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The Nguni people are a group of Bantu peoples who primarily speak Nguni languages and currently reside predominantly in Southern Africa. The Nguni people are Xhosa, Zulu, Ndebele and Swati people. They predominantly live in South Africa. Swati people live in both South Africa and Eswatini, while Ndebele and Xhosa people live in both South Africa and Zimbabwe. In South Africa, the historic Nguni kingdoms of the Xhosa, Zulu, Ndebele and Swazi live on the present provinces of the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, and Mpumalanga. The most notable of these kingdoms is the Zulu Kingdom, which was ruled by Shaka kaSenzangakhona, a powerful warrior king whose conquest took place in the early nineteenth century. In Zimbabwe, the Ndebele people live primarily in Matebeleland, Bulawayo, and Midlands.[1]



A traditional Nguni village in South Africa, c.1900

Most of what is known about ancient Nguni history comes from oral history and legends. Traditionally, they are said to have migrated to Africa's Great Lakes region from the north. According to linguistic evidence only, they migrated from what is now Cameroon.[2][3] Some groups split off and settled along the way, while others kept going. Thus, the following settlement pattern formed: the southern Ndebele in the north, the Swazi in the north east, the Zulu towards the east and the Xhosa in the south. Owing to the fact that these people had a common origin, their languages and cultures show marked similarities.

After diverging from the Sotho-Tswana and Tsonga, the Nguni eventually met with San hunters, which accounts for their use of "click" languages.[4]

Although the Ndebele are said to have come from the Zulus, this is true only for some Zimbabwean Ndebeles (and not the South African Ndebeles). The South African Ndebeles (Southern Ndebele) were the first group to separate from other Nguni clans after entering present-day South African and settling in the Transvaal region from around the year 1500. The remaining Nguni clans moved further south. Those that moved south west ended up calling themselves Xhosas, and most of the clans that moved south east ended up being forcibly united under the Zulus when Shaka (whose Zulus had been a minor clan under the Mthethwa confederacy led by Dingiswayo, Shaka's overlord) defeated the Ndwandwe confederacy under Zwide kaLanga. Before their defeat by Shaka, they lived in the area north of the Umhlathuze River and south of the Pongola. After their defeat, they moved to the headwaters of the Nkomati river, among other areas (with one of Zwide's generals, Zwangendaba kaJele going as far as Malawi/Tanzania). Mzilikazi, chief of the Khumalo clan, became one of Shaka's top generals after the unification of the clans. Returning from a raid with his impi, he kept some of the stolen cattle for himself rather than handing them over to his overlord, Shaka, as was the custom. Such conduct was punishable by death. A regiment was sent to punish this general, which resulted in him fleeing with hundreds of his followers, eventually ending up in the Transvaal region where they came into contact with the (unrelated) Manala Ndebeles.[5] The Manala Ndebeles had been weakened by their separation from the Nzunza Ndebele after almost two to three centuries of their settlement in the Transvaal region. The separation led to the majority of the nation going with Nzunza and the minority with Manala. The Nzunza Ndebele moved north and the Manala Ndebele, who were predominantly composed of women, remained in present-day Pretoria. When Mzilikazi arrived, he killed the Manala Ndebele king, King Silamba, and they settled there for a while before moving further north, ending up in present-day Zimbabwe around 1839. By the time they arrived in present-day Zimbabwe, Mzilikazi's Khumalo clan (which had been joined by other ethnic groups, such as the Sotho, Tswana and other displaced Ngunis in South Africa) was known as the Ndebele. Further conquests and assimilation of Zimbabwean groups (such as the Kalanga and Rozwi) meant that the original Khumalos from Zululand were eventually a minority in this large ethnic group, which was united by a common Nguni language, isiNdebele.

Many tribes and clans are said to have been forcibly united under Shaka Zulu. Shaka Zulu's political organisation was efficient in integrating "conquered" tribes, partly by the age regiments, where men from different villages bonded with each other.[citation needed]

Necklace made from dog's teeth, used in religious ceremonies of the Nguni people. Museum of Gems and Jewellery, Cape Town

Many versions in the historiography of Southern Africa state that during the southern African migrations known as Mfecane, the Nguni peoples spread across a large part of southern Africa, absorbing, conquering or displacing many other peoples. However, the notion of the mfecane/difaqane has been disputed by some scholars, notably, Julian Cobbing.[6] The Mfecane was initiated by Zwide and his Ndwandwe's. They attacked the Hlubi and stole their cattle leaving them destitute. The remnants of the Hlubi under their chief Matiwane fled into what is now the Free State and attacked the Batlokwa in The Harrismith Vrede area. This displaced the Batlokwa under Mantatese and she and her people spread death and destruction further into the central interior. Moshoeshoe and his Bakwena sought the protection of Shaka and sent him tribute in return. When Matiwane settled at Mabolela, near present day Clocolan, Moshoeshoe complained to Shaka that this prevented him from sending his tribute whereupon an impi was sent to drive Matiwane from this area. Matiwane fled south and was eventually defeated in a battle with British troops in what later became the Transkei. Mantatese and her Batlokwa settled near what is now Ficksburg and was followed by her son, Sekonyela, as chief of the Batlokwa. It was he who had stolen Zulu cattle that Piet Retief in his dealings with Dingane, Shaka's successor, had to retrieve. After the defeat of Zwide and his Ndwandwes by Shaka, two of his commanders, Soshangane and Zwengendaba, fled with their followers northwards creating havoc as they went. Soshangane eventually founded the Shangane nation in Mozambique and Zwengendaba moved all the way to what is now Tanzania. Mzilikazi in his flight from Shaka depopulated the eastern highveld and northern Free State, killing the men and capturing the women to form his Matabele nation. Initially, he settled near what is now Pretoria, then moved to Mosega, near present day Zeerust, but after his defeat by the Voortrekkers he moved to present day Zimbabwe where he founded his capital Bulawayo.[7]

