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Series / Shaka Zulu

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Shaka Zulu is a 1986 South African historical TV drama, mostly set between 1823 and 1828 but with some focus on Shaka's formative years as well. Henry Cele stars as the titular King of the Zulu. An epic tale with thousands of extras, it was partially funded by the American company Harmony Gold USA, and entered syndication in the US as well as South Africa.

The series is loosely based on the actual writings of traders who lived with the Zulus for a period, as well as the Zulus' own verbal traditions. It covers the circumstances surrounding Shaka's birth, his childhood, and his rise to prominence, though most attention is given to the five year span from when traders began living with the Zulus to Shaka's downfall and death.



  • Artifact Domination: If events of Episode 8 are to be believed, the Ndwandwe witch doctor, through a gory ritual, cast a spell on an artifact that made one of Dingiswayo's maidservants assassinate him.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • Generally averts history being written by the victors, as there are some rather unflattering portrayals of the British — particularly George IV. That said, due to the lack of writings by the Zulu at the time, artistic license is to be expected.
    • The Battle of Gqokli Hill, which here was depicted as being won much due to a small group of Englishmen confusing the enemy with their technology, actually occurred many years before the English arrived in the Mthethwa region.
    • The mere existence of Shaka's son is apocryphal at best, and yet the miniseries depicts him as not only having one, but having him killed so he can't threaten Shaka's power.
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    • Lord Charles was only governor until 1826, but he is depicted as being governor for the duration of the series.
    • Shaka never led an army with the intention of attacking Cape Town, as was depicted in Episode 10.
  • Badass Baritone: Shaka, as portrayed by Henry Cele, possesses a very powerful, commanding voice.
  • Berserk Button: Do NOT insult Shaka's mother while Shaka is around. Special mention goes to during his first exile, where a village kid insulted Shaka's mother, only for Shaka to knock him down and hold a spear to his neck. This set off a feud that indirectly caused Shaka's maternal grandmother's death, and ultimately the boy's own a decade later.
  • Bilingual Backfire: At the beginning, three of Queen Victoria's advisors talk trash about the exiled Zulu King Cetshwayo, assuming that he can't speak English. Victoria, wisely, reserves herself until Cetshwayo diplomatically makes The Reveal, and subsequently excuses them before having a one-on-one with the King.
  • Bilingual Bonus: If you can speak Zulu, you're liable to get a lot more out of this series than most people.
  • Bookends: Shaka himself was an illegitimate son of a king, and was exiled in lieu of being killed. When Shaka had his own unwanted son, due to a twisted notion that the Whites had made him immortal, he had the baby killed. Since the kill was in no way depicted on-screen, garnering only a mention, it's up to the viewer to decide if it truly went full circle.
  • Buried Alive: Numerous Zulu are buried, injured but still breathing and writhing, along with Nandi.
  • Canon Immigrant: The witch doctor Setayi does not appear in any historical records. She is easily the most ahistorical character in the series, having mystical powers and never aging through the narrative's 42 year span.
  • The Captivity Narrative: Downplayed, but present. The British who crash onto the beach near Mthethwa are effectively political hostages who resist assimilation. This is finally confirmed in Episode 9, where Shaka allows two Brits to leave with a group of Zulu to open up a dialogue, with the other 15 or so remaining as hostages.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Around the end of Shaka's first exile, he stopped to help a distressed traveler — salving a wound on his back. It turned out to be Mtetwa prince, Dingiswayo the Wanderer, and Shaka just happened to stumble upon his territory while escaping capture. Not only did Shaka gain asylum, but Dingiswayo was also an important mentor to him.
  • Climb, Slip, Hang, Climb: Invoked when Shaka climbed a cliff to get away from his Zulu pursuers, who were looking to capture him for trial regarding him threatening his father, the King.
  • Completely Unnecessary Translator: King Cetshwayo feigns ignorance of English, presumably to get Englishmen to let down their guard and speak candidly.
  • Conspicuously Public Assassination: A sensible variant, where one of Shaka's rivals attempted to assassinate him during a party, shortly after the British group is delivered to the tribe. Despite being somewhat inconspicuous in the large crowd, he was discovered and executed.
  • Covers Always Lie: Several DVD covers actually put Shaka's father King Senzangakhona on the cover, who is a secondary character, not the series' namesake.
