PROPHECY – King Sekhukhune’s prophecy of December 1881; “after me no other King would be able to stand up to Pretoria since they would all be its tools. No other King would ever defeat Pretoria unless all people of black hair unite as one against Pretoria, or we shall forever be its servant”
King Sekhukhune was born from King Sekwati and Mankopodi in 1814. His parents named him Matsebe before he later in life earned the name “Sekhukhuni”. He led the tribe of the Bapedi tribe which originated from the Bakgatla of the Western former Transvaal. He became King upon his father’s death in September 1861, married Legoadi in 1862 and lived at a mountain, known as Thaba’ Leolo, which he fortified.
As the Bapedi paramount leader he was faced with political challenges, both inside and outside, from the Boer, the independent South African Republic (ZAR) and the British Empire, with considerable social change caused by Christian missionaries. And the faction led by Mampuru who was fighting to reclaim his throne from King Sekhukhune. Sekhukhune, like King Moshoeshoe of the Basotho people, was an illegitimate ruler who came to power by military force. As a result, his half brother, and legitimate heir, Mampuru was forced to flee from the Kingdom. As a result of lack of legitimacy, he built his power by entering into diplomatic marriages with various royal dynasties, by incorporating other societies into his empire, and by military conquest. This increased his support base and gave him legitimacy.
Under his leadership the tribe fought two main battles: first successfully in 1876 against the ZAR and their Swazi allies, then unsuccessfully against the British and Swazi in 1879 during the Sekhukhuni Wars, where he was defeated and captured at Tjate Mountains.
But the history of the Bapedi nation has been of battles and conflicts. The Swazi tribe conducted campaigns against the Bapedi, but could not take their mountain strongholds. After many battles and scatterings, Bapedi fugitives were able to regroup themselves. By 1800, Chief Thulare had established an empire with a capital, Manganeng, on the Steelpoort River and the Bapedi became a ruling caste. His death was followed by the usual succession disputes until in about 1826 Mzilikazi’s Ndebele attacked and overthrew the Pedi regime and killed a number of Thulare’s sons.
This onslaught caused the Bapedi to flee northwards with Sekwati, one of Thulare’s surviving sons. Sekwati later returned with his followers and, choosing a mountain stronghold at Phiring as his base, he became paramount chief over an accretion of chiefdoms and reunited his peoples. The Bapedi were establishing a kingdom when white expansion in southern Africa checked their independent progress.
When Hendrick Potgieter and the Voortrekkers arrived in the Marota Empire in the middle of the 19th century, Sekhukhune’s father, Sekwati (1775-1861), resisted them. In a famous battle at Phiring in 1838 Sekwati defeated the Voortrekkers by the simple tactic of establishing his stronghold on an impenetrable hill. But Phiring was insecure and so Sekwati moved his headquarters to Thaba Mosega (the fighting koppie) in the Lulu Mountains of the Eastern Transvaal from which his people were dislodged only by a series of bitter wars ending in December 1879.
By maintaining diplomatic ties with the Boers, the Swazi, and the Zulu, Sekwati established peace and prosperity. By 1852, relations had deteriorated and Hendrik Potgieter led a commando out against King Sekwati. The Boers besieged the Pedi stronghold, hoping they would run out of food and water. For several years Sekwati succumbed to the external forces for the sake of rebuilding his nation after heavy loss of life from Mzilkikazi defeat.
But they managed to maintain themselves by sending young warriors to steal through the Boer lines at night. On the twenty-fourth day, the Boers departed with the Pedi cattle. Sekwati realized the value of an abundant water supply and moved his capital to Thaba Mosega (Mosega Kop). He signed a treaty with the Boers declaring the Steelpoort River the boundary between the lands of the Bapedi and the Lydenburg Republic and allowed Alexander Merensky and C H T GrÁƒÂ¼tzner to begin evangelical work in his territory.
King Sekwati in 1861, his sons Mampuru and Sekhukhune both became rivals for the succession.
In 1863 Sekhukhune summoned all royal councilors, advisors and lieutenants to the head quarters. He ordered them that since his great-grand father and his father had succumbed to foreign pressure for so long, he would not do so. He announced that he is prepared to end all peace treaties his father had signed with the Boers, Zulus and Swazis and declare war on all sides. Sekhukhune ordered everyone to bow for him at once. After Mampuru and his councilors refused to bow down to him, he executed all Mampuru’s councillors and declared himself ruler. But he spared Mampuru’s life saying he should take the throne if he wants but not the military control. Mampuru swore vengeance, although his life had been spared.
Sekhukhune realized that he needed sophisticated weapons like the ones used by the Europeans; to defend his empire from the encroaching European colonization, Sekhukhune sent young men under the authority of ‘appointed’ headmen to work in white farms and diamonds mines. The money they earned in these employments was taxed and used to buy guns from the Portuguese in Delegoa Bay and cattle to increase the wealth of the Bapedi (Marota people). By 1873 the Marota empire had grown to unite all the disparate people in the area under a common Royalty.
