The Nguni People


The Nguni are one of the major divisions of the Bantu language group found in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Swaziland and account for 60 percent of Bantu speakers in southern Africa. Today there are an estimated 24 million speakers of Nguni languages, with the single largest group being isiZulu, numbering at an esti-mated 11 million living mainly in South Africa. The second-largest group is that of the isiXhosa speakers, who number over 7.5 million and also live in South Africa. Northern Nguni is dominated by the Zulu, and Southern Nguni is dominated by the Xhosa. IsiXhosa has bor-rowed 15 click sounds from Khoisan languages, more than any other Bantu lan-guage, which indicates long contact between the Khoisan and the Xhosa.

The Nguni emerged from the Bantu peoples, who arrived in South Africa sometime in the fourth century CE. They are closely related to the Sotho/Tswana who moved out onto the Highveld, while the Nguni moved south and reached Natal by the middle of the 11th century. The Nguni favored dense settlement patterns and developed the distinctive beehive style of architecture still associated with the Zulu. The Xhosa were on the frontier of Nguni expansion and reached the Eastern Cape along the Fish River long before their first contact with Europeans in the middle of the 18th century. The Xhosa were eventually defeated by the British in a series of wars with the Europeans, nine in total from 1779 to 1879.

TheZuluemergedasthedominant group among the northern Nguni in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as a result of struggles between contesting chiefdoms over resources, grazing lands for their cattle, and access to Portuguese trade goods from trading posts located at Delagoa and St. Lucia bays. Shaka, founder of the Zulu state, forged the Zulu into a formidable fighting force and set out to build an empire. Those he conquered, he absorbed into the Zulu, while others fled north into Sotho/Tswana territory where they spread terror and destruction. Those under Shaka’s once-general Mzilikazi became the Ndebele or Matabele of Zimbabwe, while those under Sobhuza I and then his son and heir Mswati formed the Swazi.

Others fled south, seeking protection of the Xhosa, and were generally called the Mfingo meaning “refugees.” They and others, such as the Thembu, Mpondo, Bomvana, and Bhaca, have been culturally absorbed into the Xhosa. The period between 1816 and1828iscalledtheMfecane in Nguni languages, meaning the “Great Crushing.”The Southern Ndebele or the Transvaal Ndebele are Nguni in origin, but not related to the Ndebele of Zimbabwe. They too are split between a northern and a southern group as the result of a quarrel over the leadership in the 17th century.

The Transvaal Ndebele have lived among the Transvaal Sotho for so long that they have taken up many of their customs, including their language. There are today some 500,000 Transvaal Ndebele, and they have developed their own distinct culture. Their leader Nyabela (died around the time of the Boer War in the first decade of the 1900s) served a major role in asking his people to preserve their culture.In addition to those groups who live in South Africa and Zimbabwe, there are small scatterings of Ngoni (usually spelled with an “o”) throughout the Lakes Region as far north as Kenya. They trace their ori-gins to Natal and the Ndwandwe, who were defeated by Shaka in 1819.

They fled the state-making process of Shaka, but as they moved north, their superior organiza-tion and the military reforms they had learned from Shaka that they brought with them turned their flight into invasion and conquest. Groups of Ngoni are found in Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, Tanzania, and Kenya, and they number several hun-dred thousand in each country.Most Nguni are Christians, the largest percentage of who belong to the Xhosa subgroup. As a result of their defeat by the British in 1853 and the subsequent death of 80 percent of their cattle due to a lung sickness introduced by European cat-tle, many Xhosa turned to the prophetess Nongqawuse.

Similar to the Ghost Dance among Native Americans, her prophecy foretold of a resurgence of native power and the destruction of the whites. The Xhosa were to kill all of their cattle and destroy their grain, which would free them fromthedevilwhoseservantswerethe whites. In a great climax in 1857, more than 400,000 head of cattle were killed, and in the subsequent starvation, 40,000 Xhosa died. In the aftermath of the Cattle Killing, the majority of Xhosa turned to Christianity. The current South African national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika,is a Xhosa hymn written in 1897 by the Xhosa convert Enoch Sontonga.

