Africa's old dancing fury : SHAKA'S CHILDREN Stephen Taylor HarperCollins £18

Jan Morris on a sad, fierce story: the rise and fall of the Zulu nation
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"My heart is full of grief," wrote the Zulu Will-iam Ngidi one day in the 1880s. "I cannot find words to express it, for this splendid old Zulu people." He was looking back at the prime of the Zulu nation, contemplating its later ignominy, and dou btlesslooking forward to its uncertain destiny: and his lament might well provide a text for this sad and excellent book.

Like so many contemporary histories, Stephen Taylor's Shaka's Children records the decline of a conviction. The Zulu were more than just another Bantu tribe of southern Africa, because in the years after their sudden eruption into dominance, in the earlyyears of the 19th century, they evolved something approaching an ideology. Their masterful founding father, King Shaka ka Senzangakona ka Jama ka Punga ka Mageba ka Zulu, welded them into a unique community of Spartans, sure of their divine rights and privileges, bound together in pride, battle, mysticism and an essential humanism.

The reputation of this formidable national machine seduced generations of commentators, and in the old days romantic apologists sometimes declined to see wrong in it. Time had only enhanced its arcane glamour, the gleam of is black skins, the toss of itshead-feathers. Stephen Taylor is not starry-eyed, though. He is as amazed as anyone by the majesty of Zuluism in its prime, but he does not for a moment deny its violence and its cruelty. Dedicated to war, often randomly vicious, the nation t hat Shaka founded was as awful in its ferocity as it was admirable in its loyalty and courage.

What was admirable in it particularly fascinated the British of the imperial age, who saw in the fighting pageantry of the Zulu, their discipline and their sacrifice, a mirror-image of the qualities they liked to call their own. The sneaky subjugation ofthe Zulu by the British Empire is a squalid story, nevertheless, relieved only be terrific set-pieces of battle and by the example of the noble heretic Bishop Colenso - more squalid in some ways, in its self-righteous whittling away of Zulu confidence, than the franker oppression of apartheid.

But it was bound to happen. Sooner or later two such aggressive powers, side by side in a continent of opportunity, were bound to clash. Gradually it became clear to the Zulu that their heaven-sent privileges (the very word Zulu means "heaven") were specious after all, and that they were no longer the masters of their fate. Naught availed now, when the warriors ritually vomited over the Inthaka, the sacred grass coil of national unity. Esoteric powers of kingship and the assurances of witch-doctors coul d not resist the massed ranks of capitalism, Christianity and technology. No wonder William Ngidi wept, as he watched the convictions crumble and the prancing fighting men degenerate into memsahibs' houseboys.

Most of us, I suppose, have learnt our Zulu lore from two sources: E A Ritter's celebrated imaginative biography Shaka Zulu, 1955, and Cy Endfield's 1964 film Zulu, in which the impis in all their terrifying splendour are held at bay by Michael Caine andStanley Baker. Stephen Taylor, who makes much use of unfamiliar archive material, does nothing to dispel the savage grandeur of the legend; but he manages to keep in our minds, throughout the saga proud and bitter, the fact that the Zulu were never morenor ever less human than the white men. The Zulu themselves repeatedly argued the point, baffled as they were by the aloofness of the British. They thought themselves the white man's equal; they believed their own laws - ceremonial i mpalement, for instance - to be as valid as his; but they could never find the gate, they said, through which to pass towards mutual understanding.

There were moments, I am ashamed to say, when the narrative reminded me of Beachcomber ("Mbuyazi's umuzi was north of the Black Mfolozi, Cetschwayo's was south of the Mhlatuze"), but the response was momentary, and unworthy. It is Mr Taylor's great achievement that he succeeds in making the motives of all sides in this sorry story equally comprehensible. By now, of course, the mores of the imperialists seem almost as alien to us as those of the Zulu themselves, and the whole tragic conflict seems a sort of vast misunderstanding. Taylor suggests that if the British had treated the Zulu as they did the Sotho and the Swazi, preserving their tribal identities as independent protectorates, they too might have proceeded more placidly into modernity: but it i s certainly more in the national tradition that they have come ever-raging through the night of apartheid, at odds not just with the whites, but often with their fellow blacks too.

And perhaps the traditional Zulu bloody-mindedness, inherited from the mighty Shaka himself, will prove their salvation yet. Nobody knows whether a multi-tribal, multi-cultural South Africa is going to fulfil itself in peace, but we may be sure that whatever happens Shaka's children will be recognizably themselves. The Zulu language is very much alive; the King of the Zulu is a King still; Zulus provide much of the intellectual and business acumen of the new South Africa; the impis are still, for betteror for worse, virile with the old dancing fury. It may not be that splendid old people of old, but what people is? The new day of the Zulu may yet be coming: as a Zulu schoolgirl writes in the last paragraph of Mr Taylor's generous and truly moving work: "When I think of all these things it makes me feel as if I had been born 100 years too soon and that the good times are coming after my time is gone."