The Ndebele people: An introduction to various aspects of Ndebele culture, including their origins, political and social organization, clothing and adornments, architecture and arts, initiation practices, courtship and marriage customs, and Ndebele beliefs.
The Ndebele people identify as one of the Nguni tribes and make up a significant portion of the country’s Black population. The Nguni tribes encompass the Zulu-speaking Central Nguni, Xhosa-speaking Southern Nguni, Swazi people, and the Ndebele people of the Northern Province and Mpumalanga. The Ndebele groups, geographically and culturally distinct, consisted of the BagaLanga and BagaSeleka tribes. While the Ndebele in the Northern Province adopted the language and culture of their Sotho neighbors, the North Ndebele resided primarily in Pietersburg, Bakenberg, and Potgietersrus, with the Mpumalanga region spanning from Piet Retief to Lydenburg/Pilgrim’s Rest and from Witbank and Groblersdal to the Mozambique border, separated by the Springbok Flats.
Origins of the Ndebele:
The Ndebele people trace their history back to their first chief, Mafana, and his successor Mhlanga. In the early 1600s, Musi, the son of Mhlanga, led a group to settle in the Gauteng hills, distinct from their cousins who became the Zulu nation. Following Chief Musi’s death, the tribe split into two sections: the Manala in the north and the Ndzundza, also known as the Southern Ndebele, who migrated to the east and south while maintaining their Ndebele identity. In 1883, during Chief Mabhogo’s reign, the Ndzundza fought against the Boer Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek for eight months, seeking refuge in Mapoch’s Caves. Despite their defeat and loss of tribal lands, the Ndebele people retained their cultural unity.
Political and internal social organisation:
The Ndebele had a hierarchical structure resembling that of the Zulu. National authority rested with the head of state (the ikozi) and an inner council (amaphakathi). Wards (izilindi) were overseen by ward heads, and family units within the wards were governed by family heads. The primary residential unit was called an umuzi, typically comprising the family head, his wife, and unmarried children. In cases of multiple wives, the umuzi was divided into halves. Additional complexity arose when married sons and younger brothers joined the household. Each tribe within the Ndebele nation was composed of patrilineal clans (izibongo), with members sharing the same paternal lineage.
Clothing and adornments:
Traditionally, Ndebele women wore a variety of ornaments to symbolize their societal status. After marriage, their dresses became more elaborate. Copper and brass rings were worn around the arms, legs, and neck as a symbol of loyalty to their husbands, which were only removed upon their husband’s death. These rings, called idzila, were believed to possess ritual powers and were provided by husbands, with wealthier husbands allowing their wives to wear more rings. However, wearing these rings permanently is no longer a common practice. Married women also adorned themselves with grass neck hoops called isigolwani, covered in beads, especially for ceremonial occasions. They wore a five-fingered apron called an ijogolo after giving birth to their first child, and a marriage blanket called nguba, embellished with beadwork to record significant life events. Head coverings were always worn as a sign of respect for their husbands, ranging from simple beaded headbands to elaborate beaded headdresses called amacubi. In contrast, Ndebele men received ornaments made by their wives for rituals and ceremonies.
Architecture and arts:
Ndebele art is a significant aspect of their identity, combining external influences with traditional design concepts. Ndebele artists display a fascination with linear elements and create freehand paintings with planned designs. Artists don’t need rulers or squares to achieve straight lines or symmetry. Women, responsible for house painting, express their individuality through vibrant and intricate patterns. Earth colors adorn the back and side walls, while the front walls showcase innovative and colorful designs. Windows serve as focal points for murals, sometimes featuring imaginary windows to add variety. Contemporary artists incorporate a wider range of commercial colors, departing from traditional muted earth tones. Ndebele artists have expanded their work to the interior of houses and also create crafts such as neck hoops (isingolwani) and beadwork, which requires precision and is now often produced for sale.
In Ndebele culture, initiation rites are significant in marking the transition to adulthood. Held every four years, initiation schools bring together relatives and friends for ceremonies and activities. Boys, around 18 years old, form special regiments led by socially esteemed boys. The Ndzundza tribe follows a cycle of 15 regimental names, while the Manala tribe has 13. Girls, adorned with colorful beaded hoops, undergo isolation, training, and preparation to become homemakers and matriarchs. The conclusion of the initiation is celebrated with a coming-out ceremony, where girls wear stiff rectangular aprons beaded in geometric patterns. These aprons are later replaced with stiff, square ones made from hardened leather and decorated with beadwork.
