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Identification and Location. The Zulu are an African ethnic group whose members live mainly in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal, which lies between the Indian Ocean to the east and the Drakensberg mountain range to the west. The province stretches from the borders of Mozambique and Swaziland in the north to the Umzimkhulu River in the south. This is an agriculturally fertile region, with the summer being a very productive season. The summer season between October and April is warm and rainy, while the winter between June and August is relatively cold and dry. Temperatures are moderate. The Zulu are bordered by the Swazi people to the north, the BaSotho to the west, and the Xhosa and Mpondo communities to the south.

Zulu identity has changed over time. Before the ascendancy of King Shaka, the term Zulu referred to only one clan that recognized "Zulu" as its founding ancestor. After Shaka's mission of conquest and consolidation, the term came to refer to hundreds of clans under the control of the Zulu monarchy. After the beginning of British colonial rule of Natal in 1843, Zulu identity became associated with a particular territory, especially the northern part of KwaZulu-Natal Province, formerly known as Zululand. Today Zulu "ethnic" identity is linked to the language and the monarchy.

Demography. It is difficult to determine the number of Zulu people as not all people who speak the isiZulu language can be assumed to be Zulu. KwaZulu-Natal Province is also open to all South Africans, and not all the people who live there are Zulu. According to the South African Statistics 2000 report, in 1996, 9, 200, 144 people out of the total national population of 40, 583, 573 spoke the isiZulu language. In 1997 there were an estimated 8, 713, 100 "Black" people living in KwaZulu-Natal (out of 31, 460, 970 "Black" people in all of South Africa). It is estimated that among all isiZulu speakers in South Africa, 74. 6 percent live in KwaZulu-Natal.

Linguistic Affiliation. Zulu people speak the isiZulu language, which is classified as one of the Nguni languages in South Africa, which include the isiXhosa, isiSwazi, and isiNdebele languages. In southern Africa the Nguni coexist with the Sotho and the Khoisan, who also have their own subdivisions. All these southern African cultural-linguistic groups with the exception of the Khoisan are often classified as Bantu-speaking peoples because their languages have some linguistic similarities of a broad nature compared to other African languages. There is some speculation that this might be the case because of common origins, but this hypothesis is debatable.

History and Cultural Relations

Oral history lists eight kings, including the currently reigning king, Zwelithini Goodwill. Shaka Zulu is often considered the first and most prominent of these kings, particularly with regard to military proficiency and command and the integration and mobilization of smaller "tribes" into a kingdom. By the beginning of the nineteenth century the Zulu, like some other tribes with equivalent military capabilities, attempted to subjugate other groups and establish political supremacy.

While this process was going on, the colonial powers arrived on the scene. The British officially annexed Natal in 1845, while the Dutch-German-French descendants locally referred to as the Boers had already begun to colonize the same territory. However, Natal's status as a Boer colony was shaky and short-lived. The Boers later annexed the western part of Zululand in an attempt to form a Boer republic. Brutality and mistrust characterized the relationship between the colonists and the indigenous Zulu population, with the colonists always having the upper hand. Amid political strife in the 1880s, the Zulu kingdom was weakened by the arrest of the king and by internal conflict. Under what was called the Shepstonian system, the British colonists later divided Zulu-land into thirteen chiefdoms.

There is a great deal of doubt and uncertainty regarding Zulu history because of its use as a political tool to support apartheid or argue against it and, in the early 1990s, to argue for or against the Inkatha Freedom Party's struggle for Zulu sovereignty. Despite these issues the Zulu have maintained a strong sense of themselves as Zulu by associating their surnames with being Zulu, maintaining a large vocabulary of praise names, and maintaining specific Zulu cultural practices.


KwaZulu-Natal is both urban and rural, with Durban as its largest city. The Zulu people in rural areas live in households that contain nuclear family members or in a three-generation household structure. The physical structures are often rondavels, circular houses built of mud or concrete blocks and thatched with grass or iron sheets. Rectangular flat-roofed houses made of mud or concrete blocks are as popular as rondavels, but the two forms often coexist, as rondavels are preferred for use as a kitchen or as a house where ancestors are consulted. A common housing structure before the second half of the twentieth century was the beehive hut. These huts were round, strongly woven grass structures with small doors that could be entered only on one's knees. Kitchens often have a hearth that serves as the center of the house.

Urban Zulu people live mainly in townships that were built in the 1950s and 1960s by the government to enforce racial segregation. Townships were residential areas of "Black" people and their families that were close to their places of work in the cities. The government of that time built numerous four-roomed houses that were rented out to people. In KwaZulu-Natal those houses were occupied mainly by Zulu people. With a few exceptions the Zulu are still the main inhabitants of KwaZulu-Natal townships, but the houses are now privately owned.

Since the abolition of apartheid in the early 1990s, some urban areas have become more integrated. In the inner city of Durban the Zulu coexist with people from other parts of South Africa and people from other African countries who have come to KwaZulu-Natal for reasons such as studying, seeking asylum, and seeking employment.


Subsistence. Before the mid-nineteenth century the Zulu depended entirely on horticulture and raising livestock. Their staple crop was maize, while cattle, goats, and poultry were the most important livestock. Today they eat spinach, pumpkins, beans, potatoes, and other vegetables, which they grow and buy. Although they like meat, many people cannot afford to buy it. Maize, wheat flour, and more recently rice are the main staples.