Christianity had a harder time gaining ground among the Zulu. Even today, many Zulu hold to both the traditional belief sys-tem along with Christianity or belong to the syncretic Zionist Apostolic churches. Traditional belief centers on the amatongo in isiXhosa and amadlozi in isiZulu,or “spirits of the ancestors.” Professional priest-diviners called isangoma (izangoma in plural) in Nguni languages are trained to understand the wishes of the ancestors. A priest-diviner must first apprentice to a working master to be trained, which can take years of hard study, though some become priest-diviners at the call of the spirits who train them in dreams.

Along with being able to contact and understand the wishes of the ancestors, they also are trained in the identification of medicinal plants and how to make and prescribe medicines from them. Once an apprentice is fully trained, a ceremony is held to mark the event, and the person will take on the beading that their ancestors tell them to wear as the mark of a fully accomplished priest-diviner. Some of these are highly decorative and are worn when the person contacts the spirits, but for everyday wear, their position as a priest-diviner is usually marked with beaded bracelets, anklets, and/or beaded hair.

Nguni are among the most skilled craftspeople in southern Africa, specifi-cally in beadwork and basket weaving. The Transvaal or Southern Ndebele use similar designs from the beadwork to paint their houses, mainly geometrics, stylized cars, buses, and the like, as well as num-bers and letters, frequently made back-wards. The Transvaal Ndebele are well known for elaborate costuming, developed in the 19th and early 20th centuries pri-marily for their women. Women mark their social status with heavily beaded front skirt panels. Young girls, before puberty, wear ghabi or a cache-sexe that has a small, stiff, beaded panel but is heavily fringed with cords and beads.

At puberty, the ghabi is replaced with a some-what large stiffened piece of leather covered in beads called ipepetu,which serves as a front panel. The bride wears a special front panel called the jocolo or tshogholo, which has five “fingers” on the lower part of the panel indicating that she is now a married woman. The bride also wears umgaka, a beaded headband some-times with a beaded chin strap, a siyaya or beaded face veil, and an orare or ngur-ara, which is a beaded blanket that she wears like a shawl. Her legs, arms, waist,and neck have stacks of grass rings covered in tightly wrapped beads called isigholmani.

In addition, Ndebele women used to wear brass rings on their legs and around their necks called tzila that were permanent and could not be taken off. These are now replaced with ones in plas-tic with Velcro attachments that are worn only on special occasions. After a woman is married, she changes to the mapoto or amaphoto for her front panel, which extends to just above her knees. In the past, these were mainly in white beads on a stiffened piece of leather, but starting in the 1960s, other colors became more readily available to the women.

Today, most of the beaded items are multicolored, with a preference for dark blues, greens, purples, and black with highlights in red, orange, and white, and the leather is some-times replaced with canvas. To mark her as amother,themapoto has loose fringes at the bottom, each fringe ending in beads. Another piece of Ndebele beadwork is the nyoga or “snake” that is often worn by women at weddings. The nyoga are long, heavily beaded pieces that hang down the back.

Another spectacular piece of Ndebele beadwork is the headband with long, beaded side panels on both sides that reach to the wearer’s feet or below called milingakobe or “long tears.” Headbands used to have coins attached to them; but the South African government passed a law forbidding the use of coins in decora-tion, since in order to attach them, they had to be pierced, which made them no longer usable as a coin. Traditional cloth-ing is worn today at special occasions, but Ndebele beadwork is also a form of income generation for Ndebele women who now make pieces for the international art market.

Xhosa are also well known for their beadwork and, like the Ndebele, the dif-ferent pieces worn traditionally by both men and women developed with contact with European traders. Traditional Xhosa dress developed before beads were a common trade item, and though they are known for the beauty of their beadwork, much of the traditional clothing uses but-tons as well. Buttons, especially those made of mother of pearl, were highly val-ued by the Xhosa, and it is reported that in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Xhosa men robbed European dressed herd boys of their buttons.

The introduction of European cloth also helped form Xhosa taste, and both men and women tradition-ally wear large amounts of cloth decorated with buttons and black, cloth ribbons. Women developed large turbans, again decorated with buttons and beads, and those of married women are larger and more elaborate than those of young women. Triangular scarves decorated in mother-of-pearl buttons and beads, called iqhiya, are part of Mfingo and Mpondo women’s dress. Married Mpondo women traditionally used to wear a beaded headr-ing to indicate her married status.

