Zulu people


Zulu / Amazulu

The Zulu, or also known as Amazulu, are a Bantu ethnic group of Southern Africa.

The Zulu are the largest ethnic group in South Africa with an estimated 10–12 million people living mainly in the province of KwaZulu-Natal.

The Zulu originated from Nguni communities who took part in the Bantu migrations. As the clans integrated together, the rulership of Shaka brought success to the Zulu nation due to his perfected military policies.

The Zulu take pride in their ceremonies such as the Umhlanga, or Reed Dance, and their various forms of beadwork. The art and skill of beadwork takes part in the identification of Zulu people and acts as a form of communication.

The men and women both serve different purposes in society in order to function as a whole. Today the Zulu predominately believe in Christianity, but have created a syncretic religion that is combined with the Zulu's prior belief systems.

Zulu people map



The language of the Zulu people is "isiZulu", a Bantu language; more specifically, part of the Nguni subgroup. Zulu is the most widely spoken language in South Africa, where it is an official language. More than half of the South African population are able to understand it, with over 9 million first-language and over 15 million second-language speakers. Many Zulu people also speak Afrikaans, English, Portuguese, Xitsonga, Sesotho and others from among South Africa's 11 official languages.

Zulu people



Traditionally, the Zulu economy depended upon cattle and a considerable amount of agriculture. Villages were economically self-sufficient. Agriculture was the sphere of women, whereas cattle were tended by the men. Crops grown were mealies, Kaffir maize, pumpkins, watermelons, calabashes, native sugar reeds, and various kinds of tubers and beans. Although there was considerable ritual and magic associated with agriculture, the most impressive agricultural ceremonial was the First Fruits ceremony. This was held late in December, and in it the king partook of the new crops. The ceremony also included a magical strengthening of the king and a general military review.

A man's wealth was counted in cattle. Cattle provided the mainstays of the diet (meat and amasi, a form of soured milk), hides for clothing and shields, as well as the means of acquiring wives through lobola, or bride-price. In addition, cattle had enormous ritual value. 

The Sacrifice of cattle was the central religious rite and the means of propitiating ancestors. Zulu life has changed substantially in modern South Africa. The Zulu like most rural black South Africans are poor. Traditional economic patterns do not generate adequate income. The women continue to remain at home and pursue subsistence agriculture. The men seek work in the cities, but because their educational achievements are commonly limited, the opportunities are commonly limited to low paying jobs. Cattle continue to be the primary symbol of wealth, although modern Zulus often have only a few herds. As a result, they now rarely slaughter cow for meat, but primarily for ritual purposes.

Commercial Activities. A dual economy of subsistence horticulture and a market economy was characteristic of the late nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century. This situation gradually changed when the Zulu were crowded onto insufficient land and forced to work for money in order to pay taxes.
The Zulu engage in small-scale trading as part of the informal sector to supplement the money that members of the household earn by working in cities and small towns. Few Zulu people engage in serious commercial activities. Professional jobs are the main avenue for economic development. Although horticulture is still practiced in rural areas, there is general dependence on the commercial market for food. Small-scale agriculture merely supplements a family's income.

Industrial Arts. The Zulu people's main economic activities have traditionally been horticulture and tending cattle and goats. The hoe is the main industrial implement, and the grinding stone was an important implement in the house, although its significance has been fading. Historically, the Zulu also engaged in hunting.
That is why they make izagila (knobkerries or assegais) and imikhonto (spears) of tremendous variety and artistic sophistication. Both of these hunting implements were also used in warfare. Sticks and knobkerries also were used in combat competitions organized as part of ceremonial dances. Women made a range of pottery goods used as cooking, storing, and eating utensils.
Those utensils are still made by those who have learned the trade and are sold in markets. However, cooking is done mostly in steel pots. Palm woven crafts such as baskets, mats, beer strainers, and vessel lids are made for commercial purposes.

Tightly woven Zulu baskets.  These hand woven African baskets are a true art form and are functional, beautiful and decorative as well as a testament to fine weaving skills.  Zulu baskets are considered some of the most collectible baskets in the world.  Master Zulu weavers are published and collected worldwide.
Zulu beadwork is now mainly made for tourists and specific ceremonies. In a few places traditional Zulu dress is still worn.

Zulu People




The creation of beadwork dates back to the times of war for the Zulu people. This particular form of beadwork were known as iziqu, medallions of war. Often worn as a necklace, the beads were displayed in a criss-cross formation across the shoulders. This assemblage of beads by the warriors represented a symbol of bravery. Before the use of glass was apparent to the Zulu, beadwork derived from wood, seeds and berries. It was not until the arrival of Europeans that glass became a trade material with the Portuguese, which soon became abundantly available to the Zulu.


