The Zulu People of Africa

South Africa is a land of diversity and the people who live there are just as diverse and beautiful of the landscape itself. Of all the tribes in South Africa, perhaps one of the most widely recognized is the Zulu.The Zulu are of the Bantu ethnicity, which is South Africa’s largest ethnic group, and their numbers are estimated at between 10 and 11 million people, mainly in the KwaZulu-Natal province. There are small groups of Zulu living in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Tanzania as well. Zulu, their official language, is one of the Bantu languages; part of the sub-group Nguni, to be more precise. The Zulus are known as fierce warriors and for their strong spirit, but they are also renowned for their beautiful beadwork and crafts.

A Rich and Turbulent History

The Zulu people are descendants of the Nguni, who migrated from the north to settle in the area that is KwaZulu-Natal today. The Zulu clans of the 17th century were related, but not only were they disorganized, but constantly in dispute over grazing rights and various other issues. In 1787, a Zulu woman gave birth to the illegitimate son of a clan chieftain, and little did they know that he would forever change the face of the Zulu nation.stick-fight-412666_1280

Shaka was born to chief Senzangakhona KaJama and Nandi, the daughter of a former chieftain. Illegitimacy carried a heavy stigma in the Zulu society so Shaka spent most of his childhood in the settlements of his mother. When he came of age, he was initiated and inducted into a fighting unit (ibutho lempi). In those early days he served under chieftain Dingisway,of the Mthethwa tribe, because the Zulu were paying them tribute at the time. He rose in the ranks of the fighting units by forming alliances. He did these things with the help and support of the Mthethwa in order to counter the ever present threat of raiding by the Ndwandwe.

In 1816, Shaka’s father died and his legitimate half- brother assumed the role of chief. His reign didn’t last long however because Shaka, with the help of another brother and Dingiswayo, had him assassinated. The coup was accepted by the Zulu and Shaka became the chief of the Zulus, although he was technically still the Mthethwa’s vassal. Shaka’s prowess in battle and his tactical expertise led him to become widely respected by the people. Shaka systematically overcame the smaller tribes and incorporated them into his own army. While he is without a doubt one of the most prominent figures in Zulu history and was a true military genius, he is sometimes condemned for his brutal reign. Shaka was assassinated by his half-brothers in 1828 and while his was a brutal reign, it forged a mighty warrior nation from what was previously nothing more than disorganized clans fighting among themselves.

Traditional Beliefs

Though many Zulus state Christianity as their religion, more traditional the most common belief is in a supreme being called uNkulunkulu, meaning “very big one.” There are no ceremonies performed specifically in honor of uNkulunkulu, rather the Zulus revere their ancestor spirits, who are said to mediate with uNkulunkulu for those who are still living. Offerings are made to the ancestor spirits for happiness, protection, and well-being. Communications with the ancestor spirits is carried out by diviners (sangomas) and elders and spirits are thought to return to the world in dream form, illnesses, and in some cases, snakes.



Historically in Zulu society, polygamy was encouraged and while it is occurs, monogamous marriages are quite common among the Zulu today. Marriage is highly valued in the society and the process of marriage involves a number of costly exchanges, the bride-wealth being the central feature; this makes divorce difficult. The bride adopts the identity of the family into which she has married, but she is still called by the name or surname of her father with the addition of the prefix, “Ma” added.

Women generally run the inside of the home and are responsible for all domestic tasks while men manage the public relations, outside chores, and economic decisions of the household. Children are taught from an early age to adhere to these rules about division of labor.


The Zulu are well-known for their beautiful pottery and it is one of the essential skills that all Zulu women are taught. Grass or palm weaving is also important and is used to make highly prized baskets, as well as other vessels. The leaves or grass are soaked in natural dyes made from dung and other organic pigments and used to create a pattern. Each basket has traditional designs incorporated into the weaving, but includes a pattern that identifies the creator of the work. Palm woven vessels are sealed with a paste made from Maize flour that causes the leaves to swell and seals any gaps. Beadwork, both to ornament their traditional clothing and worn as jewelry is another important art form in Zulu society.

Zulus in Modern Society

The Zulu population of today is distributed fairly evenly between rural and urban areas. Although their heartland still lies in KwaZulu-Natal, larger numbers are being attracted to Gauteng province because of the relative economic prosperity that the area offers.

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