To the Nsuze (Gavin Whitelaw and John Wright report)

4 Oct 2019 - 10:00
Dimakatso Thloaele interviewing. Photo courtesy of Gavin Whitelaw.


Carolyn Hamilton’s visit to the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) Museum was followed by a fieldtrip to the lower Nsuze region in KwaZulu-Natal organized by KZN Museum chief curator, Gavin Whitelaw. Other participants were Justine Wintjes (curator) and Dimakatso Tlhoaele (research technician) from the Museum, Steven Kotze, researcher in the Durban Local History Museums, and John Wright, a research associate in the APC.

The trip, which took place on 29 and 30 August, had two purposes. One was to enable Thloaele to speak to well-known potters who live and work at kwaMagwaza near the lower Nsuze river. Tlhoaele is currently registered for an MA in archaeology at Unisa, supervised by Jan Boeyens (Professor Emeritus, Unisa) and Gavin Whitelaw (KZN Museum). Her research concerns relationships between pots, homesteads, wives and ancestors in the southern African Iron Age. The project focuses on a single site in the upper Thukela Basin near modern Bergville. The site, called Mgoduyanuka, probably dates to the late seventeenth or eighteenth century. Tim Maggs (Natal Museum) excavated it in 1975, and the wider area later became the subject of a joint research project conducted by the museum and the Department of Archaeology at UCT.[1]

Tlhoaele’s research involves the application of ethnographic data to the archaeological record in an attempt to offer an explanation for decorative variation in the ceramic assemblage from Mgoduyanuka. To this end, she has undertaken elemental and mineralogical analyses of Mgoduyanuka potsherds (under the mentorship of Professor Anders Lindahl in the Ceramic Laboratory at the University of Pretoria) to identify any relationships that might exist between clay fabric and pot decoration.

Tlhoaele has also conducted interviews with native Zulu-speakers on the topics of marriage, childbirth and material-cultural exchanges between the natal homesteads of wives and the homesteads of their husbands. These interviews serve to augment the information available in ethnographic literature, which rarely provides adequate detail on material culture and usually covers only limited variation in practice.

On this, her second visit to kwaMagwaza, Tlhoaele extended her discussions with potters whom she had previously met. Over the two days, she had conversations with omakoti Bonisiwe, Thandiwe, Buzephi, Zikoti and maMkhize, all of whom have married into the Magwaza family, as well as daughters Daliwe and Yeh. They spoke about family and potting histories, childbirth, gift exchange, and the proper treatment of vessels such as izimbiza (brewing vessels). Tlhoaele also observed the firing of two izimpiso (necked vessels for transporting beer).

Firing izimpiso. Photo courtesy of Gavin Whitelaw


The other purpose of the fieldtrip was for Hamilton and Wright to find out if there were any descendants of Socwatsha (Sochwashe) kaPhaphu Ngcobo living in the lower Nsuze area, and if possible to establish contact with them. In the early years of the twentieth century Ngcobo had been one of the main interlocutors of James Stuart, Natal colonial official and researcher into the history of the Zulu kingdom. Stuart made hundreds of pages of notes of his conversations on the past with Ngcobo; these are to be found in the Stuart Papers in the Killie Campbell Africana Library in Durban. Wright had edited these notes for publication in volume 6 of The James Stuart Archive of Recorded Oral Evidence Relating to the History of the Zulu and Neighbouring Peoples (2014). [2] Using evidence gleaned from them, he had also written a biographical article on Ngcobo, who had lived in the lower Nsuze region.[3]

Looking for Socwatsha Ngcobo’s descendants (John Wright reports)

Going east from Kranskop, the road winds steeply down to the valley of the Thukela river 800 metres below. From the sugar cane fields and timber plantations of southern KwaZulu-Natal’s Mist Belt you drop to hot, dry savannah country. Until a while ago the road was untarred, and the summer rains would turn much of it into a mudslide for the many trucks and buses and cars that used it. After local man Jacob Zuma became president of South Africa and built a thatched palace at his umuzi a few miles north of the Thukela, his political opponents claimed that the road had been tarred as his private driveway. The Presidency responded vigorously that the tarring had taken place before he became president.