Beadwork is a form of communication for the Zulu people. Typically when one is wearing multiple beads, it is a sign of wealth. The more beads one is wearing, the wealthier they are perceived. The beads have the potential to convey information about a person's age, gender and marital status. The design of the beads often conveys a particular message. However, one must know the context of their use in order to read the message correctly. Depending on the area in which the beadwork was made, some designs can depict different messages compared to other areas. A message could be embedded into the colors and structure of the beads or could be strictly for decorative purposes. Beadwork can be worn in everyday use, but is often worn during important occasions such as weddings, or ceremonies. For example, beadwork is featured during the coming of age for a young girl or worn during dances. The beaded elements complement the costumes worn by the Zulu people to bring out a sense of finery or prestige.


Beadwork is worn by all men, women, and children at any age. Depending on which stage of life an individual is in, the beadwork indicates different meanings. Beadwork is dominantly worn when young Zulu people are courting or in search for love affairs. The wearing of decorative beadwork can act as an attempt to grab the attention of someone of the opposite sex. Also, the gifting of beadwork is a way of communicating interest with lovers. During the transition from single to married women, beadwork is shown through a beaded cloth apron worn over a pleated leather skirt. As for older or mature women, beadwork is displayed in detailed headdresses and cowhide skirts that extend past the knee. These long skirts are also seen on unmarried women and young marriageable-age girls. Men are more conservative when wearing beadwork. Although, when young boys are seen wearing multiple necklaces, it is a sign that he is highly interested by these gifts from various girls. The more gifts he is wearing, the higher prestige he obtains.

Colors of Beads

Various forms of beadwork are found in different color schemes. Typically, there are four different types of color schemes:

The colors of beads might hold different meanings based on the area that they originated from. It is often at times that this can lead to misrepresentation or confusion when attempting to understand what the beadwork is communicating. One cannot assume that the color system is standard across South Africa. In some areas, the color green symbolizes jealousy in a certain area, but in another area it symbolizes grass. One must know the origin of the beadwork in order to interpret the message correctly.

Meaning of Symbols

The Zulu beadwork language is deceptively simple: it uses one basic geometric shape, the triangle, and seven basic colours. The triangle's 3 corners represent father, mother and child. A triangle pointing down represents and unmarried woman; pointing up it represents an unmarried man. Two triangles joined at their bases represented a married woman, while two triangles joined at their points, in an hourglass shape, represent a married man.

Zulu People



Zulus wear a variety of attire, both traditional for ceremonial or culturally celebratory occasions, and modern westernized clothing for everyday use. The women dress differently depending on whether they are single, engaged, or married. The men wore a leather belt with two strips of hide hanging down front and back.

In South Africa, the miniskirt has existed since pre-colonial times. In the African cultures, such as the Basotho, the Batswana, the Bapedi, the Amaswati and the AmaZulu, women wore traditional miniskirts as cultural attire. These skirts are not seen as shameless but used to cover the women's genitals. The skirts are called isigcebhezana and are essential in Zulu ceremonies. For example, Umemulo is a ceremony for women who turn 21 years of age. It represents a huge transition in the woman's life because it is a symbol of her being ready to accept a boyfriend and even get married. Additionally, each stage of a Zulu's life is determined by a specific type of clothing. For an unmarried woman, she wears the skirt and nothing on the top, but as she grows up, the woman starts to cover up her body because a time will come in which she will be a married woman and an old woman.

Nonetheless, a special type of clothing is reserved to pregnant women. When a woman is pregnant she wears an ‘isibamba', a thick belt made from dried grass, covered with glass or plastic beadwork, to support her swelling stomach and its additional weight.

Zulu people

Zulu People


Division of Labor

The division of labor within a household is mainly between men and women. Traditionally, men provided economic security for the household, protected the household, led ceremonial activities in the household, and did outside physical tasks such as tending livestock, building kraals, and building new houses. Men regard themselves as providers for their households, and to establish the status of a household head, employment is imperative. Women still do the horticultural activities in rural areas. Women are faced with the day-to-day running of the house, including cleaning, washing, cooking, fetching water, and child rearing. Women also take jobs in order to provide for the family's economic needs, but they have assure that the household routine is done either by themselves before and after work or by someone they employ.



Land Tenure

All land in "tribal areas" is under the control of a "chief who allocates land for residential purposes as well as for cultivation at a household head's request. Historically, "chief's" had full authority over the incorporation of people into their chiefdoms. However, their roles were fully absorbed into the colonial system, in which those roles were reduced to that of a tax collector; their land was taken away from them.

 The title chief is no longer acceptable among these traditional leaders because it evokes their subjugation under colonial rule as the "bossboys" of an oppressive regime. They prefer to be called by the Zulu alternativeamakhosi (singular, inkosi). People who live on farms and work for white farmers also have limited scope to practice subsistence agriculture for themselves because they work under controls and constraints that relate to their terms of rent and remuneration as farm workers. Urban Zulu dwellers live under various arrangements of rent, private ownership, and rate payments.


