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Nguni is the collective name for a major group of Bantu-speaking peoples belonging to the Negroid racial group of Africa living in the summer?rainfall areas between the Drakensberg and the Indian Ocean and along a broad belt from Swaziland through Natal southwards into the Transkei and Ciskei. The Northern Nguni comprise the Swazi, Zulu, and Ndebele peoples of the highveld; and the Southern Nguni include the Xhosa, Thembu, Bomvana, Mpondo and Mpondomise.

Source: Howcroft, P. unpublished South African Encyclopaedia papers.

Nguni culture and language

Their traditional material culture continues to exist, but many changes have taken place during the last two hundred years that have done much to alter it. New objects and materials have been introduced, mechanical transport has brought ease and speed of movement, wild animals and foods have become scarce, Christian missionaries have influenced clothing and taught new skills and white government has promulgated laws which have fundamentally changed the mode of living. Bearing in mind these accelerating changes, this page concerns their traditional culture.


The Nguni language group is divided into the zunda and the tekela sub-groups. The Zulu and Xhosa are the two largest written languages from the Zunda group of which a third written language, while Zimbabwean Ndebele is found in Zimbabwe. Under the tekela sub-group fall Swazi (siSwati), Northern Transvaal Ndebele (siNdebele), and the Bhaca of the Transkei; the difference between the two groups rests, among other things, on the use of the 'z' sound by the Zunda, and the use of the 't' sound in its stead by the Tekela, e.g. Zulu izimbuzi, but Swazi timbuti (goats). Xhosa is the written language of the southern Nguni of the Transkei and Ciskei. Zulu is the written language of the Northern Nguni of KwaZulu-Natal, the eastern Free State and southern Gauteng and southern Mpumalanga provinces. The Manala and Ndzundza Ndebele speak a Zunda dialect that is also influenced by Northern Sotho. The Nguni languages contain characteristic 'click sounds'. Their hlonipha (respect) terms, especially, contain many clicks signifying derivation from intermarriage with San and Khoi women.


Traditionally, they are nomadic herders and farmers, who originally lived in scattered homesteads comprising two to forty beehive huts. Each homestead was occupied by a man and his wives, unmarried daughters, his sons and their families, as well as others who attached themselves to their households. Most of the people in a particular area were descended from one common ancestor and regarded themselves as a clan. These loose communities of kinsmen formed a village under the leadership of a headman. A number of villages formed a chiefdom under an independent chief or, if it was a large area, it was subdivided under subordinate chieftains. The influence of each chief depended on his strength of personality, his system of justice and the number of his supporters.

Today the individual homestead of plastered cylinder and cone rondavel huts is characteristic of the dwellings found in rural areas throughout the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, and Swaziland. Beehive huts are still used by Xhosa initiates and may still be seen among the Ngwane and Swazi, who also favour ornamental reed fences to shelter the front door. Traditionally, the huts were situated on a slope, facing the rising sun, with the chief hut at the highest point. Huts were arranged in a semi-circle or in a circle round the cattle kraal usually fenced with brushwood, stone, aloes or sisal plants. The circular hearth was centrally placed. In the past, huts were very simply furnished with rolled reed sleeping mats, carved wooden headrests and possibly, a wooden stool for the headman. The meeting place of the men (inkundla) was between the main hut and the gate of the cattle kraal. The main granary was a pit under the cattle kraal. Baskets and platforms were also used. In rural areas all or some of these aspects of traditional culture may still be seen.

Animal husbandry

The possession of cattle still gives social status and they have innumerable terms for their cattle that they love. Apart from wealth, cattle fulfill a multiplicity of functions. Milk is used for the making of dairy products. Beef is occasionally eaten. Oxen are used as draught animals. Their hides are used for thongs, shields and articles of clothing. Beasts are used as payment of fines or as payment of bride?price (lobola). Cattle dung is used for fuel and as a binding agent for plastering walls and floors. Cattle are used extensively in important rituals and ceremonies. Traditionally, quality in cattle was less important than quantity, for owning many beasts was the symbol of wealth and status. They admired colour, markings and the shape of the horns more than the quantity of milk produced. As they had scant knowledge about cattle diseases, in times of cattle epidemics the Nguni relied on magic and ritual. Goats are also valued, but are less important mediums of exchange and usually fulfill the needs of common rituals and ceremonies. Their meat and milk is relished and their skins are made into clothing. Fowls are commonly kept. Pigs were a later introduction. In former times, the Cape Nguni and the Zulu did not eat fish.
Transport was mainly on foot. Women can still be seen carrying heavy loads upon their heads. In early times, men rode oxen and later they used triangular sledges drawn by oxen. These may still be seen in the more isolated rural areas. After their introduction, horses were used increasingly for riding where horse-sickness was not a problem. Donkeys have become increasingly useful pack animals.