A little beyond the palace, a gravel road turns off and crosses the Nsuze river, which flows down from the forested heights of the Nkandla range. This is the area where, in the Natal rebellion of 1906, Bhambatha kaMancinza Zondi took refuge from pursuing colonial forces, and where, in June of that year, his impi was wiped out in the Mome gorge. It was also the area where, at some stage before 1800, the leaders of the Ngongoma section of the Ngcobo clan and their adherents had established themselves. Here, in the mid-1880s, Socwatsha Ngcobo, a policeman in the colonial service, had acquired land from the region’s new British overlords, and had built his family umuzi. Once upon a time the soil in this valley-bottom landscape would have sustained a savannah of thorn trees and a thin but nutritious covering of sweetveld grass; today most of the grass has long since been eaten out by cattle and goats.

From James Stuart’s notes, written a century before, we had some idea of where Ngcobo had lived. We began our enquires through Dimakatso Tlhoaele, who asked two of the potters with whom she was working, Daliwe Magwaza and Yeh Magwaza, if they knew of any families of Ngcobo people who lived in the area. They did, and duly guided us a few kilometres further along the road to an umuzi they knew as kwaNgcobo.

A man came out to meet us. After we had exchanged greetings in a mixture of isiZulu and English, we explained who we were and what we were doing there. He looked at us. ‘Socwatsha was my great-grandfather,’ he said.

Socwatsha was my great-grandfather’ Photo courtesy of Steve Kotze.


That was our introduction to Eric Ngcobo, Socwatsha’s senior great-grandson. In conversation the next morning, Carolyn Hamilton and I explained more fully how, in our respective historical research projects, we had come to be deeply invested in Socwatsha’s work with James Stuart. We also explained the mission that we had in mind in searching for his possible descendants, which was to report on how Socwatsha’s rich body of statements on the past had come to the knowledge of scholars in the wider world, and on why, for historians of the KwaZulu-Natal region before colonial times, it was so important.

For his part, Eric Ngcobo told us that he had worked for years on the Witwatersrand and in Durban, before coming back to KwaNcgobo to look after the portions of land that he had acquired. It turned out that his umuzi was very close to where Socwatsha had lived and had been buried. In our conversations, Ngcobo evinced a canny sense of local politics and of the politics of family history. Of great interest to us was the file that he had kept of papers and photographs relating to family affairs. It included a copy that he had typed up of a hand-written record, made by his father, of the izibongo, or praises, of his forebears, including Socwatsha.

We left Ngcobo with a copy of the article that I had published on his great-grandfather’s career. We also left him with the promise that Steve Kotze, who was due to make a return visit to the area, would deliver to him more material relating to Socwatsha. This would include copies of historical accounts, originally sourced from Socwatsha, that James Stuart had published in the five isiZulu readers that he had put together in London in the 1920s. It would also include a copy of the notes, made by Stuart in July 1918 of Socwatsha’s izibongo as recited to him by Socwatsha himself.

[1] T. Maggs, ‘Mgoduyanuka: terminal Iron Age settlement in the Natal grasslands’, Annals of the Natal Museum, 25 (1982), pp. 83-113; T. Maggs, D. Oswald, M. Hall, and H. Rüther, ‘Spatial parameters of Late Iron Age settlements in the upper Thukela Valley’, Annals of the Natal Museum, 27 (1986), pp. 455–79.

[2] Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2014. Volumes 1 to 5 in the series were published in the period 1976 to 2001.

[3] John Wright, ‘Socwatsha kaPhaphu, James Stuart, and their conversations on the past, 1897-1922’, Kronos: Southern African Histories, 41 (2015), pp. 142-65.