23 years ago, give or take a year, my father and brother and I are standing in the dust of KwaDukuza, watching the masses of humanity stream in to the inkundla. We merit some curious looks, and some interested comments, but for the most part everyone else is too busy sorting out their own imvunulo to worry about ours.
The invitation to the event had two options for dress – formal or traditional. We had very brief visions of the torment of black suits and ties in Zululand heat before Dad put us out of our misery – traditional was the way to go.
Some of the singing has already started, and I can feel the harmonies interlacing in the dry September air. Not everyone has arrived yet, and we are certainly showing our whiteness as nobody else of my father’s rank has even shown their face. Of course, the invitation said 9am, and we’d woken up at sparrow’s to get to Stanger on time, wending our way through Eshowe, past Gingindlovu and Mandini in the already hot hours of the morning.
It wasn’t a public holiday then, of course. This was before the day was rebranded. But for some reason my brother and I are not in school.
My memory of this day is composed of pictures and feelings.
Feelings first – thirst, irritation and boredom changing to a sugar rush (from a warm tin of schweppes grenadilla grudgingly passed from the amakhosi’s stash), curiosity and awe as the amabutho, amakhosi and their various retinues make their way past where we sit in the shade. I feel the stirrings of some kind of pride as the dancing and singing begins, and my body becomes a small white vehicle for the rhythmic intensity of the regimental war-cries. My foot taps, and the songs begin to lodge in my mind. At some point a copy of uMntwana kaPhindangena’s speech thuds into my lap, bilingual and verbose as always, a massive tome of political utterance – I begin to read, and can already see that there are some parts that have been translated a little loosely. When he speaks, I feel the sugar-rush fading and somnolence stealing over me. I occupy time and stay awake by looking at the marvellous imvunulo of the assembled izichukuthwane, the VIPs.
Then there are the pictures. In an age before Instagram and other ‘sharing’ options, there are onlu a couple of cameras among the crowd. We’d already used a cheap point-and-click to capture the Scottish magnificence of woollen kilts, leather sporrans, starched shirts and long socks before we left home, but there are also photographers from various newspapers snapping away. There are pictures being taken of bare breasts and chests over izidwaba and amabheshu, of glistening muscles contorting into the rhyhmic postures of the war-dance, and of izinkehli glowing with redness above the dignified pride of assembled matrons and queens.
There are other abelungu here, but they have all opted for Formal. I can see their reddened flesh perspiring around bow-ties and the sweaty discomfort of trousers and tight dresses. I can smell the growing ripeness of a hundred armpits, even as I sit now recollecting this day.
And then there is the final picture, the most resonant of the whole day. It is captured in a faded print on the wall of my parents’ kitchen.
There is a phalanx of dignitaries, brandishing izagila and amahawu amancane, caught mid-war-dance by the anonymous photog, finished off with a flourish of gwalagwala feathers and leopard skin. To the right of the picture is iSilo samaBandla, Ungangezwe lakhe, uBhejane ophum’ esiqiwini, uZwelithini kaBhekuzulu. Next to him is his Indunankulu, uMntwana kaPhindangena (aka Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi), resplendant in his dark glasses and a black vest beneath his leopard skin. To the left of the picture is the king’s uncle, uMntwana kaMinya, Gideon Zulu, his umkhaba showing his wealth and status as he fiercely moves forward with iwisa in hand. There are others clustered around them whose names I have forgotten. But in the centre is a white man, red-tufted tam-o-shanter above a pure white dress-shirt tucked into a Mackenzie tartan, sgian-dubh just visible in long white socks with red-flashes over ornate patterned black dress shoes, finished off with a sporran that I know has a small silver hip-flask and pipe tobacco in its leather pouch. He is also wielding isagila, and his mouth is open as they all sing the war-song together.
This is my earliest and clearest memory of this day, the day that Ilemb’ eleq’ amany’ amalembe, uShaka kaSenzangakhona, was murdered by the umGabadeli, his brother, uDingane kaSenzangakhona. The day that the new South Africa would rebrand as ‘Heritage Day’.
That man is my father. This is my heritage.