Commercial Activities. A dual economy of subsistence horticulture and a market economy was characteristic of the late nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century. This situation gradually changed when the Zulu were crowded onto insufficient land and forced to work for money in order to pay taxes. The Zulu engage in small-scale trading as part of the informal sector to supplement the money that members of the household earn by working in cities and small towns. Few Zulu people engage in serious commercial activities. Professional jobs are the main avenue for economic development. Although horticulture is still practiced in rural areas, there is general dependence on the commercial market for food. Small-scale agriculture merely supplements a family's income.

Industrial Arts. The Zulu people's main economic activities have traditionally been horticulture and tending cattle and goats. The hoe is the main industrial implement, and the grinding stone was an important implement in the house, although its significance has been fading. Historically, the Zulu also engaged in hunting. That is why they make izagila (knobkerries or assegais) and imikhonto (spears) of tremendous variety and artistic sophistication. Both of these hunting implements were also used in warfare. Sticks and knobkerries also were used in combat competitions organized as part of ceremonial dances. Women made a range of pottery goods used as cooking, storing, and eating utensils. Those utensils are still made by those who have learned the trade and are sold in markets. However, cooking is done mostly in steel pots. Palm woven crafts such as baskets, mats, beer strainers, and vessel lids are made for commercial purposes. Zulu beadwork is now mainly made for tourists and specific ceremonies. In a few places traditional Zulu dress is still worn.

Trade. No major trade was a traditional part of the Zulu culture. However, the KwaZulu-Natal Province is now accessible by sea, air, and road for commercial trade.

Division of Labor. The division of labor within a household is mainly between men and women. Traditionally, men provided economic security for the household, protected the household, led ceremonial activities in the household, and did outside physical tasks such as tending livestock, building kraals, and building new houses. Men regard themselves as providers for their households, and to establish the status of a household head, employment is imperative. Women still do the horticultural activities in rural areas. Women are faced with the day-to-day running of the house, including cleaning, washing, cooking, fetching water, and child rearing. Women also take jobs in order to provide for the family's economic needs, but they have assure that the household routine is done either by themselves before and after work or by someone they employ.

Land Tenure. All land in "tribal areas" is under the control of a "chief who allocates land for residential purposes as well as for cultivation at a household head's request. Historically, "chief's" had full authority over the incorporation of people into their chiefdoms. However, their roles were fully absorbed into the colonial system, in which those roles were reduced to that of a tax collector; their land was taken away from them. The title chief is no longer acceptable among these traditional leaders because it evokes their subjugation under colonial rule as the "bossboys" of an oppressive regime. They prefer to be called by the Zulu alternative amakhosi (singular, inkosi). People who live on farms and work for white farmers also have limited scope to practice subsistence agriculture for themselves because they work under controls and constraints that relate to their terms of rent and remuneration as farm workers. Urban Zulu dwellers live under various arrangements of rent, private ownership, and rate payments.


Kin Groups and Descent. Surnames are a symbol of identity for individuals and families. Surnames include praise names that reflect the interrelatedness of surnames and important occurrences in the history of the Zulu people. People with the same surname once belonged to the same localized clan. At the beginning of the twentieth century this residential pattern changed drastically, but when people with the same surname meet for the first time, for example, at the airport in Johannesburg, they regard themselves as being related. Zulu people observe exogamy with immediate relatives of the mother's kin and with people who have the same surname as their mothers.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, nuclear families were the most common operational units of kin. Children depend on their parents as long as they are not married and are not economically independent. The extended family is important for economic assistance and on ritual and ceremonial occasions. Matrilineal kin are also vital and are expected to appear at important ceremonies involving a daughter or sister's children. Children born to unmarried women belong to the mothers' kin.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology for the nuclear family includes the following terms: umama for mother, ubaba for father, udadewethu sister, umfowethu brother, undodakazi for daughter, and undodana son. This is the terminology sometimes used by people in recognition of their respective ages as they interact. In-laws use the same terms modified to indicate the affinal nature of the relationship. Thus, for a young woman who has married into another household, her husband's mother is called her mamezala even though in her usual address she will call her mama. Her husband's father is ubabezala even though when addressing him she will call him baba. Other terms of respect to refer to a sister/sister-in-law and a brother/brother-in-law are sisi and bhuti, respectively. These terms may have originated from other languages, but they are popularly used as a sign of respect for people one does not want to mention categorically by name. Cousins call each other mzala or gazi, with the latter term being used mostly among parallel cousins related through their mothers. One's father's brother is called bab'omkhulu or bab'omncane, depending on whether he is older or younger than one's father. One's father's sister is called babekazi although the English derived anti gained in popularity at the beginning of the twentieth century. On the mother's side, one's mother's sisters are called mam'khulu or mam'ncane according to whether they are older or younger. The mother's brother is called malume. The mother's brother calls his sister's child mshana. Male grandparents, whether patrilineal or matrilineal, are called ugogo for grandmother and umkhulu for grandfather. A man's in-laws are umukhwe for his wife's father, umkhwekazi for her mother, and umlamu or usibali for his wife's siblings.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Monogamous marriage is common among the Zulu, even though historically polygamy was encouraged. Polygamy is still practiced, particularly in rural KwaZulu-Natal. Postmarital residence is patrilocal, and a woman often adopts the identity of the household into which she has married even though in daily communication she is called by the surname or name of her father with the prefix Ma- added. Children belong to their father's lineage. The Zulu value marriage, and the process of getting married involves a host of expensive exchanges, with bride-wealth being the main feature, making divorce difficult.

