The word, “Mfecane,” means “time of troubles”i and it is used to describe a difficult time in South African history in the early 1800s. The Mfecane originated from desperate agricultural, sociological and political crises.
Agricultural crises contributed to the Mfecane. Rainfall decreased between 1800 and 1830, bringing drought. This drought was especially severe between the years 1800 and 1807, and between the years 1820 and 1823. During these times, South Africans had to compete for water supplies.ii Drought also caused a scarcity of food.iii A power struggle developed among those wanting to control the good, arable land in places like the banks of the Pongola River.iv
As well as agricultural crises, sociological crises contributed to the Mfecane. The demographics of South Africa began to change as the population grew substantially. Before long, there was not enough arable land to provide for the growing population.v Inequalities within these societies were reflected in some having land and others not having land. Fighting arose out of social economic stratification. The rich exploited the vulnerable poor.vi
As well as agricultural and sociological crises, political crises contributed to the Mfecane. Strong chiefs began taking advantage of the situation, and began subduing and incorporating the neighboring peoples into their kingdoms. By 1810, two rival kingdoms dominated South Africa. The Ndwandwe kingdom was ruled by Zwide and the Mthethwa kingdom was led by Dingiswayo.vii These kingdoms clashed in war numerous times. A warrior named Shaka joined Dingiswayo and Dingiswayo was killed in battle. Shaka replaced him as leader and he and his men became known as the Zulu. The Zulu defeated the Ndwandwe in 1818 and became the dominant power. viii In the 1820s, the Zulus became quite predatory and began disrupting local chiefdoms by seizing cattle and destroying local food supplies. Tribal bands, driven from their homes by the Ndwandwe, Mthethwa and the Zulu, began wandering south-east Africa and creating havoc.ix
The Mfecane represented a very turbulant and difficult time in South African history. The troubles of the Mfecane resulted from agricultural, sociological and political crises.
iLeonard Thompson, A History of South Africa (Yale University Press, 2001), 81.
iiiSome debate exists over how much of a food scarcity there would have been. Those rejecting the idea of a food scarcity say that the food scarcity position is based upon the dying of cattle due to drought. However, the cultivation of crops may have compensated for the loss of livestock.
Elizabeth Eldridge, “Sources of Conflict in Southern Africa, The Mfecane Reconsidered,”
Journal of African History 33 (1992), 20.
vLeonard Thompson, A History of South Africa, 81.
viElizabeth Eldridge, “Sources of Conflict,” 30.
viiLeonard Thompson, A History of South Africa, 81.
Eldridge, Elizabeth. “Sources of Conflict in Southern Africa, The Mfecane Reconsidered,”
Journal of African History 33. 1992.
Thompson, Leonard. A History of South Africa. Yale University Press, 2001.