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Historical Background

The eastern portion of southern Africa, the area known as KwaZulu-Natal, was settled at the beginning of the 17th century by the clans who would collectively become known as the Nguni people and, individually, as the Zulu, Xhosa, Pondo and Swazi people.

To this day they all speak related languages and share similar cultures. The land they came to was a land of “milk and honey”, a fertile land of savannah and grass with patches of dense bush and high forests; with numerous rivers and streams, their banks covered with fig trees so huge and dense that their boughs touched overhead.

Every spring this lovely place erupted into colour as the extravagantly beautiful Erythrina caffra trees started showing off their crimson flowers. Vast numbers of antelope and other game roamed the green hills and valleys, each having a special name - the lion was iNgonyama (a wild beast of prey), the elephant was iNdlovu (the trampler) and the giraffe was called iNdlulamithi (taller than the trees). This then was the birthplace of the mighty Zulu nation. According to tradition, a man named Nguni led the first migrants who settled in KwaZulu-Natal.

They were part of a larger group led by a chief, called Dlamini. The group was believed to have migrated south from a legendary place in North Africa, called eMbo. Somewhere along the way the two groups split up and chief Nguni and his group found their way into this lovely area of rivers and hills, now known as KwaZulu-Natal. The area was already inhabited but these people became little more than phantoms and, according to the Zulu people, all that was left of them was their voices, which could be heard echoing in the mountains.

Nguni’s followers split up into several family groups and clans and settled down, each in his own valley. One of these settlers was a man named Malandela. He later had two sons, the younger of whom was given the name Zulu, meaning “heaven”. When he grew up, he set off with his mother and a handful of followers to seek a home of his own. Here he lived in peace and when he died his people, the abakwa Zulu, buried him and planted an euphorbia tree over his grave, as was customary.

The name of this man might have vanished into the mists of time had it not been for his great-great-great grandson, Senzanghakona, who presented the Zulus with a son named Shaka - the man who would turn the Zulus into a mighty warrior nation. Because of his extraordinary military and strategic finesse, Shaka, in the course of 12 short years, succeeded in building a mighty Zulu nation - to this day the largest ethnic group in South Africa.

Shaka revolutionised contemporary Black warfare by introducing the short stabbing spear to enforce fighting at close combat. This method proved to be so effective that the Zulus were still using it 60 years later in the war against the British.

Shaka based the close combat method on the logic that it was ridiculous for a striking force to throw its weapons away, as the Zulus did before his time, by aiming and hurling the longer assegai (spear) at their opponents from longer distances.

Zulu shields, made from oxhide, were used both as a protection and as a method of concealing the weapons the warrior was carrying. To establish uniformity, the cattle owned by each regiment were of the same colour as their shields.

Specially appointed individuals made weapons and shields and even today, these people are still regarded as specialists in their craft. Shaka was the uncontested ruler of an area bounded by the Tugela River in the south, the Buffalo River in the west, the Pongola River in the north and the Indian Ocean in the east.

Myths and legends about this great leader abound and so strong was his influence that he even left his mark on the surrounding landscape! Many of the prominent mountains, rivers and streams in the area carry names bestowed on them by Shaka.

For example, one flat-topped mountain in the Tugela River valley was named iSabuyazwi, “the returner of sound” because one day, as he passed the mountain, the sound of his laughter was echoed back to him. Another notable place-naming event occurred when Shaka led his armies down the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal.

Several of the rivers and hills on the way are said to take their names from the events connected with this raid. One of the best known is the Amanzimtoti River (“the sweet waters”), named thus by Shaka after resting and drinking water from the river.

To this day, the river is called the Amanzimtoti and the present-day beach resort near the river is also called Amanzimtoti. King Shaka was assassinated in 1828 by his brother Dingaan, but not before he had united all the tribes in the area, known today as Kwazulu-Natal, under his rule.

It was his brother Dingaan whom the White migrants, the Voortrekkers, encountered when they crossed the Tugela River, the southern boundary of Zululand. In December 1838, on the banks of a tributary of the Buffalo River, the two groups faced one another in battle after Dingaan had ambushed and killed the Voortrekker leader, Piet Retief, and his men. Following the Zulu army’s defeat at the hands of the Voortrekkers, the river was known as Blood River.

The Zulus paid dearly for their defeat, they lost not only the battle but also the traditional home of their fathers, the basin of the Mkumbane River and their capitol, Mgungundlovu (“the secret plot of the elephant”). However, under the subsequent leadership of Cetshwayo, the fame of the Zulu nation grew and forty years later they regained their pride when they defeated the British in the Battle of Isandhlwana during the Anglo-Zulu War.

Gender roles

Young boys herd cattle and goats and their elder brothers assist in milking the cows. Girls clean the huts, collect water and firewood and help in the fields. In the absence of schools, children learn about their past history and customs by word of mouth, through story-telling. The example set by elders play an important part in educating the youth.

As the traditional family unit was quite large, older children assisted in looking after their younger siblings and would often be seen carrying small infants on their backs. At the age of ten or eleven, young girls started assisting with the cooking and as they grew older, gradually progressed to other tasks. Zulu children learned from an early age to respect their elders. Dress styles differ from area to area and from clan to clan.

However, certain rules apply to everyone. Zulus dress according to age group and clothing is directly related to the status of the wearer. Men usually wore a leather belt with strips of hide hanging down the front and back. Young girls often wore a similar leather belt or a simple skirt wrapped around the body.