Domestic Unit. The typical domestic unit includes a man, his wife or wives, and their children. In some households the parents of the man form part of the unit as the most senior household members and direct most of the activities of the household. Even though frowned upon, out-of-wedlock births are becoming prevalent in KwaZulu-Natal. Single mothers tend to remain with their matrilineal relatives. Their children adopt matrilineal identity since no bride-wealth was paid by the fathers' kin group.

Inheritance. Inheritance of property is along the patrilineal line. Inheritance of important positions such as a "chiefship" follows the pattern of primogeniture.

Socialization. Children are socialized to adhere to the division of labor that associates women with running the inside of the house and men with managing the economic, outside, and public relations of the household. The school (and later tertiary education institutions for those who can afford them) occupies the lives of boys and girls. Different stages of a person's life are marked by ceremonial occasions which aid in the internalization of new roles.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Social status is traditionally encapsulated in respect for kinship positions and leadership. Just as there is respect for the household head and patrilineal kin, there is general respect for men as the principal carriers of identity and tremendous respect for the inkos ("chief) and his kin as the royal household of the chiefdom. Socioeconomic inequality is caused by differential access to monetary resources in a capitalist economy. Economic differentiation coexists with different lifestyles: a traditional Zulu lifestyle reflected in religion, dress code, and a defiant attitude toward Western standards and mannerisms and an alternative Western competitive capitalist lifestyle. However, there are no pure Zulus and no complete Western converts.

Political Organization. The Zulu have a monarch who commands respect from a large number of people who live under the immediate authority of their amakhosi ("chief's"). Amakhosi pay respect to the king by attending the House of Traditional Leaders and mobilize support for festivities organized by the king. The "chief's" have subdivisions (izigodi) within the chiefdoms, which are looked after by headmen (izinduna). In some chiefdoms "chief's" have additional councilors who, together with headmen, form part of what is called the Tribal Authority, which helps the "chief govern. In addition, structures of the democratically elected local government administer access to facilities and services to all the people in KwaZulu-Natal Province. These structures work closely with the provincial government, and their relationship with the 'chief's' is a contentious issue.

Social Control. The Zulu have been influenced by individualism to some extent. Although the older generation boasts of a time when disciplining the younger generation was the responsibility of everyone in the community, most people tend to mind their own business. Institutions such as the church and the family have limited control of people's behavior, but sanctions are not imposed as communally as the older generation has led people to believe. Punishment of specific misbehavior is also a responsibility of institutions such as schools, the police, and the Tribal Authority (the chief's' structure of governance).

Conflict. Conflict occasionally arose between chiefdoms, particularly over boundaries. Colonial land policies and relocations exacerbated those conflicts. In the early twenty-first century such conflicts usually led to feuding between the concerned parties and the intervention of other state institutions, such as the police, the defense force, and the courts. Other kinds of conflict involved clashes between political parties over political issues. In the precolonial period there was some conflict between tribes over property or boundaries and as a result of attempts by some groups to subdue others and expand their boundaries, which occasionally involved non-Zulu groups such as the Xhosa in the south and some BaSotho groups.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Zulu people have a strong belief in the potency of their ancestors. Their cosmology is characterized by God in various forms: uMvelingqangi (a male god responsible for all life), uNomkhubulwano (a female god who provides food security, particularly through good harvests), and a god for the control of weather, particularly thunder. Their cosmology also includes ancestors who can have a significant positive impact on their families' lives if they are appeased. The Zulu cosmology also includes the potency of the natural world, particularly herbs and animals when made into umuthi (medicine), which can be used or abused to affect people negatively or positively. This is done mainly in the realm of traditional medicine.

Christianity has significantly influenced the Zulu. The majority of the Zulu combine traditional religious beliefs with Christianity; there are also those who profess to be entirely converted to Christianity, mostly those who adhere to the evangelical Christian traditions.

Religious Practitioners. The Zulu religion is essentially household-based. It is characterized by an obligation by household heads to fulfill the necessary ceremonial rituals. These ceremonies often require the sacrifice of domestic animals (usually goats) and addressing the ancestors by burning impepho, an incense herb.

There are African indigenous churches that combine aspects of Western Christianity with Zulu ways of communicating with ancestors. These churches have priests and healers who dedicate themselves to these practices for the benefit of the people who consult them. Diviners have traditionally existed among the Zulu and diagnose the causes of illnesses and misfortunes. The diagnosis often relates to dissatisfied ancestors or evil manipulation of umuthi for harmful effects (witchcraft).

Ceremonies. There are numerous ceremonies that relate to an individual's stage in the domestic cycle and also are linked to ancestors. Babies are named and then introduced to the ancestors in a ceremony called imbeleko. A girl's first menstruation is celebrated through a ceremony called umhlonyane. Both of these ceremonies involve slaughtering a goat. Young women are declared adults and ready for marriage through a ceremony called umemulo, which involves slaughtering a cow. Marriage is celebrated through a wedding ceremony (umshado or umgcagco). Death is a ceremonial occasion accompanied by appropriate rites of passage. Another important ceremony is conducted a year after a household member has died and is supposed to link the deceased with his or her long-departed relatives and elevate him or her to "ancestorhood." Moderation in the practice or observance of these ceremonies characterizes life in KwaZulu-Natal. When there is an omission in performing such ceremonies, diviners often point to this as the cause of ill luck for an individual or household.

