Who Are The Zulu People, and Where Do They Live?

Traditional Zulu jewelry.
Traditional Zulu jewelry.

5. Early History and Migrations

The Zulus are a Bantu ethnic group living in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa. These Nguni-speaking people, with close ties to the Swazi and Xhosa peoples, are the largest ethnic group in South Africa. The ancestors of the Ngunis (the ancestors of modern day Zulus) were the Bantu-speaking peoples who migrated along the east coast of Africa to reach what is now South Africa in the 9th Century AD. The Zulu warrior Shaka Zulu is credited for uniting the Zulus into a single kingdom in the early 19th Century, around the same time that European Colonial presence was growing in the region.

4. Language, Religion, and Music

“IsiZulu”, a Bantu language spoken by the Ngunis, is the traditional language of the Zulus. It is also the most widely spoken language in South Africa. Besides isiZulu, many of the modern Zulus also speak other official languages of South Africa, including English, Afrikaans, and Portuguese. Due to European influences, many Zulus of the present day are Christians, including both Catholics and Protestants. However, traditional Zulu religions, based on animal and nature worship and high regards for one's ancestors, is also practiced by certain sections of the Zulu population still today. Some of the traditional gods, goddesses, and mythical creatures of the Zulu religion are Unkulunkulu (the highest God), Mamlambo (the goddess of rivers), Nokhubulwane (the goddess of agriculture, rain, and rainbows) and Unwabu (a chameleon with powers to grant immortality). Sleeping on beds raised on bricks is another unique Zulu tradition, which is done to fend off the Tokoloshe, a mischievous mythical creature with the power to kill people. Zulus also like to stay clean, using different vessels for different dishes and bathing up to three times a day. They also highly regard nature and natural objects, and believe misfortune befalls only as a result of offended spirits or acts of evil sorcery. Zulus also love music, and use it as a way to express deep feelings and emotions. Mbube music is Zulu vocal music, usually sang by men in choir groups in a loud and powerful manner. In contrast, Isicathamiya is a softer version of Zulu music, again sang traditionally by Zulu men. Today, Zulu music is not limited to the boundaries of Africa, and Western musicians like Paul Simon (once part of Simon and Garfunkel) have often used Zulu music as an inspiration to create new musical content. The song “Wimowh”, used in the Disney animation film “The Lion King”, had its own Zulu musical connections.

3. Traditional Cuisine, Homes, and Ways of Life

The traditional cuisine of the Zulus involves high levels of meat and dairy, reminders of the prosperous past of Zulu nations. Meat is usually cooked on open fires, and served with spicy vegetable dishes known as chakalaka. Milk is drunk sour in the form of amasi. The fermented porridge Isibhede and the non-fermented porridge, phutu, are both common in Zulu cuisine. Among beverages, the non-intoxicating Amahewu and the alcoholic utywala are Zulu favorites. Traditional Zulu houses are fairly basic structures, built manually using mud, leaves, branches, and tree poles. The houses are usually shaped like a round beehive known as an iQukwane. The traditional Zulu clans have a highly organized hierarchy, with a genealogically senior man as the chief of the clan. He wields his power through several headmen, who control distinct sections of the clan. Young boys are trained from childhood in the art of fighting and defending the clan. While men handle external matters, Zulu women’s lives are traditionally restricted to performing household chores and caring for the children and elderly. Childless women are often frowned upon, and lose the status of a wife. The elderly are always treated with care and respect, and share homes with their sons.

2. Tribal Wars and European Contact

In the late 19th Century, Zululand was ruled by King Cetshwayo, who ascended to the throne in 1872 after his father’s death. However, he soon faced trouble from the invading British forces who delivered an ultimatum to his 11 chiefs in 1878. When Cetshwayo refused to surrender to the British demands, war broke out between the native and foreign powers, which finally ended in a Zulu defeat at the Battle of Ulundi on July 4th, 1879. After Cetshwayo’s capture, Zululand was divided into several smaller kingdoms by the British. In the later years, though the British reinstated Cetshwayo as king once again, it was the British who held the ultimate power over Zululand. After Cetshwayo’s death, his son Dinuzulu came to power. However, Dinuzulu’s ambitious nature soon alarmed the British, who charged him with treason and imprisoned him for several years. His son, Solomon kaDinuzulu, was never recognized as king by the South African authorities. With the end of the Zulu Kingdom, the Zulus now became second-rate citizens in their own homelands, and faced years of discrimination under the infamous apartheid movement of legalized racial segregation in South Africa, enforced by the governing National Party in the country between 1948 and 1994. They were forced to migrate to small pockets of land in a designated area for establishing their settlements, which came to be known as the KwaZulu-Natal province. Only after much opposition and criticism by global organizations, people, and foreign governments did the Apartheid movement finally come to an end in 1994. Thereafter, multi-racial, democratic elections witnessed the the victory of Nelson Mandela, a Xhosa Thembu South African and an anti-apartheid South African revolutionary, as the country's new President.

1. The Zulu of Today

Today, around 9 million Zulu-speaking peoples inhabit South Africa. Even though the KwaZulu-Natal region remains to be the Zulu heartland, these people have also migrated to other provinces in the country with greater economic prospects, especially the Guateng province of South Africa. Currently, Zulus are fairly uniformly distributed in both urban and rural settlements across the country, and enjoy the freedom to choose their own way of life. Following the end of the apartheid movement, the Zulus became an important political force in the country, even establishing their own political parties, including the Inkatha Freedom Party. The Zulus of today continue to play an extremely significant role in defining South Africa’s national identity, politics, traditions, and cultures.


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