Traditionally, the land belonged to the clan as a whole. The chief administered it and his headmen allocated it for individuals to use. Chiefs or headmen with their councillors allocated each man a residential plot and land for cultivation. If land was plentiful, a common grazing area was used. Most lands were some distance from the homestead, although most also kept vegetable gardens nearby as well. The Nguni originally used a wooden hoe but they now use iron hoes.


Sorghum, maize, pumpkins, gourds, beans, sweet potatoes and beans are widely grown and are the principal forms of subsistence. Though modern practices have wrought many changes in agricultural practice, to prevent harm from supernatural causes, magic and ceremonies are sometimes performed, when the ancestors are invoked to ensure rains and good crops.


The staple diet is maize, stamped or ground and sifted in a shallow basket. Food from the veld formed a high proportion of the general food supply in former times, but with overgrazing, this is no longer so plentiful. Food was cooked out of doors or in the centre of the hut. European traders introduced the three-legged iron cooking pot, which is now universally used. The Nguni used to serve porridge on woven mats, and meat in wooden dishes, but today manufactured crockery is commonly used. They still enjoy drinking sour milk and make nutritious sorghum beer.


In former times, clothing was made of skin, but today cotton and woollen blankets have taken over. In rural areas, occasionally some skin clothing is worn, especially for ceremonial occasions. Traditional clothing for women is a short, fringed, beaded apron of skin or cloth, a skirt, a cloak or wrap, and sometimes a breast covering. The shape of the skirt varies. The Zulu skirt is flared and full. The Xhosa, and Bhaca allow the small apron to show in front. The cloak is often widely flared and voluminous.

After missionaries began working among the Nguni, cloth replaced traditional materials and new styles developed, often influenced by nineteenth century missionary dress. In former times, Southern Nguni men wore a penis-sheath only; later a skin apron was added. Northern Nguni men wore a skin apron back and front, and a kilt of animal tails. Styles varied according to clan, age and status. Women wore their hair in different styles, some very elaborate. Warriors wore special head-dresses made out of crane feathers and loerie feathers. In a society where age was respected, the achievement of the isicoco, or head-ring was a status symbol. Diviners and herbalists adapted different costumes that varied from one locality to another. Cape Nguni initiates still wear reed costumes to hide their identity. The leopard skin cloak is still the mark of royalty.

The Xhosa, Thembu and other Cape Nguni groups use cosmetics such as fat, red ochre, soot, washing blue, and white clay for facial decoration. Cape Nguni boy initiates still paint themselves with white clay. Swazi men of the traditional chiefdoms still use aloe leaf and ash or soap to bleach their hair. (Detailed descriptions of customs, dress and adornment are included in the separate entries, e.g. Xhosa.)

Ritual Life

The most important part of their religious belief was, and among many still is, the ancestor cult. However, it is a mistake to say they worship their ancestors. They believe in a Creator, one who is impersonal, and they believe that the ancestors are spirits who take a lively interest in their lives and are able to influence events. They therefore make propitiatory offerings at all the important times during the life cycle -- birth, initiation marriage, death -- and at certain seasons; for war or rain-making; or if misfortune strikes.


Traditionally, the Nguni are vocalists and instrumentalists who favour rattles, reed flutes, whistles and horns. Apparently, they did not originally have drums, although they are widely used today. It is hard to understand their music if divorced from its close accompaniment, dance.


Pottery is the work of women; skin and leather working is the craft of men. Basketry (weaving and sewing) is still very widely used for a variety of needs such as mat weaving, strainers, hut walls, sledges and personal ornaments. Woodcarving was not as well developed as that found in Central, West, and East Africa, but many craftsmen and women in Southern Africa today make pots, bowls, and sculptural pieces to sell to tourists. Women still make beadwork.


In the past, poor people could attach themselves to a headman or chief. In return for services such as herding, building or fencing, a poor man would be given some calves in order to build up his own herds and thus improve his lot. Old and sick people were traditionally cared for by kinsmen or the clan.


Before their history could be recorded, the Mfecane occurred. (The North Sotho call this Difaqane, and the South Sotho, who pronounce 'L' as 'D' write it as Lifaqane.) It was a period of widespread bloodshed and famine. The aged, the repositories of oral history, were obliterated and with their deaths, traditions and culture of the period before the 1820s vanished. The rise of Zulu power in the 1820s created the Zulu-speaking Mfengu in the Cape, the Ngoni in Mozambique, the Transvaal Ndebele and the Ndebele nation of Zimbabwe.