Royal ceremonies include the reed dance ceremony (umkhosi womhlanga), in which young women show pride in their womanhood (with an emphasis on virginity) by parading at the king's palace in view of thousands of cheerful onlookers. The king maintains the traditional privilege of choosing a wife from among those women. The Shaka Zulu celebrations are held on 24 September every year. While this day was historically called Shaka's day and is important for the Zulu people, in the new South African democratic era it is now called Heritage Day and is supposed to have meaning for all South Africans. The Zulu still commemorate Shaka Zulu on this day. The king also has other responsibilities, such as a twenty-minute address to the Zulu nation on Ukhozi (an isiZulu radio station) on Christmas morning.

Arts. The Zulu are known for pottery. The art of making and decorating pots remains an important skill for Zulu women. Beadwork and grass and palm weaving are also essential arts and crafts. Skill and creativity determine the extent of fame of an artist. Artistic woodcarving by men is done in some parts of KwaZulu-Natal.

Medicine. Medicine takes two forms. First, there is the kind of medicine that targets physical ailments and deals with the physiological problems of the human body. Second, there is medicine that works magically to produce a negative or positive impact on those toward whom it is directed. This type of medicine is used more like a weapon and is often implicated in the acts of animosity people level against each other. Zulu people use Western medical practitioners as well, but the relationship between the two systems of healing is not characterized by mutual respect. However, most Zulu people use both systems, depending on what they perceive to be the source of their problems.

Death and Afterlife. Death is regarded as a time of tremendous loss. A death by illness is treated differently from a death by "a spill of blood." Accidents and death by murder are regarded as deaths by "a spill of blood," and medicinal healing is expected to accompany the funerals in these cases in order to stop such misfortune (ukuvala umkhokha). Generally, deaths are considered polluting, and various rituals and ceremonies must be observed to slowly remove the impurity. These rituals also serve to gradually send the deceased into the next world.

For the original article on Zulu, see Volume 9, Africa and the Middle East.


Argyle, John (1978). "Dingiswayo Discovered: An Interpretation of His Legendary Origins." In Social System and Tradition in Southern Africa, edited by John Argyle and Eleanor Preston-Whyte. London: Oxford University Press.

Brookes, E. H., and C. de B. Webb (1965). A History of Natal Pietermarizburg: University of Natal Press.

Bryant, A. T. (1929). Olden Times in Zululand and Natal London: Longmans, Green and Co.

Cope, Nicholas (1993). To Bind the Nation: Solomon kaDinuzulu and Zulu Nationalism 1913-1937. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press.

De Haas, Mary, and Paulus Zulu (1994). "Ethnicity and Federalism: The Case of KwaZulu-Natal," Journal of Southern African Studies 20(3): 433-446.

Gluckman, Max (1950). "Kinship and Marriage among the Lozi of Northern Rhodesia and the Zulu of Natal." In African Systems of Kinship and Marriage, edited by A. R. Radcliffe-Brown and D. Forde. London: Oxford University Press.

Hamilton, C. (1998). Terrific Majesty: The Powers of Shaka Zulu and the Limits of Historical Invention. Cape Town: David Philip Publishers.

Laband, J., and P. Thompson (1998). "The Reduction of Zululand 1878-1904." In Natal and Zululand from Earliest Times to 1910, edited by Andrew Duminy and Bill Guest. Pietermaritzburg: Shuter and Shooter.

Leech, Stephen (2000). Rewriting the Zulu Past beyond the Washing of Spears," Alternation 7(2): 113-134.


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LOCATION: KwaZulu-Natal Province of South Africa

POPULATION: 9.2 million

LANGUAGE: IsiZulu; Zulu; English

RELIGION: Mixture of traditional beliefs and Christianity


For many people, the Zulu are the best-known African people. Their military exploits led to the rise of a great kingdom that was feared for a long time over much of the African continent. The Zulu are the descendants of Nguni-speaking people. Their written history can be traced back to the fourteenth century.

In the early nineteenth century a young Zulu prince, Shaka, came onto the scene and welded most of the Nguni tribes into the powerful Zulu Kingdom. Shaka ruled from 1816 to 1828, when he was assassinated by his brothers. During his reign, Shaka recruited young men from all over the kingdom and trained them in his own novel warrior tactics. After defeating competing armies and assimilating their people, Shaka established his Zulu nation. Within twelve years, he had forged one of the mightiest empires the African continent has ever known.

However, during the late 1800s, British troops invaded Zulu territory and divided the Zulu land into thirteen chiefdoms. The Zulu never regained their independence. Throughout the mid-1900s they were dominated by different white governments, first the British and later on, the Afrikaner. The Zulu have endeavored to regain a measure of political autonomy, both before South Africa's first democratic election in 1994 and in the subsequent period to the present. They have been unsuccessful, however, with both governments.