  • Dead Guy on Display:
    • The witch doctors' village is full of these unsanitary displays both at the perimeter and inside the village, some with scavengers eating away at them.
    • Invoked again when Shaka captured those who burned down his maternal grandmother's granary. He piked them from the rear, while still alive, stood them up and left them to hang as a warning.
  • Deal with the Devil: Shaka's "alliance" with the British is described as this from his point of view, as he's primarily interested in the power their mysterious technology can offer him, while his advisors warn him that the "white men" might be deceitful about their long-term intentions. Nevertheless, he states that if the bird were to offer the leopard the ability to fly, he would be foolish not to take it.
  • Dehumanization: Many of the Brits who didn't stay with the Zulus, particularly Lord Charles of Cape Town, have a dehumanizing and dismissive attitude toward the natives.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Shaka does not differentiate the morality of warfare and executions the way that the English do, and this is difference in values is brought forth when Shaka tasks one of the Brits with executing the enemy King Zwide on the battlefield and he refuses. Shaka effectively calls him a hypocrite and proceeds to execute Zwide himself.
  • Determinator: After Shaka's assassination attempt, and with a considerable fever along with a wound slowly healing, Shaka forces himself to make a public display so as to leave no questions as to the Zulu Kingdom's leadership.
  • Does Not Like Shoes: Shaka, for the reason that they impair his movement. His callused soles certainly justify his point of view.
  • Downer Ending: While YMMV whether or not Shaka's death was for the better, his entire capital was razed to the ground.
  • Dramatically Missing the Point: After a several minute long discussion about Jesus Christ, Shaka comes to the determination that Jesus Christ died so Shaka could inherit his power. This only reaffirms his resolve.
  • Elite Army: Double Subverted with the tiny British regiment when Shaka's army pushed on Zwide's forces. By western standards, the British "troops" were far from elite as they were aged civilians, but they had technology that the Ndwandwe had never seen. In spite of multiple opportunities where they could have rushed the British and slaughtered them while they were reloading, the Ndwandwe kept backing off and allowing the British to kill several times their number. Eventually, the Ndwandwe caught on and the Zulus had to back the regiment up, but the panic and disorder helped lead to the Ndwandwe's downfall.
  • Et Tu, Brute?: The assassination of Shaka was portrayed as a very open and public coup, giving Shaka a chance to give final words to his half-brothers and former advisors. In reality, it was a far more cloak and dagger affair.
  • Excessive Mourning: When Nandi, Queen of Queens, dies, Zulu citizens are subjected to a harsh year of mourning, where crops may not be harvested and children may not be conceived for an entire year — punishable by death.
  • Foreshadowing: Ndlela kaSompisi, Shaka's top general, effectively warns Shaka of what will happen later in the century, saying of the British, "Then I can only hope that their knowledge is not a fabrication of lies, or all that you have built will become theirs."
  • Freeze-Frame Ending: As was the custom in The '80s, all episodes end with a a freeze frame as the credits roll, often setting the tone for the next episode. The last episode lets a poignant scene roll during much of the credits, but then freezes as well.
  • Gentleman Snarker: Par for the course, given the number of British nobles and professionals at Cape Town. Francis gets a special mention for wittily dressing down Lord Charles for his unwillingness to speak with the Zulus, as well as for not recognizing his intellectual authority on the natives given his multi year captivity.
  • Going Native: Played with, as far as Francis Farewell goes. Although pretty resistant overall, he arrives at Cape Town in culturally mixed dress, and identifies himself as Zulu in an effort to get them an audience.
  • Gorn: The scenes involving witch doctors are easily the most graphic of the entire series, to the point where scenes with battle wounds are tame in comparison...typically only featuring fake blood and a bendable (or retractable) prop spear.
  • Hidden Elf Village: A village closed to the Mtetwa capital is this, rife with fantasy elements and inhabited by witch doctors (the blind, little poeple, anyone who's different) and oddly enough a mild-mannered top-notch blacksmith. This is a grim version of this trope, with bodies out in the open being pecked by scavengers, and in many other ways an overall foreboding motif.
  • Historical Fantasy: Some of the flashbacks of Shaka's early life seem to take the supernatural myths surrounding him seriously. Justified, since this is set within a Framing Device where one of the European hostages is putting the embellished stories from the Zulu tribesmen about the king down to paper.
