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Today the term Ndebele (pronounced in-da-bey-lee) is usually used to refer to one of the smallest groups of people (about 800,000) living in Southern Africa and belonging to the larger group of Nguni peoples which also includes the Zulu, Swazi and Xhosa.


The Ndebele have a very tumultuous history, fraught with battles and many great movements from one area of Southern Africa to another. Most can trace their ancestry back to the area that became Natal Province and later KwaZulu-Natal.It is presumable that they arrived in the Transvaal area of South Africa in about the 15th or 16th century from Natal, in order to try and live a peaceful existence with other, larger groups of Nguni people.

Once they had become settled in the Pretoria area by the mid 1600's their population began to grow rapidly. However things did not go well for long, their king Musi died and a feud broke out between his sons Manala and Ndzundza. This led to many fights between supporters of the two and many people were killed. Finally they decided to live apart, the Manala tribe(consisting of Manala and his followers) in the Pretoria area and the Ndzundza tribe(Ndzundza himself as well as his supporters) further east.

In the 1820's Mzilikazi, a Zulu general, fled from Shaka Zulu with his army. This army over-powered the Manala and then decided to settle down there as rulers of them. It didn't take long for Mzilikazi to became afraid that because they were in one place Shaka would send an army after him. However he did not want to leave his newly gained peoples, nor could he attempt to move them all. He devised a wicked plan to lure all the Ndebele men away, he then got his army together and killed them. Taking only the women and livestock(both of which are considered most important to a tribe) he moved northwards until he finally settled in Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. That is why there are Ndebele in Zimbabwe, still to this day in-fact. This drastically reduced the number of Ndebele speakers in South Africa, leaving only a few Manala and the Ndzundza behind.

When the Boers settled north of the Vaal River in the early 19th centaury many Ndebele's became employed as farm workers. As more of them began to live on the farms their cultural heritage became marginalized. It was only the communities in the south that managed to preserve their traditions. This made many of the people angry, they were angry at the farmers for exploiting them and angry at their own people for how easily they were letting themselves be taken-over. However at the same time the Ndzundza in the south were involved in many battles with the Pedi people under the rule of Sekhukhune. Many of the Ndebele had become formidable warriors and the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek(Z.A.R) became concerned about this as they did not want tribal hostilities affecting their land. This, in conjunction with the hostile feelings of the Ndebele towards the Afrikaans resulted in conflict.

In the time between 1875 and 1882 there were several battles with the white rulers of the then Transvaal Republic which simply resulted in an even greater reduction in the number of Ndebele. After they were defeated in 1882, the Z.A.R were determined to make sure they could never be in power. They settled their own farmers on the chiefs land and the Ndebeles were then forced to work and live on farms over a large and dispersed area which, as well as destroying their traditions further also destroyed their sense of cultural identity and pride. Those in the north were particularly affected and over time began to adopt the Sotho language and many other traits of both other tribes and the Afrikaaners themselves. The Afrikaans leader Paul Kruger put many of the leaders and chiefs in jail and many of the people who could not be used as slaves on the farms were forced to move. Thus, within just a few years all Ndebele people were scattered in small groups around the country with very little to hold them together. Later, some of the seized land was given back to leaders as a reward for loyal service.

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

Finally, in 1981, KwaNdebele was declared a "self-governing" territory. However, very few of its 300,000 residents could find jobs in the homeland, so most had to go and find work in the industrial region of Pretoria and Johannesburg. By this time at least 500,000 Ndebele people lived in urban centers throughout South Africa and in homelands other than KwaNdebele. 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 troubled though, and divided over economic issues and the question of "independence" for the homeland. These disputes were overridden by the dissolution of the homelands in 1994.


The Ndebele tribe of Southern Africa is divided into four sub-tribes, of which two of these, the Manala and the Ndzundza live mainly in the Pretoria and Mpumalanga area of South Africa. Although the Ndebele originally formed part of the Nguni, today the Ndebele is a unique tribe with a unique language, isiNdebele, which is not even understood by most other black tribes. It is estimated that in both urban and rural areas there are about 800,000 Ndebele people in South Africa and nearly 1.7 million Ndebele living in Zimbabwe, where they constitute about one-sixth of the population and are sometimes known as Matabele. There were also thought to be about 300,000 in Botswana.