The 9 million Zulu-speaking people live mainly in KwaZulu-Natal Province of South Africa. Some are also scattered throughout the other provinces. KwaZulu-Natal borders on Mozambique in the north, Eastern Cape in the south, the Indian Ocean in the east, and Lesotho in the west. The capital city is Pietermaritzburg. KwaZulu-Natal is semi-fertile with a flat coastal plain, highlands to the west, and numerous rivers and streams. The subtropical climate brings lots of sunshine and brief, intense rain showers.

While many Zulu still live in traditionally structured rural communities, others have migrated to urban areas. However, links between urban and rural residents remain strong. A mixture of traditional and Western ways of life is clearly evident in the lives of almost all Zulu people.


The dominant language in South Africa is isiZulu. In KwaZulu-Natal, the most frequently spoken languages are Zulu and English. Zulu is idiomatic and proverbial and is characterized by many clicks. The Zulu language is characterized by hlonipha (respect) terms. Addressing those who are older than oneself, especially elderly and senior people, by their first names is viewed as lack of respect. Therefore terms like baba (father) and mama (mother) are used not only to address one's parents but also other senior males and females of the community.


Among the Zulu, the belief in ancestral spirits (amadlozi or abaphansi ) has always been strong. These are the spirits of the dead. The Zulus recognize the existence of a supreme being. UMvelinqangi (One Who Came First) or uNkulunkulu (Very Big One) is God because he appeared first. This supreme being is far removed from the lives of the people and has never been seen by anyone. No ceremonies are, therefore, ever performed for uMvelinqangi. Zulu people believe that the spirits of the dead mediate between uMvelinqangi and the people on earth.

Zulus believe in a long life that continues after death. Getting old is seen as a blessing. This is based on the myth that long ago people did not die but rather lived for years. The Creator did not think that people should die. He, therefore, called a chameleon and said, "Chameleon, I am sending you to the people. Go and tell them that they are not to die." Although the chameleon was very slow, the Creator did not mind. He waited for the reply. However, after walking a long distance, the chameleon saw wild berries and decided to stop and eat them. It told itself that the Creator would not see it. Unfortunately, the Creator saw it and became very angry. He called a lizard, which came swiftly. The Creator told the lizard to go and tell the people that they are to die. The lizard sped off, passed the chameleon on the way, and delivered the message to the people. After a long time, the chameleon appeared, breathing heavily, and delivered its message. The people were very angry and said to it, "Why did you waste time? We have already received the lizard's message!" Thus, growing old among the Zulu is seen as a special privilege from the Creator. Elderly people are believed to be sacred, and are thus are always respected.


Ancestral spirits are important in Zulu religious life. Offerings and sacrifices are made to the ancestors for protection, good health, and happiness. Ancestral spirits come back to the world in the form of dreams, illnesses, and sometimes snakes. The Zulu also believe in the use of magic. Anything beyond their understanding, such as bad luck and illness, is considered to be sent by an angry spirit. When this happens, the help of a diviner (soothsayer) or herbalist is sought. He or she will communicate with the ancestors or use natural herbs and prayers to get rid of the problem.

Many Zulu converted to Christianity under colonialism. Although there are many Christian converts, ancestral beliefs have far from disappeared. Instead, there has been a mixture of traditional beliefs and Christianity. This kind of religion is particularly common among urbanites. There are also fervent Christians who view ancestral belief as outdated and sinful.


The Zulu recognize the national holidays of the Republic of South Africa. In addition, they celebrate Shaka's Day every year in September. This holiday is marked by celebrations and slaughtering cattle to commemorate the founder of the Zulu Kingdom. On this important day, Zulu people wear their full traditional attire (clothing and weapons) and gather at Shaka's tombstone, kwaDukuza in Stanger. This is a very colorful day attended by both national and international dignitaries who represent their governments. Izimbongi (praise-poets) sing the praises of all the Zulu kings, from Shaka to the present king, Zwelithini.


Among the Zulu, birth, puberty, marriage, and death are all celebrated and marked by the slaughter of sacrificial animals to ancestors. Birth and puberty are particularly celebrated. To Zulu traditionalists, childlessness and giving birth to girls only are the greatest of all misfortunes. No marriage is permanent until a child, especially a boy, is born.

The puberty ceremony (umemulo) is a transition to full adulthood. Nowadays it is performed only for girls. It involves separation from other people for a period to mark the changing status from youth to adulthood. This is followed by "reincorporation," characterized by ritual killing of animals, dancing, and feasting. After the ceremony, the girl is declared ready for marriage. The courting days then begin. The girl may take the first step by sending a "love letter" to a young man who appeals to her. Zulu love letters are made of beads. Different colors have different meanings, and certain combinations carry particular messages.

Dating occurs when a young man visits or writes a letter to a woman telling her how much he loves her. Once a woman decides that she loves this man, she can tell him so. It is only after they have both agreed that they love each other that they may be seen together in public. Parents should become aware of the relationship only when the man informs them that he wants to marry their daughter.


In contrast to their known warriorism, the Zulu are very warm and amicable people at a personal level. Ubuntu (literally, "humanness," "good moral nature," "good disposition") shapes the everyday life of the Zulu people. This comes from a notion that a human being is the highest of all species. There are hundreds of proverbs written about ubuntu. These proverbs relate to the treatment of people, good and bad behavior, pride, ingratitude, bad manners, moral degeneracy, conceit, cruelty, obstinacy, pretense, helping others, and so forth.

