Ndebele people


Ndebele / Amandebele / Ndzundza / Manala / Mapoggers

A) THE NORTHERN NDBELE people are a Nguni ethnic group native to Southern Africa. Significant populations of native speakers of the Northen Ndebele language (siNdebele) are found in South Africa and in Zimbabwe.

The Northen Ndebele people have a global population of 2,078,000 distributed in 3 countries: (Peoplegroups.org, 2023)

The Northern Ndebele language spoken in Zimbabwe by the Northern Ndebele people of Zimbabwe, is the same as the Southern Ndebele language spoken by the Southern Ndebele people of South Africa. They both speak a common Nguni language that is heavily influenced by the Zulu-Ntungwa dialect (Zulu language), which is also a constitute of their mutual language.

However, the siNdebele dialect of the Northern Ndebele has some slight variations from its Southern Ndebele counterpart due to geo-specific influences such as the use of loan words, expressions and pronunciation standards from the Kalanga language and the Shona language.


B) THE SOUTHERN NDEBELE people. AmaNdebele are an ethnic group native to South Africa who speak isiNdebele. They mainly inhabit the provinces of Mpumalanga, Gauteng and Limpopo, all of which are in the northeast of the country. In academia this ethnic group is referred to as the Southern Ndebele to differentiate it from their relatives maNdrebele who in turn are referred to as Northern Transvaal Ndebele or Sumayela Ndebele by academia, and not to be confused with the Northern Ndebele people of Zimbabwe. The Southern Ndebele people are found in:

Ndebele People


History and Cultural Relations

It is still unclear when and how the Ndebele parted from the main Nguni-speaking migration along the eastern part of southern Africa. Oral history suggests an early (c. late 1500) settlement in the interior, to the immediate north of present-day Pretoria, under a founder ruler called Musi. A succession struggle among Musi's sons is a probable explanation for the twofold split in clans and the resultant two main tribal categories, Ndzundza and Manala. The twofold split resulted in clans associating themselves with one of the two groups. The majority of clans followed Ndzundza, who migrated to KwaSimkhulu, approximately 200 kilometers east of present-day Pretoria. The numerically smaller Manala occupied the areas called Ezotshaneni, KoNonduna, and Embilaneni, which include what are today the eastern suburbs of Pretoria.

The Ndzundza chieftaincy is believed to have extended its boundaries along the Steelpoort (Indubazi) River catchment area between the 1600s and early 1800s. Several of these settlement sites (KwaSimkhulu, KwaMaza, and Esikhunjini) are known through oral history and are currently under archaeological investigation.

Both the Ndzundza and Manala chiefdoms were almost annihilated by the armies of Mzilikzazi's Matebele (Zimbabwean Ndebele) around 1820. The Manala in particular suffered serious losses, but the Ndzundza recovered significantly under the legendary Mabhoko, during the 1840s. He revolutionized the Ndzundza settlement pattern by building a number of impenetrable stone fortresses and renamed the tribal capital KoNomtjharhelo (later popularly known as Mapoch's Caves). During the middle 1800s, the Ndzundza developed into a significant regional political and military force.

They soon had to face the threat of White colonial settlers, with whom they fought in 1849, 1863, and, finally, in 1883, during the lengthy Mapoch War against the ZAR forces. The latter's tactic of besiegement forced the famine-stricken Ndzundza to capitulate. They lost their independence, their land was expropriated, the leaders were imprisoned (Chief Nyabela to life imprisonment), and all the Ndebele were scattered as indentured laborers for a five-year (1883-1888) period among White farmers. The Manala chiefdom was not involved in the war and had previously (1873) settled on land provided by the Berlin Mission, some 30 kilometers north of Pretoria, at a place the Manala named KoMjekejeke (Wallmannsthal).

Chief Nyabela Mahlangu was released after the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) in 1903 and died soon afterward. His successor tried fruitlessly in 1916 and 1918 to regain their tribal land. Instead, the royal house and a growing number of followers privately bought land in 1922, around which the Ndzundza-Ndebele reassembled. Within the framework of the bantustan or homeland system in South Africa, the Ndebele (both Manala and Ndzundza) were only allowed to settle in a homeland called KwaNdebele in 1979. This specific land, climate, and soil was entirely alien to them.

