The Ndebele (South/original Ndebele) people are an artistic Bantu-speaking people of Nguni extraction comprising abakwaManala (the Manala Ndebele) and abakwaNdzundza (the Ndzundza Ndebele) located in South Africa and Zimbabwe.

The Southern and Northern (ama) Ndebele of the Republic of South Africa constitute a single ethnic group that claims its origin from the ancestral chief, Musi (or Msi). According to scholars Fourie (1921), Van Warmelo (1930), Van Vuuren (1983), De Beer (1986), Skhosana (1996) and others, the (ama)Ndebele originate from KwaZulu-Natal. Long before Shaka’s wrath they parted as a bigger clan from their main Hlubi tribe around 1552 under the chieftainship of Mafana and took their route northwards. The other clan also separated from the main (ama)Hlubi tribe and went south via Basotoland. The clan that went south ultimately became part of (ama) Xhosa Nguni people who are presently found in the Eastern Cape.

Ndebele people: Initiates at Iqhude (coming out ceremony). Note beaded leg ornaments (golwani) and beaded aprons. The size and shape of an Ndebele woman’s apron communicates information about her status in life (married, with children or grandchildren, etc.). Generally, the larger and more parts an apron has, the older and more important role the woman plays. Beadworking is taught by mothers to daughters, and has come to be an important source of income for Ndebele women -they go out as a group and parade around the village. Courtesy

 The people refer to themselves as “AmaNdebele,” or “Ndzundza” or “Manala,” denoting the two main tribal groupings. They are distinct from Mzilikazi`s led Northern Ndebele people popularly known as Matebele people of Zimbabwe and South Africa. Ndebele people are also known as the Southern Transvaal Ndebele, and are centered around Bronkhorstspruit in the Republic of South Africa.

The South Ndebele people found in the former Transvaal today consists mainly of two tribes, namely, abakwaManala (the Manala Ndebele) and abakwaNdzundza (the Ndzundza Ndebele). The population census of 1980 indicated that the Ndebele people in South Africa numbered some 392 420. This number was composed as follows: 27 100 in urban areas and 87 940 in former KwaNdebele and 33 480 in the other parts of South Africa. (Population Census, 1980,3-4).

Ndebele women from Gauteng wearing colourful traditional clothing during a National Women’s day in Pretoria.

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 Southern Transvaal Ndebele people now lives specisely around  Gauteng and Mpumalanga provinces of RSA whilst the Northern Transvaal Ndebele (now Limpopo Province) are also around the towns of Mokopane (Potgietersrus) and Polokwane (Pietersburg).

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)

Traditional Ndebele boy performing at initiation school


IsiNdebele is the beautiful African or Bantu language spoken by the Ndebele people of South Africa who are also sometimes known as the amaNdebele. IsiNdebele forms part of the “Southern Bantu” group of African languages, which in turn forms part of the larger Niger-Congo language family. IsiNdebele is one of the officially languages of South Africa.

The Central subgroup is further subdivided into geographical regions, each designated by a letter. The S-Group covers much of southern Africa and includes the two major dialect continua of South Africa: the Nguni and the Sotho-Tswana language groups. Languages within these two groups tend to be mutually intelligible and the groups make up 47% and 25% of the South African population respectively. IsiNdebele forms part of the Nguni language group and is therefore closely related to the other major languages in this group, isiZulu, isiXhosa and siSwati. Linguists commonly drop the language prefix when referring to these languages. Hence isiNdebele is commonly referred to as “Ndebele.” This practice is, however, contested and in South Africa the official use of the prefixes has increased during the post-apartheid period. In South Africa isiNdebele is also commonly known as Southern Ndebele, to distinguish it from the Zimbabwean variety or Northern Ndebele (also known as Sindebele). IsiNdebele is also occasionally referred to as isiKhethu.

The Southern Ndebele speakers are found in the Limpopo Province which was formerly known as the Northern Transvaal (also known as Nrebele). They can be found in and around Mokopane and Polokwane and are few in number. Because no one ever compiled a proper orthography for the language, it has never been taught in schools and is slowly dying out. Most of the younger Southern Ndebele now speak Northern Sotho since the language is considered by many to be more versatile and useful.The Northern Ndebele speakers are found mainly in Mpumalanga and Gauteng.

