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Introduction to the Zulus

The people known today as Zulus formed together about 165 years ago. They formed by many independent clans combining, all of whom had lived in the eastern coastal parts of South Africa for centuries. The name "Zulu" was originally the name of one man. His descendants made up the Zulu clan.

In 1816 this clan gained a new chief, Shaka, who led them to conquer the other clans. He created a nation by this, which was called Zulu. The Zulu became a very powerful and feared group of people. At around 1820, white colonizers arrived at their land. This led to conflict that eventually built up into war. In 1879, the British defeated the Zulus. All of South Africa was under the control of the British. The native Africans had almost no political rights. They became subject to apartheid. The Africans opposed this system, and so did some others inside and outside of the country opposed it as well. Today, full rights for all in South Africa is still being questioned, and up until today the Zulus have been prominent in the struggle for equal rights.

How the Zulu Nation Was Created

The Zulus are one of the original peoples in South Africa. They were Bantu-speaking, but adopted some of the Khoisan click sounds in their languages. They lived in the central sections of the Eastern/Southeastern part of Africa, living in what is now called the Province of Natal.

At the end of the 1700s the name "Zulu" belonged to a small clan of a few hundred people. They lived among many other clans as they had been doing so for many centuries. Each clan was led by its own chief and occupied its own plot of territory.

In 1816, Senzangkhona, the chief of the Zulu clan, died. This left one of his sons to claim leadership. The son who claimed leadership was Shaka, who then succeeded in establishing himself as chief of the Zulu.

Shaka wanted to unite various clans and then make them into a large nation under his leadership. To do so, he set up a program training new warriors in new war tactics and giving them a sense of discipline and a desire to be part of a wider nation rather than a clan.

One part of his war tactics replaced the kind of weapon the Zulus were to use. Instead of using long throwing spears, Shaka introduced a single short, stabbing spear called an assegai. This meant warriors had to come face to face with their enemies and stab one after another using the same assegai.

Using Shaka's new war tactics, the Zulu warriors conquered the clans all around them. Many people didn't submit to the Zulu conquest and ran away in all directions to escape. In South African history, the wars were recorded in books as the Mfecane, which means "devastating wars," which was how all those who fled from them remembered them as.

So, in a short period of ten years, what was known as the small Zulu clan, became the vast Zulu Nation. The Zulu Nation covered a large territory that it included the conquered clan's land and the abandoned land by the fleeing clans. This was called the Zululand. As the author John Mack wrote, "Zulu land is a land of contrasts.
Changes in sea level long ago have
produced a landscape that descends to
the ocean in three steps or stages.
Each marks a retreat of the sea."

Shaka was said to be ruthless in his enforcement of discipline and his desire to conquer. However, he had a short rule, because in 1828 he was assassinated by two of his half-brothers. Shaka was never married and had no children. Therefore, Dingane, one of his assassins, succeeded him. Although Shaka died young, as you read, he was still able to complete his aspiration of building the Zulu nation.

The Zulu Way of Life

The Zulus lived in homesteads instead of villages. Each homestead was known as umuzi. Each of the homesteads was surrounded by a hedge, and consisted of several "beehive-like" huts, known as kraals. They were beehive-shaped and were built around flexible saplings. Over the top thatching of grass mats were laid and tied down with grass ropes. The floor was made of clay and cow-dung and wass polished with a stone to make a hard surface making the floor look like marble. As an early traveler described it, "shining black or dark green in colour and almost as smooth as a looking glass."

The huts formed a circle, with an opening at one end that served as an entrance. There was also an inner circle, which was fenced off by poles. This served as a cattle pen, where the livestock were kept at night. Each homestead had farmable land around it for the use of growing crops. Cattle were grazed on common pastures short distances away from the umuzi.

The umuzi was the home of a single family. A man would live with his wife, or wives. The man's sons and their wives and children would also be in the homestead, because a bride always joined her husband's family, where her husband and she would remain until the husband's father died.

When a bride moved to her husband's home on marriage, the husband and his relatives paid a price to her family, in the form of cattle. This was called lobola, which is part of an elaborate wedding ceremony, and it is said to indicate goodwill on the part of the bridegroom's family.