Ndebele People



Precolonial Ndebele homesteads (imizi ) were organized along three-generational patrilinear agnatic lines. It seems that these might have extended into large localized lineages (iikoro ) under the social and ritual leadership of the senior male member. During and after the indentured period, the three-generational homestead remained popular despite restrictions in size and number imposed by White landlords. The homestead consists of a number of houses (izindlu ) representing various households and centered around a cattle enclosure (isibaya). Other structures in the homestead include the boys' hut (ilawu ), various smaller huts for girls behind each house (indlu ), and granaries. Each house complex was separated from the other by an enclosure called the isirhodlo. This enclosure was subdivided along gender lines into a men's section in the front and a domestic (cooking) area (isibuya) at the back.

Precolonial Ndebele structures were of the thatched beehive-dome type. Since the late 1800s, Ndebele have adopted a cone-on-cylinder type, consisting of mud walls and a thatched roof, while simultaneously reverting to a linear outlay, replacing the circular-center cattle pattern. In the current rural settlement pattern, the nuclear-family single house built on a square stand predominates, occasionally with provision for two or more extra buildings. A wide range of modern building material and designs have been introduced, including modern services and infrastructure.



Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The precolonial Ndebele were a cattle-centred society, but they also kept goats. The most important crops, even today, are maize, sorghum, pumpkins, and at least three types of domesticated green vegetables (umroho ). Since farm-laborer days, crops such as beans and potatoes have been grown and the tractor has substituted for the cattle-drawn plow, although the latter is still commonly used. Pumpkins and other vegetables are planted around the house and tilled with hoes. Cattle (now in limited numbers), goats, pigs, and chickens (the most prevalent) are still common.

Industrial Arts. Present crafts include weaving of sleeping mats, sieves, and grain mats; woodcarving of spoons and wooden pieces used in necklaces; and the manufacturing of a variety of brass anklets and neck rings. Since precolonial times, Ndebele are believed to have obtained all pottery from trading with Sotho-speaking neighbors. The Tshabangu clan reportedly introduced the Ndebele to blacksmithing.

Trade. Archaeologists believe that societies such as that of the Ndebele formed part of the wider pre-nineteenth century trade industry on the African east coast and had been introduced to consumer goods such as tobacco, cloth, and glass beads. Historians such as Delius (1989) believe that a large number of firearms reached the Ndzundza-Ndebele during the middle 1800s.

Division of Labor. In a pastoral society such as that of the Ndebele, men attended to animal husbandry and women to horticultural and agricultural activities except when new fields (amasimu ) are cleared with the help of men who join in a communal working party called an ijima. Even male social age status is defined in terms of husbandry activities: a boy who herds goats (umsana wembuzana ), a boy who herds calves (umsana wamakhonyana ), and so forth. Men are responsible for the construction and thatching of houses, women for plastering and painting of walls. Teenage girls are trained by their mothers in the art of smearing and painting. Even today girls from an early age (approximately 5 or 6) assist their mothers in the fetching of water and wood, making fire, and cooking. Female responsibilities have arduously increased in recent years with the increase in permanent and temporary male and female labor migrants to urban areas. It is calculated that some 80 percent of rural KwaNdebele residents are labor migrants.

Land Tenure. Land was tribal property; portions were allocated to individual families by the chief and headmen as custodians, under a system called ukulotjha, with the one-time payment of a fee that also implied allegiance to the political ruler of the area. Grazing land was entirely communal. The system of traditional tenure still applies in the former KwaN-debele, except in certain urban areas where private ownership has been introduced. In South Africa, Black people could never own land; the Ndzunzda-Ndebele's land was expropriated in 1883, when they became labor tenants on White-owned farms. Most Ndzunzda-Ndebele exchanged free labor for the right to build, plant, and keep a minimum of cattle. Since the formation of the KwaNdebele homeland, traditional tenure, controlled by the chief, has been reintroduced.

The last born son inherits the land, but married sons often build adjacent to their natal homesteads, if space allows it. In certain rural areas (e.g., Nebo), this form of extended three-generational settlement is still intact.



Kin Groups and Descent. On the macro level, Ndebele society is structured into approximately eighty patrilineal exogamous clans (izibongo ), each subdivided into a variety of subclans or patrilineages (iinanzelo or iikoro ). Totems of animals and objects are associated with each clan. The three- to four-generational lineage segment (i aro ) is of functional value in daily life (e.g., ritual and religion, socioeconomic reciprocity); it is composed of various residential units (homesteads) (imizi).

Kinship Terminology. Classificatory kinship applies, and with similar terms in every alternate generation—for example, grandfathers and grandsons (obaba omkhulu ). Smaller distinctions are drawn between own father (ubaba ), father's elder brothers (abasongwane ), and his younger brothers (obaba omncane ), although all these men on the same generation level may be called ubaba.