  • Hollywood Voodoo: Setayi, the witch doctor, is depicted somewhat unflatteringly and is portrayed as a manipulative creator of self fulfilling prophecies. She is blind, bald in the front half of her head, has hanging flesh, and wears decrepit robes. She is also shown exactly the same in 25+ year old flashbacks.
  • Hungry Weapon: The spear that Shaka orders from the witch doctors' village at the beginning of episode 6 is stated to be this. Shaka, however, was cool with it.
  • Immortal Ruler: Shaka mistakenly believes that the British have "rejuvinated" him after applying some hair dye on him during his recovery from an assassination. Believing that they hold the secret to immortality, Shaka suggests a confederation ruled by immortal kings of various nations, and no longer believing himself to be in need of an heir, has his only son killed.
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: This is the worst form of execution available to the African tribes, and it's only used to punish particularly heinous crimes, such as political assassination. The pikes are injected from the bottom upwards, not through the torso.
  • In Medias Res: Episodes 1 and 2 take place after episode 6, presumably to jump straight to the parts that are most relatable to western viewers.
  • In Mysterious Ways: Often invoked by Henry during his theological discussions with Shaka, particularly regarding why the King of Kings was allowed to "die on a tree". Shaka, not particularly liking the many loose ends of The Bible, tends to come up with interpretations that elevate his station.
  • Jerkass: King George IV is portrayed as a jerkass philanderer who clearly puts his own interests ahead of the nation's.
  • Keeping the Enemy Close: Shaka believes that Dingane is behind the assassination attempt, but Shaka plays dumb for the sake of ferreting out others who would try to go after him.
  • Lured into a Trap: Nandi is summoned out into the forest, presumably to meet up with Prince Senzangakhona. She is strangled by someone presumably by a man loyal to King but is subsequently rescued by Setayi and her hyenas.
  • Make an Example of Them: In retaliation for the assassination attempt, ten uFasimba were impaled in front of the cattle fold and left in public display as a warning to future would-be assassins.
  • Mighty Whitey: Deconstructed. The Europeans arrive in Zululand to establish diplomatic ties and trading rights, and Dr. Henry Flynn points out that an unscrupulous person with their superior technology could become a god in this country, but it turns out that King Shaka is a dangerous, cunning ruler who has them totally at his mercy throughout their stay, and they're effectively political hostages. This small collection of mostly western civilians does manage to oppose an army of 20,000 enemy soldiers with a few rifles and a cannon, and Shaka becomes convinced that they possess the secret to immortality (actually hair dye that makes him appear younger and more medical knowledge to nurse him back to health after an attempted assassination). When Lieutenant Farewell returns from Capetown, his meeting with Shaka after the King has experienced a mental breakdown because of the death of his mother, in particular, is a very bitter take on this trope, as Shaka likens himself to a simple monkey who allowed himself to be tricked into getting his hand trapped in a bottle containing something shiny.
  • National Geographic Nudity: This series unabashedly attempts to make realistic depictions of the southeastern African dress at the time. Incidentally, we do get a few candid shots of the British characters as well.
  • Neck Snap: This is invoked a couple times during the series, used on both the deceased and the terminally ill as part of funeral rituals. Naturally, it's your standard "turn the head 90 degrees" Hollywood nonsense.
  • Noble Savage: Subverted. King Shaka Zulu is a driven, cunning, and at times even sympathetic character, but he's not portrayed to be "closer to nature" or somehow innately wiser than the Europeans. He's unambiguously a tribal warlord who carved out an empire through massive bloodshed.
  • Oedipus Complex: Shaka Zulu grew up loving his mother Queen Nandi but hating his father King Senzangakhona, as the latter only married her to save face after impregnating the young woman out of wedlock, and mistreated her out of spite, earning Shaka's hatred.
  • Offing the Offspring: Under the delusion of his own immortality, brought on by hair dye, Shaka has is own newborn son killed so he can't rise up against Shaka.
  • Pint-Sized Powerhouse: Preteen Shaka demonstrates his tenacity against a older tribesman heckling his mother, threatening him with a spear to his throat.
  • Placebo Effect: While not explicitly mentioned by the Brits as doing anything, the black hair dye left Shaka and many others under the false impression that it had rejuvenation properties, since it made them appear younger. This served as a major factor toward Shaka signing a lopsided contract for land, ivory, and mining rights.
