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 Zulureferred 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Urban Zulu people live mainly in townships that were built in the 1950s and 1960s by the government to enforce racial segregation.
Since the abolition of apartheid in the early 1990s, some urban areas have become more integrated.
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.
Industrial Arts. The Zulu people’s main economic activities have traditionally been horticulture and tending cattle and goats.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Domestic Unit. The typical domestic unit includes a man, his wife or wives, and their children.
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.
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, uNomkhubulwano, and a god for the control of weather, particularly thunder.
Christianity has significantly influenced the Zulu. The majority of the Zulu combine traditional religious beliefs with Christianity.
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.
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.
Arts. The Zulu are known for pottery. The art of making and decorating pots remains an important skill for Zulu women.
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.
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.”