All isiNdebele speakers trace their roots to Nguni migrations out of the region that is now known as KwaZulu-Natal. The earliest of these settled in the Pretoria area in the 1600′s. After the death of their king, Musi, the kingdom was split between his two sons, Manala and Ndzundza. The two main South African traditions, Manala in the Pretoria area and the Ndzundza further east, derive from this split. During the 1820′s Mzilikazi broke away from Shaka’s Zulu Kingdom and fled northwards, settling ultimately in the region that is today Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. That is the origin of the Ndebele of Zimbabwe.
In 1994 isiNdebele became one of nine indigenous languages to obtain official recognition in South Africa’s first post-apartheid Constitution. The 2001 South African census estimates the number of isiNdebele speakers to be 711824. At 2% of the population, isiNdebele speakers make up the smallest official language group in South Africa.

As a written medium isiNdebele is one of the youngest indigenous languages in South Africa, as formal codification began in the late twentieth century. The language has a very small literature, most of which dates from 1984. The most significant literary work is the Bible, which was translated in 1986. Ironically, most of this language development took place during the Apartheid years.


The origin of the name “Ndebele” is full of speculations and there are many school thoughts. The necessity of trying to trace the origins of the term “Ndebele” has become apparent. Some school of thought posit that Mzilikazi, who originated from Zululand and led the breakaway factions from the Zulu people called himself  Ndebele. It is however not very clear as to when he actually started calling himself Ndebele because historically there are no facts indicating that he ever used the name whilst still in Zululand. This is aggravated by the fact that, the people who now live across the Limpopo in Zimbabwe call themselves Ndebele as well.

D W Kruger in his 1983 seminal work “The Ndzunclza-Ndebele and the Mapoch caves, Pretoria” tried to solve this confusion saying “The Transvaal Ndebele, who comprise the Northern and Southern Ndebele, should not be confused with the Ndebele or Matebele of Mzilikazi (Silkaats). The latter were “recent” immigrants (c 1825) into the Transvaal originating from the Khumalo in Natal.

Ndebele people. Circa 1940. Courtsey

According to historical data, the Ndebele must have been of the earliest immigrants into the Transvaal, and came here most probably before 1500. This makes the Transvaal Ndebele in all likelihood the earliest Nguni immigrants into the TransvaaL It is however, not clear at what stage and where the branching off from the main Nguni group took place”.(Kruger, 1983,33).

It is clear from Kruger`s account that, firstly. the Ndebele people found in the Transvaal today are not the same group as those found in Zimbabwe. The group found in the Transvaal today is estimated to have been there at least three centuries before the arrival of Mzilikazi. (sic!) Secondly, although the name “Ndebele” is shared by both the groups, ill actual fact one of the groups must have “inherited” the name.
P S Mthimunye a history researcher wrote in an unpublished manuscript that the name “Ndebele” was another name by which the first chief of the Ndebele people was known. According to the same writer, chief Ndebele and chief Mafana were one and the same person. The issue here is that the name Ndebele was derived from an early Ndebele chief and can by no means be connected to the Zulu or Zululand. Just like in most African nations, the name of the first king normally becomes the name whereby the nation as a whole becomes known. We can think here of the Swati people of king Mswati; the Shangane people of Soshangane; the Bashweshwe people of king Moshoeshoe etc.

The other school of thought of how Ndebele people got their name was led by historian Rasmussen when he writes: “the name ‘Ndebele’ is a good example of the almost universal tendency of people receiving their names from outsider.”(Rasmussen, 1978, 161). He further points out that the name “Ndebele” is a Nguni version of the seSotho name “Matebele”. He says that this name was used by the Sotho people to refer to any member of the Nguni group who came from the “East”. It has been used on several other Nguni people other than Mzilikazi. The Sotho people used this name on all Nguni speaking people, most probably, because they found “little difference”, if any at all, in the languages spoken by the latter. He concludes: ‘Eventually the name ‘Matebele’, or ‘Ndebele’ in its Anglo/Nguni form, came to apply only to Mzilikazi’s people and to the ‘Transvaal Ndebele’. These latter were the descendants of much earlier Nguni immigrants onto the highveld. (Rasmussen, 1978, 162).

