The Zulus became historically important in the early 19th cent. under Shaka, whose conquests reduced many neighboring people to vassalage and caused others to flee. His successors soon encountered the Boer settlers migrating north into Natal (see KwaZulu-Natal) as part of the Great Trek. The Zulu chief Dingane ambushed and killed about 500 Boers in 1838. In revenge the forces of Andries Pretorius killed about 3,000 Zulus in the Battle of Blood River. Subsequent Boer intervention in Zulu domestic affairs led in 1840 to the overthrow of Dingane and the crowning of Mpande, who became a vassal of the Boer republic of Natal.
The British, who succeeded the Boers as rulers of Natal in 1843, encountered the hostility of Mpande's son, Cetshwayo. After he ignored an ultimatum that he submit to British rule, Great Britain launched an attack on Zululand in 1878 and, although suffering several grave defeats, finally triumphed in July, 1879. Faced with continuing Zulu rebellions, the British annexed Zululand in 1887; it became part of Natal in 1897.
The bantustan (black "homeland") designated by the government of South Africa, in accordance with the Bantu Self-Government Act of 1959, to be the Zulu homeland was initially named Zululand, but was soon renamed KwaZulu [land of the Zulus] after it was established in 1970. KwaZulu was made up of isolated tracts of land, forming only a part of historical Zululand, and was neither geographically unified nor territorially homogeneous. The area north of the Tugela River, where the largest tracts of Zulu territory lie, formed the hub of KwaZulu. KwaZulu was nominally self-governing from 1977; Ulundi was the capital from 1980. Slightly more than half of South Africa's Zulu population lived in KwaZulu, which also had Xhosa, Sotho, and Swazi minorities.
The Inkatha movement, an indigenous association whose membership initially consisted primarily of Zulu migrant workers, played an important and controversial role in the political life of South Africa in the late 20th cent. Inkatha and its leader, Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, who was the chief minister of KwaZulu, were accused of collaborating with apartheid forces in the South African government, and long-standing hostilities between Inkatha and the African National Congress (ANC) led to bloodshed in the black townships of Natal. In Apr., 1994, just before national elections, Buthelezi agreed to abandon a boycott and have his Inkatha Freedom party participate. In return, the KwaZulu region was given autonomy under Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, with Buthelezi as his prime minister, while at the same time being incorporated into the new KwaZulu-Natal province. Attempting to stay above politics, the king subsequently distanced himself from Inkatha. Violence and political feuding between Zulu supporters of Buthelezi and Zulu partisans of the ANC continued in the mid-1990s but largely subsided in the last years of the decade.