Kin Groups and Descent

Surnames are a symbol of identity for individuals and families. Surnames include praise names that reflect the interrelatedness of surnames and important occurrences in the history of the Zulu people. People with the same surname once belonged to the same localized clan.
At the beginning of the twentieth century this residential pattern changed drastically, but when people with the same surname meet for the first time, for example, at the airport in Johannesburg, they regard themselves as being related. Zulu people observe exogamy with immediate relatives of the mother's kin and with people who have the same surname as their mothers.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, nuclear families were the most common operational units of kin. Children depend on their parents as long as they are not married and are not economically independent. The extended family is important for economic assistance and on ritual and ceremonial occasions. Matrilineal kin are also vital and are expected to appear at important ceremonies involving a daughter or sister's children. Children born to unmarried women belong to the mothers' kin.

Zulu people


Kinship Terminology

Kinship terminology for the nuclear family includes the following terms: umama for mother, ubaba for father, udadewethu sister, umfowethu brother, undodakazi for daughter, and undodana son. This is the terminology sometimes used by people in recognition of their respective ages as they interact. In-laws use the same terms modified to indicate the affinal nature of the relationship.

Thus, for a young woman who has married into another household, her husband's mother is called her mamezala even though in her usual address she will call her mama. Her husband's father is ubabezala even though when addressing him she will call him baba. Other terms of respect to refer to a sister/sister-in-law and a brother/brother-in-law aresisi and bhuti, respectively. These terms may have originated from other languages, but they are popularly used as a sign of respect for people one does not want to mention categorically by name. Cousins call each other mzala or gazi, with the latter term being used mostly among parallel cousins related through their mothers.

 One's father's brother is called bab'omkhulu or bab'omncane, depending on whether he is older or younger than one's father. One's father's sister is called babekazi although the English derived anti gained in popularity at the beginning of the twentieth century. On the mother's side, one's mother's sisters are calledmam'khulu or mam'ncane according to whether they are older or younger. The mother's brother is calledmalume. The mother's brother calls his sister's child mshana. Male grandparents, whether patrilineal or matrilineal, are called ugogo for grandmother and umkhulu for grandfather. A man's in-laws are umukhwe for his wife's father, umkhwekazi for her mother, and umlamu or usibali for his wife's siblings.

Zulu People


Zulu passages of rites (initiation)

Ukwemula/ umemulo Ceremony
The Ukwemula ceremony takes place when a girl desires her marriageable state to be  formally  recognized by her father. The ceremony indicates approval and permission by the father to the girl to be married. When a girl desires her state of readiness for marriage to be recognized, the girl‟s mother, via the  amaqhikiza,reports this to the father and the ceremony is arranged. This ceremony is restricted to older girls who had chosen not to indulge in sex before marriage, but now wish to seek their fathers‟ permission to enter into serious relationships with a view to marriage.

It can only take place if the girl had behaved according to custom and had abstained from sex. Zulu girls, in general, wish to impress their fathers, and for that reason, they generally  behave themselves  in order to earn their fathers‟ approval. The ceremony is an indication that the girl who has reached a marriageable age obeys custom and respects her parents by seeking their permission for courtship.  The ceremony represents public recognition of her readiness to be courted in order to enter into a marriage that is blessed by her parents‟ and other family members.

The main  function  of this ceremony is that is marks a transitional period from childhood to adulthood and acknowledges the father‟s knowledge about of what is happening to his daughter. It is a precious time for the girl as it marks the point of transition from girlhood to adulthood, courtship and eventual motherhood, blessed by parents and community.

If above custom was still generally respected by the current Zulu youths, it would have  prevented  many of the problems related to teen-aged girls today.    In olden times, the ukwemula was the first step to take when a girl felt that she was ready to be married.

The Umemulo (coming of age) ceremony is a celebration period for the girl who has met the man whom she wants to marry and it also celebrates her good behaviour in abstaining from premarital sex and in seeking her parents‟ permission and approval with regard to marriage. This ceremony has an important function in Zulu culture as it contributes to avoiding unwanted pregnancies.

The „coming of age‟ ceremony „umemulo‟ is an important step for any young girl taking her from childhood into womanhood. Umemulo is similar to a Western 21st birthday and is a way for parents to show their love for a young girl and reward her for her faithful obedience. Before the ceremony the girl is traditionally supposed to spend, at least, a week indoors and no one must see her, not even her mother and father. While in seclusion, the girls from surrounding areas will come during the night to dance with her, traditionally, until the last day when they spend the whole night dancing until dawn. By approximately 4 am they go to the river and cleanse themselves.

Only thereafter, her father and other people around are allowed to see such a girl. Dancing commences and guests join in the ceremony. When guests come and join the ceremony the girl (who the ceremony is all about) points a spear (umkhonto) at guests and they pin gifts of money to the garment on her head.

Also paper money donated by parents, family members, friends and the community is pinned onto the girls‟ hair garments during the ukwemula or umemulo ceremonies.  This firstly serves the practical purpose of assisting her financially and getting her trousseau started and secondly, it signifies the wishes of her community for wealth and physical blessings to accompany her in future married life.

This ceremony cannot be viewed or witnessed except during the time when a certain girl‟s ceremony is organized. In other words one cannot go to the museums or elsewhere to witness an enactment of the ceremony.  This ceremony is seldom witnessed by people outside the community.

