South Africa Table of Contents

The Nguni peoples are classified into three large subgroups, the Northern Nguni, the Southern Nguni, and the Ndebele. The Zulu and the Swazi are among the Northern Nguni. The Xhosa are the largest Southern Nguni society, but the neighboring Thembu and Mpondo are also well known Southern Nguni societies, often described as subgroups of the Xhosa. Each of these groups is a heterogeneous grouping of smaller (also heterogeneous) ethnic groups.

Four of South Africa's official languages are Nguni languages; isiZulu, isiXhosa, siSwati, and isiNdebele are spoken primarily by the Zulu, the Xhosa, the Swazi, and the Ndebele peoples, respectively. Each of these languages has regional variants and dialects, which are often mutually intelligible.

Before the nineteenth century, the dominant Nguni settlement pattern was that of dispersed households, as opposed to villages. The typical household was centered on a patrilineage; it also included other relatives through a variety of kinship ties, and people who had attached themselves to the household--often as indentured laborers who were rewarded in cattle. Cattle were central to most Nguni economies, which ranged from almost complete dependence on herding to mixed pastoralism and crop cultivation, often supplemented by hunting.

Nguni political organization generally consisted of small chiefdoms, sometimes only a few hundred people loyal to a person chosen by descent, achievement, or a combination of factors. Until the eighteenth century or later, historians believe, these chiefdoms were not united under a king or monarch. Each chiefdom typically included a group of related patrilineal clans, or descent groups united by common ancestry only a few generations deep, and others who had chosen to attach themselves to a particular chief. A chief could demand support and tribute (taxes) from his followers, could reward those he favored, could form political alliances, and could declare war against his enemies. A chief's followers, in turn, usually had the right to leave and to join another chiefdom, if they wished. Larger chiefdoms sometimes exercised limited control over smaller ones, but such hegemony generally did not last for more than a generation or two.


An estimated 8 million South Africans consider themselves Zulu (amaZulu) or members of closely related ethnic groups in the 1990s. By the eighteenth century, Zulu society encompassed a number of Nguni-speaking chiefdoms north of the Tugela River (see fig. 4). The Zulu homestead (imizi ) consisted of an extended polygynous (see Glossary) family and others attached to the household through social obligations. This social unit was largely self-sufficient, with responsibilities divided according to gender. Men were generally responsible for defending the homestead, caring for cattle, manufacturing and maintaining weapons and farm implements, and building dwellings. Women had domestic responsibilities and raised crops, usually grains, on land near the household.

Zulu chiefs demanded steadily increasing tribute or taxes from their subjects, acquired great wealth, commanded large armies, and, in many cases, subjugated neighboring chiefdoms. Military conquest allowed men to achieve status distinctions that had become increasingly important. In the early nineteenth century, the large and powerful Mthethwa chiefdom, led by Dingiswayo, dominated much of the region north of the Tugela River (see The Rise of African States, ch. 1). Shaka, a Zulu warrior who had won recognition in 1810 by skillfully subduing the leader of the warring Buthelezi chiefdom, took advantage of Dingiswayo's military defeat by the neighboring Ndwandwe armies to begin building the Zulu empire in 1817.

As king, Shaka Zulu (r. 1817-28) defied tradition by adopting new fighting strategies, by consolidating control over his military regiments, and by ruthlessly eliminating potential rivals for power. Shaka's warrior regiments (impis ) eventually subjugated the powerful Ndwandwe, and decimated or drove from the area the armies of Shaka's rivals. Spreading warfare--exacerbated by pressures from Europeans--drove thousands of Africans north and west, and the ensuing upheaval spawned new conflicts throughout the region (see fig. 5).

The Zulu empire weakened after Shaka's death in 1828 and fragmented, especially following military defeats at the hands of the Afrikaners in 1839 and the British in 1879. Zululand, the area north of the Tugela River, was incorporated into the British colony, Natal, in 1887. The last Zulu uprising, a poll tax protest led by Chief Bambatha in 1906, was ruthlessly suppressed. The Zulu population remained fragmented during most of the twentieth century, although loyalty to the royal family continued to be strong in some areas. Leaders of Zulu cultural organizations and Zulu politicians were able to preserve a sense of ethnic identity through the symbolic recognition of Zulu history and through local-level politics.