A homestead was the smallest unit in Zulu society. The head of a homestead was responsible for everyone to behave well, and was answerable to the headman, or induna, for everyone's conduct. The iduna was in charge of a ward. Seven wards together make up a chiefdom, whose leader was a chief. The head of each ward was reported to the chief. Like this, all the chiefdoms together made up the Zulu kingdom, and the chiefs were answerable to the king. The king represented the unity of the nations. He held the land in his hands and was trusted by all his people. He was also responsible for their welfare. Since doing all this was a difficult task, he delegated powers to the chiefs, who dealt with their chiefdoms, and only referred the difficult cases to the king.

All matters concerning the national interest were dealt with in the same manner. For example, the recruitment of warriors for the army was initially the responsibility of the headman. Once he got some new recruits he sent them from his ward to the chief, who then sent them to the king.


Kinship, or blood relation, was an important part in Zulu life. A Zulu father's standing in the society effected his offspring's social, religious, and political life. The only way to inherit property or rank was through your father; also you got relatives who had ties to you mainly through your father. Using extended kinship terms showed such ties. Children used the term father for their own father, and also all the brothers of their father.

All the wives of these fathers were called mothers. All the children who had the same fathers and mothers were brothers and sisters. Children grew up in a large group of people who were a family to them. If the real parents died, a child was never orphaned as the other "parents" took over the responsibilities. Kinship terms also extended to people who were not blood relatives. All those who had the surname were seen as belonging to one clan, and so could not marry, even though the direct relationship couldn't be traced. Anyone belonging to the mother's clan was also treated, as a cousin so was not available for marriage.

By these kinship terms, a wide range of people were treated as relatives. So, more relations were formed as a result of marriage, when a clan member married someone from a distant clan. The practice of marrying outsiders or exogamy is common in many societies in Africa.

Religious Beliefs

The Zulus believed in an almighty or supreme being, whom they called Umvelinqangi, which means "the one who is always there." Their Umvelinqangi, they believed, created the universe, but had little to do with day-to-day affairs. It was the spirits of dead relatives, their ancestors, who were believed to have the power to bless or punish the living.

So, they honored ancestors by rituals and ceremonies. The ancestors were thought to be in another world, where they were believed to be happy and powerful. They were said to punish people who did bad deeds by making them suffer misfortunes.

In daily life, there were various taboos. These mainly emphasized the divisions between those who were kinsmen and those who weren't. For example, there were certain areas within the homestead where outsiders were not permitted to go, such as where the dead were buried or where religious rituals were practiced.

To break these taboos was regarded as sacrilege, which could lead to punishment by death. There were other taboos, which it was considered not so bad to break. Like, how women always had sat on the left-hand side of the doorway, while men sat on the right-hand side. Taboos on food were connected with kinship. It was taboo to drink milk or eat and food made from milk in any home other than where the family had the same surname as yours, or the same surname as your mother's family. Again, this was another way of expressing the importance of kinship relationships.

Health and Healing

To the Zulus, illness was not only physical pain but also emotional stress that causes misfortune. So if a person died, the relatives were considered ill, as a result of the emotional stress. To be healthy meant to be in good physical and social standings. Illness could come from natural causes and inherited diseases. Also there were illnesses due to the practice of improper conduct, which annoyed the ancestral spirits and caused them to withdraw their protection and blessing.

For this reason, the Zulu healers were divided into three main categories. First, there was the insangoma, or spiritual medium (called witch doctor by Europeans).

An insangoma was usually a woman. She had a special contact with her ancestral spirits, which gave her clairvoyance. It took a lot of training to gain this power. The insangoma's main task was to diagnose the causes of the diseases in order to decide on a cure. Also, there were inyangas (herbalists). They made mixtures of different herbs to cure various aches and pains. Inyangas were usually men. They couldn't diagnose the cause of misfortunes.

In addition, there were also men and women who had a special medical skill, which was passed down to them. Some were bonesetters, some specialized in wounds, and so forth. There wore also those who had knowledge of antidotes to snake bites, and specialist midwives who helped at difficult births.

Land and Food

For the Zulus, land was regarded as a necessity of life, provided by the creator, and so was never privately owned. However, there were rules governing land use. Rights to fertile land were reserved to married people. But if a homestead land was left unused over a long period, the chief reserved the right to reallocate the land.

Land was used for growing crops and rearing livestock. Crops consisted mainly of cereals like sorghum, millet and corn. There were also various kinds of beans and root crops like cocoa-yams and sweet potatoes. These crops were mainly grown and tended by women, who also collected and gathered wild vegetables and fruits.

