Shaka II by Mike Resnick


Before Shaka, we were no more important than the ants on the ground.

In 1816 A.D., Zululand was the size of a very large farm, extending almost two miles in every direction from the central kraal. The dominant tribes in southern Africa were the Matabele and the Shona.

Then came Shaka, who claimed the kingship of the Zulus. He reigned for only twelve years, yet when he was assassinated in 1828, the Zulus controlled an empire far larger than the country of France, and more than two million men had died opposing the creation of that empire.

The Zulus remained South Africa’s dominant tribe for the rest of the century, but one by one they lost their wars against the British and the Boers, and suddenly found themselves dominated within their own homeland by the Xhosa.

75 years after Shaka’s death our primacy was gone, and for another century we were dominated, in turn, by white men, brown men, and black men. The white men controlled our land and the Indians controlled our economy, and when they were finally removed from power, that power was claimed not by the Zulus, but by the Xhosa.

For years then, for decades, for more than two centuries, even after Man moved out into space and onto other worlds, every time a baby boy was born to a Zulu family, his parents and relatives and neighbors would gather around and stare at him, wondering: Are you the One? Are you finally the One who will restore our former glory, who will reclaim what was Shaka’s and what was ours?

And one day, though of course we didn’t know it at the time, he was among us.


His name was Robert ole Buthelezi, and there didn’t seem to be anything special about him as a small child. Quite the contrary, in fact. It took him four years to speak, eight to read. A lonely child whose father ignored him and whose mother worked long hours and turned her children over to the care of various relatives, he became totally self-sufficient at an early age. He was a clumsy youngster, and sometimes when he ran his knees would give out and he’d go sprawling. He had no interest in school, and his grades reflected that.

On the whole he was an unimpressive child, with nothing much to recommend him. I say ‘nothing much’, because there were a few things that stand out in my memory.

When he would fall, or otherwise hurt himself, he never cried or asked for help. Not once.

When he fell sick—and he was sicker than most children—he never complained about the treatment, and some of those treatments would have had other children screaming in fear or pain or both.

He made terrible blunders in his classrooms. But he never made the same one twice. He didn’t act like an earnest young man who was compelled to learn, but he retained everything he saw and heard. Everything.

He was without compassion. The suffering of a neighbor’s pet, or a relative in a hospital, left him cold. But if he had no compassion for others, he had none for himself, either; self-pity was simply not in his lexicon. It wasn’t that he was stoic, but rather that he simply ignored discomfort and even pain. One got the distinct impression that pain, even his own, simply didn’t interest him.

I remember the day—he had just entered his teens—that three older boys who didn’t like his arrogant attitude lay in wait and pounced on him. He fought back as best he could, but they left him lying in the street, barely conscious, blood pouring from a dozen wounds. He finally got shakily to his feet, refused all medical aid, and decided that he had to become stronger. Beginning the next morning, long before he was healed, he began running five miles before breakfast. His feet bled, and he passed out from exhaustion, but when he was revived he continued on his journey until the five miles were completed. He repeated the procedure every morning, and one day we began to notice that he was covering the ground at a rapid pace without ever taking a deep breath.

He began swimming in the ocean, unmindful of sharks, and built his strength and stamina through force of will, much as he had with his running. He never asked for company, but if anyone wanted to run or swim with him he never objected, though he would soon leave them far behind.

After he had spent half a year building up his body, he called out the three older boys who had beaten him up. I didn’t see the fight, but I know that all three boys were rushed to the intensive care unit after it was over.

He vanished before the authorities could find him, and since we didn’t hear from him for the next ten years most people assumed he was dead. I was one of the ones who didn’t. There was something about him, even as a boy, some aura that said whatever else he might become, he would never be a victim.

Soon people forgot all about him, and the cycles of life continued. Day followed night, summer followed spring, the long rains followed the parched dry weather, and all was as it should be.

And then one day I heard a single loud knock at my door. I walked over and opened it—and found myself facing Robert ole Buthelezi.

“Aren’t you going to invite me in, my brother?” he said, an amused smile on his face.


We were not brothers in the truest sense. My name is John Madondo, and my Zulu name, which I chose not to use, was John ole Buthelezi, which means, literally, “John, son of Buthelezi”. Robert is also a son of Buthelezi, but we did not have the same mother, and in fact Buthelezi never married either of them, which is not the shameful event that it would be in Western society. Many Zulus chose not to marry, and a number of Zulu men had multiple wives. In fact, we had four other half-brothers and three half-sisters that we knew about, and never doubted that there were others as well.

“Come in,” I replied when I had recovered from my surprise at seeing him. “Many thought you were dead, but somehow I knew you were alive.”

“There were days I would have bet money on the other side,” he said, walking over and sitting on my favorite lounge chair. His tall frame made it look like a child’s chair. “You left to become a teacher when I was still a child. Are you teaching now?”

“Yes,” I said. “I came back to Natal after receiving my degree.”

“It is a land with no present and less future.”

“All the more reason to educate those who most live here,” I answered.

“It is good that you should think so,” he said, looking around at my simple furnishings, “because clearly you are not growing wealthy from your profession.” He paused. “Have you any tea?”

“Tea, coffee, beer, whatever you like,” I said.

“Tea,” he answered.

I went to the kitchen, made the tea, poured two cups, and returned with it. “Where have you been?” I asked.

“Away,” is all he answered.

“Johannesburg?” I suggested.

A smile. “There is more to the world than South Africa. Men have reached the stars, and you still live in a four-room hovel and teach children who dress in rags.”

“The rags do not define them,” I said.

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