As South Afrika’s largest ethnic group, the Zulu are well-known for their warrior spirit, brightly colored beadwork, and a culture that continues to thrive in the face of adversity.
Of all of the different Afrikan people and cultures, the Zulu are perhaps the most widely known. Their military exploits gave rise to a mighty kingdom feared throughout much of Afrika.
Descendants of the ancient Nguni-speaking people, the Zulu’s written history traces all the way back to the 14th century. However, their rise to fame, or infamy in some respects, didn’t occur until much later in the 18th century.
Prior to this, the northern regions of the kwaZulu-Natal were filled with hundreds of clans who frequently argued over grazing rights through shouted insults and occasional assegai throwing. This all changed with Shaka.
Shaka was the illegitimate son of a local chieftan. Along with his mother, he was exiled from his own clan. He was also constantly taunted and found himself the butt of countless jokes due to his illegitimacy. All of this, however, formed him into an aggressive, fearless man.
Upon his father’s death, Shaka took assumed power over the Zulu clan, which consisted of 1,500 people and a territory spanning 150 square kilometers. Determined to assert his dominance over the local clans, he defeated their armies and assimilated their men, women, and children into what became the Zulu Nation. In only 12 years, he managed to forge one of the greatest empires Afrika has ever known.
Nonetheless, Shaka’s reign was brutally ruthless. He would frequently put both commoners and officials to death for no apparent reason. When Shaka’s mother, Nandi, died in 1827, the funeral drew a huge gathering. He ordered some people be killed as a mark of respect. However, largely due to the fear he caused in others, the entire crowd started killing one another. By the time it was over, 7,000 people were dead.
One year later, Shaka’s half-brothers Mhlangana and Dingane had him assassinated. In his dying words, he gave a warning that with his death, the white man would take the Zulu land and crumble the Zulu Nation. He was right. In no time at all, the Zulu Nation was broken up.
Worse yet, rather than fighting the encroaching colonialists, they actually fought with the English and the Boers from 1899-1902 during the Boer War. Although they were promised emancipation from the British for their assistance, the promise was not honored. This sparked a growing resentment and the 1948 formation of the Afrikaner Nationalists.
In 1960, the Zulus seceded from the Commonwealth and joined alongside other black South Afrikan groups in the fight against apartheid. This remained until 1994, when the first democratic elections were held.
Zululand in South Afrika
Umndeni is the Zulu word for “family.” It includes every relative living together in a homestead, and a person can be a relative by blood, adoption, or marriage. In the rural areas, where many Zulu live today, most households are comprised of extended families, including parents, grandparents, children, unmarried sisters, and brothers and their wives.
Despite living together seemingly as a single unit, Zulu families are very patriarchal. The men are both the figures of authority and the heads of the families. It’s not uncommon for unmarried men to have several girlfriends, and if they can afford it, men can have more than one wife.
Traditionally, working and providing is the man’s responsibility, and women are discouraged from going out and working. Today, however, Zulu women are slowly improving their status as more and more are becoming educated and some are gaining employment.
Despite being known as warriors, the Zulu are quite warm and friendly people. Ubuntu, which means “humanness,” shapes the way they conduct their everyday life. There are endless proverbs regarding ubuntu and relating to good and bad behavior, bad manners, moral degeneracy, pride, ingratitude, helping others, and other topics on the treatment of people.
When greeting one another, Sawubonais is used if they are strangers, but a more formal greeting consisting of three handshakes is used for those familiar with one another. When taking leave, one Zulu will often say Sala or Nisale kahle, which means “remain well.” The other will say Uhambe or Nihambe kahle, meaning “go well.” It’s a custom for children and younger individuals to initiate greetings when meeting elders.
The Zulu are quite fond of dancing and singing. In fact, they do both to promote unity during births, funerals, weddings, and other transitional ceremonies. Along with dancing and singing, drums are played and the men dress up as warriors, wield their cowhide shields, and wave their clubs.
Folklore plays a prominent role in Zulu culture as well. They are fond of storytelling and reciting poems and proverbs.
Hand woven blankets
Hand made basket
Portrait of Shaka Zulu
The Zulu celebrate, births, puberty, marriages, and deaths are rites of passages, and they commemorate each with the slaughter of a sacrificial animal as an offering to their ancestors. However, of each of these events, birth and puberty are notably celebrated.
According to Zulu tradition, the greatest misfortune in life is childlessness. Second, is not giving birth to a boy. A marriage is only cemented when a child, particularly a boy, is born.
After birth, puberty marks the second most important event in a Zulu’s life. The puberty ceremony, known as umemulo, marks the transition to adulthood. Today, this ceremony is only performed for girls, and it involves a separation from others for a period of time.
When the umemulo ceremony concludes, the girl is reincorporated back into Zulu society. This is generally celebrated with dancing, feasting, and the ritual killing of animals. Afterwards, the girl is officially declared as ready to marry and courting can begin.
During courtship, it’s common for Zulu girls to send love letters made of beads to young men of their choosing. Different color beads have different meanings, and specific messages are revealed through the combination of different colors.
Dating only occurs when a young man replies by writing a love letter back and each pronounces their love for one another. Only then can they be seen in public together. Parents are only made aware of the relationship when the young man tells them his intention of marrying their daughter.
The spirits of their ancestors are highly regarded and play an important role in Zulu religious life. The Zulu often make sacrifices and offerings to their ancestral spirits for happiness, good health, and protection. They believe their ancestors visit in the form of dreams and illnesses. They also believe they sometimes come back in the form of snakes.
Magic is also popular in Zulu culture. Sudden illness, bad luck, and anything else beyond understanding are considered the work of angry spirits. Whenever this occurs, they usually seek the help of a herbalist or soothsayer. In addition to using natural herbs, this person says prayers and communicates with the ancestors to get rid of the malady.
While many Zulu converted to Christianity while under colonial rule, they still hold strongly to their ancestral beliefs. Today, they often practice a mixture of Christianity and their traditional, pre-colonial beliefs. This is particularly the case in urban areas where traditions have been washed away with time.
The language of the Zulu is known as isiZulu, and along with English, it’s the most widely spoken language in KwaZulu-Natal. This proverbial and idiomatic language is characterized by clicks. It’s also characterized by respect. Not only is addressing elders by their first names only seen as a sign of disrespect, but baba meaning “father” and mama meaning “mother” are also used to refer to all senior men and women of the community.
The rural economy of the Zulu is based almost entirely on agriculture and cattle. As such, beef, vegetables, and fruit are the main staples of the Zulu diet. Boiled and barbecued beef and amasi, which is curdled milk mixed with dry cooked corn flour or dry ground corn, are both quite popular. Amdumbe, or yams, are also a common food staple.
Although it’s a drink, traditional Zulu beer is another food staple and a considerable source of nutrition in the Zulu diet. It also plays a large role socially and ritually as it’s commonly drunk during every significant occasion.
In terms of eating and drinking customs, the Zulu believe eating from the same plate and drinking from the same cup are signs of friendship. It’s also customary for all of the children of a household to eat from the same plate. However, the plate is more like a large basin. These customs originate from the Zulu’s “share what you have” belief.
Afrikan History & Culture