Men mainly looked after livestock, which included cattle, goats, and sheep. Cattle provided meat, and also gave milk, which goats never did. Also, men also hunted animals for meat.

In the Zulus' warm climate, they had no means of refrigeration. So, they devised several methods of storage. Milk was left to go sour in large gourds. Then, the whey was strained and used as a refreshing cold drink. The curdled part, called the amasi, mixed with a cereal formed an essential dish in every home.

When the harvest was good, surplus grain was stored in underground tanks within the cattle pen. Grain stored in this manner could last for several years and could provide a reserve for periods of drought. For everyday use, grain was kept above ground in woven baskets.

As for vegetables, blanching and drying preserved them. Vegetables and dry meat were stored in large clay containers.

The Zulus didn't have to store fish. Because they never developed a taste for fish, even though there were well-stocked rivers and the Indian Ocean. The land had already provided all that they needed.

Arts and Crafts

Both men and women made various items for the household. Women used different types of grass to weave trays, mats and baskets. Also, they molded some large containers used for storage, as well as dishes and cooking pots, all out of clay. Men carved wood to make stools, trays, dishes, spoons, and other objects. They also tanned hides and skins, so they could make clothing, blankets, carrier bags, and shields to be used in battles. Also, a few families had the right to smelt iron ore. Out of which they made spears, knives, and hoes.

Decorated articles of costume and jewelry were very popular in Zulu culture. Colorful beads were used to make patterns. Women using beads did the beadwork. Seashells and dried seeds dyed in various bright colors were also used for decoration. Today, the Zulus are still known to love beadwork finery.

Another form of cosmetic decorative art was to make cuts on the face, forming designs, in the way of a tattoo. Ear piercing is the first distinguishing mark showing that a boy or girl is past the age of seven. Ear lobes were also sometimes pierced to take a large wooden earring covered in intricate patterns. In addition to ear piercing, the Zulus also spent a great deal of time on hairstyles.

Poetry was another popular form of art. Men were specialists in this and usually praised kings and national heroes in their poems. Today, we can study these poems to piece together fragments of history.

Growing Up

In Zulu society, boys and girls were given a sense of responsibility at a very early age. When infants were weaned away from their mothers, at about the age of three. They became the responsibility of their older sisters, who also helped with domestic choirs. Young boys took part in herding calves, goats, and sheep, while their older brothers were given the responsibility of the larger livestock. The boys herding also learned how to hunt and snare small game.

The older children had to protest the younger ones, and also teach them discipline, for they were answerable if the younger ones misbehaved. The Zulus placed a great deal of emphasis on praising and rewarding good behavior. Children soon were taught how to share everything.

They also learned never to receive or give with the left hand, and never to look at an adult straight in the eye when speaking to him or her, eyes were to be cast down. Children were taught never to stand in the presence of their seniors, as the seniors had always to be higher in position. So when entering someone's house, a child sat down immediately, showing respect.

To Zulus, bravery was a highly valued trait. Showing pain was frowned upon. Herdboys practiced stickfight games, which taught them how to avoid blows and were also a test of how much beating they could take without flinching.

Another part of growing up was in the evening time. This was when, after meals, adults and children would gather around fires to share snacks, exchange riddles, and listen to stories about heroes of the past.

The Coming of White Settlers in the Zulu Nation

The first settlers came in 1488, when the famous Portuguese navigator Bartolomeu Dias, sailed around the southernmost tip of the continent of Africa and discovered what later became known as the Cape of Good Hope.

Starting at 1600, the English, the Dutch, and the French set up chartered companies to make trades in the East Indies. All three thought about establishing a base at the Cape of Good Hope, but only the Dutch did so. The base became important as a halfway point to provide fresh food to ships going from Europe to the East.

Dutch and German Settlers, and some French Protestant refugees, continued to arrive. From 1658 on, slaves were regularly imported. Society developed between free whites, who had civil rights, and their black slaves, who had very few rights.

In 1795, the British controlled the Cape of Good Hope. By then the white settlers felt that they belonged first and foremost to South Africa. They called themselves Afrikaner or Boer, meaning framer, and they had their own language (Afrikaans) derived from 17th Century Dutch.

The colony's frontiers had also extended, leading to much conflict with Khoisan and Bantu peoples. Five thousand settlers were brought out from Britain in 1820 and were given farms along the eastern frontier. Most, however, became townsmen, and traders. A few settled farther to the north in the land of the Zulus, which is now Durban.