Umhlanga (The Reed Ceremony)
Like the ukwemula and umemulo ceremonies, the reed ceremony involves young teenage women.  The ceremony takes place once a year on the second Saturday of September at the King‟s palaces which are situated at Nyokeni and Nongoma.

The festival takes its name from the riverbed reeds which are carried by the maidens in a procession several kilometers long and presented to the king in the Royal Enclosures. The Reed Dance is a solemn occasion for the teenagers but it is also an opportunity to show off their singing, dancing and beadwork – the fruits of many, months of excitement and preparation. Beadwork abounds and it is often the only clothing then maidens wear. The function of this ceremony is to encourage unmarried girls to behave well and for this reason a virginity test is carried out to ensure that they are chaste.
During the ceremony, girls are expected to harvest reeds by hand and not to use any instrument for the cutting. If the reed cracks when it is severed, it implies that that particular girl has had sexual intercourse with a man before. The entire idea behind the ceremony is to emphasize the importance of chastity for girls prior to marriage. The fear of public exposure and the desire to conform to the peer group (which displays its pursuit of chastity through participation in the ceremony), strongly motivates the girls to abstain from sex prior to marriage.

The procession is usually led by princesses from the Royal Family who are the first to present their reeds to the king, who is flanked by a full regiment of Zulu traditional leaders. The older matrons, who oversee the event and instruct the young girls in their preparation for womanhood, are just as colourfully dressed with ornate headdresses and cowhide skirts.

During this ceremony, girls are also expected not to cover their breasts and buttocks. The vagina, however, is covered by the isigege, which is made of beads. The ceremony takes place before a large crowd comprising of family members, community members and whosoever wishes to attend, with no exception.

Girls, who are suspected of having had sexual intercourse, are humiliated together with their parents if they attend the ceremony as many men who are wishful to get married attend the ceremony in order to choose their partners in public. This ceremony is, therefore, an important event in the process of selecting a partner with a view to marriage.

In recent times the Zulu King has used the Reed Dance as an opportunity to address social issues most affecting the youth of South Africa such as HIV/AIDS and teenage pregnancy. Anybody who wishes to witness this ceremony, will have to attend it at Enyokeni on the second Saturday of September. This ceremony is unique and is not enacted anywhere.

The Tying of the Topknot Ceremony
This ceremony is similar to the Ukwemula ceremony, with the difference that it is a ceremony involving engaged women on the brink of marriage.
 During this ceremony, the girl wears a „topknot‟ (inhloko or isicholo), whereas with the umemulo ceremony no top-knot is worn.Like the umemulo ceremomy, the top-knot ceremony can only be witnessed in real. It takes place anytime of the year. A tourist wishing to witness the ceremony, will have to attend it, as there are no enactments.

Initiation Ceremonies for Boys
As part of the annual first fruits ceremony, Zulu warriors attempt to kill a bull with their bare hands at the royal palace in Nongoma
Like the girls, boys have their own ceremonies that are organized as part of the upbringing process. The most important of these are the „Feast of the First Fruits‟ and the „Grouping-up‟ ceremony.

The Feast of the First Fruits Ceremony (umkhosi omncane)
This ceremony plays a major role in boyhood development. It is a pivotal festival of thanksgiving to the Ancestral Spirits as it is an appeal to them, through prayer and sacrifice, for continued protection and assistance to the boys.

It is also a thanksgiving to God for the boys and appeal to Unkulunkulu to protect and help them. As soon as a boy starts having dreams of a sexual nature and starts ejaculating, he is supposed to report this to his peers, who, in turn, will report it to members of the family.  The family then arranges for him to participate in the next First Fruits Ceremony.The ceremony is an acknowledgement of the boys‟ readiness for marriage.

For three days and three nights during November to January, in all royal kraals, the chiefs and their subjects participate in dancing, singing traditional hymns and in praising the ancestral spirits. They also beseech the Great, Great One to protect the crops from hail, drought, insects and diseases. On the final day of Umkhosi the worshipers assemble at the royal cattle-fold to witness the climax of the ceremony,namely a struggle between a fierce bull and a group of unarmed warriors. The bull collapses at the end of the battle, beaten senseless by a hail of clenched fists. It is then stabbed to death by the chief‟s witch-doctors. A great feast follows this.

It is realized that this ceremony could potentially be viewed negatively by tourists especially those who feel strongly about animal rights. In Spain bullfights have generally lost its appeal to tourists. More recently the Zulu king has been challenged in the South African High court regarding this ceremony. The Court ruled that human rights associated with culture weighed more than the rights of animals.

The Grouping-up Ceremony (ukubuthwa)
This ceremony acknowledges that the group of boys in question has now reached maturity and that they will no longer be expected to look after cattle but are recognised as adults. It marks a time for them to hand over their cattle-tending duties to the younger boys.

This annual ceremony takes place after the „Feast of the first Fruits‟. The boys for whom the ceremony is held are grouped together in regiments, which will each receive a special collective name. This is an ancient custom which goes back very far in history.



