Gareth Cliff's blog on Rhodes and Shaka sparked a Twitter frenzy.

Durban - A historian has criticised attempts to draw parallels between Cecil John Rhodes and King Shaka, saying the latter was driven by his desire to unify Africans.

They were commenting about the recent comparison of the Zulu king and Rhodes which was sparked by media personality Gareth Cliff on his online blog last week.

Cliff’s column came after the call by UCT students for the removal of Rhodes’s statue from their campus.

Their “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign has since been joined by their Rhodes University peers who have called for a change of the institution’s name.

On Thursday, the King George V statue at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Howard College campus in Durban was defaced.

Cliff said in his blog that while it might have been true Rhodes was an imperialist who exploited Africans, the same could be said about Shaka “who actually killed (sometimes by his own hand) so many Africans that he created a new map of eastern South Africa … bringing the disparate Zulu clans under his iron rule.”

His blog sparked a Twitter frenzy with some supporting his views and calling for Shaka’s statues to be brought down along with Rhodes’s while others took offence at the comparison.

“Shaka killed a lot of people, Dingane killed a lot of people and Cetshwayo killed a lot of people. But you cannot compare Shaka to Rhodes because Shaka was building a nation,” said Arthur Konigkramer, the former chairman of Amafa KwaZulu-Natal.

KwaZulu-Natal historian Jabulani Sithole said comparing the two was a mischievous attempt to divert attention from the fact that colonialism diminished the dignity of Africans in southern Africa.

“Colonialism was an act of theft, so Rhodes was a thief. The UCT students have started a very important debate which is long overdue, as the issue of removing colonial statues should have been tackled soon after South Africa achieved its democracy,” he said.

Sithole said instead of demonising Shaka, the nation owed him appreciation for his role in uniting the Zulu nation.

He said various history researchers had cast doubt about the notion that Shaka was a brutal king.

“Professor Julian Cobbing of Rhodes University generated a debate which showed that Shaka was not a violent person, and that white people used the propaganda to divert from the fact that white people were responsible for colonialism and slavery.”

Sithole said Professor Carolyn Hamilton from the University of Cape Town had also worked on colloquiums and publications which all disputed that Shaka was a cruel and oppressive king.

Historian Ken Gillings said: “Shaka was a nation builder (albeit at the cost of thousands of lives) while Rhodes was the creator of a national asset, with the loss of fewer lives but with the loss of lives nonetheless.

“They both played a role in the creation of a nation that has progressed into the power house of Africa.

He who does not study history is doomed to repeat it, but removing statues makes it easier to forget or overlook the errors of the past. Singapore has proved that you don’t have to destroy colonial history to progress.”

The Mercury