The Late Reverend Isaiah Shembe


Benedict Wallet Vilakazi 

One of the greatest figures in the social and religious history of the Zulus has passed away. Very few people have not heard of the Rev. Isaiah Shemba of Ekupakament, a place near Durban in the district of Ohlange. In the way of religion, the late Rev. Shemba had wonderful ideas of his own evolved from….one may say….the thorough study and understanding of the social and religious life of the Zulus of the past age. He had compared his knowledge to that revealed to him by reading the Old Testament where the customs of the Israelites compared very well with those of the Zulus, the manner of sacrifice and the smearing of blood on the posts of a hut; the bitter herbs the Zulus always ate before entering into a long journey, all these things had been studied with thoroughness and reflection by the late Shembe.

He was a man of visions in that he could foretell many things. He was endowed with this power during his boyhood when one day he was struck down by lightning and in the subconscious state of his mind he heard a voice addressing him: “Mdltwamafa, Mdltwamafa, I want thee to go into a land near the sea where you will lead my people.” Mdltwamafa was the name given to Shembe by his father. The meaning of the name being “the one who confiscates other people's birthrights.”

Shemba then left the Orange Free State where he was then and walked until he came to Durban at the place called “Emsizini,” where now stands the famous Kingsmead grounds. There he started his sect with the ordinary labourers. The sect increased until now it counts thousands with its Head Office at “Ekuphakameni.” At Ekuphaksmeal Shembe ruled with supreme authority. He was assisted by a group of seven men who were his eyes and ears. These men settled minor cases and disputes.

Shemba believed in ceremonies, and the well-known July Ceremony which has attracted crowds from many parts of the Union , needs no explanation to a short article like this one. Nevertheless we may say that there one saw groups of men, young men and boys; groups of women, young women and girls and even children, all arranged according to what may be anthropologically called age-grades. Dancing was done according to age grades wearing different uniforms and dancing a particular rhythm in harmony to a religious song. The whole religious system was accompanied by movement, so that one may infer that Shembe had found out that the Africans (here I mean the people of Africa with black skins) were easily taken up or rather were interested in movement. Anything where silence and quiet meditation resigned, soon bored them. Hence, therefore, in the deep of the evening star when the lighthouse of Durban sent its eternal flashes upon the hundreds of round bits in those magic hills of Ohlange, one would always hear the sound of the drum, the swell of men and women voices, and the thumping of feet resounding far and near. When this occurred nearly every night then one would always know that the Big Ceremony was near.

The writer remembers going out with his wife one of the evenings when the ceremony was near, and the people in those huts seemed to be the happiest under the blackness of the night as they sang and danced, while others were conversing about the greatness of the Apostle Shembe and the wonders he had wrought.

I am sure that Shembe's life history has been followed closely by students of anthropology for he is a representative of a leader in the transforming religious system of the Bantu. We do not know what the different sects stand for; but Shembe has left a line in that branch of religion.

“The Late Reverend Isaiah Shembe”, Ilanga lase Natal ,