After the South African War (1899–1902), the Joint Imperial and Colonial Commission in 1904 handed over to Natal some of the most agriculturally productive land in Zululand. To force the Zulu into closer labour relations with South Africa’s modernising post-war economy, a poll tax of £1 per annum was imposed on every adult male, save those already paying the hut tax. The news was greeted with dismay and anger by a people already facing extreme economic pressure and social dislocation. Acts of resistance broke out around Pietermaritzburg and a few white farmers and a policeman were killed. Martial law was proclaimed and the killers executed.
In the Mpanza valley in the Umvoti district, a minor chief of the Zondi, Bhambatha, flatly refused to collect the poll tax and threatened white authorities with death if they attempted to do so in his district. Attempts to enforce his compliance failed and he was deposed and another chief appointed in his place.
Bhambatha fled to Zululand and met with Dinuzulu, who had returned from exile in 1898. It is not certain whether the Zulu king offered tangible support, but Bhambatha’s wife did remain at Dinuzulu’s royal homestead. Bhambatha returned to Natal to continue his campaign of resistance. In April 1906 he ambushed a police force near Greytown and killed four policemen, one of whose body was mutilated. He fled to the home of chief Sigananda Shezi of the Cube chiefdom, near the Nkandla forest. By now, general lawlessness had broken out in many districts of northern Natal and Zululand.
For the Natal authorities this was untenable. Under the command of Colonel Duncan Mckenzie, a large militia was raised from Natal, Johannesburg and the Cape. On 9 June, Mckenzie’s troops encountered the ‘rebels’ along the Mome stream near the Nkandla forest. In a half-hour’s engagement, Bhambatha’s followers were massacred, and nearly 600 lives were shed. Bhambatha’s body was decapitated. Several influential chiefs continued resistance in the Lower Thukela River area until July, but the rebellion was effectively crushed. Over the next six months 5 000 dissidents were arrested, tried and some eventually served life sentences.
The Natal colonists sought a scapegoat for a rebellion that had been of their own making, and lighted upon the person of Dinuzulu. Nothing in his actions indicated active support for the rebellion, though the Zulu regarded him as a figurehead for it. But, as the son of Cetshwayo, he embodied the Zulu threat to white security in Natal and Zululand, so he was deemed to have supported Bhambatha, and tried in 1907 for high treason, rebellion and murder. He was sentenced to four years imprisonment but released before his death in 1913. He stated at his trial: ‘My sole crime is that I am the son of Cetshwayo. My trouble is like that of no one else. It beset me when I was a child and my father was taken by the white people from me and it is still besetting me . . . All our family die of harassing . . . and now of all our house I am left alone.’
A Native Affairs Commission appointed to investigate the rebellion identified overpopulation, land pressure and poverty as the underlying causes. Certain reforms were introduced but were insufficient to address the roots of Zulu disaffection. Had they been more radical, they undoubtedly would have threatened white interests in Zululand and would almost certainly not have been adopted
The Bhambatha rebellion has rightly been seen as the last episode of African military resistance to colonial domination in South Africa.