King Sekhukhune

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Sekhukhune was King of the Marota people (commonly called Bapedi) who originated from the Bakgatla of the Western Transvaal. Sekhukhune, like Moshoeshoe King of the Basotho people, was an illegitimate ruler who came to power using military force. As a result, his half brother, and legitimate heir, Mampuru was forced to flee from the Kingdom. As a result of lack of legitimacy, he built his power by entering into diplomatic marriages with various royal dynasties, by incorporating other societies into his empire, and by military conquest. This increased his support base and gave him legitimacy.

To defend his empire from the encroaching European colonization, Sekhukhune sent young men under the authority of ‘appointed’ headmen to work in white farms and diamonds mines. The money they earned in these employments was taxed and used to buy guns from the Portuguese in Delegoa Bay and cattle to increase the wealth of the Marota people. By the middle of the 19th century the Marota empire had grown to unite all the disparate people in the area under a common Royalty.

The Marota lived in the land between the Vaal and Limpopo rivers. They regarded this territory as their country and admitted or excluded all corners to it. The political landscape has, of course, changed greatly since those far-off days. After Sekhukhune’s death, Pretoria divided Sekhukhuneland into small “tribal” units that owed allegiance not to one central’ Marota Authority but to “Native Commissioners”. This effectively destroyed the Marota Empire. Thereafter, the Bapedi people were forced to seek employment on white farms, in factories and mines as migrant labourers. The migrant labour system that the Bapedi used to build their empire was now skewed against them. In a curious sort of way this fulfilled Sekhukhune’s prophecy of December 1879, that after him no other chief would be able to stand up to Pretoria since they would all be its tools.

Wars of Resistance

When Hendrick Potgieter and the Voortrekkers arrived in the Marota Empire in the middle of the 19th century, Sekhukhune’s father, Sekwati (1775-1861), resisted them. In a famous battle at Phiring in 1838 Sekwati defeated the Voortrekkers by the simple tactic of establishing his stronghold on an impenetrable hill. But Phiring was insecure and so Sekwati moved his headquarters to Thaba Mosega (the fighting koppie) in the Lulu Mountains of the Eastern Transvaal from which his people were dislodged only by a series of bitter wars ending in December 1879.

In 1846, the Boers, claiming to have purchased the land from the Swazis, sought to expel the Marota from the land east of the Tubatse (the so-called Steelpoort) River. They were rebuffed. In 1865, Rev. Dr. Alexander Merensky (1837-1917), Superintendent of the Berlin Missionary Society and who had been welcomed among the Marota first by Sekwati and later by Sekhukhune, was expelled for activities that were deemed to be subversive of Sekhukhune’s authority and favourable to the Pretoria Boers. He took refuge in Botshabelo, near Middleburg where he established a Mission station and a school of that name. Merensky continued to play a double game, hunting with the hounds and running with the hares, until Sekhukhune disappeared from the scene in 1879 when the Boers rewarded him (Merensky) by granting him land in Maandagshoek from which he carried on his dubious activities under the cloak of religion.

Johannes Dinkoanyane, Sekhukhune’s half-brother, at first supported Merensky and became a Lutheran convert. His stay in Botshabelo was short-lived and soon he was back with his followers in Spekboom Hills, in the Tubatse Valley. He assumed a very independent demeanor, which Sekhukhune by no means discouraged. On March 7, 1876, Dinkoanyane detained a wagonload of wood belonging to one Jankowitz, a Boer farmer who had trespassed on Dinkoanyane’s land to cut wood. At the same time false rumours of cattle theft spread – also false rumours to the effect that Dinkoanyane had burnt down Rev. Nachtigal’s German mission.

When the news reached Pretoria, an enraged President Thomas Francois Burgers decided to set out “to deal with the Sekhukhune menace” himself. Burgers quickly assembled a largest army not seeing before in the Republic. Armed with 7 pounder Krupp guns they marched to Thaba Mosega, which he reached on August 1, 1876. He was supported by African troops hoping the land under Sekhukhune would be given to them after Sekhukhune was defeated. Sekhukhune came to Dinkoanyane’s rescue and, although Dinkoanyane himself was killed in action, Sekhukhune inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Boers and President Burgers. This defeat cost him his position and lost it to Paul Kruger.