The Ndebele language is called isiNdebele, although it also sometimes known as just Ndebele, South Ndebele or isiKhethu. It is classified among the Nguni languages(Zulu, Swazi, Xhosa, isiNdebele), although Sotho influences are so strong in some areas that isiNdebele is sometimes also classified as a variant of seSotho. The type of the language spoken depends mostly on what area of the country you are in. In South Africa there are two main variants, Ndebele is usually found in the north while in the south you often find the languages amaNala and amaNzunza which are related to the Ndebele people of Zimbabwe - the amaNdebele/Matabele. In Botswana it is usually just called Ndebele. The Ndebele spoken in Zimbabwe is much closer to Zulu than the kind that is spoken in South Africa which is much closer to Swazi. isiNdebele's official classification according to the 2000 Unesco World Language Report is as follows.

Family: Bantu (Ntu) Language Family
Group: South Eastern Bantu (Ntu)
Subgroup: Nguni (Zunda Subgroup)

VARIETIES: Manala and Ndzundza (or Nzunza).

SPEAKERS: 586 961 people use isiNdebele as their home language in South Africa. (Census details)

Because the Ndebele have for such a long time been such a small group of people, their language has never been taken that seriously and has never been taught in schools, nor is there an official orthography. This is part of the reason why the language is sometimes grouped in such differing ways, grouped together with many other Southern African languages despite the fact that it is usually not understood at all by most of the other tribal groups. Some believe the language to be in danger of extinction as many of today's Ndebele children learn to speak Northern Sotho instead and adults find it not in common use. However, it is not lost. When the apartheid government created the homeland of KwaNdebele many groups of people who had been widely distributed were brought back together. Many cultural practices came back to life and a stronger identity began to reform. One of things that appeared was Radio Ndebele. After the fall of the apartheid government the radio station kept going but changed it's name to Ikhwekhwezi(Star). The stations coverage has expanded to include the whole Northern Ndebele region - keeping the language alive, and keeping it's feel and flavour - albeit with a few Sotho and Afrikaans works creeping in.

Art and Culture

Despite being one of the smallest groups in the region, the Ndebele are often the most quickly recognized and most distinctive of all the peoples. They have long been famous for their decorative art skills that include both painting and beadwork and can be spotted from a far distance. Traveling through the Transvaal landscape one can always spot an Ndebele homestead by it's very brightly painted walls.

Ndebele social structure is patriarchal, with descent traced through senior men, and access to the spirit world is through male ancestors. Women, even when they marry and are socially incorporated into their husbands' families, have limited status. Nonetheless it is women who have been the practitioners of the artistic forms which are such striking Ndebele cultural markers. The tradition that house-plastering and painting is a woman's job dates back to the very beginnings of the tribe. The houses are usually plastered in a mixture of dung and grass which dries and hardens in the sun. Paint was made from what could be found in the environment. Water and different types of soil and vegetation were used to make the paint and pigments were used to make the brightest colours possible. For example, egg yolk was often used to make yellow pigment. The walls are usually painted white first and then bold designs are painted around the building from the ground to about half-way up the wall. Surrounding structures are often also painted in this manner. The designs are usually large, block style, geometric shapes. It is believed this was influenced by their interaction with European settlers, it may have been different before but there is no documentation to prove either way. However the prevalence of letters from the Latin alphabet copied onto walls does tend to show that this may be the case, at least to some degree. The pictures often abstractly depict things in everyday life, but the shapes used as well as the colours also reflect the family's social status. Today the art still looks very much the same and has the same meaning, however it is very common for the women to use P.V.A paint brought in the towns instead of making it.

