The Warrior Within


As children of Africa, the “warrior ethos” runs in our blood.

Warrior is a noun that refers to a soldier or someone who is involved in a fight. The word warrior comes from Old North French werreier (Old French guerroieor) meaning soldier, first appearing in English in the 14th century.  Its meaning is mainly historical – modern soldiers generally aren’t called warriors – for soldiers of ‘western’ countries, such as that of Great Britain (who were the largest imperial power in history) or that of the French Empire, this term would generally not be appropriate. The last of the so-called European warriors dating arguably to the 11th century (Viking warriors, Celtic warriors).

Indeed there was a time when sons of the ‘western world’ were born to be warriors, upholding the warrior code and passing it on to their offspring. At some point though the western man forgot this way of life… replacing it with a complacency seemingly suited for a new world of convenience…

Most of the world may have forgotten their warrior instinct… however on the African continent, the warrior existed in the very recent past. The last of the so-called warriors being as recent as just the previous century. When asked to name a warrior – most South Africans would likely think of the mighty Zulu King Shaka (1787-1828), with little or limited knowledge of other great warriors. Shaka is generally regarded as the greatest military tactician ever produced in South Africa, if not the whole of Africa. However, let us not forget…

The South African nation is rich with brave warriors hailing from each of the other so-called ethnic groups.

The warrior spirit runs within all of us.

King Shaka (c. 1787-1828) is said to be one of the greatest military leaders in African history, and perhaps all of history. He was both respected and feared around the brutality of his methods, and the strictness with which he trained his troops, but in many ways, he improved warfare methods forever.  His legacy lived on in the Zulu warriors who fought the British in 1879. This military conflict helped immortalize the Zulu in the minds of Westerners as the ultimate warrior. 

He introduced new weapons to the Zulu people, such as:

  • The ikwla. Tired of the assegai — a long pole weapon made of wood with pointed iron at the end and thrown like a javelin — Shaka introduced the ikwla, a weapon with a shorter sphere and a longer spearhead, sort of like a sword. This weapon gave Shaka’s warriors a huge advantage over opponents when they came up close for hand-to-hand combat.
  • He introduced cowhide shields.
  • Formalised military training (his troops had to endure 50-mile marches for practice over rough and hot terrain so they wouldn’t be fazed by difficult conditions during battle) and the introduction of the “bull horn” formation.

The image etched in many is the Zulu impis advancing at the Battle of Isandlwana which was to follow in later years after Shaka’s passing

King Cetshwayo kaMpande (c.1826 – 8 February 1884) was the king of the Zulu Kingdom from 1873 to 1879 and its leader during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. He famously led the Zulu nation to victory against the British in the Battle of Isandlwana.






Forever etched in the mind of many is the image of the victorious Zulu impis at the Battle of Isandlwana, which continues to define the image of a mighty warrior.

Chief Maqoma (1798-1873). The most renowned Xhosa chief and arguably one of Africa’s greatest military leaders of the 19th Century. He was the Right Hand Son of Ngqika, ruler of the Rharhabe Kingdom of the Xhosa nation (what was known as the Ciskei). He was a man of considerable intellect and eloquence, striving to maintain traditional social structures and the power of the Xhosa royalty. After leading a campaign in the frontier wars against the Cape, he was captured and imprisoned on Robben Island where he died in 1873.

More than a century later he was reburied in 1978 in the Ciskei Mngqesha Great Place of the Xhosa kings; commissioned by his descendant Lent Maqoma, to most Xhosa, many of whom had attended Steven Biko’s funeral the previous year, it represented the return of an exceptional leader who had ultimately sacrificed his life for the cause of his people. This remains Maqoma’s legacy.

King Mzilikazi (c. 1790-1868). Founder of the Ndebele people and founder of the Matabele Kingdom. The famous as David Livingstone, one of the most popular British heroes of the late-19th-century Victorian era, in his autobiography, referred to Mzilikazi as the second most impressive leader – after Shaka – he ever encountered on the African continent.

Kgosi Sechele (1812-1892). Leader Sechele led the baKwêna (Koena) in the Battle of Dimawe in 1852 against the Boers. Koena form part of the Sotho-Tswana people of South Africa, as well as Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Swaziland.

King Makhado (1839-1895)
Makhado was held in such high esteem former President Nelson Mandela stated the following
“The warrior-King, Makhado Tshilwavhusiku Ramabulana’s exploits in defence of our land, our dignity and our well-being will forever remain etched in our proud history of resistance to colonialism’.

He earned the nickname “Bull of the North” and the praise name “Tshilwavhusiku tsha Ramabulana” (the night fighter of Ramabulana), because he attacked at night.

