President Jacob Zuma at a traditional  ceremony at his home in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal.    Picture: ELMOND JIYANE
President Jacob Zuma at a traditional ceremony at his home in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal. Picture: ELMOND JIYANE

IN 1879, the British destroyed the Zulu kingdom, putting paid to one of the last major precolonial polities in southern Africa. To hear white supremacists and apologists for the British Empire tell it, the defeat of King Cetshwayo’s army marked the triumph of European enlightenment over African barbarism; to hear Zulu and African nationalists tell it, the destruction of the Zulu kingdom signalled not the end of Zulu political sovereignty but the beginning of a pan-African struggle against white rule.

Both accounts present the overthrow of the kingdom in stark terms, as a struggle between African and European, black and white. In fact, matters were messier than these accounts are willing to acknowledge. Sure, the British army was the most powerful military force at the time, with the hardware and training befitting its status as the defender of the world’s reigning superpower, and the Zulu warriors who went to battle for Cetshwayo were a rudimentary force with the most basic weapons (and some guns) at their disposal.

In truth, the British needed far more than their sophisticated weapons and training to defeat the Zulus. They needed collaborators — Zulu collaborators — and there were plenty of these to go around. For reasons to do mainly with the violent founding of the Zulu kingdom under Shaka in the early 19th century, there were many communities that harboured cultural and political resentments against centralised Zulu authority. So when the British came calling, looking for allies against Cetshwayo, they found more than enough Africans to help them defeat the Zulu kingdom.

Among those who collaborated with the British against Cetshwayo were the ancestors of one Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma. Far from helping build and protect the Zulu kingdom, the Zumas helped the British destroy it. For their exertions, the Zumas, like many other Africans who collaborated with the British, were rewarded with land that had belonged to the Zulu kingdom until 1879. As the historian Meghan Healy-Clancy and anthropologist Jason Hickel say in their 2014 book Ekhaya: The politics of home in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, Nkandla is actually the spoil of collaboration, given to the Zumas for their role in the defeat of the Zulu kingdom.

Healy-Clancy and Hickel point to the irony of Zuma using Nkandla to enact a certain idea of Zulu authenticity and to show his respect for his ancestors and their traditions when those ancestors were collaborators against the Zulu kingdom. Healy-Clancy and Hickel draw on the work of John Wright and Jeff Guy, eminent scholars of precolonial and colonial Zulu history, to make their case.

In turn, Wright drew on the James Stuart Archive, the richest collection of material on precolonial Zulu history, for his argument. Guy, who died last December, was working, among other topics, on Zuma’s collaborationist history when he died.

Lest we be accused of singling out the Zumas and Nxamalalas (Zuma’s clan), we should point out that they were by no means unique in their collaboration. They were also not the only ones to be given land in return for their collaboration. In the same year in which the British defeated the Zulu kingdom, they also destroyed the Pedi kingdom. Boer commandos and thousands of Swazi collaborators assisted the British in that campaign. It had been the same story in the wars between the British and the Xhosas. There, Mfengus helped the British destroy the Xhosa kingdom and were rewarded for their troubles with land confiscated from the defeated Xhosas.

To ask why so many Africans collaborated in the destruction of African polities and, with them, African sovereignty is to ask a simplistic and patronising question. It is to assume that African polities were somehow apolitical entities without differences and discord. These were complex societies riven with all sorts of fissures. As scholar Mbongiseni Buthelezi shows in his work on the Ndwandwe and historian Michael R Mahoney argues in his 2012 book, The other Zulus: The spread of Zulu ethnicity in colonial SA, there were many so-called Zulus who did not identify as Zulus in precolonial Zululand. There were many polities, like the Ndwandwes, who had been defeated by the Zulu kingdom and then forced to become Zulus.

Many of these people might have spoken the same language, shared a cuisine, intermarried and traded with one another, but they did not identify as Zulu. Many of them had to be forced to identify as Zulu. As Mahoney shows in his book, it is not until after the Bambatha rebellion of 1906 that one can speak somewhat convincingly about a Zulu nation covering every corner of what we today call the Kingdom of KwaZulu-Natal. Even this was more in response to the depredations of colonial rule than it was to people suddenly waking up one day in 1906 and deciding that they wanted to become Zulus.

The process by which the "other Zulus" became Zulu was gradual and uneven.

Understand this and you might understand some of the ructions under way in KwaZulu-Natal today, where the Ndwandwe, among others, are questioning why land that supposedly belongs to all the Zulus should be held in trust for them by a king, Goodwill Zwelithini, whose legitimacy and authority they have never accepted.

As Buthelezi points out in his work, the Ndwandwes are certainly not the only "Zulus" who are calling into question the idea of a unified Zulu kingdom with Zwelithini at the helm.

Jonny Steinberg was certainly correct to write on these pages recently that, contrary to stereotype, Zuma is man with a vision — but that his vision excludes ordinary people. As Steinberg pointed out, Zuma’s vision, and one on which he has been acting for the past seven years, includes doling out a great deal of power to a small number of people (meaning chiefs) in the South African countryside. Zuma is doing all of this in the name of tradition. He is, as Steinberg argues, trying to right old wrongs. He is a big man giving big men their due. But he is also the spawn of collaborators. Perhaps it is time South Africans gave him his due — and made his collaborationist ancestry a big part of the story about Nkandla.

• Dlamini is winner of the 2015 Alan Paton Prize for his book, Askari: A story of collaboration and betrayal in the anti-apartheid struggle