Zulu men and women have made up a substantial portion of South Africa's urban work force throughout the twentieth century, especially in the gold and copper mines of the Witwatersrand. Zulu workers organized some of the first black labor unions in the country. For example, the Zulu Washermen's Guild, Amawasha, was active in Natal and the Witwatersrand even before the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910. The Zululand Planters' Union organized agricultural workers in Natal in the early twentieth century.

The KwaZulu homeland was carved out of several unconnected plots of land in Natal in the 1960s. In 1976 Mangosuthu (Gatsha) Buthelezi, a member of the Zulu royal family, was named chief minister of KwaZulu, and the government declared KwaZulu a self-governing territory a year later. Buthelezi established good relations with the National Party-dominated government and, in the process, severed his former close ties to the African National Congress (ANC).

During the 1980s, Buthelezi refused repeated government offers of homeland independence; he preferred to retain the self-governing status that allowed the roughly 4 million residents of KwaZulu to be citizens of South Africa. Zulu solidarity was enhanced by Buthelezi's intellectually powerful and dominant personality and by his leadership of the Zulu cultural organization, Inkatha Yenkululeko Yesizwe (National Cultural Liberation Movement--usually called Inkatha), which became the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) during the 1990s.

During the apartheid era, many people in areas officially designated as Zulu were descendants of nineteenth-century Zulu warriors or subjects of the Zulu royal family, who retained a strong ethnic consciousness and pride in their Zulu identity. Others in these areas, however, traced their descent to those who resisted Shaka's domination or celebrated his death at the hands of his own relatives in 1828. Some viewed their association with Zulu royalty as little more than an artificial political creation. A substantial minority within the diverse Zulu society in the 1980s and the 1990s supported the rival ANC.

Military prowess continued to be an important value in Zulu culture, and this emphasis fueled some of the political violence of the 1990s. Zulu people generally admire those with physical and mental agility, and those who can speak eloquently and hold a crowd's attention. These attributes strengthened Buthelezi's support among many Zulu, but his political rhetoric sometimes sparked attacks on political opponents and critics, even within Zulu society.

Buthelezi's nephew, Goodwill Zwelithini, is the Zulu monarch in the 1990s. Buthelezi and King Goodwill won the agreement of ANC negotiators just before the April 1994 elections that, with international mediation, the government would establish a special status for the Zulu Kingdom after the elections. Zulu leaders understood this special status to mean some degree of regional autonomy within the province of KwaZulu-Natal.

Buthelezi was appointed minister of home affairs in the first Government of National Unity in 1994. He led a walkout of Zulu delegates from the National Assembly in early 1995 and clashed repeatedly with newly elected President Nelson (Rolihlahla) Mandela. Buthelezi threatened to abandon the Government of National Unity entirely unless his Zulu constituency received greater recognition and autonomy from central government control.


About 1.6 million Swazi people live in the region in the 1990s--almost 900,000 in Swaziland and the remainder in South Africa, especially in the area of the former homeland, KaNgwane. Until the late eighteenth century, Swazi society consisted of a group of closely related Nguni chiefdoms organized around patrilineal descent groups. At that time, a powerful chief, Ngwane I, seized control over several smaller neighboring chiefdoms of Nguni and Sotho peoples to strengthen his own army's defense against the Mthethwa forces led by Dingiswayo. The greatest rival of the Mthethwa, the Ndwandwe, later subjugated the Mthethwa and killed Dingiswayo. Ngwane I, under pressure from the Ndwandwe, then withdrew into the mountainous territory that would later become Swaziland.

Ngwane I was able to resist incorporation into the Zulu empire during the reign of Shaka, and the Swazi maintained generally peaceful relations with Shaka's successors. Some Swazi clans were forced to move north, however, as regional upheaval spread, and together with displaced Zulu clans, they established aristocratic dynasties over herdsmen and farmers as far north as areas that would later become Malawi and Zambia.

In the twentieth century, the Swazi kingdom retained its autonomy, but not total independence, as the British protectorate of Swaziland in 1903 and as a British High Commission territory in 1907. In 1968 Swaziland became an independent nation led by King Sobhuza II. Swaziland has pressured Pretoria for the return of Swazi-occupied areas of South Africa since the 1960s. In 1982 Pretoria agreed, but that decision was reversed by the South African Supreme Court.