The Bapedi nation under King Sekhukhune lived in the land between the Vaal and Limpopo rivers. They regarded this territory as their country and admitted or excluded all corners to it.
Wars of Resistance
In 1846, the Boers, claiming to have purchased the land from the Swazis, sought to expel the Bapedi tribe from the land east of the Tubatse, the so-called Steelpoort River today. They were rebuffed. In 1865, Rev. Dr. Alexander Merensky Superintendent of the Berlin Missionary Society and who had been welcomed among the Bapedi first by Sekwati and later by Sekhukhune, was expelled for activities that were deemed to be subversive of Sekhukhune’s authority and favourable to the Pretoria Boers. He took refuge in Botshabelo, near Middleburg where he established a Mission station and a school of that name. Merensky continued to play a double game, hunting with the hounds and running with the hares, until Sekhukhune disappeared from the scene in 1879 when the Boers rewarded him (Merensky) by granting him land in Maandagshoek from which he carried on his dubious activities under the cloak of religion.
Johannes Dinkoanyane, Sekhukhune’s half-brother, at first supported Merensky and became a Lutheran convert. His stay in Botshabelo was short-lived and soon he was back with his followers in Spekboom Hills, in the Tubatse Valley. He assumed a very independent demeanor, which Sekhukhune by no means discouraged. On March 7, 1876, Dinkoanyane detained a wagonload of wood belonging to one Jankowitz, a Boer farmer who had trespassed on Dinkoanyane’s land to cut wood. At the same time false rumours of cattle theft spread – also false rumours to the effect that Dinkoanyane had burnt down Rev. Nachtigal’s German mission.
When the news reached Pretoria, an enraged President Thomas Francois Burgers decided to set out “to deal with the Sekhukhune menace” himself. Burgers quickly assembled a largest army not seeing before in the Republic. Armed with 7 pounder Krupp guns they marched to Thaba Mosega, which he reached on August 1, 1876. He was supported by African troops hoping the land under Sekhukhune would be given to them after Sekhukhune was defeated. Sekhukhune came to Dinkoanyane’s rescue and, although Dinkoanyane himself was killed in action, Sekhukhune inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Boers and President Burgers. This defeat cost him his position and lost it to Paul Kruger. Thousands of children, women and civilians were killed by the guns and cannons of the whiteman in their conquest of African land.
In response to the humiliating defeat suffered by President Burgers, the Boers sponsored an army of mercenaries (sometimes called the falstaffian gang of filibusters or free booters). Styled the Lydenburg Volunteer Corps. Their leader was a reckless adventurer of Diamond notoriety named Conrad Hans von Schlieckmann, a German ex-officer and soldier of fortune who was closely connected with the German Establishment and who had fought under Otto von Bismarck in the Franco-German War of 1870-71. Other mercenaries were Gunn of Gunn, Alfred Aylward, Knapp, Woodford, Rubus, Adolf Kuhneisen, Dr. James Edward Ashton, Otto von Streitencron, George Eckersley, Bailey, Captain Reidel and others from America, Britain, Ireland, France, Germany, Austria and other European countries. They committed the grossest atrocities in the Tubatse Valley. All acted in total disregard of the British Foreign Enlistment Act, 1870; the American Neutrality or Foreign Enlistment Act, 1818 and similar laws.
They also acted with the connivance of their home countries. Many of these soldiers of fortune were recruited from the diamond diggings in Kimberley where they had gone in a vain search for diamonds. The Lydenburg area attracted them because it was said to hold large deposits of gold, diamonds and other precious minerals. So when Pretoria established the Lydenburg Volunteers Corps, von Schlieckmann’s men fell for it. They fought fiercely from behind the rampart to avenge the defeat of President Burgers. They lost, and Von Schlieckmann himself was killed in battle on November 17 1876, to be succeeded by Alfred Aylward, an Irishman. But this was not the end of the war only of a battle, albeit an important one.
Sekhukhune versus the British
On April 12, 1877, Sir Theophilus Shepstone annexed the Transvaal on the pretext, inter alia, that a Boer Republic that failed to “pacify” the Bapedi threatened, by its very existence and weakness, to destabilize the British colonies of the Cape and Natal. Up to 1877 the British had “supported” Sekhukhune’s attitude to the Boers.
Sekhukhune’s attitude was that his Empire fell outside the jurisdiction of Pretoria; that the land between the Vaal and the Limpopo rivers belonged to him, and that although he would never accept Boer rule, he might as a last resort, like Moshoeshoe, accept Protectorate status under the British Crown.
However, after the British Annexation of the Transvaal (April, 1877) British attitudes changed. James Grant, a Briton, confirmed: “… the view taken by our government was that Sekhukhune was not a real rebel against the Transvaal, in-as-much as his territory formed no part of that dominion (Transvaal Republic), and that the war waged against him was an un justifiable aggression against an independent ruler; but when, in 1877, the Transvaal was annexed, Sekhukhune’s country was included without any question, in the new territory added to Britain’s possessions”.