The oral version among the Africans explained why Ndebele became Matebele by stating that the name Matebele comes from Sotho words “mathebe telele”, meaning “carriers of long shields”. It is only Shaka’s warriors who are known to have carried long shields. This idea of long shields is said to be Shaka’s own, and no other king before Shaka is known to have employed this type of war armoury. When the Sotho people saw these long shields for the first time, to them it was just a queer sight. Because of the fact that it is not easy to pronounce “mathebe telele” in a fast speech, one ends up saying “matebele’.

Ndebele Woman at Wall (South Africa), 1936-1949. By Constance Stuart Larrabee

The last school of thought believes that the  Ndebele people originated from Zululand but left Zululand quite early. This view estimates that the breakaway time could be during the sixteenth century, certainly many, many years before the Shaka period. An interesting view is the one documented by Skhosana. He writes - “The Ndebele people originated from Kwazulu around 1557, this was before the arrival of white people in South Africa. They were a small group when they left kwazulu and it is not very clear who their king was at this time.” (Skhosana, 1996,5). It presupposes that the Ndebele people originated from Zululand around the year 1557. They were a small nation and it is not very clear who their king was at the time.

Ndebele mother and child (South Africa), 1936-1949 (probably 1960). By Constance Stuart Larrabee

On Mzilikazi who is a founder and leader of Northern Ndebele (Matebele) people, it is said that Mzilikazi on his way to the North, fleeing from Shaka, must have requested for “political asylum” from among the original Ndebele (Southern Ndebele) people. There is also a view that, Mzilikazi, a former Shaka warrior, impressed the Ndebele people with his impi techniques he learned from Shaka, so much that he gained himself a good name of being a hero. According to Skhosana (Skhosana, 1996, 8) the encounter between the Ndebele people and Mzilikazi was not that harmonious. A fierce war was waged and Mzilikazi was victorious. Mzilikazi left a trail of destruction wherein he murdered two Ndebele chiefs before proceeding to Zimbabwe. Skhosana writes “During the reign of king Magodongo at kwaMaza, there arrived Mzilikazi who was fleeing from Shaka wars in KwaZulu. Mzilikazi killed Magodongo and thereafter took as captives stock and wives and went Northwards, and ultimately settled in Rhodesia known today as Zimbabwe. When Mzilikazi attacked Magodongo, he had already passed via Manala and killed Sibindi. (Skhosana, 1996, 8).

In researching all the various historical account its now an established fact that the history of the Ndebele people can be traced back to Mafana, their first identifiable chief. Mafana’s successor, Mhlanga, had a son named Musi who, in the early 1600’s, decided to move away from his cousins (later to become the mighty Zulu nation) and to settle in the hills of Gauteng near where the capital, Pretoria is situated.

Ndebele women in South Africa in their traditional costume.


The Ndebele are noted for their colourful dress and their artistic creativity, which includes sculpted figurines, pottery, beadwork, woven mate, and their celebrated wall painting. An outstanding example is the breaded nguba, a “marriage blanket” which the bride to be, inspired by her ancestors, makes under the supervision and instruction of the older women in her ethnic group. Traditionally the women work the land and are the principal decorators and artists, while the men fashion metal ornaments such as the heavy bracelets, anklets and neck rings that are worn by women.

Ndebele homes are most eye-catching. Women, using bright primary colors, traditionally paint walls of the rectangular structures. No stencils are used for the geometric motifs.

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.

Car decorated with Ndebele artwork, spotted in Pretoria, South Africa.

Africa | The traditional adornments and hairstyle of Esther Mahlangu at the ATASA Trust Southern Africa Handcraft & Ndebele Art Exhibition opening, June 2010, Newtown South Africa | ©Lauren Barkume

About The Author


Neva is a storyteller and media strategist with a background in PR, film, advertising and digital marketing who is passionate about technology, new media and the endless possibilities of the social and mobile sphere. Read more about her on our 'About Us' page.

8 Responses

  1. Rudi Bunger

    Wonderful pictures; Time to embrace our different cultures and understand the richness of all its layers.

  2. Verlena

    I’ve longed for a very long time to know my maternal grandfathers background. All I know is his name, Rod Demmings, and he was born somewhere in the southern US. I’m sure the name Demmings was the name of the slave owner. I only met him once when I was about 4 and he died when I was about 7. My mom and her siblings said he was very kind and gentle. He and my grandmother lived in Texas (USA) and the two of them were always devising schemes to get my mom and the rest of their kids home.

  3. Youngin girl

    Love your blog and detailed information. I been sharing so much of it on Google+


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