In the early 1990s when Nelson Mandela was released and radical change was inevitable in the RSA, many were becoming aware of the indefensible bias of the history of the country in general and how this was reflected in our monuments in particular.  The Isandlwana battlefield was a telling example: the fact that memorials to British soldiers had been erected on the site, but nothing existed there to commemorate the Zulu warriors who won a decisive victory over the British in 1879 was embarrassing.

Gert had previously made a small bronze sculpture for the KwaZulu Monuments Council to commemorate an anniversary of the battle of Isandlwana.  The sculpture portrays King Cetswayo not as a gloating victor, but as the monarch who, lamenting the many lives lost in the battle said, “Alas, a spear has been thrust into the belly of the Nation”.  Gert was approached by the same council, now called Amafa, to design and make a monument to honour the fallen Zulu warriors, to be unveiled on the 120th anniversary of the battle.  The commissioning body initially requested a frieze of traditional fearsome warriors brandishing spears.  As in the case of the earlier commemorative sculpture, Gert felt that the monument should not glorify war and that the imagery should accord with the climate of change in the country and should speak of a new way of engaging the future. 

The “isiqu” or necklace of valour seemed an appropriate symbol: deserving Zulu warriors were permitted to wear a necklace which they generally carved themselves.  Thus the main feature of the monument came to be a bronze necklace that evokes the powerful image of a warrior of exceptional bravery laying down his weapons to engage in a cathartic task of some intricacy requiring different skills and a reflective attitude.

For aesthetic purposes, the stylized necklace differs from the traditional ones by the use of  uncharacteristically ornate beads and the introduction of lions claws that were reserved for royalty and officials of high rank.  Thorn-like spikes were included to give energy to the low-lying sculpture and because some warriors included thorns with blunted tips in their necklaces.  The necklace is mounted on a circular base that symbolizes unity and is reminiscent of Zulu kraals and huts.

Set into the stone-clad perimeter wall of the base there are four unique bronze headrests representing the four Zulu regiments deployed in the battle.  These headrests, with their obvious connotation of rest, reinforce the theme of the cessation of violence.  As symbols of the departed warriors and of contemplation, sleep and the dreamworld, the headrests honour the ancestors who play an important role in Zulu culture.  It is customary for the souls of departed Zulus to be ceremonially “swept” to their appropriate resting places with branches of a specific type of thorn tree, a specimen of which was planted near the monument.

The monument is carefully positioned on the battlefield so that it blends in with the rocky strata of the sphinx-like Isandlwana hill.  Moreover, the placement of the necklace on its concrete platform simulates the movement of the regiments who attacked in the traditional “buffalo head” formation.  The group of claws at the top of the stairs in the base signify the “head” or “chest” part of the formation, the main body of the warriors.  The warriors in the left “horn” were engaged in heavy combat at the base of the hill.  This is depicted by the inward curve of the left-hand section of the necklace.  The right-hand section of the necklace opens out towards the hill, echoing the movement of the right “horn” of the warriors around it to outflank the British soldiers retreating to Rorke’s Drift.

When mounting the steps the visitor is confronted with the claws that elicit acknowledgement of the dignity of the Zulu nation that was robbed of its sovereignty by the British invaders.  The visitor is able to walk along the left-hand perimeter of the base and into the centre of the monument.  Here, encircled by the advancing troops, he or she is invited to identify with the slain warriors and to contemplate the tragedy and futility of war.

Sadly, the monument has been defaced. Here is a translation of an article from Rapport, Sunday 24 August 2008:

Thieves strike Zulu monument again.

Gerhard de Bruin

Scrapmetal thieves last week severely damaged a  bronze monument in memory of fallen Zulu  warriors at the Isandlwana Battlefield.

Mr James van Vuuren of Amafa Heritage  KwaZulu-Natal says that various pieces of the  monument - which takes the form of a giant  Isiqu - have been sawn off. The Isiqu is a Zulu  medal for bravery. It is a necklace of thorns,  and is equal to the Honoris Crux.

The British Empire suffered its greatest defeat  against a non-conventional power on 22 January  1879, when 700 soldiers died in a battle  against the Zulu force.

Van Vuuren says that it is the second time that  scrapmetal thieves have vandalised it since it  was erected in 1999 at a cost of R250 000.

"It is truly a tragedy, as is took so long to  collect the money for its erection. Half of it  was donated by various Zulu chiefs, and the  rest was made available by the Amafa Trust."
Isandlwana Monument defaced
click to see full picture
The bronze monument at  Isandlwana. At the right hand side of the  monument one can se where a number of bronze  thorns (like the ones still visible on the left) have been removed by scrapmetal thieves.
Photo: Gerhard de Bruyn
Recently the article Zulu Heritage between Institutionalized Commemoration and Tourist Attraction by Sabine Marschall included comments about Swart's monument. The article appeared in VISUAL ANTHROPOLOGY