newly discovered diamond diggings near Kimberley.
It was an intriguing exercise, as the experience of a 19-year-old youth, Jonas Podumo (his Europeanised name), proved. Podumo’s introduction to the world of arms began when he wrapped up a few belongings in a blanket, bid his family goodbye and headed south, hundreds of kilometres away, through difficult, dangerous terrain “in search of the most important thing a man could own in a dangerous and unpredictable world: a gun”.
But first, he had to get a job in order to earn the money with which to buy the gun.
According to the Reader’s Digest Illustrated History of South Africa - the Real Story, his first job was with a farmer in Colesberg, where he stayed for eight months. He was not paid in cash, but with livestock: three calves and six sheep.
He sold one calf, using the money to buy an “old English soldier’s gun”. And then, herding the remaining calves and six sheep ahead of him, he returned to his home.
Many thousands of young Bapedi criss-crossed the country on similar missions - working, and then buying guns from Portuguese gun runners in Delagoa Bay (in present-day Mozambique), from farmers, Boer hunters and missionaries.
It was a development that caused consternation among politicians and white residents of the Cape Colony. Strident calls were made for Africans to be disarmed. “Firearms should be the preserve of white people only,” bellowed numbers of indignant white colonists.
But Africans defended their right to own guns just as strongly. Possession of a gun was a sign of manhood. To be deprived of a rifle was to be reduced to the status of a child, they chorused.
On the borders of the Bapedi kingdom, the atmosphere was even more charged. The war between Sekhukhune and the Boers of the Transvaal Republic started in an unusual way: by a dispute over a wagonload of wood.
On March 7, 1876, Sekhukhune’s half-brother Dinkoanyane seized the wood, arguing it had been taken from his land by a Boer farmer. A depressingly predictable chain of events followed: the Bapedi were accused of stealing Boer cattle. Then, a false rumour was started that Dinkoanyane had burnt down a mission station run by Lutheran minister Albert Nachtigal.
A livid Boer president, Thomas Burgers, decided to lead the biggest army ever assembled by the republic to “deal with the Sekhukhune menace”. But despite superior weaponry, the Boers suffered a humiliating defeat. Over the next few months, they tried several times to avenge this defeat, including hiring an army of mercenaries under the command of Conrad Hans von Schlieckmann, a German described as a reckless adventurer of diamond notoriety.
It ended badly for him too. Again, Sekhukhune and his Bapedi fighters were able to weather an attack on his kingdom, killing Von Schlieckmann in the process.
It was the British who defeated the Bapedi - but not before they suffered setbacks on Sekhukhune’s battlefield.
The planned annexation of Bapedi land was a small part of a much bigger plan by “native expert” Theophilus Shepstone.
It began with the annexation of the Transvaal Republic because, as Shepstone put it, its failure to defeat Sekhukhune had seriously undermined the “authority of the white man in Southern Africa”.
This done, he proceeded to fine the Bapedi thousands of cattle, as well as setting conditions he knew Sekhukhune would never be able to meet. Inevitably, this meant sending in British soldiers and their African allies to teach the Bapedi a lesson they’d never forget.
But in the beginning, it was the British who were taught a lesson: in the first battle of a new war in March 1878, the imperial army was routed. Immediately afterwards, another British force suffered a similar fate, although the Bapedi also suffered heavy losses. In June 1879, a third attempt also failed.
Sekhukhune and his army succumbed to a force led by Sir Garnett Wolseley after a battle that raged from November 28 to December 2. He was taken prisoner and held in Pretoria until the signing of the peace treaty between the Britain and the Boers. He was murdered by his half-brother Mampuru on August 13, 1882.