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South Africa


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.


At least 7 million Sotho (also BaSotho) people who speak seSotho and related languages live in South Africa. Another 3 million Sotho and closely related people live in neighboring countries. The diverse Sotho population includes the Northern Sotho (Pedi), the Southern Sotho, and the Tswana (BaTswana), each of which is itself a heterogeneous grouping.

Ancestors of today's Sotho population migrated into the region in the fifteenth century, according to historians, probably from the area of the northern Transvaal. Like many neighboring Nguni peoples, the Sotho traditionally relied on a combination of livestock raising and crop cultivation for subsistence. Most Sotho were herders of cattle, goats, and sheep, and cultivators of grains and tobacco. In addition, the Sotho were skilled craftsmen, renowned for their metalworking, leatherworking, and wood and ivory carving.

Also like the Nguni, most Sotho lived in small chiefdoms, in which status was determined in part by relationship to the chief. Unlike the Nguni, Sotho homesteads were grouped together into villages, with economic responsibilities generally shared among village residents. Villages were divided into wards, or residential areas, often occupied by members of more than one patrilineal descent group.

The village chief--a hereditary position--generally appointed ward leaders, whose residences were clustered around the chief's residence. Sotho villages sometimes grew into large towns of several thousand people. Farmland was usually outside the village, not adjacent to the homestead. This village organization may have enabled the Sotho villagers to defend themselves more effectively than they could have with dispersed households, and it probably facilitated control over ward leaders and subjects by the chief and his family.

Sotho villages were also organized into age-sets, or groups of men or women who were close in age. Each age-set had specific responsibilities--men organized for warfare and herding, depending on age-set, and women for crop cultivation and religious responsibilities. An entire age-set generally graduated from one task to the next, and the village often celebrated this change with a series of rituals and, in some cases, an initiation ceremony.

Sotho descent rules were important, even though descent groups did not form discrete local groups. Clans were often totemic, or bound to specific natural objects or animal species by mystical relationships, sometimes involving taboos and prohibitions. Major Sotho clans included the Lion (Taung), Fish (Tlhaping), Elephant (Tloung), and Crocodile (Kwean) clans.

Both Nguni and Sotho peoples reckoned descent through patrilineal ties, but their marriage rules differed markedly. Sotho patrilineages were usually endogamous--i.e., the preferred marriage partner would be a person related through patrilineal descent ties. Nguni patrilineages, in contrast, were exogamous--marriage within the descent group was generally forbidden.

By the early twentieth century, Sotho villages were losing their claims to land, largely because of pressure from whites. Cattle raising became more difficult, and as Western economic pressures intensified, Sotho people living in Lesotho and in South Africa increasingly turned to the mines for work. By the early 1990s, an estimated 100,000 BaSotho worked in South Africa's mines, and many others were part of South Africa's urban work force throughout the country.

Data as of May 1996

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