The Mfecane and Its Effects

The single event that made the most profound effect on Central and Southern Africa in the nineteenth century?

Essay, 2016

6 Pages


The Mfecane and its Effects

Mfecane is an Nguni word which means ‘crushing’ and was used by the Nguni to describe the violent wars that tore apart Central and Southern Africa between 1820 and1835. The Sotho refers to the Mfecane as the Defecane or Lifaquane, which means forced migration. This forced migration was caused by a series of wars that engulfed the area between different states over land and resources.This event has been dominant in the history of the Southern and Central Africa because of the areas it affected which stretched from the Tugela River in modern day South Africa to areas in modern day Botswana, Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Zambia.

This essay tries to explain the point that the Mfecane is the single event that made the most profound effect on Central and Southern Africa in the nineteenth century. It will first discuss why the Mfecane is seen as single event, then move on to discuss its causes and effects and later conclude on the question based on the findings of the research.

The Mfecane can be said to be a single event because all the wars that became the Mfecane and eventually led to the rise of the Zulu state were interconnected.The series of wars that came to be known as the Mfecane happened between the 1820s and 1830s along the coast and in valleys of Southern Africa especially the Pongola River valley. The three powerful states that became involved in the Mfecane at the initial stages were the Ndwandwe led by Zwide, the Mthethwa led by Dingiswayo and the Ngwane led by Sobhuza and their expansionist ideas were ultimately crashed by Shaka the Zulu who in turn attained the biggest state in the region of Central and Southern Africa. So as one group is conquered, they also move to other areas to conquer weaker states and this cycle of conquering weaker states helped spread the Mfecane from Southern Africa to Central and Eastern Africa. For instance the Sotho who were living east of the Drakensberg[1] where invaded by the Hlubi, Khumalo and Ngwaneni who were fleeing from the Mfecane going on in the West of the Drakensberg around 1821-1822.

Before the effects of the Mfecane is discussed it is important to look at factors that led to the Mfecane.Among the causes of the Mfecane include overpopulation, refugee problems and drought and famine.

First of all, the population explosion in the area of Southern Africa among the Nguni people led to wars that opened the way for the Mfecane. The areas where the Nguni originally lived became heavily populated and there was an increase in competition for the few places that had cultivable land as well as grazing lands which later led to fighting and conquest. For instance the Ndwandwe and Ngwane lived close to each other in the Pongola Valley and as their populations grew there was an increase in demand for cultivable lands. This led to many quarrels and then eventually a war broke out between the two chiefdoms in 1816. Wars based on resources and land became a pattern as each state wanted enough land and resources for their agricultural and economic activities.

Another one of the factors that led to the Mfecane was the refugee problem created by the wars. When Zwide attacked Sobhuza it led to the Ngwane moving from their place in the Pongola valley andinto an unknown region where they became invaders and raiders looking for a new homeland where they would eventually build the Swazi composite.

The Mfecane had a profound effect on the regions of central and Southern Africa, more so than other event in those regions during the nineteenth century such as the Great Trek[2] because of the reasons to be discussed below.

The Mfecane led to the development of larger political units such as the Zulu state and the Swazi composite. With the fall of Dingiswayo, Shaka emerged from the ashes of the small Zulu chiefdom to build it into a larger political kingdom.Shaka defeated Zwide and then he crafted his Zulu kingdom. The kingdom of Shaka the Zulu is now an important topic in the history of Southern Africa. Also, Mosheshwe who emerged as a leader of the Sotho after the decline of the Zulu Kingdom was able build a very strong political kingdom that later developed into what is now Lesotho in Southern Africa. The Swazi composite was built by the Ngwane after they crossed the Pongola river and other Sotho and Nguni chiefdoms after they came into the region. The Swazi composite is also now what modern Swaziland is. This means that some modern day countries in Southern and Central Africa is can trace their roots to the Mfecane.

The Mfecane also led to large tracts of land being uninhabited. As several ethnic groups moved from their homelands to other areas, several territories were left without owners. The areas that became vacant‘included half the future Orange Free State, all of the Transvaal and Natal, southeastern Botswana and southern Zimbabwe’.[3] Because of this when there were population explosion in the Cape Colony the Boers[4] found out about the lands in the interior. They Boers thought because no one lived in those territories those lands were without owners and so decided to move there. Even in places that they encountered resistance from the local people, the Mfecane had already weakened those Kingdoms and it became easy for the Boers to defeat the people and move into the interior. This was the genesis of the Great Trek which also had a very big impact on the people of Southern Africa but not on the scale of the Mfecane.


[1] A mountain range that extends for about 1125 km passing through the province of Mpumalanga to the province of Eastern Cape, and forms the eastern boundary of Lesotho and, in part, of the province of Free State.

Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2009. © 1993-2008 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

[2] The mass movement of Dutch-speaking colonists up into the interior of Southern Africa in search of land where they could establish their own homeland, independent of British rule.

[3] Norman Etherington, ‘A Tempest in a Teapot? Nineteenth-Century Contests for Land in South Africa's Caledon Valley and the Invention of the Mfecane,’ The Journal of African History, Vol. 45, No. 2 (2004), pp. 203-219

[4] People of Dutch origin who settled in the Eastern Cape frontier in Southern Africa in the 18th century and are now classified as Afrikaners.

Excerpt out of 6 pages


The Mfecane and Its Effects
The single event that made the most profound effect on Central and Southern Africa in the nineteenth century?
Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology  (Department of History and Political Studies)
Ba. History
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
642 KB
mfecane, effects, central, southern, africa
Quote paper
Emmanuel Twum Mensah (Author), 2016, The Mfecane and Its Effects, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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