Monogamous marriage is common among the Zulu, even though historically polygamy was encouraged. Polygamy is still practiced, particularly in rural KwaZulu-Natal. Postmarital residence is patrilocal, and a woman often adopts the identity of the household into which she has married even though in daily communication she is called by the surname or name of her father with the prefix Ma- added. Children belong to their father's lineage.

Zulu People


The Traditional Zulu Wedding (udwendwe)

Preparations for the Wedding
The first and most important prerequisite of the wedding is that the bridegroom must have paid the dowry to the bride‟s father. The wedding cannot take place if the groom has not paid his lobola in full. The ceremony that marks the passing of cattle from the prospective groom‟s group to the bride-to-be‟s group is called lobola, and the primary motive behind the exchange is to cement the friendship between the two families.

Furthermore, lobola compensates for the loss of the daughter, as the father receives something in return of great value, namely ten heads of cattle. An eleventh cow goes to the bride‟s mother for her personal use. The purpose of lobola  is therefore two-fold:  firstly  it cements the friendship between two families and  secondly it  compensates for the loss of a daughter and the domestic labour that she represents.

When the bride is about to leave her home for marriage, a beast known as ukuncamisa or inkomo yokucola is slaughtered and its gall is poured over her face, arms and legs in order to mark the changes that are to take place with regard to her belonging. The beast to be slaughtered is taken from the lobola cattle and the purpose of the gall poured over her is to inform the ancestors that the girl is leaving her family and will be getting married, which will cause a new surname (isibongo) as a result. This is also the time when the girl realises that leaving her family is now a reality.

Before the  marriage,  the girl  leaves her  umuzi (kraal) while indicating to her relatives, friends and neighbours that she is about to marry and that she expects gifts.  This process, called ukucimela, assists the girl to greet and leave behind her relatives and friends so as to enter a new life. The gifts she receives indicate that they wish her well. In order to show her appreciation, she is expected to cimela to all of them. The  cimela lessens the pressure of family and friends of individually giving expensive gifts and makes it easier for those who do not have enough for themselves

The day before she leaves her father‟s home, the young bride accompanies her father on a walk through the cattle byre, to say farewell to her ancestors, as they play a very important role in the lives of the Zulus. The daughter‟s father is to take responsibility for the daughter‟s interaction with  the ancestors, which  is to  take place the day before her departure.

One day before the actual wedding ceremony, the new bride, accompanied by her friends leaves her home covered only in a blanket to indicate to the groom and his family that she is bidding farewell to her old life and starting a new one. It should be noted that all practices in Zulu custom have symbolical meaning. The nakedness of the bride(except for the blanket) shows that she is now leaving her childhood life in preparation for the wedding that is to take place as well as the married family life which is to follow.

The Attire for the Wedding
At the wedding, the bride remains in the centre of the party, hidden from view and dressed in her new isidwaba. She wears head ornaments containing white oxtails (amashoba) on her arms and the  imvakazi,  a  bead decorated veil  of cloth, concealing her face but still enabling her to see.

Her attire distinguishes the bride from the rest of the people in the ceremony, the veil being associated with the hlonipha custom.

The bride wears ornamental ropes of twisted calfskin and beadwork strung in a coil over her shoulders and under her arms. Bands of white cow-tail fringes are worn around both arms and around the ankles. On her right wrist, she wears the distended gall bladder of the goat which was slaughtered before she left her father‟s kraal.

The gall bladder on the wrist also  distinguishes her  from  guests  at the wedding ceremony. The bride is furthermore ornamented with various patterns of beadwork covering her breasts and wears a plume of black fink tail feathers on her head. She carries a short assegai or knife in her right hand and points this to her husband-to-be while dancing, signifying that she is a virgin.

In her left hand, the bride carries the ihawu.It should be noted that the assegai mentioned earlier on is carried together with the ihawu - a Zulu shield made from cattle skin. Shields are used by men for defence when in battle or when fighting. It is further used by men and women when Zulu dancing takes place.

One is reminded of a warrior who carries both these defence items signifying that the bride has fought many battles and have overcome many problems in order to marry and that she is prepared to fight many more in her future after marriage. It is said that the ihawu and assegai mark victory over problems that could have thwarted her marriage and at the wedding she dances to celebrate this victory.

The groom is adorned with the regalia of his forefathers, namely a  head ring of cheetah skin, which is worn only by married men, denoting the status equivalent to that of the head of a village. Like the bride, the groom will hold an ihawu in his left hand and a knobkierrie or oxtail in his right hand. His body is ornamented with spangles of bright beadwork strung (ucu) around his neck and waist. The groom is the only person who wears this specific attire at the ceremony and it is thus easy to identify him. Should a tourist wish to see the colourful Zulu cultural attire, the Zulu traditional wedding provides the perfect opportunity to do so.

Zulu People


Domestic Unit

The typical domestic unit includes a man, his wife or wives, and their children. In some households the parents of the man form part of the unit as the most senior household members and direct most of the activities of the household.