Marriage and Family

Marriage. Polygyny has almost disappeared. Bride-wealth consists of cattle and/or money (ikhazi ). Marital negotiations between the two sets of families are an extended process that includes the stadial presentation of six to eight cattle and may not be finally contracted until long after the birth of the first child. Marital residence is virilocal, and new brides (omak jothi ) are involved in cooking, beadwork, and even the rearing of other small children of various households in the homestead. Brides have a lifelong obligation to observe the custom of ukuhlonipha or "respect" for their fathers-in-law (e.g., physical avoidance, first-name taboo). A substitute wife (umngenandlu or ihlanzi ), in case of infertility, was still common in the 1960s. In case of divorce, witchcraft accusation, and even infidelity, a woman is forced to return to her natal homestead. Currently, wealthy women with children often marry very late or stay single. Fathers demand more bride-wealth for educated women. Both urban and rural Ndebele weddings nowadays involve a customary ceremony (ngesikhethu ) as well as a Christian ceremony.

Marriages were only concluded between members of different clans, that is between individuals who did not have the same clan name. However, a man could marry a woman from the same family as his paternal grandmother. The prospective bride was kept secluded for two weeks before the wedding in a specially made structure in her parents' house, to shield her from men's eyes. When the bride emerged from her seclusion, she was wrapped in a blanket and covered by an umbrella that was held for her by a younger girl (called Ipelesi) who also attended to her other needs. On her marriage, the bride was given a marriage blanket, which she would, in time, adorn with beadwork, either added to the blanket's outer surface or woven into the fabric. After the wedding, the couple lived in the area belonging to the husband's clan. Women retained the clan name of their fathers but children born of the marriage took their father's clan name.

Domestic Unit. The traditional Ndebele homestead (umuzi ), based on agnatic kinship and intergenerational ties, consists of several households. Apart from the nuclear household, the three-generational household along agnatic lines still seems to be the prevalent one among rural Ndebele. Married sons of the founder household head still prefer to settle adjacent to the original homestead, provided that building space is available. A single household may be composed of a man, his wife and children (including children of an unmarried daughter), wives and children of his sons, and a father's widowed sister.

Inheritance. Although the inheritance of land and other movable and immovable household assets are negotiated within the homestead as a whole, Ndebele seem to subscribe to the custom of inheritance by the youngest son (the upetjhana ).

Socialization. The three-generational household enhances intergenerational contact; the absence of migrant mothers and fathers necessitates that grandparents care for children. Contemporary Ndebele households are essentially matrifocal, and children interact with their fathers and elder male siblings only over weekends.


Personal adornment

Ndebele women traditionally adorned themselves with a variety of ornaments, each symbolising her status in society. After marriage, dresses became increasingly elaborate and spectacular. In earlier times, the Ndebele wife would wear copper and brass rings around her arms, legs and neck, symbolising her bond and faithfulness to her husband, once her home was built. She would only remove the rings after his death. The rings (called idzila) were believed to have strong ritual powers. Husbands used to provide their wives with rings; the richer the husband, the more rings the wife would wear. Today, it is no longer common practice to wear these rings permanently. In addition to the rings, married women also wore neck hoops made of grass (called isirholwani) twisted into a coil and covered in beads, particularly for ceremonial occasions. Linrholwani are sometimes worn as neckpieces and as leg and arm bands by newly wed women whose husbands have not yet provided them with a home, or by girls of marriageable age after the completion of their initiation ceremony (ukuthomba). Married women also wore a five-fingered apron (called an itjhorholo) to mark the culmination of the marriage, which only takes place after the birth of the first child. The marriage blanket (untsurhwana) worn by married women was decorated with beadwork to record significant events throughout the woman's lifetime. For example, long beaded strips signified that the woman's son was undergoing the initiation ceremony and indicated that the woman had now attained a higher status in Ndebele society. It symbolised joy because her son had achieved manhood as well as the sorrow at losing him to the adult world. A married woman always wore some form of head covering as a sign of respect for her husband. These ranged from a simple beaded headband or a knitted cap to elaborate beaded headdresses (amacubi). Boys usually ran around naked or wore a small front apron of goatskin. However, girls wore beaded aprons or beaded wraparound skirts from an early age. For rituals and ceremonies, Ndebele men adorned themselves with ornaments made for them by their wives.


Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. In precolonial times, Ndebele clan organization seemed to have been hierarchical in terms of duration of alliance to the ruling clans, Mahlangu for Ndzundza and Mabhena for the Manala. This pattern pervaded the entire political system.