Original 19th Century photograph of Zulu warrior in full dress

King Soshangane (1780-1858) – Shangaan (Tsonga)
Soshangane was also known by the name of Manukosi. He established the Gaza Kingdom in the highlands of the middle Sabi River in Mozambique in the 1830s. There are two version of his rise to power. The first version, which is the more widely held belief is that he was a Ndwandwe general who reportedly fled from Zululand after his defeat at the hands of Shaka during the Zulu-Nguni wars known as the Mfecane. Soshangane extended his control over the area between the Komati (Incomati) and the Zambezi rivers, incorporating the local Tsonga and Shona peoples into his Zulu-type state, later known as Shangaan. The kingdom lasted until 1897, when, weakened by internal tensions, it was overthrown by the Portuguese. There is a contrasting belief that King Shaka had decided to conquer the Tsonga tribe, sending out his warriors led by Soshangane. The second version, is that his expansion beyond Zululand was actually as per the orders of Shaka himself; later deciding to establish his “own” kingdom declaring himself King (breaking away from Shaka, similar to the USA declaring independence from Great Britain). Whichever version is the actual version, nobody can deny that he was a worthy warrior-statesman and that this period was filled with mass displacement and bloodshed.

Sekhukhune (1814-1882)
Regarded as the greatest of Pedi kings. Sekhukhune was the king of Marota, the Pedi empire. He succeeded his father Sekwati, who defeated the Boers in 1838 and 1846, to the throne in 1861.

In 1876 ZAR President Thomas Francois Burgers marched on Thaba Mosega, Sekhukhune’s capital. He came with field guns and 18 000 men. After a ferocious battle, a hasty retreat followed from the Pedi warriors.

In 1878 the British Captain Clarke invaded. His men were defeated by Sekhukhune’s forces. However the British returned in 1879, this time allied with the Boers and the Swazis. A vastly superior force besieged Thaba Mosega, and captured Sekhukune, but the proud warrior held his head high. At 65, he had just suffered his first and last defeat.

The warrior king died in 1882 by the hand of his jealous half-brother Mampuru, who was found guilty and hanged in Pretoria.

The death of Sekhukhune ended one of the most turbulent politico-military periods in South Africa, in the process ending the Marota Empire. Sekhukhune’s passing did not pass unnoticed in the home of the empire, with the The London Times on August 30, 1882, announcing his death and even paying tribute to the “enemy” with the following:

“...There is yet no sign of permanent peace among the native races of South Africa. We hear this morning from Durban of the death of one of the bravest of our former enemies, the Chief Sekhukhune. He with his son and fourteen followers, has been killed… The news carries us some years back to the time when the name of Sekhukhune was a name of dread, first to the Dutch and then to the English Colonists of the Transvaal and Natal… It was, indeed to a great extent the danger caused by the neighbourhood of this formidable chief that led to the annexation of the Transvaal by England. When war was declared against the Zulu king, operation went on simultaneously against Sekhukhune and early in 1879 his stronghold was attacked… Obstacles stood in the way of these operations, and when after Ulundi, Sir Garnet Wolseley entered the Transvaal, he endeavoured to humiliate the Chief…”

King Moshoeshoe (c.1786-1870)
In 1851 a British force was defeated by the Sotho army at Kolonyama. After repulsing another British attack in 1852, Moshoeshoe sent an appeal to the British commander that allowed him to save face.  After a final defeat of the Tloka in 1853, Moshoeshoe reigned supreme.

However, the British pulled out of the region in 1854, causing the de facto formation of two independent states: the Boer  Orange Free State and the Sotho Kingdom.

In 1858 Moshoeshoe defeated the Boers in the Free State-Basotho War and in 1865 Moshoeshoe lost a great portion of the western lowlands. The last war in 1867 ended only when Moshoeshoe appealed to Queen Victoria, who agreed to make Basutoland (later to be known as Lesotho) a British protectorate in 1868. The British agreed as they were eager to check Boer advances.

His strategic advantage was the elevated plateau, Thaba Bosiu, c. 1.8km above sea level, which was used successfully as a hideout after they migrated from Butha-Buthe in 1824 during the Difaqane/Mfecane Wars. The plateau formed a natural fortress which protected the Basotho in times of war. He named it Thaba Bosiu (loosely translated – Mountain at Night) because he and his people arrived at night. For a period, Thaba Bosiu served as a capital for his new Basotho nation.

The most significant role Moshoeshoe played as a diplomat was his acts of friendship towards his beaten enemies. He provided land and protection to various people and this strengthened the growing Basotho nation. 

