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Shaka iLembe: A masterpiece that’s riveting, perplexing in equal measure



THOUSANDS of DStv viewing audiences across Africa have been glued to the first season of Shaka iLembe, and that is not without good reason.


Shaka kaSenzangakhona, also known as Sigidi, is an iconic figure of mega proportions.

There have been tales about this great Zulu King who not only conquered, but also built a formidable Zulu Kingdom.

So from the 12 episodes of the first season, viewers were taken through the early stages of this legendary ruler.

As they say, our background and upbringing shape our destiny or future. Indeed, the story of Shaka Zulu was brought to life thanks to modern technology that allowed producers, Bomb Productions, to piece together a rich tapestry of history in coming up with the epic drama.

 The 12-part series tells the story of the famous Zulu King and the events that shaped his remarkable life. 

According to Bomb Productions, the season is a result of fictional interpretation of historical events, taken care to ensure that the Nguni culture is authentically portrayed and respected.

Fittingly, Shaka iLembe was filmed in 4K, with state-of-the-art visual effects, ensuring the best screen treatment for the sweeping dynastic saga that encompasses the Zulu, Elangeni, Hlubi, Mthethwa and Ndwandwe clans.

 While this has made it possible to retell the story of Shaka Zulu, the same historical events could be the film’s own undoing. T

he reason being that, as explained by The History Press: “This is not the place for a lengthy discussion of the real nature of his rule, but the visitor may be surprised to discover that the view of Shaka prevalent in Zululand today is very different.”

A good number of people have the faintest idea of what sort of ruler Shaka was, good or bad.

“Their argument is that the stories of his cruelty were invented or exaggerated by the white traders who wrote about him in order to emphasise their own courage and sell their books, and certainly many of them are old chestnuts, told about countless tyrants throughout history,” wrote The History Press in the review.

“The undoubted tragedy that the wars of his reign involved for large areas of southern Africa could be seen as an unintended consequence of Zulu success in what were essentially defensive campaigns, and in any case the devastation might have been exaggerated by white men who took advantage of the chaos to seize land. On the other hand, Shaka undoubtedly founded a great nation – admittedly by violent means, but that was hardly unusual in that time and place – and showed himself to be an outstanding military innovator.

“He was forward-thinking in his attitude to European inventions and was interested in such unlikely subjects as the migration of birds. It is even possible that his notorious disapproval of marriage and sexual activity was prompted by a realisation that overpopulation was driving much of the unrest in the region. It is difficult to untangle the reality from the conflicting traditions, and much of what we think we know about Shaka’s life might be mythical in any case, but it is obvious that as a symbol of local pride he continues to extend his influence well beyond the Zulu people themselves.”

Based on these arguments, it is easy to see why Shaka iLembe’s first season has endeared itself with audiences. The season portrayed Shaka before birth and then his upbringing as a “reject”.

This emanates from the oral history that he and his mother were banished from their homeland by his father Senzangakhona, who at the time had a polygamous marriage.

So, what the season does is to unpack some of these incidents although it also fails to show why in the first place Shaka’s mother Nandi and Senzangakhona had a fallout.

Some gaps have been closed through the use of technology, but also some holes were created because there was not enough evidence to prove the events as they happened in real life. Another glaring gap was what led to Senzangakhona’s death, having been invited to attend a feast by Dingiswayo.

 Apparently, Dingiswayo also mentored Shaka in the best way he knew how, to the extent he saw and treated him as his own son.

 The faintest clue we get from the film is that Nandi was impregnated out of wedlock, which led to her and Shaka being viewed as outcasts. It is typical of royal families, to this day, that the institution of marriage is considered sacred and as such matrimonial “rebels” within the family are treated with contempt.

Of course, in Shaka iLembe we are told that one of the standing grudges or sources of animosity between the Zulus and the Ndwandwes led by Zwide dated back to before Shaka was born. Senzangakhona and Zwide had an altercation over Nandi.

Whether true or false, it is part of the story in the first season. Then viewers are taken through the highs and lows of Shaka as he grew up, showing the signs and traits of a great leader.

But Shaka iLembe provides a balance between what readers have read and what they have not. There is no denying his mother had a bearing on his upbringing. Her teachings would impact on his way of life.

 More often than not, Shaka would rely on his mother, whether life-related or his destiny. She made him believe he was the rightful heir to the throne.

This was part of the creative team helmed by Oscar-nominated director Angus Gibson, executive producers Nomzamo Mbatha, Nhlanhla Mtaka and Desiree Markgraaff, working with Professor Hlonipha Mokoena, the cultural and historical adviser.

 It is almost difficult to fully understand and yet capture the true character of Shaka since most of what we know was documented by British traders. But stories abound that Shaka himself was not a saint.

Besides being a tyrant bent on revenge, Shaka did the unimaginable by uniting the Nguni kingdoms into one big nation.

And because this was one of the biggest productions fully funded by MultiChoice Group as part of its expansive local content slate, it means the company went out of its way to try and piece together several aspects of Shaka.

There can never be a better script than that from those who loved or hated Shaka!

But Shaka iLembe in many ways tries to evaluate what we already know and that which we did not know about his rule.

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