Political Organization. Tribal political power is in the hands of the ruling clan and royal lineage, Mgwezane Mahlangu (among the Ndzundza) and Somlokothwa Mabhena (among the Manala). In the case of the Ndzundza, the paramount (called Ingewenyama), the royal family, and the tribal council (ibandla ) together make political decisions to be implemented by regional headmen (amaduna or amakosan) over a wide area, including the former KwaNdebele, rural areas outside KwaNdebele, and urban (township) areas. The headmen system includes more than one hundred such men of whom the greater portion are amakosana, or men of royal (clan) origin. Certain of these headmen were elevated to the status of subchiefs (amakosi).

There is currently a national political debate as to whether headmen, chiefs, paramounts, and kings like these will in future be stipended by local or central government.

Social Control. Traditionally, criminal and civil jurisdiction were vested in the tribal court. The latter still presides over regional disputes (i.e., those relating to land, cattle and grazing, and bride-wealth). All other disputes are forwarded to local magistrates in three districts in the former KwaNdebele.

Conflict. Except for the 1800s, the Ndebele as a political entity were not involved in any major regional conflicts, especially after 1883, when they lost their independence and had their land expropriated. Almost a century later, in 1986, they experienced violent internal (regional) conflict when a minority vigilante movement called Imbokodo (Grinding Stone) took over the local police and security system and terrorized the entire former homeland. In a surprising move, the whole population called on the royal house of Paramount Mabhoko for moral support, and, within weeks, the youth rid the area of that infamous organization. Royal leaders emerged as local heroes of the struggle.

Internal political and social structures. The authority over a tribe was vested in the tribal head (iKosi), assisted by an inner or family council (iimphakathi). Wards (izilindi) were administered by ward heads and the family groups within the wards were governed by the heads of the families. The residential unit of each family was called an umuzi. The umuzi usually consisted of a family head (unnumzana) with his wife and unmarried children. If he had more than one wife, the umuzi was divided into two halves, a right and a left half, to accommodate the different wives. An umuzi sometimes grew into a more complex dwelling unit when the head's married sons and younger brothers joined the household. Every tribe consisted of a number of patrilineal clans or izibongo. This meant that every clan consisted of a group of individuals who shared the same ancestor in the paternal line.


Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Nineteenth-century evangelizing activities by the Berlin Mission did little to change traditional Ndebele religion, especially that of the Ndzundza. Although the Manala lived on the Wallmannsthal mission station from 1873, they were in frequent conflict with local missionaries. Recent Christian and African Christian church influences spread rapidly, however, and most Ndebele are now members of the Zion Christian Church (ZCC), one of a variety of (African) Apostolic churches, or the Catholic church. Traditional beliefs were centered on a creator god, Zimu, and ancestral spirits (abezimu ).

Religious Practitioners. Disgruntled ancestral spirits cause illness, misfortune, and death. Traditional practitioners (iinyanga and izangoma ) act as mediators between the past and present world and are still frequently consulted. Sorcerers (abathakathi or abaloyi) are believe to use familiars like the well-known "baboon" midget (utikoloshe ), especially in cases of jealousy toward achievers in the community in general. Both women and men become healers after a prolonged period of internship with existing practitioners.

Medicine. Current medical assistance includes the simultaneous use and application of traditional cures and medicines and visits to local hospitals and clinics. Children are born with or without the assistance of modern maternity care.

Death and Afterlife. Death is attributed to both natural and supernatural causes. A period of night watch over the body precedes the funeral. Funerals reunite the homestead and family members and involve the recital of clan praises (iibongo ) at the grave and the slaughtering of animals at the deceased's homestead afterward. Today many Ndebele receive church burials. Widows are regarded as unclean; they may be ritually cleansed after many months or even a year. Traditionally, the deceased are buried at family grave sites, which are usually at the ruins of previous settlements and often far away from their homes. Nowadays, however, people are mostly buried at nearby cemeteries.



In Ndebele culture, the initiation rite, symbolising the transition from childhood to adulthood, plays an important role. Initiation schools for boys are held every four years and for girls, as soon as they get into puberty stage. During the period of initiation, relatives and friends come from far and wide to join in the ceremonies and activities associated with initiation. Boys are initiated as a group when they are about 18 years of age when a special regiment (iintanga) is set up and led by a boy of high social rank. Each regiment has a distinguishing name. Among the Ndzundza tribe there is a cycle of 15 such regimental names, allocated successively, and among the Manala there is a cycle of 13 such names.