Married women wore heavy pleated skirts of oxhide, usually made by their husbands. Their large, structured headdresses were constructed from coarse knitting wool that was sometimes woven into their own hair and bound together with clay. Unmarried women favoured short hair. Pregnant women often wore a maternity apron of antelope skin in the expectation that this would cause their child to be born swift, agile and full of grace, just like the antelope.

The battle was savage and at the end of the day, 58 British officers, 806 British soldiers and 470 African allies, as well as 1 000 Zulus, lay dead or dying. The Zulus’ pride was restored but they, and later the Voortrekkers too, would eventually have to bend the knee to Britain.

The British finally defeated the Zulus at Ulundi in July 1879. They partitioned the Zulu kingdom into thirteen independent chiefdoms, without a monarchy to unite them. The area known as Zululand was eventually annexed by Britain in 1843 and ten years later it became part of the Colony of Natal.

After this period, there followed long years of colonial rule and efforts to create self-ruling independent states during the Apartheid years.


The Zulu are a warrior nation and military might and physical courage are celebrated in all aspects of the Zulu culture. These ideals are central to the oral traditions and ceremonies that keep the Zulu culture alive to this day. Traditionaly young boys learned the art of stick fighting from an early age.

Stick fighting is a unique form of martial art and requires great skill and discipline. Fighters carry a small oxhide shield in the left hand and a metrelong stick in the other hand. The stick is used primarily to strike at the opponent’s head. Strength and agility are important in winning a tournament or fight. As adolescents, Zulu boys entered youth regiments to be prepared for the rigours of manhood.

Courtship and Marriage

The process of courtship and marriage was conducted according to strict rules and protocol. As each clan was regarded as one family, members of the same clan were not allowed to marry, regardless of how far back the original family link stretched. Adolescent girls become members of a succession of peer groups until they reached a marriageable age. A young man was only allowed to woo a girl if she was considered to be mature enough and if her peer group considered him to be a good proposition.

The man was then allowed to make a series of indirect approaches, often through his sisters. After an initial period of playing “hard to get”, the girl was allowed to indicate her acceptance by sending the man a gift of betrothal beads. Once her family had indicated their acceptance and approval, the young man set up a white flag outside his hut, indicating his plan to marry soon.

In the interests of diplomacy, close relatives of the two families undertook the negotiations for the bride price (lobola). Polygamous marriages were common and a man could take as many wives as he could afford. He had to pay a dowry in the form of cattle for each wife he took. Today, money is often used instead of cattle. The first wife was considered the senior wife a nd each subsequent bride had to know her place in the hierarchy and had to take care not to outshine her elders.

Belief System

The Zulu’s traditional religion was centred on ancestor worship. According to Zulu religion, the spirits of the ancestors (called Amadlozi) guided their daily lives and sacrifices were therefore made to appease these spirits. They believed that the ancestors could only be seen in dreams and that soothsayers (called sangomas) were the only ones who had the power to communicate with them.

People consulted the sangoma if their own sacrifice did not have the desired results. The sangomas were called to their profession by their ancestors and had to undergo a period of apprenticeship after which they would be able to contact the ancestral spirits at will and would be able to diagnose misfortune and illness. They were also able to predict fortunes by ‘throwing the bones’. Sangomas were generally female.

They usually wore distinctive beaded attire - long wigs threaded with white beads and crossed breast bands made of animal skin. The inflated bladder of an animal that had been sacrificed to the ancestors to augment the wearer’s power of insight into the spiritual world usually topped their headdresses.

The beads on a sangoma’s head-dress were strung in loops to give the spirits somewhere to sit as they spoke to her. Sangomas wielded considerable power in the Zulu society then and still do. They often work together with traditional medicinal healers or herbalists.

Art and Crafts

Ceremonial dress was usually an elaborate combination of exquisite beadwork and skins, pelts, plumes and feathers. As part of their ceremonial dress, men often carried a ceremonial shield and wore an otter skin headband, to indicate their regiment. Weapons have always been an integral part of the Zulu tradition and to this day, men still carry different sized wooden staffs and clubs as part of their traditional attire.

The choice of animal skin was also indicative of the status of the wearer. For example, only members of the Royal House were allowed to wear leopard skin and any leopard killed automatically became the property of the chief. The Zulus expressed their creativity through a variety of crafts that had both decorative and utilitarian uses. Woodcarving, traditionally a male skill, was taught from an early age.

Small knives and choppers were used to make bowls, platters, combs, spoons, ceremonial sticks, spear handles and the headrests they used instead of pillows to protect their elaborate headdresses while they slept. Today, Zulu animal carvings and masks are popular items in the tourist trade. Zulu women are expert grass weavers and make a variety of mats and baskets.

Pottery is also a well-developed skill among the Zulu people. Clay pots are left in the sun, fired by burying them in hot ashes and colourfully decorated. The art of Zulu beadwork dates back centuries. The beadwork expresses messages in symbolic language, such as coded love messages, the wearer’s age or status or his or her home area. The beadwork is a prime example of the artist’s superb use of colour and innovative design. Like all the people of Africa, Zulus love to dance and sing.

Social gatherings present dancers of the various clans with the opportunity of displaying their skills and fitness while the onlookers accompany them by playing drums, singing, whistling and ululating.

Dancing, making music and drinking traditional beer all form part of all Zulu ceremonies, such as the celebration of the coming of age of a boy or a girl, a marriage or a funeral. Men and boys usually perform separately from the women. The dances of the men may reflect stylised battle movements or describe the whipped up energy before the hunt. Women’s dances are more likely to portray a humorous story.

The Lone Tree Safari Lodge : The Ultimate Bush Experience

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Animals : Elephant :: Hyena :: Leopard

People : Tswana :: Zulu

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