In response to the humiliating defeat suffered by President Burgers, the Boers sponsored an army of mercenaries (sometimes called the falstaffian gang of filibusters or free booters). Styled the Lydenburg Volunteer Corps. Their leader was “a reckless adventurer of Diamond notoriety” named Conrad Hans von Schlieckmann, a German ex-officer and soldier of fortune who was closely connected with the German Establishment and who had fought under Otto von Bismarck in the Franco-German War of 1870-71. Other mercenaries were Gunn of Gunn, Alfred Aylward, Knapp, Woodford, Rubus, Adolf Kuhneisen, Dr. James Edward Ashton, Otto von Streitencron, George Eckersley, Bailey, Captain Reidel and others from America, Britain, Ireland, France, Germany, Austria and other European countries. They committed the grossest atrocities in the Tubatse Valley. All acted in total disregard of the British Foreign Enlistment Act, 1870; the American Neutrality or Foreign Enlistment Act, 1818 and similar laws.

They also acted with the connivance of their home countries. Many of these soldiers of fortune were recruited from the diamond diggings in Kimberley where they had gone in a vain search for diamonds. The Lydenburg area attracted them because it was said to hold large deposits of gold, diamonds and other precious minerals. So when Pretoria established the Lydenburg Volunteers Corps, von Schlieckmann’s men fell for it. They fought fiercely from behind the rampart to avenge the defeat of President Burgers. They lost, and Von Schlieckmann himself was killed in battle on November 17 1876, to be succeeded by Alfred Aylward, an Irishman. But this was not the end of the war only of a battle, albeit an important one.

Sekhukhune versus the British

On April 12, 1877, Sir Theophilus Shepstone annexed the Transvaal on the pretext, inter alia, that a Boer Republic that failed to “pacify” the Bapedi threatened, by its very existence and weakness, to destabilize the British colonies of the Cape and Natal. Up to 1877 the British had “supported”‘ Sekhukhune’s attitude to the Boers.

Sekhukhune’s attitude was that his Empire fell outside the jurisdiction of Pretoria ; that the land between the Vaal and the Limpopo rivers belonged to him, and that although he would never accept Boer rule, he might as a last resort, like Moshoeshoe, accept Protectorate status under the British Crown.

However, after the British Annexation of the Transvaal (April, 1877) British attitudes changed. James Grant, a Briton, confirmed: “… the view taken by our government was that Sekhukhune was not a real rebel against the Transvaal, in-as-much as his territory formed no part of that dominion (Transvaal Republic), and that the war waged against him was an un justifiable aggression against an independent ruler; but when, in 1877, the Transvaal was annexed, Sekhukhune’s country was included without any question, in the new territory added to Britain’s possessions”.

Sekhukhune rejected this new British position scornfully. By March 1878 drums of war were beating again in Sekhukhuneland – this time it was against the British. Captain Clarke who was sent to subdue Sekhukhune, was routed with heavy loss of life and barely escaped with his life at Magnet Heights. Immediately after this first British failure to subdue Sekhukhune, a fully equipped force of 1,800 men under Colonel Rowlands made another attempt from August until October 1878, to reduce Sekhukhune to submission. The mission failed (again with much loss of life on both sides) and had to be abandoned on October 6,1878.

The British made a third attempt at subduing Sekhukhune in June/July 1879, under the command of Colonel Lanyon. This too failed. There was little more the British could do at that time since, they had on their hands colonial wars in the Eastern Cape Colony, in the Colony of Natal, in Lesotho (the Gun war), in Ashanti (Ghana), Afghanistan and Cyprus, military logic forced them to await the outcome of these wars before challenging Sekhukhune again. This stage was reached after the Battle of Ulundi and the exile of King Cetshwayo to Britain.

Thereafter Sir Garnet Wolseley moved his motley troops of Britons, Boers and Africans (10,000 Swazi troops) to bring down Sekhukhune. This was the fourth British attempt to reduce Sekhukhune to submission. Wolseley chose November 1879, for his move. It was a major military operation. Sir Wolseley’s men moved in a pincer movement from Fort Kruger, Fort MacMac, Fort Weeber, Jane Furse, Bebo, Schoonoord, Lydenburg, Mphablele, Nkoana, Steelpoort, and Nchabeleng, Swaziland – literally from all sides – to Thaba Mosega. The battle raged furiously from November 28 to December 2,1879. Sekhukhune fought with muskets obtained from Lesotho where he had royal support and French Missionaries as friends; from Kimberley Diamond fields where his people worked; from Delagoa Bay ( Mozambique ) with which he had close trade and other links.