Ceremonies. Initiation at puberty dominates ritual life in Ndebele society. Girls' initiation (iqhude or ukuthombisa ) is organized on an individual basis, within the homestead. It entails the isolation of a girl after her second or third menstruation in an existing house in the homestead, which is prepared by her mother. The weeklong period of isolation ends over the weekend, when as many as two hundred relatives, friends, and neighbors attend the coming-out ritual. The occasion is marked by the slaughtering of cows and goats, cooking and drinking of traditional beer (unotlhabalala ), song and dance, and the large-scale presentation of gifts (clothing and toiletries) to the initiate's mother and rather. In return, the initiate's mother presents large quantities of bread and jam to attendants. The notion of reciprocity is prominent. During the iqhude, women sing, dance, and display traditional costumes as the men remain spatially isolated from the courtyard in front of the homestead.

Male initiation (ingoma or ukuwela ), which includes circumcision, is a collective and quadrennial ritual that lasts two months during the winter (April to June). The notion of cyclical regimentation is prominent: initiates in the postliminal stage receive a regimental name from the paramount, and it is this name with which an Ndebele man identifies himself for life. The Ndzundza-Ndebele have a system of fifteen such names that are used over a period of approximately sixty years. The cycle repeats itself in strict chronological order. The Manala-Ndebele have thirteen names.

During initiation girls wear an array of colourful beaded hoops (called iinrholwani) around their legs, arms, waist and neck. The girls are kept in isolation and are prepared and trained to become homemakers and matriarchs. The coming-out ceremony marks the conclusion of the initiation school and the girls then wear stiff rectangular aprons (called iphephetu), beaded in geometric and often three-dimensional patterns, to celebrate the event. After initiation, these aprons are replaced by stiff, square ones, made from hardened leather and adorned with beadwork.

The numerical dimension of Ndebele male initiation is unparalleled in southern Africa. During the 1985 initiation, some 10,000 young men were initiated and, during 1993, more than 12,000. The ritual is controlled, installed, officiated, and administered by the royal house. It is decentralized over a wide area within the former KwaNdebele, in rural as well as urban (township) areas. Regional headmen (see "Political Organization") are assigned to supervise the entire ritual process over the two-month period, which involves nine sectional rituals at emphadwini (lodges in the field) and emzini (lodges at the homestead).



Ndebele art has always been an important identifying characteristic of the Ndebele. Apart from its aesthetic appeal it has a cultural significance that serves to reinforce the distinctive Ndebele identity. The Ndebele's essential artistic skill has always been understood to be the ability to combine exterior sources of stimulation with traditional design concepts borrowed from their ancestors. Ndebele artists also demonstrated a fascination with the linear quality of elements in their environment and this is depicted in their artwork. Painting was done freehand, without prior layouts, although the designs were planned beforehand.

The characteristic symmetry, proportion and straight edges of Ndebele decorations were done by hand without the help of rulers and squares. Ndebele women were responsible for painting the colourful and intricate patterns on the walls of their houses. This presented the traditionally subordinate wife with an opportunity to express her individuality and sense of self-worth. Her innovativeness in the choice of colours and designs set her apart from her peer group. In some instances, the women also created sculptures to express themselves.

The back and side walls of the house were often painted in earth colours and decorated with simple geometric shapes that were shaped with the fingers and outlined in black. The most innovative and complex designs were painted, in the brightest colours, on the front walls of the house. The front wall that enclosed the courtyard in front of the house formed the gateway (izimpunjwana) and was given special care. Windows provided a focal point for mural designs and their designs were not always symmetrical. Sometimes, makebelieve windows are painted on the walls to create a focal point and also as a mechanism to relieve the geometric rigidity of the wall design. Simple borders painted in a dark colour, lined with white, accentuated less important windows in the inner courtyard and in outside walls.

Contemporary Ndebele artists make use of a wider variety of colours (blues, reds, greens and yellows) than traditional artists were able to, mainly because of their commercial availability. Traditionally, muted earth colours, made from ground ochre, and different natural-coloured clays, in white, browns, pinks and yellows, were used. Black was derived from charcoal. Today, bright colours are the order of the day. As Ndebele society became more westernised, the artists started reflecting this change of their society in their paintings. Another change is the addition of stylised representational forms to the typical traditional abstract geometric designs. Many Ndebele artists have now also extended their artwork to the interior of houses. Ndebele artists also produce other crafts such as sleeping mats and isingolwani.

Iinrholwani (colourful neck hoops) are made by winding grass into a hoop, binding it tightly with cotton and decorating it with beads. In order to preserve the grass and to enable the hoop to retain its shape and hardness, the hoop is boiled in sugar water and left in the hot sun for a few days. A further outstanding characteristic of the Ndebele is their beadwork. Beadwork is intricate and time-consuming and requires a deft hand and good eyesight. This pastime has long been a social practice in which the women engaged after their chores were finished but today, many projects involve the production of these items for sale to the public.