REVIEW | Shaka Ilembe dilutes the remarkable history it seeks to portray

Series fails to strike balance between creative interpretation and historical authenticity

Shaka Ilembe - Nandi & Piklile.
Shaka Ilembe - Nandi & Piklile.
Image: Supplied


Once upon a time, within the decade of the year one thousand seven hundred sixty, in a land near right here, nestled along the Southern African coastline of the Indian Ocean.

Three kingdoms thrived within a span of 100km: the Kingdom of Elangeni, Cradle of the Sun; the Kingdom of kwaZulu, Home of the Sky; and the Kingdom of kwaNdwandwe, Nest of the Heron.

Harmoniously, they coexisted until an ominous drought loomed over their lands. 

Prophecies foretold the day when this parched menace would cast its dark shadow upon the realm. It was whispered that the sky’s lifting of the sun would coincide with the tyrannical reign of the Heron, plunging the kingdoms into a maelstrom of strife and avarice.  

When the drought trudged, dragging its shadow of chaos behind it, it settled in the north, in the Kingdom of kwaNdwandwe. The shadow swallowed all vegetation and cattle in its path, and the prince, Zwide ka Ndwandwe, saw the drought as an opportunity to pillage. This was the beginning of the darkness that would engulf all kingdoms. 

Shaka Ilembe - Zwide in river played by Wiseman Mncube.
Shaka Ilembe - Zwide in river played by Wiseman Mncube.
Image: Supplied

In the western reaches, within the Kingdom of Elangeni, there resided a maiden princess named Nandi, whose beauty radiated like the sun itself, and a presence akin to the dawn’s warm embrace.  

Meanwhile, in the eastern lands of KwaZulu, a young prince named Senzangakhona stood as a paragon of strength and valiance. His looks striking as the expansive sky, and a spirit akin to a relentless storm. 

As fate would have it, Senzangakhona’s path crossed with that of Nandi. A celestial union of the sun and sky, a harmony of the sun’s radiance and the sky’s vastness. Senzangakhona, with his chivalrous demeanour, pursued her heart with unwavering ardour. He courted Nandi, and she, in turn, reciprocated his affection. 

Yet, destiny dealt unexpected trials. During Zwide’s marauding exploits, he and his hord chanced upon Nandi and her companions bathing in a river. An attack ensued. Senzangakhona and his loyal comrades, conveniently nearby, fearlessly shielded them.

In the fiery clash, Senzangakhona’s fatal blow extinguished a life. Unbeknownst to them, this singular act would kindle an inferno of vengeance. 

Foreseeing the brewing tempest, King Jama sent Senzangakhona’s uncle as an emissary, seeking peace from Langa kaXaba, ruler of kwaNdwandwe.

Yet, a harrowing revelation awaited him. Queen Ntombazi, an enigmatic sorceress, and her deformed, dual-headed son, once forsaken but now cloaked in shadows, had slain the king of kwaNdwandwe.

Queen Ntombazi and her two sons had ceased power. The KwaZulu entourage fell to Zwide’s onslaught. The grim reality became clear: war loomed on the horizon. 

Thus, the tale of the three kingdoms stood at a precipice, where love, betrayal and dark sorcery intertwined. And as the fates of Nandi, Senzangakhona, Zwide and the remaining realms hung in delicate balance, the prophecy of a visionary heir, born amidst chaos, lingered as a beacon of hope for a future united under the sunlit sky. 

Cos cos yaphela!  

Shaka Ilembe set out to undertake the daunting and monumental task of retelling history through the mesmerising medium of film.

With such an endeavour, there comes an immense responsibility to strike a delicate balance between creative interpretation and the preservation of historical authenticity. It necessitates extensive research and meticulous preparation to ensure an accurate portrayal of historical figures and events.

Alas, in this pursuit, the production team behind Shaka Ilembe stumbled upon several pitfalls, resulting in a series that falters as a historical account. 

