The Ndebele in history

Early History

Few Southern African indigenous groups have so captured the interest of the world as have the South amaNdebele of the central highveld, an area previously known as the Transvaal but today incorporated into the Gauteng and Northern Provinces. Their highly colourful and intricately painted homesteads, their skilled and varied beadwork, their clear language of architecture, and their stately forms of dress have made them a popular field of research with artists, architects and social anthropologists. They have also become a major focus of interest for many visitors to this country.

It is generally accepted today that the South Ndebele migrated onto the central highveld of southern Africa some four centuries ago. The exact date of their arrival is difficult to determine, but estimates tend to vary from 1485 by Fourie, through to the 1630-1670 period established by Van Warmelo. The latter dating is today regarded as the more reliable of the two.

Both Fourie and Van Warmelo are in agreement that, despite the fact that the Ndebele settled in a predominantly Sotho-Tswana speaking area, they have retained their customs and Nguni language roots with "remarkable tenacity". However some researchers have suggested a Sotho influence in some rituals and aspects of material culture, and more recent research into their architecture, settlement patterns, and methods of construction seem to indicate a definite Pedi-Tswana influence, even allowing for the adaptations one has come to expect of a culture moving from the grass-rich coastal lands east of the Drakensberge to the more extreme thermal variations found on the South African Highveld.

Details regarding the Ndebele prior to their arrival on the highveld are scarce, and their recorded history only begins with the names of their first two kings, Mafana and Mhlanga. Following Mhlanga's death the clan became embroiled in a protracted struggle which eventually brought his son, Musi, to the leadership. By that stage the group had already moved to Mnyamana, near Wonderboompoort, immediately north of the future Boer town of Pretoria. Musi, in his turn, had five sons: Manala, Masombuka, Ndzundza, Mathombeni and Dhlomu. Upon his death Musi was buried beneath a tree at Wonderboompoort, a location which is still visited by his descendants to the present day. Almost inevitably his sons quarreled over their inheritance and, as a result, the clan split into a number of smaller groups, the largest two coalescing under the leaderships of Manala and Ndzundza respectively. Masombuka left briefly but rejoined Manala later on, while Dhlomu and some of his followers are reputed to have returned to KwaZulu. For the purpose of subsequent Ndebele history the Manala were held to be the senior of the two groups.

In due course Ndzundza was succeeded by his son Mxetsha who, in his turn, was succeeded by his son Magoboli. Magoboli was followed by his son Bongwe, who unfortunately only reigned for three years, and as a result of his premature death, his brother Sindeni was appointed as regent. At this time, for reasons that are not known, there was a shift in the line of succession, which allowed Sindeni's son, Mahlangu, to follow his father. As a result the ruling family, which had previously been known as the Mdungwa, now became the Mahlangu. The last of these events probably took place in the latter part of the mid-eighteenth century.

Mahlangu was succeeded by his son Phaswana, who was followed in his turn by Maridili, who was followed in rapid order by his four sons, Mdalanyana, Mgwezana, Dzele and Mxabule. The last, Mxabule, was murdered by his nephew Magodongo, the son of his older brother Mgwezana, who then became head of the Ndzundza. In 1823 the amaKumalo under Mzilikazi invaded the highveld, and in about 1825 they attacked the Ndzundza, burning their capital at Mnyamana, and killing Magodongo together with all his sons from his Right-hand House. The remnants of the Ndzundza fled from Mnyamana under the leadership of Mabhogo, a younger son of Magodongo and the only survivor of his Left-hand House, and settled at Namashaxelo, near the site of the latter-day Boer village of Roossenekal. At this time Mabhogo, who ruled until 1865, entered into an alliance with the neighbouring Pedi chief Malewa, and it seems probable that the alterations in Ndebele material culture can be dated from this time onwards.

In 1847 Mabhogo was visited for the first time by groups of disaffected Dutch farmers from the Cape, better known as Voortrekkers, who rapidly came to know the Ndebele as either the Mapog, Mapogga, Mapoers, Mapoch or M'pogga. Although most Ndebele today find this form of address derogatory, many South Africans sadly still persist with this form of address.

Almost from the onset sporadic skirmishes began to take place between these new immigrants, or Boers as they became known, and the Ndebele-Pedi alliance, who actively resisted the incursions which they were beginning to make upon their ancestral lands. In 1864 the alliance was attacked, and defeated, by a Swazi force acting at the instigation of the Boers, leaving the Dutch in the rear-guard to conduct a simple mopping-up operation of survivors. Soon thereafter, in 1865, Mabhogo died, leaving the Ndebele to sort out a complex and bitter inheritance struggle. As a result Ndebele leadership passed to the Masilela family. Soqaleni ruled until 1873, followed by Xobongo, a tyrant who ruled until 1879, when he was succeeded by Nyabele.

Last updated : 24-Jun-2011

This article was produced for South African History Online on 03-Apr-2011