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South Africa


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.

Data as of May 1996

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