Sawubona is usually enough of a greeting for strangers, but a formal greeting is more appropriate for those who are familiar. The formal greeting includes a three-times handshake, while asking about the well-being of the person and his or her relations (Ninjani?). Taking leave involves the standard Sala/Nisale kahle (Remain well), and the other person responds by saying, Uhambe/Nihambe kahle (Go well). It is customary for juniors and the young to initiate the greetings when they meet their seniors and their elders.


In South Africa, living conditions cannot be divorced from local politics. Conditions for the Zulu are similar to those of other black people. Zulu in most of the rural areas do not have adequate basic services such as electricity, clean water, formal housing, transport, hospitals, or clinics. Urban Zulu live in the so-called black townships and the areas fringing industrial cities. Their living conditions are, at least, better than those in rural areas. They constitute the Zulu middle class; their lifestyle is usually no different from that of other Western urbanites. Since the education available in rural black schools is inferior, the people in these areas are not equipped to migrate and seek a better life in the urban areas. If they migrate, most end up in the poor areas fringing cities.

In the rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal, a typical Zulu homestead will be circular and fenced, with a thatched-roof house.


The Zulu term for "family" (umndeni) includes all the people staying in a homestead who are related to each other, either by blood, marriage, or adoption. Most rural households comprise extended families, brothers with their wives, unmarried sisters, children, parents, and grandparents all staying together in the same homestead. As a sign of respect, parents and elders are not called by their first names; instead, kinship names (surnames) are used.

The Zulu family is patriarchal; a man is both the head of the family and the figure of authority. It is not unusual for young men to have as many girlfriends as they wish. If they can afford it, they can take more than one wife when they decide to get married. Traditionally, women were not supposed to go out and work, since they were a man's responsibility. Nowadays the status of Zulu women is slowly improving with more women receiving an education.

Marriage is exogamous; marriage to any person belonging to one's father's, mother's, father's mother's, and mother's mother's clan is prohibited. If it happens, the ukudabula (literally, "cutting of the blood relationship") ritual is performed.


Today, the everyday clothing of a Zulu is no different from that of any modern urbanite. Traditional clothing, however, is very colorful. Men, women, and children wear beads as accessories. Men wear amabheshu, made of goat or cattle skin, which looks like a waist apron, worn at the back. They decorate their heads with feathers and fur. Men also wear frilly goatskin bands on their arms and legs. Women wear isidwaba, a traditional Zulu black skirt made of goat or cattle skin. If a woman is not married, she may wear only strings of beads to cover the top part of the body. If she is married, she will wear a T-shirt. Zulu only wear their traditional clothes on special occasions, such as Shaka's Day and cultural gatherings.


The rural Zulu economy is based on cattle and agriculture. Consequently, the main staple diet consists of cow and agricultural products. This includes barbecued and boiled meat; amasi (curdled milk), mixed with dry, ground corn or dry, cooked mealie-meal (corn flour); amadumbe (yams); vegetables; and fruits. The Zulu traditional beer is not only a staple food but a considerable source of nutrition. It is also socially and ritually important and is drunk on all significant occasions.

Drinking and eating from the same plate was and still is a sign of friendship. It is customary for children to eat from the same dish, usually a big basin. This derives from a "share what you have" belief which is part of ubuntu (humane) philosophy.


Illiteracy (inability to read and write) is high among most black South Africans. However, education is slowly improving with the new government. Before, children went to school only if their parents could afford to send them. Schooling started at seven years of age and continued until about twenty-four years of age. Since education was not compulsory, pupils could take their time to finish matric (high school). Passing matriculation (graduating) was and still is regarded as a high achievement by the whole community. After matriculation, those parents who can afford it usually send their children to college.

Education and raising a child is like a cycle among the Zulu. Parents spend all they have to raise and educate their children. In turn, the children take care of their parents and their own children when they start working. A person who breaks this cycle is viewed as a community outcast, one who has forgotten about his or her roots.


The Zulu are fond of singing as well as dancing. These activities promote unity at all the transitional ceremonies such as births, weddings, and funerals. All the dances are accompanied by drums. The men dress as warriors, wave their clubs, and thrust their cowhide shields forward.

Zulu folklore is transmitted through storytelling, praise-poems, and proverbs. These explain Zulu history and teach moral lessons. Praise-poems (poems recited about the kings and the high achievers in life) are becoming part of popular culture.


In the past, only able-bodied men were supposed to work. Before the 1970s, especially in rural areas, being able to send a written letter and get a reply meant that a young boy was ready to go and look for work. Now Zulus want to complete their high school education. In the mind of the Zulu, work should benefit either one's parents or children and siblings. The first salary (or the bigger portion), therefore, is usually given to parents in return for blessings.


Soccer is very popular for both young boys and men. Children learn the game by watching their older brothers play. Whenever boys are together and not engaged in some household or school activity, they play soccer. Young boys, especially those who live next to big rivers, also compete in swimming. Girls, if they are not at school, are expected to assist their mothers in the house. However, they can play games once they have finished their chores. One popular game played by girls, especially in rural KwaZulu, is masishayana/maphakathi. Two girls stand opposite each other, usually not more than 165 feet (50 meters) apart. Another girl stands between them, facing the one who is holding a tennis ball. The idea of this game is to try to hit the girl standing in the middle while she tries to avoid being hit. If the ball hits her or touches her clothes, she is out. Being able to avoid being hit ten times earns the girl a point. Having the most points means winning a game and becoming the best player in your circle of friends. One sport which is participated in by both girls and boys is track and field, an organized school sport.