Sekhukhune rejected this new British position scornfully. By March 1878 drums of war were beating again in Sekhukhuneland – this time it was against the British. Captain Clarke who was sent to subdue Sekhukhune, was routed with heavy loss of life and barely escaped with his life at Magnet Heights. Immediately after this first British failure to subdue Sekhukhune, a fully equipped force of 1,800 men under Colonel Rowlands made another attempt from August until October 1878, to reduce Sekhukhune to submission. The mission failed (again with much loss of life on both sides) and had to be abandoned on October 6,1878.
The British made a third attempt at subduing Sekhukhune in June/July 1879, under the command of Colonel Lanyon. This too failed. There was little more the British could do at that time since, they had on their hands colonial wars in the Eastern Cape Colony, in the Colony of Natal, in Lesotho (the Gun war), in Ashanti (Ghana), Afghanistan and Cyprus, military logic forced them to await the outcome of these wars before challenging Sekhukhune again. This stage was reached after the Battle of Ulundi and the exile of King Cetshwayo to Britain.
Thereafter Sir Garnet Wolseley moved his motley troops of Britons, Boers and Africans (10,000 Swazi troops) to bring down Sekhukhune. This was the fourth British attempt to reduce Sekhukhune to submission. Wolseley chose November 1879, for his move. It was a major military operation. Sir Wolseley’s men moved in a pincer movement from Fort Kruger, Fort MacMac, Fort Weeber, Jane Furse, Bebo, Schoonoord, Lydenburg, Mphablele, Nkoana, Steelpoort, and Nchabeleng, Swaziland – literally from all sides – to Thaba Mosega. The battle raged furiously from November 28 to December 2,1879. Sekhukhune fought with muskets obtained from Lesotho where he had royal support and French Missionaries as friends; from Kimberley Diamond fields where his people worked; from Delagoa Bay ( Mozambique ) with which he had close trade and other links.
The British used their more modern Mausers. Much life was lost. Sekhukhune himself lost his son and heir, Moroanoche, and fourteen other members of his immediate family. As the battle raged, Sekhukhune was taken by surprise in the form of an attack from behind by 10,000 Swazi troops in the service of the British. These had been recruited on direct British instructions by Captain MacLeod of Macleod (British political agent in Swaziland ) and his Lieutenant Alister Campbell, R.N. This surprise attack virtually brought the war to a close. Sekhukhune took refuge in Mamatarnageng, the cave on Grootvygenboom (high up in the Lulu Mountain ), some 15 miles from Thaba,Mosega. There he was cut off from all sources of food and water. So when on December 2, 1879, Captain Clarke and Commandant Ferreira were led to the cave and called him out, Sekhukhune had no choice but to comply. He was accompanied by his wife and children, his half-brother, Nkwemasogana, Makoropetse, Mphahle (a Swazi national) and a few attendants. Commandant Ferreira, who was obsessed with the myth that Sekhukhune owned large quantities of gold and diamonds, searched diligently but found nothing.
So ended the colonial war against Sekhukhune. On December 9, 1879, Sekhukhune (then 65 years old), his wife, a baby, a child, Nkwemasogana, Mphahle, Makoropetse and a few generals were led to prison in Pretoria. He remained there until the Pretoria Convention of 3 August 1881 was signed between Britain and the Boers after the first South African War. The Boers, who had never accepted the British Annexation of the Transvaal, called it the First Boer War of Independence. Article 23 of the Convention provided that Sekhukhune be set free and returned home. He could not return to Thaba Mosega, which had been burnt down in the war and which had fresh military associations, but to a nearby place called Manoge.
There on the night of August 13, 1882, Sekhukhune while resting in the veranda of his house was stepped with a spear. He was murdered by his half-brother, Mampuru, who claimed that he was the lawful king of the Marota and that Sekhukhune had usurped the throne on Sep. 21, 1861, when their father Sekwati, died. Thereafter MampurU, fearing arrest escaped and sought refuge first with Chief Marishane (Masemola) and later with Nyabela, king of the Ndebeles.
The Pretoria Boers asked Nyabela to surrender Mampuru for trial on a charge of murder. Nyabela refused, saying that Mampuru was in his (Nyabela’s) stomach. Another war thus broke out between Nyabela and the Boers. It raged for almost a year – nine months to be precise. Ultimately Nyabela surrendered and gave up Mampuru to the Pretoria Boers. Marishane, Nyabela and Mampuru were tried in the Pretoria Supreme Court. On January 23, 1884, Marishane was sentenced to seven years imprisonment for having granted Mampuru temporary refuge and for “causing a tumult”. He returned to his village Marishane (Mooifontein) thereafter to die.
Nyabela was sentenced to death (later commuted to life imprisonment) on September 22, 1883. Mampuru was sentenced to death for murder and rebellion and was hanged in Pretoria prison on November 22,1883.
Thus ended one of the stormiest politico-military careers in our country. And thus too ended the Marota Empire. It had been defended bravely against great odds: The death of Sekhukhune did not pass unnoticed. The London Times of August 30, 1882, announced his death to the world and paid reluctant tribute to him in a long editorial.