Xhosa prefer, yet today, white, black, and blue beads, and white originally was used more extensively for political elite and priest-diviners. The Xhosa developed distinctive pieces such as large, net-weave necklaces or icangi, broaches to attach blankets or umpaso, beaded belts or isaziso sesinqe or igqesha (with beaded tassels), arm bands, leg bands, and sashes worn by both men and women. Tobacco pipes and bags developed with the contact with Euro-peans. In more recent years, Xhosa beaders have made items like bowties and ties from beads and are worn at special occasions. Like the Ndebele, Xhosa bead-work has entered the international art mar-ket and command high prices.

Zulu are also famous for their bead-work, and while Xhosa are famous for their elegance and restrained use of colors, Zulu beadwork favors reds, yellows, greens, pinks, and a host of other bright colors. Durban rickshaw pullers are covered with massive amounts of bead-work in vests and large headdresses that often include painted or beaded cattle horns. There are a number of traditional beadwork pieces, some of them color coded by Shaka and his descendants, that placed wearers in particular geographic locations.

That is, regional styles were invented and maintained by the regimenta-tion of Zulu society. Like the Xhosa, white is still favored by priest-diviners. Zulu women’s traditional clothing not only was highly decorated with beadwork, but differen thats also decorated with bead-work came to have special meanings. The large, wide, and flat inkehli traditionally was woven into a woman’s hair and was colored red with ochre. It is decorated with beaded pieces called butterflies stuck into to the hat.

Women in various locations of Zululand traditionally wore leather skirts called isidwaba and capes or isikoti decorated in beadwork. Zulu women wear a number of beaded items that are worn to be seen from behind, such as the back panel called umkhambathi,whichis heavily beaded and covers the leather skirt underneath it as well as a number of belts made from woven grass and covered in bright colors such as red and green glass beads. Among the best known of Zulu beadwork are the “love letters” or ithemba, which became fashionable once Zulu men began to leave their home areas and work in the mines and farms in other parts of South Africa.

Zulu women, left at home, could use the post office to mail the “letters,” which were made as neckla-ces and colors and designs carrying the meaning. “Love letters” are still made and are in demand by collectors in Europe and North America.Zulu beadwork is not as well known and not yet as sought after as those of the Ndebele. However, Zulu baskets fetch high prices in the international art market. Zulu baskets made from waxy ilala palm fibers are water tight and, in the past, served instead of breakable pottery for serving beer as well as for storage. The baskets leak a bit which helps cool the beverage inside.

There are different types of baskets and each has a specific name and function. Ukhambu baskets have a number of shapes, but they are for serving traditional beer and can stand up to 24 inches tall (60.96 centi-meters). Large ukhambu baskets are given even today as wedding gifts, and are a ready source of money.

In addition to tradi-tional palm and grass baskets, in recent years Zulu women have begun to make baskets from plastic-covered copper wire. Zulu women began by using pieces of wire the telephone workmen left behind and wove them into useful baskets and plates. Subsequently, others, including white South Africans, began a market demand for them and wire baskets now have an international market. Zulu baskets are internationally famous and eagerly sought after by collectors.


The modern history of the Nguni begins with the contact between the Xhosa and the Europeans. The Boers were unable to defeat the Xhosa in the first four wars with them, despite the fact that the Boers had guns. The Xhosa adapted to using horses and were highly mobile, not unlike the Plains peoples in North America.

The sit-uation changed when the Cape became part of the British Empire. Over the course of the first half of the 19th century, the Xhosa fought four more wars with the Europeans and were eventually defeated in the Eighth Frontier War in 1853. The Xhosa made one last attempt to regain their lands in 1877 to 1879 but were defeated, and their lands were lost to the Cape.

The Xhosa had received Christian mis-sionaries since the early 19th century and, after the Cattle Killing in 1856–1857, most lost faith in traditional religion. The Xhosa came under the laws of the Cape, which allowed Africans access to educa-tion and the status of free citizen. The Xhosa emerged quickly from the Cattle Killing disaster as the most educated of Africans. The Christian mission schools were staffed mainly by Europeans and North Americans with liberal political and social ideals, which greatly affected their students. In 1912, the African National Congress (ANC) was founded, and was mainly managed by Xhosa.The Xhosa formed the main driving force of the ANC from its founding in 1912.