The British used their more modern Mausers. Much life was lost. Sekhukhune himself lost his son and heir, Moroanoche, and fourteen other members of his immediate family. As the battle raged, Sekhukhune was taken by surprise in the form of an attack from behind by 10,000 Swazi troops in the service of the British. These had been recruited on direct British instructions by Captain MacLeod of Macleod (British political agent in Swaziland ) and his Lieutenant Alister Campbell, R.N. This surprise attack virtually brought the war to a close. Sekhukhune took refuge in Mamatarnageng, the cave on Grootvygenboom (high up in the Lulu Mountain ), some 15 miles from Thaba,Mosega. There he was cut off from all sources of food and water. So when on December 2, 1879, Captain Clarke and Commandant Ferreira were led to the cave and called him out, Sekhukhune had no choice but to comply. He was accompanied by his wife and children, his half-brother, Nkwemasogana, Makoropetse, Mphahle (a Swazi national) and a few attendants. Commandant Ferreira, who was obsessed with the myth that Sekhukhune owned large quantities of gold and diamonds, searched diligently but found nothing.

So ended the colonial war against Sekhukhune. On December 9, 1879, Sekhukhune (then 65 years old), his wife, a baby, a child, Nkwemasogana, Mphahle, Makoropetse and a few generals were led to prison in Pretoria. He remained there until the Pretoria Convention of 3 August 1881 was signed between Britain and the Boers after the first South African War. The Boers, who had never accepted the British Annexation of the Transvaal, called it the First Boer War of Independence. Article 23 of the Convention provided that Sekhukhune be set free and returned home. He could not return to Thaba Mosega, which had been burnt down in the war and which had fresh military associations, but to a nearby place called Manoge.

Sekhukhune Murdered

There on the night of August 13, 1882, he was murdered by his half-brother, Mampuru, who claimed that he was the lawful king of the Marota and that Sekhukhune had usurped the throne on Sep. 21, 1861, when their father Sekwati, died. Thereafter Mampuri, fearing arrest escaped and sought refuge first with Chief Marishane (Masemola) and later with Nyabela, king of the Ndebeles.

The Pretoria Boers asked Nyabela to surrender Mampuru for trial on a charge of murder. Nyabela refused, saying that Mampuru was in his (Nyabela’s) stomach. Another war thus broke out between Nyabela and the Boers. It raged for almost a year – nine months to be precise. Ultimately Nyabela surrendered and gave up Mampuru to the Pretoria Boers. Marishane, Nyabela and Mampuru were tried in the Pretoria Supreme Court. On January 23, 1884, Marishane was sentenced to seven years imprisonment for having granted Mampuru temporary refuge and for “causing a tumult”. He returned to his village Marishane (Mooifontein) thereafter to die.

Nyabela was sentenced to death (later commuted to life imprisonment) on September 22, 1883. Mampuru was sentenced to death for murder and rebellion and was hanged in Pretoria prison on November 22,1883.

Thus ended one of the stormiest politico-military careers in our country. And thus too ended the Marota Empire. It had been defended bravely against great odds: The death of Sekhukhune did not pass unnoticed. The London Times of August 30, 1882, announced his death to the world and paid reluctant tribute to him in a long editorial:

“…There is yet no sign of permanent peace among the native races of South Africa. We hear this morning from Durban of the death of one of the bravest of our former enemies, the Chief Sekhukhune. He with his son and fourteen followers, has been killed… The news carries us some years back to the time when the name of Sekhukhune was a name of dread, first to the Dutch and then to the English Colonists of the Transvaal and Natal… It was, indeed to a great extent the danger caused by the neighbourhood of this formidable chief that led to the annexation of the Transvaal by England. When war was declared against the Zulu king, operation went on simultaneously against Sekhukhune and early in 1879 his stronghold was attacked… Obstacles stood in the way of these operations, and when after Ulundi, Sir Garnet Wolseley entered the Transvaal, he endeavoured to humiliate the Chief.

But Sekhukhune was safe, as he imagined, in an impregnable mountain fortress, and scornfully rejected the terms offered by the British General. It became necessary to attack him in force. A combined movement of columns, containing 2,000 English and 10,000 Swazis and other native troops was planned and carried out with great skill, and on the 28th November, 1879, the kraal was taken by assault. Still the Chief and a great number of his men held the “koppie” and from the caves and cracks in the rock they poured an incessant fire upon their assailants. At last the Summit was gained, and after a desperate and sanguinary struggle, the enemy was subdued. Sekhukhune however, like Cetswayo, succeeded in escaping and was only captured a few days later. He was treated for a time as a State prisoner and his land was settled somewhat after the Zulu manner… If, however, the death of Sekhukhune portends anything, it means that the displaced Chief in these savage and warlike regions still retain some power, and that on occasion they are able to rise successfully against him who has superseded them…”

This tribute, however, reluctant, is significant because it was paid at all – in the 19th century the London Times was not in the habit of devoting columns of editorial space to the passing of African kings.

On 13 August 1982, it was King Sekhukhune’s 100th anniversary of his death in 1882.

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