Academic journal article Africa

Whose uNkulunkulu?

Academic journal article Africa

Whose uNkulunkulu?

Article excerpt


UNkulunkulu was a term taken up by certain missionaries in Natal as synonymous with the Christian God. Though the idea of uNkulunkulu is now well entrenched in African as well as missionary Christian theology, historically the concept of uNkulunkulu, as the High God of all, is inaccurate. This paper will argue that there was actually a multiplicity of oNkulunkulu (plural of uNkulunkulu) in the early nineteenth century--including females. UNkulunkulu was simply a generic name for particular significant Zulu ancestors--family, chiefly or 'national'. The development of the concept of uNkulunkulu, as the High God of all, obscures important aspects of the relationship that formerly obtained between chiefs and their departed ancestors. The attainment of Zulu political ascendancy, which has so often been viewed in purely secular terms, had a critical religious dimension.


Whether there was a pre-contact concept of a Supreme Being, uNkulunkulu or God among nineteenth-century Zulu is probably one of the most intriguing questions concerning Zulu 'religion'. Many nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writers influenced by Christianity were interested in the possible existence among the Zulu, and other southern African groups in Natal, of an understanding of Creation, God (or a Supreme Being), Heaven and the hereafter. Many accounts noted that the Zulu appear to have a tradition of uNkulunkulu who sprang from a bed of reeds. Others simply talk of a notion, either conscious or latent, of a Supreme Being. Early European writers, both missionaries and laymen, took belief in God to be critical to determine the existence or absence of 'religion' among southern Africans. The interpretation or 'invention' of uNkulunkulu as God, however, is an example of white systems of understanding being grafted on to African systems that are not necessarily compatible, and it has undermined the importance of ancestors in Zulu religion and their role in the ideology of the Zulu state.


The survivors of the Stavenisse shipwreck in the late seventeenth century reported that the 'natives' of Natal had no religion whatsoever (Bird [1888] 1965: 45). One of the earliest accounts comes from the traveller Nathaniel Isaacs ([1836] 1937: 248), who said that they had 'no idea of a deity, no knowledge of a future state [and] they cannot comprehend the mystery of creation'. Reverend Francis Owen, who began his missionary work among the Zulu in 1837, also remarked that they had not the faintest notion of a God (Owen 1926: 94) as did Adulphe Delegorgue, who hunted in the KwaZulu-Natal region in the 1830s and 1840s (Bird [1888] 1965: 485).

Slowly, however, a contrary view began to take root. (1) Captain Allen Gardiner and Reverend Joseph Shooter subscribed to the belief that there had been an historical decay of knowledge particularly relating to the notion of a powerful creator of all things, heaven and an afterlife or eternity. When Gardiner questioned the people in the mid-1830s about who made the sun, moon, mountains and rivers, they replied that it was the 'Incosi pezulu', but that they knew nothing more. From his conversation with Umkolwani of the Ngwane, he concluded that:

   every tradition had worn out; and they presented the awful
   spectacle of immortal beings without the knowledge or
   acknowledgment of a Creator ... Of a day of future retribution
   they had not the slightest idea, nor did they know anything of
   an evil spirit. [Gardiner (1836) 1966: 170-1]

Nonetheless, the enthusiastic Gardiner went on to identify 'Villenangi' (the 'First Appearer'), and 'Oukoolukoolu' (the 'Great-Great') and a secondary heavenly being known as 'Koolukoolwani'. Gardiner believed that even though most people knew little of 'Villenangi', contact with Europeans had resurrected their general understanding of a Supreme Being (Gardiner [1836] 1966: 178; Shooter [1857] 1969: 159-60). …

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