‘Shoot to kill,’ the army sharpshooters had been told – and throughout the morning the staccato sound of machine-guns, mixed with screams of dying men, echoed across a narrow valley in central Natal.
It was 10 June 1906 – and the whispered hopes of freedom of an embittered peasant population were being crushed by a white army’s know-how – and its bullets.
For six weeks, an African chief called Bambatha had waged ‘a war of liberation’ from a forest hideout in the Natal midlands. Although his military manoeuvres were confined mainly to evading pursuing troops, his resistance led to a mixture of panic among whites and extravagant expectations among Africans. But a mass uprising did not materialise. On the night of 9 June, the guerillas, watched by army scouts, pitched camp at the entrance to the valley. By the early hours they were surrounded, and at dawn the air began to sing with bullets.
More than 500 warriors died in the massacre at Mome Gorge, and later, in an ominous warning to other, would-be rebels, the victors marched through the countryside with a bizarre trophy – the head of Bambatha.
The first rumblings of discontent started at the end of 1905 when the authorities introduced a new £1 poll tax on top of existing hut and dog taxes. Although, in theory, the tax affected all males over the age of 18, it was aimed primarily at the African peasantry. The authorities were well aware that the only way Africans could accumulate enough to pay this new obligation was by working in the labour-hungry white farming and mining sectors.
The tax became payable for the first time on 1 January 1906, and although there were many rumours of African discontent over the new measures, Natal newspapers stilled white fears with reports that the black population was paying up well.
But panic set in on 20 January when a white farmer in the Camperdown district was murdered shortly after he had taken his labourers to Pietermaritzburg to pay their taxes. Despite renewed assurances from the media and the Secretary of Native Affairs, reports of black ‘insolence’ began filtering in from all around the country. Furthermore, when Africans began killing off their white-coloured animals and destroying European-made tools, whites needed no further proof that an uprising was imminent. Dozens of farmers began abandoning their holdings for the safety of the towns.
By the end of January 1906, opposition to the measures had reached breaking point. And on 10 February two policemen were killed in a fracas that followed the refusal of 27 followers of a chief called Mveli to pay the tax. The ringleaders of the alleged killers were prominent members of the small but highly vocal Ethiopian church movement. Convinced that ‘agitators’ were behind the flare-up, the angry white community found a ready scapegoat in this separatist religious movement and called repeatedly for its banning.
Faced with growing hysteria in settler ranks, the government declared martial law and instructed the colony’s most respected soldier, Colonel Duncan McKenzie, to restore order.
McKenzie, a known hardliner, tackled this task with relish. Indemnified by the martial law provisions, he marched through the territory administering corporal punishment to Africans reported to be insolent or restless, sacking chiefs, burning crops and kraals, and confiscating cattle. In April, 12 men accused of complicity in the killings of the policemen were captured, tried by court martial, and executed. But more trouble was brewing….
And it flared within Bambatha, the head of the small Zondi clan, returned to his homestead from a visit to Zululand to find he had been sacked and replaced as chief by his uncle, Magwababa. Furious, he kidnapped the usurper and then fled into the nearby Nkandla Forest, where he was granted refuge by a clan of iron-workers led by the 96-year-old Sigananda.
Aware that that the majority of his compatriots regarded the Zulu royal house as the head of African society, Bambatha claimed the support of Dinuzulu, the son of Cetshwayo, the last Zulu king. Although Dinuzulu denied involvement, several prominent chiefs and hundreds of young warriors, convinced of an imminent wide-scale uprising, took to the bush in support of Bambatha.
However, their crushing defeat on 10 June and the quick suppression of another rebel group in the Mapumulo district brought resistance to an end.
More than 3,000 Africans an about 30 whites died in the fighting.
Bambatha’s rebellion was the last time – at least until the 1960s – that Africans resorted to armed insurrection.
From Reader’s Digest Illustrated History of South Africa – the Real Story
Edited by Dougie Oakes