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Articles Blog

South African Tribes

Karyn Planett

Living in a Changing World

As the tribal people of South Africa greet the dawn of the new millennium, they witness a great and powerful change swirling all around them. Their leaders are guiding them toward a promising future, having closed the door to their dark past. And as these native people of South Africa meet the challenge of being full partners in their nation’s march forward, they are also encouraged to kindle the spirit of their forefathers. They are asked to always remember and gently nurture their tribal heritage for their leaders know that once this art and song, culture and identity are lost, they are lost forever.

Who Are The Zulu?

“Zulu.” The word alone evokes a sense of power. And, for many early settlers in the South African frontier, this power was so real that the mere whisper of the word “Zulu” sent shivers down these pioneers’ muscled spines.

The Zulu are a black South African people whose tribal homeland is Zululand. Their early history is open to speculation, for little was written about them prior to the early 1800s when white settlers first recorded their actions. When the first Europeans (Portuguese sailors in need of provisions) encountered these black natives of South Africa, the seamen described them as inhabiting productive lands and being organized into highly functional chiefdoms. Several of these sizable chiefdoms were actually a collection of smaller ones assembled into a larger coalition. A handful of these coalitions emerged as the most powerful, and often wielded their authority with a very heavy hand.

A barbarous Zulu chief named Shaka is acknowledged as the Zulu ruler who successfully created one massive tribal nation from a collection of many rival tribes. He annihilated enemy rulers, stole their livestock, and absorbed their people into his tribe. Feared far and wide, Shaka’s giant Zulu Empire grew to encompass most of Natal. He even successfully defeated several British forces before they subdued him in 1879.

Shaka’s notorious wrath scattered other tribal leaders and their fearful followers across the dry plains of South Africa. Among those who fled was Mzilikazi, a general who once served under Shaka.

The Ndebele Tribe

In 1823, Mzilikazi escaped from Shaka’s grasp and journeyed to the Transvaal region with a number of strong warriors. Together, they established their own power base in the Transvaal, the Ndebele* Empire, and survived there for some time. They were then driven north by the Zulu and by the Boers (also known as Afrikaners).

The Ndebele were later crushed by the British, following an 1896 uprising, and were forced to put down their weapons. They then literally turned their swords into plowshares and became farmers and herdsmen. Over time, many of these vanquished Ndebele people ended up in Zimbabwe, beyond the banks of the Limpopo River.

This, then, is a very brief history of two important South African tribes that were ultimately conquered, scattered, then assimilated into a white man’s world. Sadly, along the way, they lost much of their heritage. However, through their songs and stories, art and body adornment, remnants of their culture have survived. And survive they must.

Geometrics and Beadwork

Margaret Courtney-Clarke, in her book Ndebele, The Art of an African Tribe, wrote “The art of Africa is known as a casualty of colonial exploitation, surviving principally in the museums of other continents, never seen by the people who created it. What reappears among African artists today is regarded as a renaissance of a destroyed tradition.”

Efforts are underway by well-meaning people to keep alive South Africa’s tribal art, if only in a revived form. Many Ndebele women today still decorate the exterior plaster walls of their mud homes with typically intricate murals, as did the women before them. These paintings capture not only their impressions of their daily life, but also ancestral geometric designs that are remarkably similar to some Navajo weavings that are familiar to many of us.

These same women also adorn their bodies with huge beaded collars and armbands crafted from straw; copper neck, leg, and armbands; and beaded wedding aprons. Their shaved heads are topped with long beaded straps called milingakobe, which translates to mean “long tears.” Colorful, beaded gala blankets are also draped ceremoniously over their shoulders.

The Zulu women cap their heads with traditional flaring red wigs. Their necks are embellished with multiple strands of large, brightly-colored beads. And, unlike the Masai of Kenya, their ears are not usually pierced or adorned.

Traditions, such as wet-clay murals and beaded garments, are customs that are passed from African mothers to their daughters and represent important stages and events experienced by the families. And these customs will survive only if the daughters remain in the villages. Since many now take jobs in the city following their schooling, they are unable to actively take part in these cultural activities. In addition, they are often eager to eschew their tribal ways and take on the trappings of the modern world. Nevertheless, with great encouragement from South Africa’s teachers and tribal leaders, hopefully these ancient customs and ancestral art forms will live on for the enjoyment of the generations that follow.