Even though frowned upon, out-of-wedlock births are becoming prevalent in KwaZulu-Natal. Single mothers tend to remain with their matrilineal relatives. Their children adopt matrilineal identity since no bride-wealth was paid by the fathers' kin group.

Zulu People



Inheritance of property is along the patrilineal line. Inheritance of important positions such as a "chiefship" follows the pattern of primogeniture.



Children are socialized to adhere to the division of labor that associates women with running the inside of the house and men with managing the economic, outside, and public relations of the household.

The school (and later tertiary education institutions for those who can afford them) occupies the lives of boys and girls. Different stages of a person's life are marked by ceremonial occasions which aid in the internalization of new roles.


Social Organization

Social status is traditionally encapsulated in respect for kinship positions and leadership. Just as there is respect for the household head and patrilineal kin, there is general respect for men as the principal carriers of identity and tremendous respect for the inkos ("chief) and his kin as the royal household of the chiefdom.

Socioeconomic inequality is caused by differential access to monetary resources in a capitalist economy. Economic differentiation coexists with different lifestyles: a traditional Zulu lifestyle reflected in religion, dress code, and a defiant attitude toward Western standards and mannerisms and an alternative Western competitive capitalist lifestyle. However, there are no pure Zulus and no complete Western converts.

Zulu People


Political Organization

The Zulu have a monarch who commands respect from a large number of people who live under the immediate authority of their amakhosi ("chief's"). Amakhosi pay respect to the king by attending the House of Traditional Leaders and mobilize support for festivities organized by the king.

The "chief's" have subdivisions (izigodi) within the chiefdoms, which are looked after by headmen (izinduna). In some chiefdoms "chief's" have additional councilors who, together with headmen, form part of what is called the Tribal Authority, which helps the "chief govern. In addition, structures of the democratically elected local government administer access to facilities and services to all the people in KwaZulu-Natal Province. These structures work closely with the provincial government, and their relationship with the 'chief's' is a contentious issue.


Social Control

The Zulu have been influenced by individualism to some extent. Although the older generation boasts of a time when disciplining the younger generation was the responsibility of everyone in the community, most people tend to mind their own business. Institutions such as the church and the family have limited control of people's behavior, but sanctions are not imposed as communally as the older generation has led people to believe. Punishment of specific misbehavior is also a responsibility of institutions such as schools, the police, and the Tribal Authority (the chief's' structure of governance).

Zulu People



Conflict occasionally arose between chiefdoms, particularly over boundaries. Colonial land policies and relocations exacerbated those conflicts. In the early twenty-first century such conflicts usually led to feuding between the concerned parties and the intervention of other state institutions, such as the police, the defense force, and the courts. Other kinds of conflict involved clashes between political parties over political issues. In the precolonial period there was some conflict between tribes over property or boundaries and as a result of attempts by some groups to subdue others and expand their boundaries, which occasionally involved non-Zulu groups such as the Xhosa in the south and some BaSotho groups.


Religious Beliefs

The Zulu people have a strong belief in the potency of their ancestors. Their cosmology is characterized by God in various forms: uMvelingqangi (a male god responsible for all life), uNomkhubulwano (a female god who provides food security, particularly through good harvests), and a god for the control of weather, particularly thunder. Their cosmology also includes ancestors who can have a significant positive impact on their families' lives if they are appeased.Especially important in traditional mythology were the ancestors who watched over the people today, as well as creatures that were part human and part lizard. Spirits were also thought to exist in animals, in the forest and in caves.

AMADLOZI were the Zulu ancestors. People can appeal to the spirit world by invoking these ancestors.

INKOSAZANA was a female spirit that makes the maize (corn) grow, the goddess of agriculture. She is worshipped in the spring.

INTULO was a lizard-like creature with human characteristics.

MAMLAMBO was the goddess of the rivers.

MBABA MWANA WARESA was the goddess of rainbows, rain, crops, and cultivation. She is also beloved because she gave the gift of beer.

TIKDOSHE is an evil dwarf. It resembles the Chiruwi and the Hai-uri (one arm, one leg, one side), and likes to fight humans. Losing against Tikdoshe can mean death for the humans, but victory can give a man great magical powers.

UHLAKANYANA was a mythical dwarf and trickster.

UMVELINQANGI was the sky god who descended from heaven and married Uthlanga. In some versions of the creation story, he created the reeds that Unkulunkulu came from. He shows himself to people as thunder and earthquakes.

UNKULUNKULU (sometimes spelled Nkulunkulu) was the creator of all things. He grew out of a reed and when he became too heavy he fell to earth. This word also means "ancestor" in the Zulu language.

UNWABA was a mythical chameleon. He was sent by the Sky God to tell the people and creatures of the earth that they had immortal life. Because he was too slow the people and creatures of earth did not become immortal after all. Chameleons turn from green to brown because they are sad that Unwaba was too slow.

UTHLANGA (sometimes spelled Uhlanga) was a large mythical marsh with reeds in the North, from which the creation came into existence. 
The Zulu cosmology also includes the potency of the natural world, particularly herbs and animals when made into umuthi (medicine), which can be used or abused to affect people negatively or positively. This is done mainly in the realm of traditional medicine.

