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Zulu People

by Alain Menjadeu Oct 9, 2020 Blog Blog by Alainn

This month’s topic is about ZULU PEOPLE. 

The Zulu, also known as AmaZulu, are a Bantu ethnic group of Southern Africa. They are the largest ethnic group and nation in South Africa with an estimated 10–12 million people living mainly in the province of KwaZulu-Natal.

In the Zulu language, “Zulu” means heaven or weather. 


The Zulu were originally a major clan in what is known today as Northern KwaZulu-Natal, founded ca. 1709 by Zulu kaMalandela. Zulu kaMalandela, son of Malandela, was the founder and chief of the Zulu clan, which was formed from the Nguni people. At that time, Nguni communities had migrated down the east coast of Africa over the centuries as part of the Bantu migrations. When the King of the Ngunis, Malandela died, he divided the Kingdom into two clans, the Qwabes and the Zulus. 

The Zulu formed a powerful state in 1818 under the leader Shaka. Shaka was the Zulu commander of the Mthethwa Empire and successor to Dingiswayo. As the nation began to develop, the rulership of Shaka brought the clans together to build a cohesive identity for the Zulu. Shaka built a militarised system known as Impi featuring conscription, a standing army, new weaponry, regimentation, and encirclement battle tactics. Zulu expansion was a major factor of the Mfecane (“Crushing”) that depopulated large areas of southern Africa. 

In mid-December 1878, envoys of the British crown delivered an ultimatum to 11 chiefs representing the then-current king of the Zulu empire, Cetshwayo. Under the British terms delivered to the Zulu, Cetshwayo would have been required to disband his army and accept British sovereignty. Cetshwayo refused, and war between the Zulus and African contingents of the British crown began on January 12, 1879. Despite an early victory for the Zulus at the Battle of Isandlwana on the 22nd of January, the British fought back and won the Battle at Rorke’s Drift, and decisively defeated the Zulu army by July at the Battle of Ulundi. After Cetshwayo’s capture a month following his defeat, the British divided the Zulu Empire into 13 kinglets. The sub-kingdoms fought amongst each other until 1883 when Cetshwayo was reinstated as king over Zululand. This still did not stop the fighting and the Zulu monarch was forced to flee his realm by Zibhebhu, one of the 13 kinglets, supported by Boer mercenaries. Cetshwayo died in February 1884. He was killed by Zibhebhu’s regime, leaving his 15-year-old son Dinuzulu, to inherit the throne. In-fighting between the Zulu continued for years, until in 1897 Zululand was absorbed fully into the British colony of Natal.

Lifestyle and settlement patterns

The Zulu people govern under a patriarchal society. Men are perceived as the head of the household and seen as authoritative figures. The men contribute to society by acting as defenders, hunters, and lovers. The Zulu men are also in charge of herding the cattle, educating themselves on the lives of disciplined warriors, creating weapons, and learning the art of stick fighting. The art of stick fighting is a celebration of manhood for Zulu men. These men can begin to learn this fighting art form as young as the age of five years old.

The women in Zulu society often perform domestic chores such as cleaning, raising children, collect water and firewood, laundry, cooking, and making clothes. Women can be considered as the sole income-earner of the household. A woman’s stages of life lead up to the goal of marriage. As a woman approaches puberty, she is known as a tshitshi. A tshitshi reveals her singleness by wearing less clothing. Single women typically do not wear clothing to cover their head, breasts, legs and shoulders. Engaged women wear hairnets to show their marital status to society and married women cover themselves in clothing and headdresses. Also, women are taught to defer to men and treat them with great respect. The women are always bound by a male figure to abide by.

Most Zulu people state their beliefs to be Christian. Many Zulus retain their traditional pre-Christian belief system of ancestor worship in parallel with their Christianity. Traditionally, the Zulu recognize several elements to be present in a human being: the physical body (inyama yomzimba or umzimba); the breath or life force (umoya womphefumulo or umoya); and the “shadow,” prestige, or personality (isithunzi). Once the umoya leaves the body, the isithunzi may live on as an ancestral spirit (idlozi) only if certain conditions were met in life. Behaving with ubuntu, or showing respect and generosity towards others, enhances one’s moral standing or prestige in the community, one’s isithunzi. By contrast, acting in a negative way towards others can reduce the isithunzi, and it is possible for the isithunzi to fade away completely.


The creation of beadwork dates to the times of war for the Zulu people. This form of beadwork was known as iziqu, medallions of war. Often worn as a necklace, the beads were displayed in a criss-cross formation across the shoulders. This assemblage of beads by the warriors represented a symbol of bravery. Beadwork is a form of communication for the Zulu people. Typically, when one is wearing multiple beads, it is a sign of wealth. The more beads one is wearing, the wealthier they are perceived. 

The Zulu people celebrate an annual event that was established in 1984 called the Umhlanga or Reed Dance. This event takes place at the royal capital near Nongoma. This traditional ceremony is performed by young women from all parts of the kingdom to perform in front of the monarch and his guests. The purpose of this event is to promote pride in virginity and to restrain sexual relationships. Beadwork is a prominent attire that is worn at the Umhlanga. The beadwork is not only worn by the dancers, but by the guests as well. The Umhlanga is not purely for a time of dance. The King also uses this time to speak to the young men and women of the nation. The King discusses the arising political issues that are inflicting on their nation.

King Shaka
  Zulu man performing traditional warrior dance.
Married Zulu women wearing headdresses at annual Reed Dance ceremony.
Traditional Zulu dancing.
Zulu beadwork necklace.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 2020. Zulu People. [online] Available at: [Accessed 02 August 2020].

Alain Menjadeu

Alain Menjadeu is originally from Cameroon. Married and a father. After a decade working as Marine Engineer Officer, he is now working as a Mechanical Facility. Alain is passionate about music, history and his family.

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This month’s topic is about ZULU PEOPLE.  The Zulu, also known as AmaZulu, are a Ba...

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prev-and-next-posts image

This month’s topic is about ZULU PEOPLE.  The Zulu, also known as AmaZulu, are a Ba

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