In 1910, the British allowed an elected government for a united South Africa, and slowly African rights enjoyed in the Cape began to erode with separatist, discriminatory policies. The ANC was an early response to this and an attempt to bring Africans into the political process. Subsequent governments passed more dis-criminatory legislation, where it was legal to live, the need to carry a pass, and the reduction of native agricultural lands and, in 1948, the Afrikaner National Party was able to gain control of the government and set the course of the next four decades of confrontation between African activists and the state.

In 1960, the ANC and a number of other organizations were banned. The Xhosa and the other southern Nguni were assigned to the more barren parts of the Eastern Cape in the homelands of Ciskie and Transkei. Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Desmond Tutu, Stephen Biko, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, and Mariam Makeba are notable Xhosa activ-ists. Nelson Mandela became the first black president of South Africa in 1994.


The Zulu state was formed by Shaka, whoruledas thekingfrom1816to1828. Shaka was the stuff of legends, and sub-sequent tales of his life include a prophecy that foretold of a child that would make the Zulu the most feared of nations. Sha-ka’s success was due to the modifications he made to the traditional weapons (spear, club, and shield) as well as to new battle strategies. He took the traditional circumci-sion school-age sets and turned them into more effective military regiments or impis. Zulu regiments could cover up to 50 miles (80 kilometers) a day and still be able to fight a battle at the end of the march, while European armies of the day could barely cover 20 miles (32 kilometers) in a day and rarely were able to engage an enemy at the end of a day’s march.

Shaka was assassinated by his half brothers in 1828, and one of them, Din-gane, became the king. He stopped the expansion of the empire, but was con-fronted by the arrival of Boers in 1837. Dingane was deeply suspicious of the Boers and ordered the death of all that his regiments could find, resulting in the deaths of over 500 Boer men, women, and children. In 1838, the Boers were able to defeat a large force of Zulus at the Bat-tle of Blood River and, in 1840, assisted Mpande, one of Dingane’s many half brothers, in taking control of the Zulu state. Mpande and the Boers had Dingane assassinated.

Mpande ruled until 1872, though for the last year of his life, his son Cetshwayo was the real ruler. Cetshwayo eliminated any real rivalry by defeating several of his brothers while his father was still alive. In 1872, Cetshwayo was crowned king with the British representative in attendance. Cetshwayo reinstituted the military reforms of Shaka that had been allowed to slowly decline during Mpande’s rule as well as introduced guns to his regiments. He expelled Christian missionaries, which the British deemed as an unfriendly act. The British sent him an ultimatum to disband his army, and to suspend traditional courts in favor of “modern, European” ones, which he refused to do.

In reality, the ultimatum was worded deliberately to be rejected since Cetshwayo was an independent ruler, not a vassal of the British. The Zulu War began in 1879, and the British commanders at first greatly underestimated the Zulus. The Zulus inflicted one of the greatest defeats of a modern army by native forces at Isandhlwana, where the British lost over 1,300 men. The British recovered from their defeat and launched a new offensive, reach-ing the Royal Kraal at Ulundi in July, 1879. Cetshwayo was captured and exiled to Lon-don, where he lived until he was allowed to return in 1883.

Misrule of Zululand by a combination of inept local chiefs, British agents, and Christian missionaries forced the British to eventually bring Cetshwayo back, and they placed him on the throne once more. He died soon afterward and was suc-ceeded by his son Dinizulu, who had the support of the Boers. Zululand lost its independence with the 1879 defeat and its land, and people were incorporated into Natal. Nonetheless, Zulu kings have con-tinued to through the present day to be an important force in local politics, even if they have no real political power.

The Zulu were mainly a rural people. Despite the defeat of their king in 1879 and the subsequent misrule by the British and the disjointed nature of their homeland of KwaZulu, they have been able to maintain a fair degree of social cohesion to the present time. The current king, Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu, commands great respect. In 1975, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a cousin of the king, formed the Inkhatha YeSizwe (Crown of the Nation) or Inkhatha Freedom Party, which the South African government recognized as the voice of the African peo-ple. Political violence between supporters of the ANC and Inkhatha lasted through much of the 1980s and ended only with the end of apartheid.