Christianity has significantly influenced the Zulu. The majority of the Zulu combine traditional religious beliefs with Christianity; there are also those who profess to be entirely converted to Christianity, mostly those who adhere to the evangelical Christian traditions.


Religious Practitioners

The Zulu religion is essentially household-based. It is characterized by an obligation by household heads to fulfill the necessary ceremonial rituals. These ceremonies often require the sacrifice of domestic animals (usually goats) and addressing the ancestors by burning impepho, an incense herb.
There are African indigenous churches that combine aspects of Western Christianity with Zulu ways of communicating with ancestors. These churches have priests and healers who dedicate themselves to these practices for the benefit of the people who consult them. Diviners have traditionally existed among the Zulu and diagnose the causes of illnesses and misfortunes. The diagnosis often relates to dissatisfied ancestors or evil manipulation of umuthi for harmful effects (witchcraft).



The Zulu are known for pottery. The art of making and decorating pots remains an important skill for Zulu women. Bead work and grass and palm weaving are also essential arts and crafts. Skill and creativity determine the extent of fame of an artist. Artistic woodcarving by men is done in some parts of KwaZulu-Natal.



Medicine takes two forms. First, there is the kind of medicine that targets physical ailments and deals with the physiological problems of the human body. Second, there is medicine that works magically to produce a negative or positive impact on those toward whom it is directed. This type of medicine is used more like a weapon and is often implicated in the acts of animosity people level against each other. Zulu people use Western medical practitioners as well, but the relationship between the two systems of healing is not characterized by mutual respect. However, most Zulu people use both systems, depending on what they perceive to be the source of their problems.


Zulu Healing

Healing among the Zulu center around uMvelinqangi (God), the amadlozi (ancestors),nature and a person’s connection to these spiritual forces in a deep and profound manner. This person is called a traditional healer within the Western concept of specialists. The traditional healer has always been a person of great respect in the community, a medium with the amadlozi (ancestors) and uMvelinqangi (the first Creator) (Ngubane, 1977).

Traditional healers connect with the presence of uMvelinqangi (the First Creator) that exist within the universe and iradiate the expression of that which operates in opposition to uMvelinqangi. The healer either presents substance in the form of medicine or provides a healing environment (divination) for uMveliqangi to be fully expressed within the sick person and community.

Persons who visit the traditional healer are required to engage in specific communally beneficial ways following in one’s effort to restore order and balance within self and the community. Because uMvelinqangiexists within everything, the healer must simply connect with the universal force to manifest the full power of uMvelinqangi. This process will empower the ill person (or empower the powerful collective presence within the person) while concomitantly over powering the destructive forces outside of the person. Throughout history traditional healers have played a plethora of roles within Zulu society, such as:

(1) Diviner/priest, accepted medium with amadlozi/abaphansi (ancestral shades) and the uMvelinqangi (First Creator), religious head of society, prominent at all major umsenbezi (rituals);
(2) Protector and provider of customs, sociocultural cohesion and transformation, legal arbiter at public divinations, ecologist and rainmaker; and
(3) Specialists in preventive, primitive and therapeutic medicine including the use of traditional pharmacology (Edwards, 1987).

According to Buckland and Binger (1992), Zulu practitioners of divination, sorcery, and healing fall into the following categories:

1. Sanusis - A sorcerer, who can be male or female but is generally male; the title is sometimes applied to a healer.
2. Znyange Zokwelapha - A healer.
3. Znyanga Zemithi - A specialist in tribal medicine.
4. Znyanga Zezulu - A weather worker.
5. Sangoma - A counselor or diviner; usually female sometimes male.

Edwards (1987) suggests that there are three broad overlapping categories of traditional healers in South Afrika i.e. inyanga (traditional doctor/herbalist) isangoma (diviner/counselor), and umthandazi (faith healer). For this discussion, we will use these three categories of healers. The inyanga is usually a male who has gone through a period of training with an accomplished inyanga for at least one year. Inyangas typically use amakhambi (herbal medicines) for immunization, tonic and preventative measures, body cleanser, laxatives, etc.

When amamkhubalo (herbal medicines) are used for umsenbezi (ritual), color classification of the medicine and time of day and season of administration become significant.

The colors of the medicines are imithi emnyama (black medicine), imithi ebomvu (red medicine) and imithi emhlophe (white medicine). Amakhubalo (herbal medicine) is organized according to color are:

1. Ubulawu – A liquid medicine used across all colors.
2. Insizi – Powdered herbs, roots or animal medicine that is always used as a black medicine to pull out an illness.
3. Intelezi – A liquid medicine used as a white medicine to render free from imperfections often after sickness is taken out with a red or black medicine.
Here we see that the Zulu operate in harmony with nature and the universe, and that various aspects of color contain the power for healing. To further illustrate this harmonious relationship with nature, there are certain herbs that are extracted only in the morning, day, evening or night. It is believed that the full healing power is manifested at specific universe time periods and one must approach that herb at the proper time that uMvelinqangi has bestowed upon it with its full power.