Ritual ceremonies also serve as part of the entertainment and recreation for the whole community. Zulu custom does not mandate formal invitations to gatherings where food will be served, such as weddings and birthday parties. The Zulu believe that food should be shared. Therefore, uninvited arrival at a celebration is an honor to the host. These celebrations include singing and dancing.

Television is very popular among urban Zulu households. Owning a television set is a luxury for rural Zulu since very few rural areas have electricity. Those who can afford to go to the movies do so. For urban teenagers, American youth culture, especially clothing and music, is very popular. Among adults, stokvels (voluntary or common-interest associations) provide financial assistance, friendship, and recreation.


The Zulu, especially those from rural areas, are known for their weaving, craftmaking, pottery, and beadwork. Women and children weave everyday-use mats, beer sieves, and baskets for domestic purposes. They also make calabashes (decorated gourds used as utensils). Men and boys carve various household objects and ornaments from wood and bone. These include headrests, trays, scrapers, household utensils, and chairs. Beadmaking is mainly women's work because beads are believed to be a way of sending messages without being direct.


The Zulu terms ubuntu and hlonipha summarize everything about human rights. However, it is evident that some individuals in Zulu society, particularly women and children, enjoy fewer human rights than others.


Haskins, J., et al. From Afar to Zulu. New York: Walker and Company, 1995.

Khuzwayo, W. "Kinship Substitutions." Paper presented at the PAAA Conference in Cameroon, West Africa, 1994.

Macnamara, M. World Views. Pretoria: J. L. van Schaik Pty, 1980.

West, M. Abantu. Cape Town: C. Struik Publishers, 1976.


D. W. Web Design. Zulu Anthropology. [Online] Available, 1998.

Embassy of South Africa, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available, 1998.

Government of South Africa. [Online], 1998.

Interknowledge Corp. South Africa. [Online] Available, 1998.

Southern African Development Community. South Africa. [Online] Available, 1998.

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ETHNONYMS: Kaffir, KwaZulu


The Zulu are located primarily in Zululand (28° S, 32° E), which is part of the province of Natal of the Republic of South Africa. The Zulu language is classified as a dialect of Nguni, a Zone S language of the South Eastern Area of Bantu proper. Before the days of Shaka, the early nineteenth-century king who consolidated the North Nguni tribes, the term abakwaZulu referred to members of the Zulu "clan," descendants of a man named Zulu. With Shaka s political conquests, the term "Zulu" came to include some hundreds of Nguni "clans," all of whom paid allegiance to the Zulu king. Many South African peoples, including the Zulu, are also called "Kaffirs," meaning "infidels," a name which was bestowed on them by early Arab traders.

Gluckman (1972) quotes a population estimate of 100,000 for the early nineteenth century, but he feels that this estimate is too low. According to the 1967 census, the Zulu population was 3,340,000. Berglund (1976) gives the population as 4,130,000. The population in 1986 was estimated at 5,960,000, distributed thus: 5,700,00 in South Africa, 37,500 in Malawi, 15,000 in Swaziland, and 228,000 in Lesotho.

History and Cultural Relations

The Zulu have a reputation as "a proud, fierce, recklessly brave though barbaric warrior race" (Ngubane 1977, viii). In 1815 Shaka, a descendant of the Zulu "clan" originator, came to power. Shaka, who is often referred to as the "Black Napoleon," organized a standing army and proceeded to conquer many of the surrounding Nguni "clans." The results of this turbulent period were widespread; tribes such as the Matabele, Shangana, and Ngoni were formed by people fleeing in Shaka's wake. During Shaka's reign, the first European trading company was established in Port Natal (later Durban). Up to that point, there had been only sporadic contact with Whites. In 1828 Shaka was assassinated by his brother Dingane. In 1835 the missionary Gardner established himself among the Zulu. Piet Retief and a number of Boer Trekkers were massacred by Dingane in 1838. After Dingane's defeat at the Battle of Blood River, his brother Mpande made an alliance with the Boers and forced Dingane into exile. In 1843 Natal became a Crown colony. Mpande was succeeded in 1872 by his son Cetshwayo, during whose reign the Zulu war of 1879-1880 took place. Britain established a magistracy in 1887, and in 1910 Natal became a part of the Union of South Africa. The end of the era of effective Zulu monarchs came with the death of Cetshwayo's son, Dinzulu, in 1913. As with the other indigenous South Africans, the Zulu were outcastes in White-controlled South Africa. Establishment of indigenous control in the 1990s brought conflict with the Xhosa and then accommodation. Zulu social, political, and economic interests have been represented since 1975 by the Zulu National Cultural Liberation Movement (Inkatha Ye Sizwe), commonly known as Inkatha or the Inkatha party.