The Zulu's Conflict with the Boers

Most Boers did not like British control and the new laws on which the British insisted. One of these concerned was the emancipation of slaves. The Boers began to head north, and settled farther into the interior. This exodus of Voortrekkers as they were known, started in 1834 and it was called the Great Trek.

Most of the Voortrekkers decided to settle in part of the Zulu domain known to the whites as Natal. In 1838, the Voortrekker leader, Piet Retief, visited Dingane, the king who resigned for twelve tears after Shaka, to ask permission to reside on Zulu land.

Then, it seems that Retief and his party, as guests at the Royal residence, went out in the evening to enjoy the cool air, and went into places that were taboo to strangers, because of this they were killed.

The Zulus went on to attack Boer camps nearby, killing hundred of people. The survivors fought back in a series of battles, until finally reinforcements arrived from the Cape Colony and a huge battle took place on December 16, 1838, now called "Day of the Covenant", at a camp on the Ncome River. Thousands of Zulus, who were trapped in a ditch, were shot. Their blood turned the water in the ditch red.

The Anglo-Zulu War

Although their main army hadn't been defeated, the Zulus realized that their weapons and war tactics were no match for gunmen on horses. In spite of this, they left the Boers to settle in Natal.

The British, however, annexed the new Voortrekker Republic as a Crown Colony. The Boers mostly left. They joined others in the west to set up the Orange Free State and the South African Republic known as the Transvaal.

Meanwhile, in 1840, Dingane had been overthrown by his brother Mpande. Mpande was succeeded in 1872 by his son Cetshwayo, and the present Zulu king is his great-great-grandson.

The British wished to control the Boer republics and decided to make the Zulu nation submit to British rule. They annexed the Transvaal in 1877. They were so obliged they supported Boer land claims against the Zulus.

This angered Cetshwayo. He began to enlarge his army. A British command arrived, demanding that the Zulu army be dismissed and that a British diplomat should reside there to enforce British rule. Cetshwayo would not meet these demands.

In January 1879, the British invaded the Zulu nation. Despite their inferior spears against the British guns, the Zulus put up a great fight, killing almost all of them. As Benjamin Disraeli said, "A remarkable people the Zulu. They defeat our generals, convert our bishops, and put an end to a great European dynasty."

But, in July, the Zulus were defeated at Ulundi. Cetshwayo was exiled and his kingdom was divided into thirteen chiefdoms ruled by chiefs trusted by the British. The Zulus did not accept them and civil wars continued.

Cetshwayo visited London and met Queen Victoria in 1822. He attracted large crowds wherever he went. He said to the crowds, "I do not care to be made a show of. If English people have never seen a black man before I am sorry. I am not a wild beast; I did not come here to be looked at."

Cetshwayo was restored as ruler in 1883, but the trouble did not end. Nevertheless, today Zulus recognize Zwelithini Goodwill, the descendant of Mpande and Cetshwayo, as their king, even though there is no longer an independent Zulu kingdom.

Christian Missionaries

Even though there had been a bit of missionary activity among the Khoikhoin earlier, it wasn't until the end of the 1700s that missionaries began to arrive in South Africa in any great number. Most of them were Protestants, with headquarters in the cape. Only slowly did their work extend to Natal and Zululand.

In 1816, Joeseph Williams of the London Missionary Society made his first Bantu converts in the Cape. Thereafter the LMS built schools, churches, and hospitals for the local peoples. These churches were later absorbed into what today is known as the United Congregational Church of South Africa.

Soon after this, the Glasgow Missionary Society attempted mission work that produced the Bantu Presbyterian Church. The Reverend William Shaw, a Wesleyan minister, accompanied the British settlers, who arrived in the eastern Cape Colony in 1820. He founded Methodist mission stations expanding up along the eastern coast of Zululand.

Anglicans, Catholics, and Lutherans also established missions. Bishop Colenso of the Anglican Church was stationed in Pietermaritzburg, a place in Natal. He was a great friend of the Zulus and an adviser to King Cetshwayo right through the crisis of the Anglo-Zulu war. Father A. T. Bryant made the first Zulu-English dictionary. He was a Catholic priest who also wrote classic books in Zulu.