Courtship and marriage:
Marriages among the Ndebele involved individuals from different clans, ensuring that they did not share the same clan name. However, a man could marry a woman from his paternal grandmother’s family. Before the wedding, the bride was secluded for two weeks in a specially constructed structure within her parents’ house to maintain her privacy from men. When she emerged, she was covered with a blanket and shielded by an umbrella held by a younger girl who attended to her needs. The bride received a marriage blanket, which she would later embellish with beadwork either added to its surface or woven into the fabric. After marriage, the couple resided in the husband’s clan area, and while women retained their fathers’ clan name, children took on their father’s clan name.
Ndebele beliefs encompass a strong connection to their ancestral heritage, with a deep reverence for their ancestors who are believed to guide and influence their lives. They also hold beliefs in a supreme being or creator associated with the forces of nature. Rituals, ceremonies, and divination play significant roles in seeking guidance and maintaining harmony with the spiritual realm. Traditional healers, known as sangomas, are instrumental in connecting (as mediums) with the spiritual world and providing healing and advice. The Ndebele also believe in the power of spirits and ancestral spirits, emphasizing the importance of maintaining a harmonious relationship with them. Some Ndebele people have adopted Christianity while others have retained the indigenous belief system.
Ndebele beliefs also include the concept of life force or energy known as “ndau.” This life force is believed to be present in all living things and is seen as the source of vitality and well-being. Maintaining a balance of ndau is essential for good health and prosperity.
Another aspect of Ndebele beliefs is the belief in the power of dreams and their significance in providing messages and insights from the spiritual realm. Dreams are often interpreted as omens or guidance and are considered an important part of spiritual communication.
Furthermore, the Ndebele place a strong emphasis on community and the interconnectedness of individuals within their society. They believe in the power of collective rituals and ceremonies to strengthen social bonds, seek blessings, and appease spirits.
It’s important to note that Ndebele beliefs and practices can vary among different individuals and communities within the Ndebele culture, as beliefs are often influenced by personal experiences, regional customs, and individual interpretations
The Ndzundza Ndebele are renowned for their art, seen in mural decoration and beadwork. Their designs incorporate geometric shapes, flowers, snakes, birds, and small animals, as well as modern influences like letters and buildings. Traditionally, natural pigments like soot, ash, and clay were used, but access to colored paints brought by traders expanded their palette. Women focused on mural art during autumn and winter when agricultural tasks were fewer, and beadwork was done during leisure moments throughout the year.
Ndebele women wear extensive adornments, with iirholwana beaded wire hoops being popular on wrists, arms, ankles, legs, neck, and stomach. In the past, married women wore iindzila, copper or brass rings around their necks symbolizing their fidelity to their husbands, but this practice is less common today. Girls wear beaded accessories from childhood, progressing to iinrhabi loin coverings in adolescence and isiphephetu stiff beaded fore-aprons. After marriage, they wear umaphotho, large goatskin aprons adorned with white beads. Traditional bead colors represented different life stages and emotions, but urbanization has diminished these practices. Ndebele men generally don’t adorn themselves, except during rituals when they wear items given by their wives.
Appendix Female Beadwork
The women of the Ndebele devoted their time to mural art during the late autumn and winter months when agricultural activities were less demanding. They also engaged in beadwork during leisure moments in other seasons. The personal adornments worn by Ndebele women are extensive and become more elaborate after marriage and with age. Beaded wire hoops called iirholwana are popular ornaments worn on various parts of the body. In the past, married Ndebele women would wear copper or brass rings known as iindzila around their necks, symbolizing their bond and faithfulness to their husbands. These rings were believed to possess ritual powers, but wearing them permanently is no longer common.
From childhood, Ndebele girls wear beaded anklets, wristlets, and necklaces, progressing to loin coverings called iinrhabi in adolescence, and then to a stiff beaded fore-apron known as isiphephetu. After marriage, they wear a larger goatskin apron called umaphotho, intricately adorned with white beads. On their wedding day, brides wear a veil made of threaded beads that conceals their face. The colors and combinations of beads traditionally held special significance, representing different stages of life and reflecting the maker’s emotions. However, with urbanization and modernization, these practices have largely diminished. Ndebele men generally do not adorn themselves except during rituals and ceremonies when they wear items given to them by their wives.