KaNgwane was carved out of land adjacent to Swaziland during the 1960s and was declared a "self-governing" territory with a population of about 400,000 in 1984. KaNgwane's Chief Minister Enos Mabuza tried to build an agricultural and industrial economy in the small, segmented territory, and he became the first homeland leader to grant full trade union rights to workers in his jurisdiction. Mabuza also led the fight against the incorporation of KaNgwane into Swaziland. During the late 1980s, he clashed with Pretoria by expressing strong support for the ANC, although many KaNgwane residents remained uninvolved in South African politics.


The Xhosa (amaXhosa) people in South Africa in the mid-1990s number roughly 6 million, according to official estimates, including the Pondo (Mpondo), Thembu, and several other small ethnic groups, which have been assimilated, to varying degrees, into Xhosa society over several centuries. Each of these is also a heterogeneous grouping of smaller populations.

Most Xhosa people speak English, and often several other languages, but they also take great pride in speaking Xhosa (isiXhosa), an Nguni language closely related to Zulu. Unlike most other African languages, Xhosa has more than a dozen "click" sounds, probably assimilated from Khoisan speakers over long periods of acculturation between Xhosa and Khoisan peoples.

Some ancestors of twentieth-century Xhosa arrived in the eastern Cape region from the north before the fifteenth century, and others moved into the area during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Xhosa history tells of settlement east of the Sundays River by the early eighteenth century. The Xhosa eliminated or enslaved some of the Khoisan speakers they encountered, but many Khoikhoi were peacefully assimilated into Xhosa society. Khoikhoi workers were often entrusted with the care of cattle for a generation or two before being accepted as equal members of Xhosa society. The Xhosa generally incorporated newcomers who recognized the dominance of the Xhosa chief. In fact, until the twentieth century, the term Xhosa was often used to designate territorial affiliation rather than common descent. The resulting Xhosa society was extremely diverse.

Most Xhosa lived by cattle herding, crop cultivation, and hunting. Homesteads were normally built near the tops of the numerous ridges that overlook the rivers of the area, including the Fish River, the Keiskama River, the Buffalo River, and the Kei River. Cattle, serving as symbols of wealth, as well as means of exchange, pack animals, and transportation, were central to the economy. Crops such as corn, sorghum, and tobacco thrived in years with adequate rainfall. Woodworking and ironworking were important men's occupations.

Xhosa homesteads were organized around descent groups, with descent traced through male forebears. These lineages, and the large clans formed by groups of related lineages, provided the center of Xhosa social organization. These descent groups were responsible for preserving ancestral ties and for perpetuating the group through sacrifices to the ancestors, mutual assistance among the living, and carefully arranged marriages with neighboring clans or lineages. Political power was often described as control over land and water. A powerful chief may be praised in oral histories by the claim that he had power over the land close to a large river, and a lesser chief, by the claim that he had power over land near a smaller river or tributary.

Xhosa oral histories tell of installing a royal lineage, probably by the early seventeenth century. This family, the Tshawe, or amaTshawe (people of Tshawe), continued to dominate other Xhosa clans for more than a century; only the Tshawe could be recognized as chiefs over other Xhosa, according to historical accounts in The House of Phalo: A History of the Xhosa People in the Day of Their Independence , by Jeffrey B. Peires. The Xhosa also experienced a rapid increase in population, and they divided several times over six or seven generations. The resulting dominant chiefdoms, the Gcaleka and the Rharhabe (Rarabe), formed distinct sections of Xhosa society throughout the twentieth century.

Xhosa people had extensive contact with Europeans by the early nineteenth century, and they generally welcomed European missionaries and educators into their territory. A Xhosa grammar book--the first in a southern African language--was published in 1834. Their early and sustained contact with Christian missionaries and educators led the Xhosa to distinguish between "school people," who had accepted Western innovation, and "red people," who were identified with the traditional red ocher used to dye clothing and to decorate the body. By the twentieth century, the Xhosa school people formed the core of South Africa's emerging black professional class and included lawyers, physicians, and ministers.