He was popularly known as Morena e Moholo/morena oa Basotho (Great King/King of the Basotho).

Although Boers may not be regarded as warriors in the traditional “African sense” as they are originally from Europe, they were well known and admired for their “fighting spirit” – which is the trait of a warrior – taking on the mighty British Empire with limited resources. An example of a bower warrior being Daniel Theron who was praised by none other than former President Nelson Mandela.

This was an especially proud moment for South Africa’s most celebrated Hollywood actress… Daniel Theron’s great-great-niece is Charlize Theron, the Academy Award-winning Hollywood actress.

Notable “Boer warriors” include:

Daniel Theron (1872-1900)

President Mandela commented that he valued the fighting spirit of Danie Theron, his honesty, bravery and his determination to do the right thing for his nation and his beliefs. Mr. Mandela said that the modern South Africa needs more Danie Therons in order to meet the challenges that lie ahead. He is best known as the driving force behind the formation of a military bicycle corps (using bicycles instead of horses, to save the lives of horses) for scouting and relaying messages.

Jan Smuts (1870 – 11 September 1950)

Field Marshal Jan Christian Smuts PC, OM, CH, DTD, ED, KC, FRS was a prominent South African and British Commonwealth statesman, military leader and philosopher.In addition to holding various cabinet posts, he served as prime minister of the Union of South Africa from 1919 until 1924 and from 1939 until 1948.

He led a Boer Commando in the Second Boer War for the Transvaal. During the First World War, he led the armies of South Africa against Germany, capturing German South-West Africa and commanding the British Army in East Africa.

From 1917 to 1919, he was also one of the members of the British War Cabinet and he was instrumental in the founding of what became the Royal Air Force (RAF). He became a field marshal in the British Army in 1941 and served in the Imperial War Cabinet under Winston Churchill. The strong friendship between Churchill and Smuts is well documented, from originally being enemies during the Boer war, Smuts would go on to being Churchill’s most trusted inner circle, with Churchill stating “my faith in Smuts is unbreakable”. He was the only man to sign both of the peace treaties ending the First and Second World Wars. A statue of him stands in London’s Parliament Square which is reserved for the most respected UK and international statesmen.

Louis Botha (1862-27 August 1919)

A Boer war hero during the Second Boer War, who would eventually fight to have South Africa become a British Dominion in what he believed was an act of reconciliation.

During the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) he served as a Boer general and statesman, as leader of the Transvaal army. Winston Churchill revealed[ that General Botha was the man who captured him at the ambush of a British armoured train on 15 November 1899. After the war he was one of the proponents of the Union of South Africa. His vision of South Africa included both British and Dutch. Botha was a leading figure in the Paris Peace Conference at the end of WW I. A great man of action, he was renowned for his simplicity, humanity, quick wit and good nature. He was endowed with natural gifts, yet his training was hardly sufficient to equip him for fifteen years of unremitting political, diplomatic, and military tasks.


A little known fact about the Boers:

Gen Smuts (centre) with his soldiers (Second Anglo War)

After the Boers won the first Anglo-Boer War, the British assembled their might for the second Anglo-Boer war (1899-1902) – amassing over half a million (600,000) soldiers from their vast empire to crush the Boers… who in total numbered only 62,400 (the Boers were not deterred despite being outnumbered by a staggering 10 to 1 ratio!)


So revered was their fighting spirit, the legendary WWII “Spartan General” Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery, Commander of the Allied forces commented:
“Give me 20 divisions of American soldiers and I will breach Europe. Give me 15 consisting of Englishmen, and I will advance to the borders of Berlin. Give me two divisions of those marvelous fighting Boers  and I will remove Germany from the face of the earth.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the British writer best known for creating the most famous detective fiction character Sherlock Holmes had this to say about the Boers:.
Take a community of Dutchmen of the type of those who defended themselves for fifty years against all the power of Spain at a time when Spain was the greatest power in the world. Intermix with them a strain of those inflexible French Huguenots, who gave up their name and left their country forever at the time of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The product must obviously be one of the most rugged, virile, unconquerable races ever seen upon the face of the earth. Take these formidable people and train them for seven generations in constant warfare against ferocious man and beast, in circumstances in which no weakling could survive; place them so that they acquire skill with weapons and in horsemanship, give them a country which is eminently suited to the tactics of the huntsman, the marksman and the rider. Then, finally, put a fine temper upon their military qualities by a dour fatalistic Old Testament religion and an ardent and consuming patriotism. Combine all these qualities and all these impulses in one individual and you have the modern Boer.”

If you feel that there is a warrior-statesman, or even just a distinguished warrior who should be included, feel free to let us know via the ‘Contacts’ page