Our last episode was when Kgosi Sebego’s army, initially numbering about 3,000 had set off from Selokolela. They marched for about two hours through densely wooded hill country before coming upon a relatively open spot where Sebego seated himself on high ground and gave a signal.
“In an instant, to our utter astonishment, the whole army squatted down in the form of a crescent, himself [Sebego] in the centre & one of his brothers [i.e. Kowe and Malmanyana] on each side of him. When they were all seated he looked round and without rising up called out Hey! Hey! &, his two brothers giving a whistle through their teeth, all was in a moment dead silence. He then commenced a long harangue which seemed principally addressed to the right wing, then turning to the left he addressed them in a similar manner.”
For the rest of the march on Dithubaruba, the mephato maintained the integrity of the two wings or “horns”. This formation should be familiar to students of Shaka Zulu as the so-called “horns of the buffalo” pattern.
As with the stabbing spear, the formation’s local use clearly predates the time of the first Amazulu Nkosi. Documented among its many indigenous African practitioners was the late 17th century Banyayi-Bakalanga ruler Nichasike I (Changamire), who employed the tactic against the Portuguese in 1684. With variations it can also be found in the accounts of other Iron Age battle encirclements throughout pre-industrial conflicts of Asia and Europe, as well as Africa.
The formation would appear to have its seemingly timeless local origin as a method (there were others) for communal hunts by larger more militarised morafe, such as the Bangwaketse. Once the mephato were gathered the horns would be ordered to spread out for several kilometres on both the left and right flanks before being brought together to entrap game for the pot. In this way, Sebego’s mephato did not have to burden themselves with provisions while on the campaign.
Sebego’s uniquely well-documented march on Dithubaruba further underscores the fact that for a large conventional force on the offence, a circular advance also had the obvious strategic advantage of all but eliminating the possibility that the advancing army would fall prey to sudden ambush by better positioned opposition. Thus it was that Bain on the morning of August 25, reported:
“The Captains with their companies from the right filed off to the left, passing the front of the semicircular phalanx in the greatest order and regularity. Similar orders were issued to those on the left who branched off in the opposite direction &, when about equal distance from
“Having allowed the right and left wings time to advance and scour the country to an extent of at least three miles on each side of us in the semicircular form as they had been seated on the ground, we continued our march with the Chief at the centre, having appointed the place to close in on the game to be Matlhoshane [near Moshupa]. A little before sunset the hunters closed together at Matlhoshane, where we were to encamp for the night, & killed 33 Quaggas [type of Zebra] Elands & Wildebeests.”
Once the slaughter was completed, the meat was brought to Sebego for distribution. But, before they could enjoy their feast the men were given the signal to establish and secure through camouflage their encampment.
As with all aspects of the campaign the creation of the camp was carried out in a well-planned manner. Bain was once more impressed with the discipline of the mephato:
“Our encampment was in the midst of a thick wood, which seemed in a moment as if by magic deprived of its foliage, presenting to the eye nothing but a forest of stumps. At a signal given by the King every one mounted the trees and with their battleaxes chopped off all the branches, which were instantly converted into circular fences for each company to pass the night in.
“Within this screen are arranged all their shields & assegais &, being thickly covered with long grass, only leaving a small space in the middle for a fire, they quartered as comfortably as any European army could be in tents. They slept with their feet pointing to the centre & their arms at their heads.”
Besides giving shelter the screens camouflaged the troops and their fires. The units were positioned in a circle so as to allow them to mobilise quickly into a defensive formation if an alarm was sounded. Thus, with a few lookouts posted around the camps perimeter, the Bangwaketse and accompanying Bakgatla-ba-ga-Mmanaana were able to dine and sleep in secure comfort.
The advance resumed before sunrise the next day. Prior to setting off the warriors loaded themselves up with water, which they stored in bags made from the stomachs and intestines of the animals that had been killed during the previous day’s hunt.