Africa

Articles

Whose Unkulunkulu?

Jennifer Weir

Abstract

UNkulunkulu was a term taken up by certain missionaries in Natal as synonymous with the Christian God. Though the idea of uNkulunkulu is now well entrenched in African as well as missionary Christian theology, historically the concept of uNkulunkulu, as the High God of all, is inaccurate. This paper will argue that there was actually a multiplicity of oNkulunkulu (plural of uNkulunkulu) in the early nineteenth century – including females. UNkulunkulu was simply a generic name for particular significant Zulu ancestors – family, chiefly or ‘national’. The development of the concept of uNkulunkulu, as the High God of all, obscures important aspects of the relationship that formerly obtained between chiefs and their departed ancestors. The attainment of Zulu political ascendancy, which has so often been viewed in purely secular terms, had a critical religious dimension.

Résumé

UNkulunkulu est un terme que certains missionnaires du Natal avaient pris pour un synonyme de dieu chrétien. Bien que l'idée d'uNkulunkulu soit désormais solidement ancrée dans la théologie chrétienne missionnaire autant qu'africaine, la notion d'uNkulunkulu en tant que Haut Dieu de tous est inexacte. Ce papier affirme qu'il existait en fait une multiplicité d'oNkulunkulu (pluriel de uNkulunkulu) au début du dix-neuvième siècle, dont des femmes. UNkulunkulu était un simple nom générique désignant d'importants ancêtres zulus à l'échelle de la famille, de la chefferie ou de la ≫nation≪. L'évolution de la notion d'uNkulunkulu, en tant que Haut Dieu de tous, occulte des aspects importants de la relation qui prévalait autrefois entre les chefs et leurs ancêtres défunts. La réalisation de l'ascendance politique zulu, si souvent considérée en termes purement séculaires, avait une dimension religieuse critique.

Jennifer Weir gained a Ph.D. in history from the University of Western Australia in 2001. She is currently senior lecturer in the Teaching Learning Centre at Murdoch University, Western Australia. She has worked in areas of academic development and quality assurance for more than ten years including experience at the University of Natal in South Africa. Jennifer remains active in her discipline of history and has a keen interest in higher education in Africa