The Swazi owe their independence to King Mbandzeni, who ruled from 1875 to 1889. He made agreements with a number of whites, both British and Boer, and though he allowed the sale of large parts of the kingdom to whites, he was able to preserve Swazi independence. Swazi kings main-tained good relations with the British in particular, who declared Swaziland a protectorate in 1902, and like the kings of Lesotho, they were able to build a general national consensus of Swazi identity out of its different ethnicities, Nguni and others.

Swaziland’s position as a British protectorate guaranteed its independence from South Africa, and in 1960, Great Brit-ain granted its full independence.Swaziland was ruled by King Sobhuza II (d. 1982), who had to straddle the divide between the traditional system of government and the attempt to implement parliamentary government. Swazi customs such as the yearly Ncwala, which renews the relationship between the king and his people, have come under pressure from modernists. At the Ncwala, the king has the traditional right to choose any young girl he sees and take her as his wife. More “modernist” Swazi women have refused to participate in the ceremony, and one even refused to be the current king’s choice.


The Ndebele or Matabele originated with their first leader, Mzilikazi, who was chief of the Khumalo of the Ndwandwe, one of Shaka’s main rivals. Mzilikazi joined Shaka, but in a quarrel over booty, Mzilikazi was forced to flee north. Mzili-kazi at first established himself in the Transvaal, where he defeated local Sotho chiefs. The Boers defeated Mzilikazi in 1836, and by 1838, the Ndebele were forced to flee north of the Limpopo River, where they defeated the local Shona and set up a new kingdom in what the British called Matabeleland. They named their capital Bulawayo (meaning place of killing in isiZulu) after that of Shaka. Mzilikazi’s son and heir Lobengula gave mining con-cessions to the British, which eventually led to two wars and the loss of indepen-dence in 1896.

The Matabele were incorpo-rated into the newly formed British colony of Rhodesia, where they, like most other Africans, became part of the workforce on the farms and mines of the whites.The Matabele leader Joshua Nkomo founded the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union or ZAPU in 1961. ZAPU was one of two main groups, along with ZANU-PF, that formed the struggle against white minority rule in then Rhodesia. Nkomo’s support came mainly from Matabeleland, while ZANU-PF had most of its support from the dominant Shona people. The two groups were able to work together until after the fall of white rule, and eventually ZANU-PF emerged as the single party in Zimbabwe. The union was not a happy one, and Robert Mugabe began a campaign to vilify Nkomo and the ZAPU leadership. In 2009, ZAPU declared that it would with-draw from its coalition with ZANU-PF.

Transvaal Ndebele

The Transvaal Ndebele claim to origi-nate in the 17th century when their chief Muzi settled near where Pretoria is located today. The Ndebele split, with one divi-sion moving north as far as Botswana. In the 19th century, the Ndebele came into conflict with the Boers, who were not able to finally defeat the Ndebele until just before the Anglo-Boer War. Their chief Nyabela gave sanctuary to a rebel Sotho chief, which sparked war with the Boers. In 1882, the president of the Transvaal Republic, Paul Kruger, conquered the Ndebele and divided their lands among Afrikaner farmers, and the Ndebele became forced labor.

In return for being able to continue living in their homeland, they were forced to provide Afrikaners with three months of labor a year. In 1955, as part of the apartheid laws, the Ndebele “homeland” was created in five tiny regions and families were required to leave their homesteads on white farms and move to one of the small areas in Transvaal called KwaNdebele. Despite the trauma suffered by them as a people, their cultural identity has been able to remain greatly intact. In recent years, South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma has recognized the plight of the Ndebele and the heroic fight of Chief Nyabela.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

Afolayan, Funso S. Culture and Customs of South Africa. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Barthrop, Michael. The Zulu War. Durban:Bok Books International, 1980.

Bouttiaux, Anne-Marie. “Afrique Meridio-nale: Des perlespour le dire.â€� In Costumes et Textiles d’Afrique: Des Berbe`res aux Zulu, by Anne-Marie Bouttiaux et al. Milan: 5 Continents Press, 2008.

Costello, Dawn. Not Only for Its Beauty:Beadwork and Its Cultural Significance among the Xhosa-Speaking Peoples. Preto-ria: Unisa Press, 1990.

Courtney-Clarke, Margaret. Ndebele: The Art of an African Tribe.New York:Thames and Hudson, 2002

Crabtree, Caroline, and Pam Stallebrass.Beadwork: A World Guide. London: Thames and Hudson, 2002.