Ndebele people


Ndebele / Amandebele / Ndzundza / Manala / Mapoggers

LOCATION: The Mpumalanga and the Northern provinces of South Africa


Identification. The people refer to themselves as "Amandebele," or "Ndzundza" or "Manala," denoting the two main tribal groupings. Early writers used the term "Transvaal Ndebele" to distinguish them from the Zimbabwean Ndebele (or Matebele). On geographical grounds, the Transvaal Ndebele were subdivided into the Northern (Transvaal) and Southern (Transvaal) Ndebele sections. Oral tradition points to a possible common origin for both the northern and southern sections, although the former, as the numerically smaller group, became absorbed into their Northern-Sotho-speaking neighbors. The Southern Ndebele are comprised of the Ndzundza and the Manala ethnic groups or tribes. During the colonial era, White settlers derogatively referred to the Ndzundza-Ndebele as "Mapoggers" or "Mapoêrs," after their ruler Mabhoko, called "Mapog" or "Mapoch" by Whites. Early ethnographies identified a third Southern Ndebele tribe, the Mhwaduba, which also became completely integrated with neighboring Sotho-speaking communities.

Location. The majority of Ndebele live in the former Bantustans or "homelands" of KwaNdebele and Lebowa, between 24°53′ to 25°43′ S and 28°22′ to 29°50′ E, approximately 60 to 130 kilometers northeast of Pretoria, South Africa. The total area amounts to 350,000 hectares, including the Moutse and Nebo areas, which were previously part of the former Lebowa homeland. Temperatures range from a maximum of 36° C in the northern parts to a minimum of -5° C in the south; rainfall averages 50 centimeters per annum in the north and 80 centimeters per annum in the south. Almost two-thirds of the entire former KwaNdebele lies within a vegetational zone known as Mixed Bushveld (Savanna type), in the north. The southern parts fall within a zone known as Bankenveld (False Grassland type).

Demography. Population figures are based on the 1991 sensus figures for the former KwaNdebele homeland (now part of Eastern Transvaal Province) and updated for the April 1994 general elections. The total for the area was estimated at 403,700. A minority of labor tenants and farmworkers outside the former homeland were not included.

Linguistic Affiliation. IsiNdebele is a Southern Bantu language, part of the Nguni Language Group. Mother-tongue speakers seldom distinguish between the dialects IsiNdzundza and IsiNala. A written orthography was published only in 1982. Most Ndebele are fluent in the neighboring Northern Sotho language called Sepedi, as well as Afrikaans (elderly people) and English (the younger generation).


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.



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.

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.


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 amakosana ) 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.


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.

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.

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).

Arts. Ndebele aesthetic expression in the form of mural art and beadwork has won international fame for that society during the latter half of the twentieth century. Mural painting (ukugwala ) is done by women and their daughters and entails the multicolor application of acrylic paint on entire outer and inner courtyard and house walls. Earlier paints were manufactured and mixed from natural material such as clay, plant pulp, ash, and cow dung. Since the 1950s, mural patterns have shown clear urban and Western influences. Consumer goods (e.g., razor blades), urban architecture (e.g., gables, lampposts), and symbols of modern transportation (e.g., airplanes, number plates) acted as inspiration for women artists.

Beadwork (ukupothela ) also proliferated during the 1950s; it shows similarity in color and design to murals. Ndebele beadwork is essentially part of female ceremonial costume. Beads are sown on goat skins, canvas, and even hard board nowadays, and worn as aprons. Beaded necklaces and arm and neck rings form part of the outfit that is worn during rituals such as initiation and weddings. As Ndebele beadwork became one of the most popular curio art commodities in the period from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, women also beaded glass bottles, gourds, and animal horns. The recent prolific trading in Ndebele beadwork concentrates on "antique" garments as pieces of art. Some women are privately commissioned to apply their painting on canvas, shopping center walls, and even cars.

The recent discourse on Ndebele art suggests that the phenomenon should be interpreted in terms of the conscious establishment of a distinctive ethnic Ndebele niche at a time in South African history when the Ndebele struggled to regain their land and were not regarded as a society with its own identity.

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.