Traditionally, the Zulu economy depended upon cattle and a considerable amount of agriculture. Villages were economically self-sufficient. Agriculture was the sphere of women, whereas cattle were tended by the men. Crops grown were mealies, Kaffir maize, pumpkins, watermelons, calabashes, native sugar reeds, and various kinds of tubers and beans. Although there was considerable ritual and magic associated with agriculture, the most impressive agricultural ceremonial was the First Fruits ceremony. This was held late in December, and in it the king partook of the new crops. The ceremony also included a magical strengthening of the king and a general military review.

A man's wealth was counted in cattle. Cattle provided the mainstays of the diet (meat and amasi, a form of soured milk), hides for clothing and shields, as well as the means of acquiring wives through lobola, or bride-price. In addition, cattle had enormous ritual value. Sacrifice of cattle was the principal means of propitiating the ancestors.

The modern Zulu are poor, with agricultural yield below subsistence level. Women still till the fields, but most men travel to the towns seeking work. Cattle are still a symbol of wealth, although the holdings are low. Cattle are seldom slaughtered for meatusually only for ritual occasions. According to Clarke and Ngobese (1975), poverty and malnutrition were so severe that the traditional robust Zulu physique is changing and the Zulu are "becoming a puny, stunted and mentally enfeebled people."

Kinship and Sociopolitical Organization

Traditional Zulu political organization was hierarchical, with the king at the apex. Authority was delegated to chiefs of districts and from them to homestead heads. The lowest level of political and kinship organization was the umuzi, variously translated as "village," "kraal," or "homestead." These settlements were patrilocal extended-family or clan barrios. Polygyny was the norm and was often sororal. Each kraal was the homestead of a male, which included a separate hut for each of his wives. The huts were arranged, according to the status of the wives, around the central cattle kraal. Villages were moved every few years. The kraal head had the responsibility of keeping law and order and settling disputes. Disputes that could not be settled in the kraal or cases of a special nature were dealt with by the district head.

Zulu society was organized into patrilineal sibs. Through a process of growth, subdivision, and incorporation of aliens, the sib developed into a "tribe," which, however, was still known by the name of the ancestor of the dominant sib. The sibs were divided into lineages, which were composed of descendants of a common ancestor in the near past.

The king, the head of the Zulu "tribe" or "clan," had judicial and legislative power. The legislation, formed by consultation with old men or the council, was not of enormous significance, consisting of orders for the regiments to marry or announcements about campaigns. The council of the king consisted of headmen or the heads of important families who were required to live at the royal kraal for certain periods to advise the king.

Shaka made a number of military innovations, not the least of which was a reorganization of the regimental system. An intanga consisted of a group of men of roughly the same age who lived at the royal kraal, tended to the king's cattle, and formed the standing army. According to Reader (1966), the regimental system, although not organized for war, is still an active institution in Zulu society.


Despite some belief in spirits, there was no real worship of them. Religion was primarily concerned with ancestor worship. Divination was the means of discovering the wishes of the ancestors, and sacrifice of cattle was the means of propitiation. Sorcery and witchcraft were quite common. Missionaries have been in Zululand since 1835, and apparently have been quite successful: more than half the population is reckoned as Christian. According to Ngubane (1977) and others, Christianity does not conflict with ancestor worship or belief in witchcraft.


Berglund, Axel-lvar (1976). Zulu Thought-Patterns and Symbolism. Uppsala: Swedish Institute of Missionary Research.

Bryant, A. T. (1970). Zulu Medicine and Medicine-Men. Cape Town: C. Struik.

Clarke, Liz, and Jane Ngobese ( 1975). Women without Men: A Study of 150 Families in the Ngutu District of Kwazulu. Durban: Institute for Black Research.

Gluckman, Max (1972). "Moral Crisis: Magical and Secular Solutions." In The Allocation of Responsibility, edited by Max Gluckman. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Klopper, Sandra (1989). Mobilizing Cultural Symbols in Twentieth Century Zululand. Cape Town: Centre for African Studies.

Krige, E. J. (1968). "Girl's Puberty Songs and Their Relation to Fertility, Health, Morality, and Religion among the Zulu." Africa 38:173-198.

Ngubane, Harriet (1977). Body and Mind in Zulu Medicine. London: Academic Press.

Raum, O. F. (1967). "The Interpretation of the Nguni First Fruit Ceremony." Paideuma 13:148-163.

Reader, D. H. (1966). Zulu Tribe in Transition: The Makhanya of Southern Natal. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Vilakazi, A. (1962). Zulu Transformation. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press.

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Zulu Bantu people of South Africa, most of whom live in KwaZulu-Natal. They are closely related to the Swazi and the Xhosa. The Zulus have a patriarchal, polygamous society with a strong militaristic tradition. Traditionally cereal farmers, they possessed large herds of cattle, considered to be status symbols. Under their leader Shaka, they fiercely resisted 19th-century colonialism. The predominant religion is now Christianity, although ethnic religions are still common. They are organized politically into the Inkatha movement under Chief Mangosutho Buthelezi.

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Zu·lu / ˈzoōloō/ • n. 1. a member of a South African people living mainly in KwaZulu-Natal province. ∎  the Nguni language of this people. 2. a code word representing the letter Z, used in radio communication. • adj. of or relating to the Zulu people or language.

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"Zulu." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 10 Dec. 2017 <>.

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Zulu •Yalu • igloo • Oulu •Honolulu, KwaZulu, lulu, Zulu •Pagalu • Angelou • ormolu •superglue • curlew

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