When you Google the word 'Zulu' the search yields some interesting results. These
include a religious/nationalist group called the Universal Zulu Nation which
also has in its links the pioneer hip-hop artist Afrika Bambaata. The search
also offers the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, an American social club
tailored along the lines of the benevolent society, as well as a record company
and a rock band among others.
It may come as some surprise that this cluster of people from the southern tip of this continent should provide inspiration for such a diversity of initiatives. In fact, this little corner of the globe has seldom been very far from the gaze of the world. It is here that the first South African Nobel Laureate, Chief Albert Luthuli, lived and where the Mahatma established a commune and tested out the idea of simple living. Before that the Zulu nation had acquired legendary status for its resistance to British imperialism like the Bambata rebellion of 1904.
Long before the Europeans ever set foot on these shores, trade in glass beads, ivory, brass and copper was well established. What it brings up are quite interesting questions about the relationship between centre and margin. Put another way, the difference between provincialism and worldliness, and perhaps that which defines the provincial outlook, is not determined by geography but ideology and the extent or rather the limits of our imagination.
What this brings to light is perhaps the idea that in order for the centre to form its own identity, it has to rely to some extent on the margin to reinforce its own position in the world. This is also obviously a reciprocal process, in that for the periphery to develop a provincial complex it must be operating on the assumption that the centre is legitimate and on the basis that it finds its worth in opposition to or in co-operation with the centre.
As far as nations go, the Zulu nation is a relative newcomer. The Zulu nation only came into being in the late 18th century and early 19th century. What I am trying to get at here is that the Zulu national identity is as much a modern development as many other forms of nation-states. It is perhaps more accurate to look at the history of the Zulu nation and of the region we now call KwaZulu-Natal, and what has since become of its children, as an unending and unfolding tale that crosses continents and spans centuries, one that is open-ended and one that continues to inspire and enrich our human understanding.
So perhaps it more useful to look at Zulu history neither as a tale of a savage people nor as an idealist folk tale but as a series of ideas, historical imperatives, occasions of courage, of resistance, of betrayal, of hope, treachery by the likes of Zibhebhu ka Mpitha, and civil wars of wisdom and folly, and, of migrancy both ancient and modern that has seen descendants of the Zulu people spread as far north as Zambia. It is also a story of newcomers from other continents - some for trade, others to settle, some out of choice but others like the Zanzibari community through the slave trade.
It is also the story of ivory and gold and beads and of globalisation, or at least such globalisation as was known in the 18th and 19th century. It is also a story that is evoked but also obscured by the ubiquitous image of the postcard Zulu. And indeed the people who call KwaZulu-Natal home in today's world are only marginally marginal in the whole story of global adventurism.