He was born Godongwana, son of Mthethwa chief Jobe. We first hear of him during the wanderings of Nandi and her illegitimate son Shaka, who settled with the Mthethwa under chief Jobe.[clarification needed]
Godongwana and his brother, Tana, plotted against Jobe. The plot was discovered. Tana was killed. Godongwana made his escape. Nursed back to health by a sister, the young man found refuge amongst the foothills of the Drakensberg. He changed his name to Dingiswayo, which means "he who is troubled", or "The Wanderer". Upon the death of his father, he returned to claim the chieftainship.
He found his brother Mawewe in power. He displaced him without resistance. Mawewe fled, but was lured back and killed.
He observed a troop of Hottentots under Lieutenant Donovan which had accompanied Dr Cowan. Cowan was murdered by Chief Phakathwayo. Dingiswayo subsequently acquired Cowan's horse and gun. Dingiswayo's new military tactics were an adoption of western techniques of drills and formation movements under a chain of command.
With Shaka as his general, he attacked the Amangwane under Matiwane about 1812 and drove them across the Buffalo river. It was the first of the Mfecane migrations - tribes displaced, latterly by the Zulus, and who in turn displaced others in a series of inter-necine wars.
In 1816 Shaka returned to the Zulu to claim chieftainship, while still recognising the larger Mthethwa and Dingiswayo as overlord. However, Dingiswayo was killed by Zwide, and the Mthethwa forces were defeated and scattered temporarily, with the remnants reforming under Shaka. Zwide was later defeated by Shaka in the Zulu Civil War.
Dingiswayo's career marked a watershed in the history of south-east Africa. During his exile he was exposed to European ideas and he put these into practice to produce a disciplined and highly organised army for the first time in the region. After his death, Shaka extended these ideas to create a rigidly disciplined society to complement Dingiswayo's military reforms.
- MacKeurtan, G. The Cradle Days of Natal (1497-1845). Pietermaritzburg. 1948.
- Longman History of Southern Africa, Longman Publishing, 1978