From the very first episode, it becomes evident that the narrative strays significantly from the established events of history. Countless inaccuracies mar the storytelling, spanning from the portrayal of characters to the utilisation of props, costumes and even language itself. This review will focus only on the characters and touch on the dialect.

Shaka Ilembe - Queen Mfunda
Shaka Ilembe - Queen Mfunda
Image: Supplied

One striking misstep lies in the depiction of Nandi, who is presented as a youthful 16-year-old maiden when she first encounters Senzangakhona.

However, historical records indicate that Nandi was already a mature woman, estimated to be in her late 20s or early 30s at the time. This erroneous portrayal not only distorts the timeline but also undermines the true essence of Nandi as a stout and strong-willed woman, reducing her to a Cinderella-esque figure instead. 

Furthermore, the episode incorrectly depicted the pursuit of Nandi. Historical accounts reveal that it was Nandi who actively pursued Senzangakhona, enamoured by tales of his greatness. This significant deviation not only impacts the accuracy of the timeline but also alters the character dynamics, overshadowing Nandi’s agency and strength. 

Another glaring inconsistency surfaces with the presence of Inkosi uJama in the episode. Historical accounts clearly establish that Inkosi uJama had already passed away before the meeting between Senzangakhona and Nandi.

The throne was held by uMntwana uMudli kaNkwelo wasGazini, the older cousin of Senzangakhona. This oversight further undermines the credibility of the series as an authentic portrayal of history. 

Another notable departure was the portrayal of Senzangakhona and Zwide kaNdwandwe as peers, neglecting the significant age difference between the two; Zwide was considerably older, having reigned long before Shaka’s birth.

Historical evidence suggests that Senzangakhona’s sister, uMkabayi kaJama, played a pivotal role in arranging a wife for their widowed father, who eventually became the mother of Senzangakhona.

History reveals that Zwide and Senzangakhona, as kings, had an agreement wherein Zwide would take Mkabayi for a wife. These historical nuances were disregarded, skewing the dynamics and relationships between the characters.

Shaka Ilembe - Cija and Luhleko
Shaka Ilembe - Cija and Luhleko
Image: Supplied

To compound the issues, the narrative introduced a fabricated tale of King Langa KaXaba’s demise at the hands of his wife, along with the inclusion of a disabled child. These imaginative elements lacked any historical basis and veered into complete fiction, distorting the understanding of the actual events and characters involved. 

Most notably, Shaka Ilembe invents a conflict between the Zulu and the Ndwandwe preceding Shaka’s birth. This fabricated confrontation, devoid of any historical foundation, becomes a fundamental flaw fundamentally undermining the authenticity of the narrative. 

Regarding linguistic nuances, it is important to note that the Ndwandwe, Zulu and AbaseLangeni communities did not employ a standardised form of “IsiZulu” until the late 1800s.

Instead, they utilised distinct dialects such as “ukuTeketa” among the Ndwandwe, “isiNtungwa” among the Zulu, and “isiLala” among AbaseLangeni.

These dialects showcased considerable phonological differences, exemplified by the divergent usage of consonants like “t”, “z” and “y”.

For instance, while the Ndwandwe referred to water as “amanti”, AbaseLangeni would use the term “amanzi”, and where the Zulu expressed the concept sleep as “lala”, the Mhlongo used “yaya”.

Regrettably, the series overlooked this pivotal aspect of history, neglecting to incorporate these linguistic distinctions into the narrative. 

While Shaka Ilembe showcased undeniable craftsmanship as a work of fiction, the glaring discrepancies and historical inaccuracies taint its merit as a credible account of history.

The flaws in character development, conflicts and overall plot cast doubt on the authenticity and reliability of the series. As an ambitious endeavour, it regrettably fell short of its intended purpose, leaving viewers with a diluted version of the remarkable history it sought to portray. 

Welele! Inganekwane!  

Shaka Ilembe - Young Shaka and Indlovukazi Nandi played by Ntando Zondi and Nomzamo Mbatha
Shaka Ilembe - Young Shaka and Indlovukazi Nandi played by Ntando Zondi and Nomzamo Mbatha
Image: Supplied

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