The next traditional healer is called isangoma. This healer is usually a woman who shares knowledge of medicine with the inyanga (herb doctor). A person is chosen by the spiritual realm to be a sangoma after an ukuthwasa (life transforming experience).

It is during the ukuthwasa (transforming experience such as a seizure or near death experience) that the person communicates with entities of the spiritual realm that inform her/him what s/he needs to do. Following the experience, the person goes to study under an accomplished isangoma who diagnoses illnesses through communicating with the amadlozi (ancestral shades). Buckland and Binger state:

The sangoma divines using a set of objects that have special meaning or energy. After an apprentice spends time with an established sangoma, s/he begins to develop her/his own style…collects a bag of oracle bones…from animals or other materials…in twos, representing male and female (1992, p. 77).

The roles for an inyanga and a isangoma remain distinct and complimentary. The sangoma is consulted to determine the etiology of a problem. After the cause of an illness has been determined, then the sangoma refers the person to medical treatment from another practitioner.

Both the inyanga and isangoma are part of a public imisebenzi (ritual) and the Nomkhubulwane ceremony for girls. Nomkhubulwane is the first princess and the daughter of uNunkulunkulu (the Great Grandfather).

The Nomkhubulwane ceremony is a rites of passage ceremony that functions as a reintroduction in the Zulu community to assist with addressing the AIDS crisis that is occurring in South Afrika. The traditional healers not only inform the girls of their purpose in life, they also help the girl know how to maintain good health. In this case the traditional healers are curative and preventative. Since there is a high premium placed on being
a virgin, the healers imisebenzi (ritual) serves to influence and reduce the rate of STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) while providing insight into food selection, preparation, and consumption.

The third traditional healer has evolved recently with the influx of people moving from the rural to urban areas. The umthandazi (faith healer) has become an intricate part of the combination of traditional Afrikan religion and Christianity. They are found primarily within the Zionist and Apostolic churches of the cities. The umthandazi has the ability to prophesize, heal and divine using prayer, holy water, baths, enemas and steaming baths.


Death and Afterlife

Death is regarded as a time of tremendous loss. A death by illness is treated differently from a death by "a spill of blood." Accidents and death by murder are regarded as deaths by "a spill of blood," and medicinal healing is expected to accompany the funerals in these cases in order to stop such misfortune (ukuvala umkhokha). Generally, deaths are considered polluting, and various rituals and ceremonies must be observed to slowly remove the impurity. These rituals also serve to gradually send the deceased into the next world.


Zulu (amaZulu) Ancestors and Ritual Exchange

One of the fundamental ideas in ancestral-based religions, such as that of the Zulu, or amaZulu (a more accurate term), is that of the life-force, essence or energy which exists in all animate and inanimate phenomenon, including animals, plants, and various geographical or even atmospheric features. This life-force is in constant circulation and although it is indestructible it may be converted, exchanged and utilized in different ways by humans, for good or bad intent. The following account describes these dynamics in the context of Zulu notions of the ancestral and spirit worlds.

According to Harriet Ngubane, the Zulu collective term for all the departed spirits is amathongo. Zulus believe that when a person dies the life-force exits the body in the form of a shadow, or spirit, known as isithunzi. The spirit enters a liminal phase where it is “betwixt and between” the living and the ancestral worlds. Among the Zulu, certain tasks have to be performed by living members of the agnatic (male) kin group to help get these spirits empowered, purified and “cleaned,” in order that they may join the benevolent ancestral body (amadlozi) that has an important role in protecting and guiding descendants. 

This usually involves a series of sacrificial rituals that should be performed after a certain lapse of time (usually within a year) after physical death. The final ritual of incorporation of a departed spirit, known as ukubuyisa, signifies the return of the ancestor (idlozi) to the home. Departed individuals who have lived good moral lives and attained the status of elder are regarded as the most active of the amadlozi, as they are the most concerned with the well-being of the living. Typically it is believed that a person's deceased parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents are more interested in their descendants, although the more remotely distant ancestors are regarded as participating at rituals held in their honor and can still influence and have interest in the affairs of the living.

The ancestors are regarded as being present in the homestead and should be treated with respect befitting that of elders. They should be kept informed of any events and changes that have occurred within the homestead, such as a change of family residence, work or fortunes. They should be actively informed of all the “life crisis” stages that require “rites of passage,” such as the birth of children, attainment of adolescence and adulthood, marriage and death.

They can be consulted for advice and guidance on any problem facing the family and they are seen to act as a protective force against evil. In their purified state they are seen as being close to God and in the context of Christianity they are often equated with the angels, who have the power to directly appeal to God on behalf of the living. When they are forgotten they are regarded as no longer having adequate strength to protect the living and they withdraw their support, leaving the family vulnerable to attack by hostile forces. However they do not disappear and their potential to intervene always exists, should the appropriate steps be taken by the living to empower them.