Elephants and leadership, family and nation

24 Dec 2020
Thokozani Mhlambi, composer of “Ukudibana Kwezimpondo (Meeting of the Tusks)”
Thokozani Mhlambi, composer of “Ukudibana Kwezimpondo (Meeting of the Tusks)”
24 Dec 2020

Thokozani Mhlambi

In 2019, I had the chance to visit the ruins of the old Zulu capital of uMgungundlovu, where King Dingane lived in the 1830s. I was one of a group of investigators from the Archive & Public Culture Research Initiative, KwaZulu-Natal Museum and other institutions. (A full report can be read here.) From this exploration flowed my composition, “Ukudibana Kwezimpondo (Meeting of the Tusks)”; here I describe the links that were activated for me.

Most of the information currently known about the site comes from archaeological reports and the travel writings of European interlocutors. There are also some oral accounts that were put in written form decades later. I set it as my task to explore the site using creative means. I believe that creative methodologies are the ones best positioned to reshape our understanding of the site based on African perspectives. The approach is also instinctive for me, as a musician and creator, the task of this project being to reimagine the site, using sound and music composition as tools.

For the first component of the project, I drew on the available secondary literature on the site and archival sources. Then I used this information to build a picture that is as comprehensive as possible. For the second component, I teased out the creative elements and developed the music.

In my initial thoughts about the subject, I was fascinated by the name itself: umgungundlovu. That is how I ended up composing the piece “Ukudibana Kwezimpondo (Meeting of the Tusks)”.

The name uMgungundlovu seems to have come from the word isangungu. Ingungu means something curved in shape, like the horns of a bull that are so curved that they almost meet; or like the tusks of an elephant, which, when laid on the ground opposite each other, form a shape like an umkhumbi, or like the enclosure in an umuzi. That is the origin of the name.1

The word uMgungundlovu can be broken down to isigungu (which means council or hub, institution, jurisdiction) in Zulu, plus ndlovu (meaning elephants). From this combination a variety of meanings has been suggested as to what the name itself signified.

We do know that the word ndlovu in Zulu was often used in relation to the royal family. This is also the case in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, such as in Yoruba, where it signifies the ultimate ruler; in Bamileke culture, it is linked to the early founders of the clan. What is found in these associations is a sense of first people, early founders — an association with making a claim to being the rightful rulers, heirs and ancestors (the wise ones) of the empire.

uMgungundlovu can be explained as a place of elephants, the national assembly, the meeting place or hub of elephants. Throughout Africa, elephants appear as symbols of wealth, through war and trade. They appear in folk tales and myths, where their natural behaviour in the wild is accentuated for didactic purposes. African people, living as intimately as they did with nature and wildlife, would have been familiar with the general behaviour of elephants, including the fact that they value relationships (ubudlelwane) between friends and extended families. They have a good memory; they never forget their loved ones. When elephant relatives or old friends meet, they remember each other, and join forces by hooking their tusks and trunks together. These are attributes that clans or families who associated themselves with this animal aspired to represent: tightly bound families who are supportive and protective of one another. They are known in public as those who react like elephants when they hear alarm calls made by one of their members — they come to the rescue.

Elephants can also grieve for their lost loved ones by caressing their tusks with their trunks as they pay their last respects; they can mourn for the dead. Another important attribute in building family and communal bonds is that by attending funerals you get to meet all your relatives; you have a much wider sense of who is your family. Mourning or assisting those who are bereaved is a key aspect of building families.

Elephants move in groups, as collectives, and the one at the helm leads all the others, young and old. The oldest and wisest matriarch heads the group. Her wisdom is her experience. She memorises every path, creating a mental map) Those who associate themselves with the elephant are also relating to this sense of leadership in the way elephants behave. They value the role of women, hence we say indlovukazi to the queen or queen mother. The word denotes the female form (-kazi) of indlovu, the word for elephant. But more than simply expressing gender, what the concept highlights is the leadership quality of women, in providing wisdom and navigating paths. The elephant matriarch searches for members of her herd by laying her trunk on the ground and feeling the vibration. They also listen with their feet as they lead the whole pack.

To us, as human beings, the fact that elephants use their limbs in this way may be a reminder of one’s own show of commitment: that, when all of oneself is committed, the whole body must be involved. It can also illustrate that knowledge can be pursued differently for the same ends, and that a variety of perspectives may inform how we reach decisions.

When clans, or even nations, align themselves with elephants, they may ultimately be demonstrating a willingness to be led by women, and can envision a society in which women have a role to play in national issues as well as the family.

It is significant that elephants can smell water from 20km away. In their remarkable ability to find water, elephants lead other animals and even human beings to places where there is water, places where rulers can establish kingdoms because of the supply of natural resources.1 In an area prone to droughts, as Southern Africa is, it is important that leadership is able to identify and manage water resources. It goes without saying, then, that strategic alliances with rain-making, thunder-herding elites, clans and families were crucial in providing advice and technological know how in the management of the impacts of climate change and weather.

The elephants’ strength lies in their family bonds. They protect each other and can live to 70 years old. The fact that ivory was stored in the nucleus of the settlement at uMgungundlovu symbolises the centrality of the elephant in myth-making about the emperor and his family bonds. Both near and distant relatives of the emperor emphasise their relation to him, knowing that, as with elephants, this relation is to be valued, even in the face of unresolvable disputes or difficult historical circumstances.

Giving tribute and respect is marked in this way for those who act as subjects in the emperor’s jurisdiction. In addition, marriage is seen as a valuable institution in expanding the net of family relatives; in a sense, marriage is about state-building, but it is also about family-building, as one joins with others in the expansion of roots (izimpande in Zulu). Bringing families together, the interlinking of elephant trunks, is about fostering relationships, building wealth for future generations, and ensuring unity, from the roots upwards to the branches of the great tree.


[1] James Stuart, uKulumetule (London: Longmans, Green and Company, 1925), pp.14-15, translation by John Wright, 2020