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Hi Wanderers! In today’s blog of What makes South Africa great series, we will be discussing the Ndebele culture. Although the origins of the Ndebele are surrounded in mystery, they have been identified as one of the Nguni tribes. The Ndebele people were originally a stem of the Nguni people of KwaZulu-Natal province here in South Africa. They are known for their colourful patterns, houses and clothes.This culture is closely related to the Xhosa and Zulu cultures. The people of the Ndebele culture nowadays reside in parts of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe. They are known for their patriarchal system and polygymy as well.


Mafana was the Ndebele community’s first chief. He was then succeeded by Mhlanga, who also had a son named Musi. During the 1600’s, Musi moved to the hills of Gauteng and this is where the community then settled. After the death of Musi, he’s two sons fought for the seat of the chief. This led to the community splitting into two groups after the fight; the Manala group who stayed in the North and the Ndzundza who moved to the East and South. The two groups can also be known as the Northern and Southern Ndebele. The present-day Ndebele population, however, does include a third group of Nguni migrants, who arrived in the Pretoria and Highveld region much later, in the 1820s. They were a group of Zulus under the leadership of Mzilikazi, one of Shaka’s army generals and became incorporated in the Southern Ndebele tribe. In 1836, the Boer voortrekkers began to arrive in the same area where Mzilikazi and his people were living. To the Boers, the Ndebele were a major threat and so they went to war against them. Mzilikazi and the Ndebele were no match for the Boers and they suffered a massive loss. Mzilikazi and the Ndebele were forced to leave the region. They migrated across the Limpopo river into what is known today as Zimbabwe. There they settled in the region between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers. Today they are known as the Matabele and the region they live in as Matabeleland. Although the majority of the Ndebele moved into Zimbabwe following Mzilikazi, a number of them stayed behind in South Africa in an area that became known as the Kwandebele homeland during the Apartheid years. Some of their descendants are still living there today.


The Ndebele tribe is one of the most colourful and eye-catching tribes across the whole continent of Africa, renowned for the vivid and bright geometric designs with which they beautify their homes, their beautiful traditional clothing, and their delicate and skilful beadwork. The Ndebele community in South Africa is mainly rural, and many young men leave to seek work in the major centres in the Gauteng province. Compared to the Zulus and the Xhosa, the Ndebele are a small nation in South Africa. Generally, the women do the actual painting, inspired mostly by the beadwork that the majority of them wear themselves, with vivid polygonal shapes. In the present-day, they are also strongly influenced by modern aspects such as cars, aeroplanes, telephones and swimming pools, usually highlighting whatever it is that inspired the artist. Weaving is also a traditional Ndebele craft form, whereby they work with dried grass to create necklaces, bracelets, and mats. The Ndebele women are also famous for their tradition of wearing thick brass rings around their necks and legs, which is a reflection of their wealth. In some areas they still continue to wear them today. The weighty brass rings are usually added through the years which in most cases has the effect of lengthening the neck.

Their marriage rites involve three stages, taking several years and ending only after the first child has been born. The first stage, called Lobola, is for the bride and paid in instalments with both money and livestock. The second stage is a two-week separation of the bride. Before a woman is married, a “bukhazi” is performed; the bride-to-be goes into a smaller room or hut for a week before the wedding and the elder women in the community coach her about her role as a wife and her duties as a married woman within the village. The third stage is completed when the bride has given birth to her first child. In the Ndebele culture, polygymy is allowed and practised.

Ndebele Boys Returning from Initiation School, South Africa


Corn is the staple food within this community. Maize cereals or otherwise known as isitshwala are a favourite. The communities also grow and consume a variety of crops, fruits and vegetables and rear cattle for milk. Roast meat is another favourite delicacy. The meat is roasted over an open fire on wood charcoal. Men prefer meat that is only half-roasted and is still dripping with a bit of blood. Bota, which is traditionally seen as a children’s meal but enjoyed by adults too is usually the first meal of the day. Cocoyams is a boiled breakfast dish but can also be given as a side dish. When given as an afternoon snack, it is lightly fried. Matumbu is a dish that can be served as a relish or braaied to make a meal called Gango. Matumbu can include tripe, intestines, liver and kidneys. Lastly, and quite a big delicacy in the Ndebele tribe, is the Mopane worm. It can be eaten alive or be dried out in the sun first. They can be eaten as a snack or made into a stew to eat with isitshwala.


Hello - Lotjhani

How are you? - Unjani?

Goodbye - Salakuhle

yes - Iye

no - Awa

please - Ngiyabawa

thank you - Ngiyathokoza

excuse me - Ngitshidele

Ndebele Apron

This is a community of people that we can learn a lot from, or even just admire because of their vibrant and colourful lifestyle. You could learn more about them by setting up a customised virtual tour with WanderfullySo. If you are already on your way to Cape Town, feel free to book a free Concierge Session with us and let us take care of everything for you!


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