The South African government recognized the split between the Gcaleka Xhosa and the Ngqika (a subgroup of Rharhabe) Xhosa in the twentieth century by establishing two Xhosa homelands. Transkei, a segmented territory in eastern Cape Province bordering Lesotho, was designated for the Gcaleka Xhosa, and Ciskei--just west of Transkei--was for the Ngqika Xhosa. Transkei became an independent homeland in 1976, and Ciskei, in 1981.

Xhosa language speakers also include the Thembu (Tembu), the eastern neighbors of the Xhosa during much of their history. The Thembu represent a number of clans that managed to exert their dominance over neighboring clans. The Thembu had long and varied contacts with the Xhosa. These were often peaceful and friendly--for example, Xhosa history says that the Great Wife of each chief was a Thembu--but they sometimes erupted into war. The Thembu recognize their own royal clan, the Hala, who led many Thembu into battle against the Xhosa during the late eighteenth century.

Also closely related to the Xhosa are the Pondo (Mpondo), the eastern neighbors of the Thembu. The Pondo royal clan, the Nyawuza, struggled to establish and to preserve its dominance over neighboring clans well into the nineteenth century, when some of the Pondo and their neighbors were displaced and subjugated by the Zulu.

Another population often described as a Xhosa subgroup is the Mfengu, consisting of descendants of small remnants of clans and chiefdoms that were displaced during the early nineteenth-century upheaval of the mfecane (or crushing--see Glossary). Survivors of the mfecane attached themselves to Xhosa society, which was relatively stable, often in Xhosa villages located near Christian missions. After an initial period of clientship, or social inferiority that eroded as generations passed, the Mfengu were generally accepted as equals in the diverse Xhosa population.


The term Ndebele, or amaNdebele, in the 1990s refers primarily to about 800,000 South Africans whose forebears have inhabited areas of the northern Transvaal (now Northern Province) for more than a century. The Ndebele language, isiNdebele, is classified among the Nguni languages, although Sotho influences are strong enough in some areas that isiNdebele is sometimes also classified as a variant of seSotho.

Most Ndebele trace their ancestry to the area that became Natal Province, later KwaZulu-Natal. Some began moving northward well before the early nineteenth-century mfecane , and many of these settled in the northern Transvaal. Others, subjects of the Zulu leader Mzilikazi, fled north from Natal after his defeat by Shaka in 1817. Ndebele peoples throughout the region were forced to move several times after that, so that by the end of the nineteenth century, the Ndebele were dispersed throughout much of Natal, the Transvaal, and adjacent territory.

Many Ndebele became formidable warriors, often subjugating smaller chiefdoms and assimilating them into Ndebele society, and Ndebele clashed repeatedly with Voortrekker militias around Pretoria. The late nineteenth-century Afrikaner leader Paul Kruger jailed or executed many of their leaders, seized their land, and dispersed others to work for Afrikaner farmers as indentured servants. Some of the land was later returned to a few Ndebele, often as a reward for loyalty or recognition of status.

Under apartheid, many Ndebele living in the northern Transvaal were assigned to the predominantly seSotho-speaking homeland of Lebowa, which consisted of several segiments of land scattered across the northern Transvaal. Others, mostly southern Ndebele, who had retained more traditional elements of their culture and language, were assigned to KwaNdebele. KwaNdebele had been carved out of land that had been given to the son of Nyabela, a well-known Ndebele fighter in Kruger's time. The homeland was, therefore, prized by Ndebele traditionalists, who pressed for a KwaNdebele independence through the 1980s.

KwaNdebele was declared a "self-governing" territory in 1981. Very few of its 300,000 residents could find jobs in the homeland, however, so most worked in the industrial region of Pretoria and Johannesburg. At least 500,000 Ndebele people lived in urban centers throughout South Africa and in homelands other than KwaNdebele through the 1980s.

During the 1980s and the early 1990s, many Ndebele recognized a royal family, the Mahlangu family, and the capital of KwaNdebele was called KwaMahlangu. The royal family was divided, however, over economic issues and the question of "independence" for the homeland. These disputes were overridden by the dissolution of the homelands in 1994. At that time, in addition to the estimated 800,000 Ndebele people in South Africa, nearly 1.7 million Ndebele lived in Zimbabwe, where they constituted about one-sixth of the population and were known as Matabele; about 300,000 lived in Botswana.

More about the Ethnic Groups of South Africa.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress