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With close to 20 million members, the Zulu are the largest single ethnic group in all of Southern Africa. Their culture is known all over the world. However, defining what lies at the core of a Zulu identity remains a source of great controversy. What does it mean to be Zulu, and therefore African, in today’s world? Is being Zulu different now than in the past?
Zulu Identities interrogates assumptions about identity and extends revisionist scholarship on Zulu history and identity. Divided into six overlapping sections and comprising over fifty chapters with contributions by as many authors, the book ‘explores the cultural alchemy of ubuZulu bethu, an idiom … that captures the shared narratives, hybrid expressions and contradictory meanings of “our Zuluness”’ (4). Although historians outnumber other contributors, the editors have deliberately sought an inter-disciplinary approach that explores Zuluness in a variety of sites, both the obvious and the obscure. Equally important, the editors targeted isiZulu-speaking intellectuals for their insiders’ insights. As Jabulani Sithole, an historian and one of the editors, notes in the preface the intention was to encourage debate and inquiry on a subject that has until recently been neglected for various intellectual and political reasons.
The volume is informed by a broad post-colonial approach which foregrounds culture as an analytical tool as well as class analysis. To varying degrees, the book challenges ‘hoary assumptions of “Zulucentrism”, which reified Shaka kaSenzangakhona and his legacies …’ (4). In this view, rather than fixed or primordial, identities are historically constructed and subject to intense contestation. Although some of the work and contributors would already be familiar to most readers and the quality of the chapters varies, its collection in a single volume is a significant and timely contribution to ongoing debates about identity. As some contributors have noted, in spite of a growing body of academic work suggesting otherwise, dislodging popular notions about Zulu identity will require as much labour as, if not more labour than, the hard ideological work invested in constructing and nurturing them.