  • Playing Gertrude: Nandi qualifies for this when she ascends to the throne as Queen of Queens (Queen Mother) after Shaka captures the Zulu capital. In fact, her actress Dudu Mkhize is actually younger than Henry Cele.
  • The Prophecy: Setayi lays out a pretty accurate prophecy of Shaka after rescuing Nandi in the forest. It becomes quite important and controversial throughout the flashback episodes.
  • Rated M for Manly: Episode 5, where Shaka is a young man at the end of his first exile and at the beginning of his second, absolutely qualifies. Shaka's eight pack is prominently displayed, with feats including rock climbing, putting out a burning stick with his bare foot, and overall just being alpha enough to stand up to the Mtetwa general and even develop his own fighting techniques.
  • Reality Has No Subtitles: There are no subtitles whatsoever for any of the (mostly Zulu) tribal languages. Presumably, this is done to put the viewer in the shoes of the traders, soldiers, and diplomats.
  • Real Men Love Jesus: Zigzagged. Shaka shows fascination with the story of Jesus, although he wonders how someone touted to be the "King of Kings" could die such an ignominous death by being crucified. He sees parallels in Jesus being betrayed by those closest to him, but he eventually concludes that Jesus died so that Shaka could inherit the powers given to him from the heavens.
  • Rebel Prince: During a flashback in the third episode, Senzangakhona, son of Jama and father of Shaka, had an affair with a common woman named Nandi — much to the chagrin of his father. The real life Senzangakhona had children with sixteen women.
  • Regent for Life: Shaka seeks, and gets full control over the military from Dingiswayo so he can retrain them to counter a threat from the Ndwandwe Kingdom. Naturally, he never planned to return said power, though it was made moot by Dingiswayo's assassination.
  • Reluctant Ruler: As the King died before Shaka could have his revenge, Sigujana was named his successor. During his short tenure, he was seen quivering upon accepting the role and easily willing to give it up to Shaka. Shaka killed him anyway.
  • Requisite Royal Regalia: The Zulus' Eternal Spear, which is a spear formed of an unstated metal, has been passed down to kings for untold generations.
  • Rewarded as a Traitor Deserves: When Shaka returns to his hometown after his father's death to claim the throne of the Zulus, he orders his cowering half-brother Sigujana, who had been crowned king upon their father's death, to kill his advisor and submit to him. After he does, Shaka calls him a fool and kills him as well.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Episode 6 treats us to Shaka and his armies essentially mowing down anyone who ever wronged him or his mother's family.
  • Ruler Protagonist: While the British function as a First-Person Peripheral Narrator, the rise and fall of Shaka Zulu is the centerpiece of the series.
  • The Stoic: Even as a child, Shaka handles heckling (when levied against him, at least) pretty well. He also barely reacts to a ritual bloodletting and acts as a pillar during his brief exile.
  • The Strategist: Shaka, who essentially redefined southeast African warfare with his more up close and personal tactics. Before, warfare was more dictated by an honor code and involved throwing spears back and forth until one side submitted.
  • There Is No Kill Like Overkill: After Shaka defeats King Zwide's army in the field thanks to British technology, he has him executed with a cannon.
  • Training Montage:
    • After being humiliated by equipment problems during a war games exercise, Shaka has a montage showing him refining his equipment and fighting technique. Traditional but upbeat South African music plays in the background.
    • Then again for Shaka's fifty volunteer regiment. They are shown running barefoot through all sorts of terrain, carrying large roads, forging weapons to perfection, and learning new formations and patterns.
  • Trash the Set: In the last episode, when Shaka's reign is ended through assassination, his capital city is burned to the ground, leading to a whole bunch of extravagant shots where the setpieces are roundly trashed.
  • Villainous Breakdown: After Shaka spends most of the series using his cunning and ingenuity to carve out an empire in Southeastern Africa, after his mother dies, he goes entirely off the rails, becoming The Caligula by starting a famine and ordering his forces to engage in random democide, and planning to invade the Cape Colony out of anger against the western visitors who tricked the mighty Shaka.
  • Villain Protagonist: Shaka himself. Although he is given a very sympathetic backstory to explain his behavior in context; he's still an utterly ruthless, megalomaniac warlord whose brutal actions cause lots of endless misery, both for himself and everyone around him.
  • Witch Doctor: Setayi is a witch doctor and portrayed as a crucial advisor to Shaka. Another witch doctor is a little person, who bloodlets child Shaka and drinks his blood.


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