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Reviewed by:
  • Zulu Identities: being Zulu, past and present
  • Jon Soske (bio)
Ben Carton, John Laband and Jabulani Sithole (eds) (2008). Zulu Identities: being Zulu, past and present. Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press

Zulu Identities is an impressive achievement; it will certainly become an important reference for scholars working on Natal and southern Africanists more generally. Almost encyclopaedic in scope, the collection assembles 52 chapters on topics ranging from the archaeology of pre-colonial farming to the tourism industry of contemporary Natal. The editors have deliberately avoided perpetuating the acrimonious divisions that have sometimes characterised the historiography of KwaZulu-Natal – for example, the debates around the so-called mfecane – by including articles reflecting a sweeping variety of methodological and political viewpoints. If a central claim of this volume is that Zulu identity is complex, multiple, and contested, the editors have certainly demonstrated that the field of Zulu studies is now richly developed, including vibrant and evolving research in literary and performance studies, anthropology, material culture and art history, urban sociology, and the history of medicine. Importantly, this volume includes an unprecedented number of Zulu-speaking intellectuals and showcases a new generation of scholarship much more strongly grounded in the Zulu language. In this respect, it provides a timely model for the reorientation of South African scholarship, particularly history, toward vernacular language sources and popular traditions.

The ecumenical nature of Zulu Identities also explains some of its limitations. At over 600 pages, two worthwhile projects seem to have been awkwardly combined: a compendium of things Zulu and an in depth reconsideration of Zulu identity in the light of post-Apartheid developments. [End Page 109] There is a fair amount of repetition and some truly surprising omissions (neither Isaiah Shembe nor Zionism appear in the index, for example). Consequently, the volume is too cumbersome to serve as a general overview of Zulu history or culture, while the brief character of the essays (6-10 pages on average) does not provided individual authors the space to develop their analysis of identity – a fraught and over determined term in any context – in the depth that the issues involved frequently merit. There are several new and truly ground breaking contributions, for example Mbongiseni Buthelezi's discussion of izibongo (praise songs) and the violence of how the Shakan kingdom recast earlier histories, or Philip Bonner and Vusi Ndima's reconsideration of the roots of martial Zuluness on the East Rand. But close to half of the entries are short resumes extracted from long-available monographs and journal articles – useful for reference or perhaps teaching, but already well known to scholars in the field.

Some common themes and arguments do, nonetheless, emerge. As Benedict Carton explores in his substantial introduction, the post-apartheid moment has generated a contradictory and (largely) unexpected development with regards to discourses of Zulu identity. The seemingly irreversible political decline of the Inkatha Freedom Party – for several decades, the foremost defender of a separate, 'traditional' Zuluness – has not resulted in the erosion of a powerful sense of Zulu identity in Natal and elsewhere. To the contrary, UbuZulu bethu (our Zuluness) has remained enormously vital as it has been reconfigured through new arenas and modes of articulation: from the reinvented ritual of virginity testing to the pop psychology of Zulu corporate ethics, from legal disputes over the historical authority of the Zulu monarchy to the campaign to defend Jacob Zuma against charges of rape. Many of the essays seek to take advantage of the political and intellectual space created by the detachment of Zulu identity from the IFP and the image of the leopard-skinned, traditional warrior: they insist of the dynamic, plural, and hybrid elements of contemporary appropriations of Zuluness.

The collection is arranged in six sections, some of which are chronological and others thematic. Given the omnibus character of some rubrics ('Foundations of Zuluness: Iron Age to the late 1800s') and significant overlap between them, this review will discuss the four main approaches to rethinking Zulu identity that authors take: historical revisionism, the analysis of modern inventions or performances, complicating the geography of Zulu identity, and interrogating the relationship between Zuluness and gender.

The least satisfying group of essays deals with...


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pp. 109-116
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