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| Zulu People Essay

During the early eighteenth century, a major clan formed in the northeastern coasts of South Africa. Originally, this was a tribe of hunters and gatherers. It was a clan that managed to grow rapidly, and by the end of the century (and the beginning of the nineteenth century), consolidated into becoming a powerful state. This clan, which formed in South Africa, called itself Zulu; its establishment as a state came during King Shaka’s reign. The Zulu’s consolidation as a state came with horticulture, which for almost two hundred years has been its primary form of subsistence. Horticulture, however, has done much more than providing a means of subsistence for the Zulu culture. Horticulture has shaped the Zulu’s belief system (even touching upon their moral values); horticulture has also shaped the Zulu’s political and social organizations. In highlighting horticulture’s importance in the establishment of the Zulu culture, it needs to be said that it is responsible for the propagation of Christianity, the perpetuation of a hierarchical political system, and the consolidation of a patrilineal society (in which polygyny is widespread).

First of all, it is important to make note of the fact that the Zulus were originally Pagan folk. In fact, traces of the Zulu’s pagan past are still identifiable today. This owes to the fact that despite the propagation of Christianity within the Zulu culture, conversion to the Christian faith has not been universal. Today, it is possible to find that indigenous rituals are still performed, including their coming of age ceremonies and the imibondo (present giving) ritual. However, Christianity has become a major influence; both religious faiths have found a way to coexist peacefully. This is evidence by the fact that Zulus who continue with their Pagan ways exhibit the utmost respect for their Christian kin, even refraining from indulging in ritual killings (to their pagan gods) out of respect for Christian beliefs.

Upon considering how it is that horticulture brought about Christianity, it should suffice to consider what characterizes this mode of subsistence. Horticulture, plainly defined, is a mode of subsistence that consists on intensive plant cultivation for human consumption. In other words, horticulture encompasses rudimentary gardening and farming to some extent (although it needs to be stressed that the breeding cattle and other types of livestock remains at minimum levels). Having defined what horticulture is, it should be clear why it allowed for Christianity to become a part of the Zulu culture. Horticulture allowed the Zulu to abandon their hunter and gatherer mode of subsistence. Through gardening and farming, the Zulu people were able to transition into a sedentary society; this occurred during the nineteenth century when a Zulu state was set up for the first time. Once the Zulu became sedentary, it was only a matter of time before Christian missionaries started migrating to their territories, bringing with them the Christian faith.

Secondly, and moving on to the Zulu culture’s political organization, it needs to be stated that, for the most part, a hierarchical system has been perpetuated. Initially, the Zulu set up permanent villages (each comprised of a few hundred people), each of which fell under the political control of a powerful politician, or chieftain. In these chieftainships, political leadership not only touched upon politics, but upon military, economic, and social aspects. In other words, chieftains became absolutist leaders, and given the scarcity of powerful suitors to challenge their power, their positions became hereditary (Deflem, 1999, p. 375). This trend has continued as the political units, or chieftainships, continued to grow in size. As well, it is important to point out that political power came to be associated with the concept of lineage:

Chieftainships have a hereditary principle of political power, and, as they are elaborated, evolve into the stratified societies so common historically… The ranking of lineages can be quite deep in the more complex cases. There may be a level or two of sub-chiefs with the head of the most exalted senior lineage of all acting as the overall paramount tribal chieftain.

Here again, it may be seen that political organization, characterized by absolutist chieftain leadership and the establishment of a hierarchical system (on the basis of lineage) is also a direct consequence of horticulture. When the Zulu’s mode of subsistence changed, it became possible for them to establish themselves in one place; they became sedentary. However, they retained much of their hunter and gatherer past, and so the idea of having one strong chieftain as leader remained. The inevitable result was this: an old form of political organization under a new form of social establishment,

Third, in considering the Zulu culture’s social organization, the first thing that must be mentioned is that it is a patrilineal society. Patrilineal societies are those in which kinship ties are primarily emphasized through the male’s side, as opposed to the female’s side. On this point, it is important to note that horticultural societies generally favor matrilineal arrangements, meaning that in most horticultural societies, kinship ties are emphasized through the female’s side. This kind of arrangement makes sense, “women contribute disproportionately to subsistence activities because they are responsible for most of the gardening work, and it seems to be useful to keep related sets of women together after marriage”. This, however probable, is not guaranteed to happen. In other words, not all horticultural societies are matrilineal, the Zulus being a prime example of this fact.

Horticulture appears not to explain why the Zulu’s social organization is patrilineal (a fact that might be better explained by the Zulu’s past mode of subsistence: hunting and gathering). However, there is one other major element that characterizes the Zulu’s social organization, and this one is a direct consequence of horticulture: polygyny. The truth of the matter is that horticulture creates a natural (economic) incentive for polygyny; “when women are the principal wealth producers, a man may get rich by having several wives”. It only naturally follows that despite being horticulture that relies almost exclusively on the females’ labor, it is also a mode of subsistence that offers the most privileges to males. Males hold all political power (as society is patrilineal), even though their economic contributions are minimum.

Horticulture is a rudimentary mode of subsistence, one that is highly demanding (in terms of labor and soil requirements). Furthermore, it is worth mentioning that horticulture is vastly ineffective to secure the subsistence of very large societies (such as today’s industrialized societies). However, the Zulus have managed to endure during nearly two hundred years by perpetuating this mode of subsistence. It was proposed that horticulture is responsible for the propagation of Christianity, the perpetuation of a hierarchical political system (with absolutist tendencies), and the consolidation of a patrilineal society in which polygyny is widespread. Not only has it been possible to elicit the link between horticulture and Christianity, but also its correlation with the perpetuation of (absolutist) chieftainships. Finally, despite not being able to prove that there is a link between horticulture and the consolidation of a patrilineal society, it has been possible to establish that horticulture has led to widespread polygyny.

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