Social organizationEdit

Within the Nguni nations, the clan, based on male ancestry, formed the highest social unit. Each clan was led by a chieftain. Influential men tried to achieve independence by creating their own clan. The power of a chieftain often depended on how well he could hold his clan together. From about 1800, the rise of the Zulu clan of the Nguni and the consequent mfecane that accompanied the expansion of the Zulus under Shaka, helped to drive a process of alliance between and consolidation among many of the smaller clans.

For example, the kingdom of Eswatini was formed in the early nineteenth century by different Nguni groups allying with the Dlamini clan against the threat of external attack. Today, the kingdom encompasses many different clans who speak a Nguni language called Swati and are loyal to the king of Eswatini, who is also the head of the Dlamini clan.

"Dlamini" is a very common clan name among all documented Nguni languages (including Swati and Phuthi), associated with AbaMbo cultural identity.


Ngunis may be Christians (whether Catholics or Protestants), practitioners of African traditional religions or members of forms of Christianity modified with traditional African values (such as the Shembe Church of Nazarites).

Constituent peoplesEdit

The following peoples are Nguni:

People Language Population Distribution
Swazi Swazi 2,258,000 Eswatini, but also in South Africa around the Swazi border. Their homeland was KaNgwane.
Phuthi Phuthi 49,000 Near the Lesotho-South Africa border in the Transkei region.
Lala Lala Kranskop, Harding, KwaZulu-Natal, INanda, UMngeni Reserve,
Bhaca Bhaca Northeastern part of the Eastern Cape
Northern (Transvaal) Ndebele Sumayela Ndebele Primarily in Mokopane, but also in Hammanskraal and around Polokwane
Hlubi Hlubi Near the Lesotho-South Africa border in the Transkei region.KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape , Lesotho and North West provinces, with an original settlement on the Buffalo River
Zulu Zulu 10,964,000 Originally Zululand, but Blacks now identify themselves as Zulus all over Natal and as a minority in Eastern Transvaal and Gauteng. Their homeland was KwaZulu.
Xhosa Xhosa 8,478,000 Their homelands were the Ciskei and the Transkei.
Thembu[n 1] Xhosa 750,000 Thembuland. Their homeland was in the Transkei (they are often considered a Xhosa sub-group)
Pondo[n 1] Xhosa Pondoland. Their homeland was in the Transkei (they are often considered a Xhosa sub-group)
Southern Ndebele Southern Ndebele 659,000 Central Transvaal
        [n 2]
Northern Ndebele (Matabele) Northern Ndebele 1,599,000 Matabeleland Zimbabwe
Ngoni They do not have a language of their own but speak Tumbuka, Chewa, or Zulu. 2,044,000 Malawi Zambia
Total Nguni languages 26,801,000


  1. ^ a b They are often amalgamated with the Xhosas since their language is Xhosa as well.
  2. ^ Original Zunda-speaking groups joined by fleeing populations after and during the Mfecane.

Ngoni people by ethnicity are found in Malawi (under paramount Chief Mbelwa and Maseko Paramouncy), Zambia (under paramount chief Mpezeni), Mozambique and Tanzania. In Malawi and Zambia, they speak a mixture of languages of the people they conquered such as Chewa, Nsenga and Tumbuka.[citation needed]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Oliver, R. (1966). The Problem of the Bantu Expansion. The Journal of African History, 7(3), 361-376. Retrieved from
  3. ^ Greenberg, J. (1972). Linguistic Evidence Regarding Bantu Origins. The Journal of African History, 13(2), 189-216. Retrieved from
  4. ^ ALFRED: The ALlele FREquency Database
  5. ^ Skhosana, Philemon Buti (2009). "3". The Linguistic Relationship between Southern and Northern Ndebele (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2015-11-17.
  6. ^ "The Mfecane as Alibi: Thoughts on Dithakong and Mbolompo" (PDF). The Journal of African History, Volume 29, Issue 3, Cambridge University Press. 1988. Retrieved 2015-09-16.
  7. ^ Bryant: Olden Times in Zululand and Natal. Ritter: Shaka Zulu