Xhosa, Mpondo and other related Cape groups

The southernmost Nguni occupied the Transkei and Ciskei for centuries before the immigrant Mfengu, Bhaca, and other refugees arrived. In the east and north-east, the Xhosa chiefdoms include Thembu and Bomvana, among others. In the east towards the coast, live the Mpondo and Mpondomise. Xhosa-speakers today form 31.5% of the Nguni language group.

Mfengu and other Cape immigrants. With Shaka's rise to power, many groups fled across the Mzimkhulu River southwards. These included the Hlubi from Lesotho. Some refugees later returned. In 1835, some 16,000 Mfengu entered the Cape and were settled by Governor Benjamin D'Urban in the Peddie district. The governor looked to them for labour and for military support against the warring Xhosa chiefs. They were industrious and tended to settle around the Methodist missions where they became Christians and were trained in agriculture and other skills. By 1890, many had become diversified progressive commercial farmers who lived in western style brick houses furnished in the European manner.

Immigrants into the Eastern Cape

The Bhaca and Wushe Zulu-speaking tribes settled in the Mount Frere area and in the Ixopo, Harding and Bulwer districts of southern KwaZulu-Natal. The Xesibe settled around Mount Ayliff.


Historically, Zulu is the name (isibongo) of only one clan. But since the mighty upheavals that began in about 1815 with the rise of Shaka, many groups fled in all directions. The rule of Zulu kings created uniformity of custom and isiZulu became a widely used language. With the waning of Zulu power and the beginning of European colonization in southern Africa, some surviving fugitives managed to collect their clans together again, while others were absorbed or vanished. Today, well over 300 hundred Zulu-speaking chiefdoms exist whose populations range from as little as one hundred to as many as 50,000. They form 29.0 of the Nguni group.

The Ndebele of the highveld

Fearing a fall into disfavour, Shaka's ambitious warrior, Mzilikazi, trekked with his followers from Zululand. Moving north and north-west over the highveld, they destroyed or absorbed the weaker clans in their path, settling first near Pretoria, then at Zeerust. As he pillaged the Sotho villages, he rounded up the strong men and women, turning the men into army recruits and the women into concubines for his warriors. He crossed the Limpopo and established himself as ruler of the powerful Matabele tribe. White civilization later caused the collapse of Ndebele power but their language and culture survived. Today the southern and northern Ndebele of South Africa speak different dialects. The Northern Ndebele were originally Nguni, but today they are more like the Sotho (Tswana) because they considerably influence them. They live around Potgietersrust, in the Hammanskraal district, and along the Botswana border where they have adapted the Tswana language and culture. The Northern Ndebele comprise 0.6% of the Nguni group. The Southern Ndebele have clung to their customs and language. The senior chiefdom of the Southern Ndebele is the Manala group; the junior chiefdom is the Ndzundza (Mapoch). The Southern Ndebele trace their descent from Chief Msi who lived near Pretoria. They form 1.9 % of the Nguni group.

Nguni offshoots

Besides Mzilikazi, two other outstanding military commanders left Zululand to escape impending destruction by Shaka. Shoshangane led his followers away in 1820-21 and founded Gazaland in Mozambique. He conquered the Tsonga and took the forts at Delagoa Bay and Inhambane. The survivors were absorbed and became known as 'Shanganes' (amaChangane). Shoshangane died in 1856. The Portuguese conquered his son, Mzila. His descendants, the Shangane-Tsonga, migrated into the Bushbuckridge area of the lowveld bordering the Kruger National Park and many today live in the Northern Province, in Mpumalanga, and in Swaziland. Zwangendaba and Shoshangane clashed, causing Zwangendaba to trek north to Lake Malawi. Their descendants still speak a Zulu dialect.


Swaziland was occupied by Sotho-speakers until Shaka's depredations caused the Nguni migrations. In about the 1820s the 'Swazi' people became more unified with the rise of Chief Sobhuza I. The Swazi were not seriously affected by Shaka's attacks. Mswati (c. 1840-75) drove out the smaller and weaker Sotho clans and incorporated the remainder. He placated the Zulu while conducting his own campaigns to the north. The Boers and the Swazi established friendly relations until 1894 when a power struggle over Swaziland developed between the Boers and the British. After the Second Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, Swaziland became a British protectorate. The Swazi have never been subjugated by a foreign power and have retained their nationhood, despite European influence in Southern Africa. Some Zulu influence is felt in southern Swaziland. Southern Swazi clans speak the Tekeza (Thsefula) dialect and follow those customs. Many Swazis live outside the borders of Swaziland. The Swazi form 3% of the Nguni group.

Source: Howcroft, P. unpublished South African Encyclopaedia papers.

Last updated : 24-Mar-2014

This article was produced by South African History Online on 30-Mar-2011

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