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A series collects and retells the story of the ancestors of all South Africans.

Ancestral Voices

A recently discovered collection of writing of South African culture and history.

Sekhukhune: Greatest of the Pedi Chiefs


This book tells the story of Sekhukhune, of whom The London Times wrote on 30 August 1882: “… We hear this morning … of the death of one of the bravest of our former enemies, the Chief Sekhukhune… The news carries us some years back to the time when the name of Sekhukhune was a name of dread, first to the Dutch and then to the English Colonists of the Transvaal and Natal…”


Sekhukhune, The Greatest of the Pedi Kings

In this extract, read how Sekhukhune struggles against the Boers until they both fall foul of the colonial aspirations of the British. Sekhukhune continued in the footsteps of his father, King Sekwati, and his forefathers, building a powerful Bapedi kingdom. The times were changing, though, and the tribe was under threat from the new arrivals in the land.

Early in 1876, various reasons were made up by the Boer authorities to attack King Sekhukhune and his people. We are told that the incident that started the fighting happened when Dinkwanyane’s followers captured a wagon-load of wood belonging to a Boer called Jankowitz.

Burgers quickly assembled an army that was well-armed and the largest that the Republic had seen.

Apparently he had trespassed on Dinkwanyane’s land to illegally cut the timber. At the same time, the Boers spread rumours of cattle theft by the Bapedi. There was even a made-up story doing the rounds that Dinkwanyane had burnt down a German mission station belonging to the Reverend Nachtigal. When this news, although false, reached Pretoria, an enraged President Thomas Francois Burgers decided to set out, “to deal with the Sekhukhune menace himself”. Burgers quickly assembled the largest army ever seen before in the Republic.

In the first war against Sekhukhune, Burgers’ army was armed with a few seven-pounders or Krupp guns. They had a force of about 2000 men and almost 500 wagons. A strong force of Swazis joined the army. We have heard that the Swazis were brought into the fight by Mampuru, King Sekhukhune’s embittered brother. They marched to Thaba Mosega, which they reached in July 1876. They were also supported by other African troops who were hoping the land under King Sekhukhune’s control would be given to them after he was defeated.

He immediately came to support his half-brother against the Boers.

The Boers began by attacking Dinkwanyane and his followers. However, because King Sekhukhune had recognised him as one of the Bapedi chiefs, he immediately came to support his half-brother against the Boers. Despite this help, the attack by the Afrikaners resulted in Dinkwanyane’s death. The battle was a bloody one.

The Boer, Joubert, and his men went to position themselves behind the Bapedi, but their progress was halted by the large numbers of the enemy who occupied the rocks, and Joubert returned to camp with his men. For some unknown reason, there was no contact between Joubert and the other forces, probably because of the rough land and the distance. As a result, the remaining Boers were unaware of Joubert’s failure. Although the Boers had reached the Bapedi and actually set fire to some of the huts, they were forced to withdraw owing to lack of support from Joubert.

As a result, the Boers failed to dislodge King Sekhukhune. They returned from the scene of the action with some haste until they had recrossed the Steelpoort River. For this reason, the First Sekhukhune War was often referred to as “die huis-toe oorlog”, the “go-home war”.

Sir Theophilus Shepstone annexed the Transvaal on behalf of the British Government in 1877.

King Sekhukhune had inflicted an embarrassing defeat on the Boers and President Burgers. This defeat cost Burgers his position, and he lost the presidency to Paul Kruger.

In response to the bad defeat suffered by President Burgers, the Boers decided to pay an army of mercenaries or paid soldiers, called the Lydenburg Volunteer Corps, to go and attack King Sekhukhune. Their leader was a reckless German adventurer from the diamond-mining world named Conrad Hans von Schlieckmann. He was an ex-officer and a soldier of fortune. He was closely connected with the German government and had fought under Otto von Bismarck in the French German War of 1870−1871.

He was succeeded by an Irishman, Alfred Aylward.

The mercenaries acted with the support of their home countries. Many of these soldiers of fortune were recruited from the diamond diggings in Kimberley, where they had gone in search of diamonds. The Lydenburg area attracted them because it was said to hold large deposits of gold, diamonds and other precious minerals. So when Pretoria established the Lydenburg Volunteer Corps, von Schlieckmann’s men, because they had not found any riches, joined willingly. They fought fiercely from behind the defences to avenge the defeat of President Burgers. But they lost, and Von Schlieckmann himself was killed in battle in November 1876. He was succeeded by an Irishman, Alfred Aylward. But this was not the end of the war. It was just the end of a battle − an important battle.

In the same month, King Sekhukhune attacked Fort Burgers. His aim was to recover the cattle he thought had been looted from the Bapedi by the Colonial Volunteers. Although the Bapedi failed to take the fort, they recovered the cattle and killed two of the Colonial Volunteers. The Boers’ policy was to trouble the Bapedi and prevent them from sowing their crops. Finally, the Boers had the result they wanted. King Sekhukhune had no alternative, but to accept peace offers. By February 1877, after a peace treaty had been agreed, calm was eventually restored along the border.

Sekhukhune had problems with the British after they annexed the Transvaal, finding allies among his former enemies, the Boers.

On 12 April 1877, Sir Theophilus Shepstone, secretary for native affairs of Natal, annexed the Transvaal. This means that on behalf of the British government he took over the Transvaal and attached it to Natal. The reason he gave for doing this was that the Boer Republic had failed to make peace with the Bapedi. He also thought the Boer Republic, by its weakness, was going to make the British colonies of the Cape and Natal weaker.

Go to your nearest bookseller and ask them to order your copy of Sekhukhune: Greatest of the Pedi Kings.

Additional information

Dimensions215 × 234 mm