The other most common art form is beadwork. Clothing is decorated with beads, and sometimes even formed entirely from beads. In the past things such as seeds and certain types of stone were used. All clothing was decorated in some way, everyday items would just have small embellishments while ceremonial clothes could consist entirely of beaded structures. Today it is much more common for the women to use glass or plastic beads. Women have different beaded outfits that represent all stages of life. The clothes are usually made by a mother or grand-mother and given as gifts at important rites of passage. The style and colours of the clothing represent different times of a women's life and are used to show her social standing. They are used to tell every story, from infancy to death. These are the most important ones:

GHABI: A loin cloth of twisted fiber and beadwork. Worn by young girls.
PEPETU: A stiff, beaded apron. Worn by young maidens. It also indicates that the girl is ready for marriage.
JOCOLO: The initial symbol of married status. The bride's mother-in-law makes her a 5-paneled beaded wedding apron, the jocolo.
MAPOTO: A large beaded apron, indicating married status. The style of the apron would symbolize whether or not she has born a child in wedlock and her status as a parent.
NYOGA: A snakelike veil or train which forms part of the bridal costume and makes a snakelike motion on the ground as the bride dances.
SIYAYA: Long strips of colorful beads which fit over the head symbolizing "tears" and worn by the mother during her son's initiation in Wela.

As well as beading clothing, one of the oldest and most revered practices is that of making beaded dolls. The dolls are usually symbolic representations of the person they will be given too. Thus, the clothes on the doll and the colours used say something about the reason why it is being made and given to a woman. The dolls are ornamental, and are meant to be kept in the home of the recipient to watch over them and ensure them a blessed journey through that stage of life. There are 7 main types of dolls:

Ndebele Bride Doll: This doll wears Jocolo - the traditional dress of a bride.
Ndebele Ceremonial Doll: This doll would be placed outside a young-woman's hut by a suitor thus indicating his intention to propose marriage to her.
Ndebele Fertility Doll: Fertility is very important to the tribe and as such, this is one of the most important dolls a young woman can be given. The doll is made in secret by the bride's maternal grandmother and is given to her when she enters her new hut after the wedding ceremony. The doll will watch over the husband and wife and guide them to having many healthy children, however, after the third child is born the doll must be given away or destroyed.
Ndebele Linga Koba Doll: Every four years, hundreds of Ndebele boys spend two winter months in a secret place in the mountains undergoing the Wela, their initiation from boyhood to manhood. During this time the mother would wear her Siyaya and is given this doll as comfort. 'Linga Koba' means 'long tears' because a mother will cry from the sadness of loosing her boy and the joy of gaining a man.
Ndebele Initiation Doll: This doll wears the Mapoto - the dress of a married woman and is given to her at the birth of her first child.
Ndebele Maiden Doll: The doll signifies that a girl has undergone her puberty rites and is now available for marriage. A beaded black hoop around the waist indicates that she is engaged to be married.
Ndebele Angel Doll: This doll can be given to anyone that needs to be watched over. The angel will look over it's owner and bring peace, prosperity and good health.

Beadwork ornaments are worn by all Ndebele woman and some men on and around the head, neck, waist, arms and legs, and vary according to the age and status of the wearer, and prevailing fashion. The use of certain beadwork ornaments is much more permanant than most items of clothing. The beaded ring, isigolwana, is made on the body of the wearer and can not be removed easily. Young unmarried girls wear a thick neck-ring as well as rings on the arms, legs and waist, which can be worn by older women as well. These rings have a foundation of grass and sometimes cloth, and are entirely bound with a single length of beads or with a fabric of beadwork, making them totally ridged.

There are other art forms carried out, but usually just for decorative purposes - they do not have as much meaning. Today woman use all sorts of things in their art-work and on their houses. As well as moving toward synthetic beads and paint they also use things such as bottle-tops, wire and car license plates to decorate. While some outsiders have seen this use of paint and plastic as a degradation of the culture and a symbol of how the larger society is overtaking smaller cultural practices, the women of the villages claim to love the opportunities that the new materials have afforded them. Because most of the villages are very rural and there are none, or at best, only a few job opportunities, the women often use their craft skills as a means of making a small independent income. Their beaded art is often sold at market, or to tourists and dealers.

One of the most important Ndebele centers is just a few kilometers north of the town of Middleburg, South Africa. It is the museum village of Botshabelo. This is a long-standing Ndebele village that has become declared a Heritage site. It aims to protect and promote Ndebele culture and art as well as the people who live there. It's a fantastic place to visit - if you're ever in the area.

This was brought to you in conjunction with The Great Grand E2 Artifact Exchange

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