Nearly all mission stations trained teachers and nurses. Other skills were also taught at these mission stations. Most mission schools expected those they educated to renounce traditional beliefs about things like ancestors, sorcery, medicines, and marriage.

South African governments right up until 1950 failed to provide education and health services for the Zulu people. Christian missionaries played an important role. Nearly all educated Zulu people who are now over 50 years old owe their education to the efforts of the missionaries.

The Zulus in the Twentieth Century

The Anglo-Boer war of 1899-1902 gave the British control over the Boer republics. After lengthy negotiations, the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910, from four provinces of the Cape, Natal, Orange Free State, and Transvaal. Although the union was self-governing, the representatives of each province were white. Almost all the black people of the country were unable to vote and had no political rights.

The development of gold and diamond mining industries in the 1870s created a labor shortage. Workers were recruited from other areas. This established a practice in South Africa of the use of migrant labor. By 1910 there were nearly 184,000 Africans employed in the gold mines.

The development of industries and the participation of the Zulu people in them, put Zulus in a new context and perspective. They found themselves part of a larger section of black peoples who were not allowed political rights and so devised strategies to get those rights.

It was the awareness of belonging to a wider group of deprived people that led to the creation of the African National Congress (ANC) in 1912 by Dr. P. Ka Seme. He was a young lawyer with an American degree.

Although Dr. Seme was a Zulu with close ties with the Zulu royal family, he didn't let that limit him in the ANC. He realized the political struggles of the Zulus needed to be united into a front of all the indigenous people of South Africa. The creation of the ANC was a political response to the 1909 Act. The act created the union but deprived the African people of any say in their future.


In South Africa there are four main racial groups: the whites, the coloreds, the Asians, and the Africans. Many laws were passed to implement separation of these groups. Segregated areas were established for each race to live in.

Blacks were only allowed land in the African Reserves. Black workers had many restrictions put on them. The races were to be educated separately. Laws encouraged every adult black male to carry a "reference book" at all times containing information about himself, which was to be presented to the police if they were asked it.

The Struggle for Rights

African people expressed their reaction to apartheid through intensified political activities through organizations. One of these organizations was the African National Congress. Because of this, the ANC was banned and its leaders were imprisoned. Nelson Mandela, once a leader of the ANC was imprisoned in 1960. Many other leaders were also imprisoned, and other political movements were banned.

The Zulu people have chosen Chief Buthelezi as their leader within the area set aside for the Zulu occupation known as Kwazulu. Buthelezi led a movement called the National Cultural Liberation Movement. It has been described as, "the largest political organization yet seen in South Africa." It drew membership from the "grass roots" as well as from Urban-Based people.

Buthelezi has resisted government attempts to turn Kwazulu into an independent state. As is has happened with some other black territories in South Africa. As he once declared, "I say that the Zulus would rather die in their thousands than be forced to be foreigners in their homeland which is South Africa."

Zulu Life Today

There has been widened cultural and economic horizons that education, industries. Christianity and mobility have brought freedom of movement and of choice is curtailed by apartheid restrictions. Despite this, like all black peoples in South Africa, the Zulus have made the best use of what is entitled to them.

The Zulu University opened in 1960. It offers degrees in Education, Law, Science, and Social Sciences. A good number of graduates have received higher education in American and British Universities. Zulu life has had to change greatly to meet the demands of all these developments.

The land available cannot support rural population. It is insufficient both in quantity and quality. Most of it is only good for raising livestock, not for growing crops. Migrant labor has become a pattern of life. Most city workers visit home only once a month, for others it is even worse.

The kinship culture is now a thing of the past. The Zulus no longer practice it, due to restrictions on choice of lifestyle and the demands of a monetary economy. Mobility encourages the diffusion of family groups. As a result, people now seek new ties to replace the ones they had with kinship. They find these new ties in organizations, such as church associations.


What may be in store for the Zulus in the future? Their position in South African society results from the way that society is organized. Racial issues dominate politics. Deprived races continually, try to pressure those in power to recognize their rights.

The Zulus are prominent in this conflict because they had continuous confrontations with the conquerors over a century. They have never accepted defeat. They have always produced good leaders. The are found in large numbers in industrial centers, like the Johannesburg area, and therefore have much influence beyond Natal.

Recently the government has at last begun to speak of giving everyone full rights in South Africa. But no matter what happens the Zulus along with their leaders are sure to go on being at the center of events.