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
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
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.
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
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.
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.