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Zulu people

Related subjects: African Geography; Peoples

Background Information

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Zulu warriors, late nineteenth century
(Europeans in background)
Total population
10,659,309 (2001 census)
Regions with significant populations
 South Africa
KwaZulu-Natal 7.6 million
Gauteng 1.9 million
Mpumalanga 0.8 million
Free State 0.14 million

(many also speak English or Afrikaans or Portuguese or other indigenous languages such as Xhosa)


Christian, African Traditional Religion

Related ethnic groups

Bantu · Nguni · Basotho · Xhosa · Swazi · Matabele · Khoisan

The Zulu ( South African English and isiZulu: amaZulu) are the largest South African ethnic group of an estimated 10-11 million people who live mainly in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The Zulu form South Africa's largest single ethnic group. Small numbers also live in Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Mozambique. Their language, isiZulu, is a Bantu language; more specifically, part of the Nguni subgroup. The Zulu Kingdom played a major role in South African History during the 19th and 20th centuries. Under apartheid, Zulu people were classed as third-class citizens and suffered from state sanctioned discrimination. Today, they are the most numerous ethnic group in South Africa, and have equal rights along with all other citizens.


The Zulu were originally a minor clan in what is today Northern KwaZulu-Natal, founded ca. 1709 by Zulu kaNtombhela. In the Nguni languages, iZulu/iliZulu/liTulu means heaven, or sky. At that time, the area was occupied by many large Nguni communities and clans (also called isizwe=nation, people or "isibongo"=clan). Nguni and communities had migrated down Africa's east coast over thousands of years, as part of the Bantu migrations probably arriving in what is now South Africa in about the 9th century A.D.


The Zulu formed a powerful state at the beginning of the 19th century under the leader Shaka. Shaka, a commander in the army of the powerful Mtweta Empire, became leader of his mentor Dingiswayo's paramountcy and united what was once a confederation of tribes into an imposing empire under Zulu hegemony.

Conflict with the British

On December 11, 1878, agents of the British delivered an ultimatum to 14 chiefs representing Cetshwayo. The terms required Cetshwayo to disband his army and accept British authority. Cetshwayo refused, and war followed at the start of 1879. During the war, the Zulus handed the British their most severe defeat prior to World War II at the Battle of Isandlwana on January 22. The British managed to get the upper hand after the battle at Rorke's Drift, and the war ended in Zulu defeat at the Battle of Ulundi on July 4.

Absorption into Cape Colony

After Cetshwayo's capture a month after his defeat, the British divided the Zulu Empire into 13 "kinglets". The subkingdoms 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, possibly of poison, leaving his son, the 15 year-old Dinuzulu, to inherit the throne. In-fighting between the Zulu continued for years, until Zululand was absorbed fully into the Cape Colony

Apartheid years

The KwaZulu homeland

Under apartheid, the homeland of KwaZulu (Kwa meaning place of) was created for Zulu people. In 1970, the Bantu Homeland Citizenship Act provided that all Zulus would become citizens of KwaZulu, losing their South African citizenship. KwaZulu consisted of a large number of disconnected pieces of land, in what is now KwaZulu-Natal. Hundreds of thousands of Zulu people living on privately owned "black spots" outside of KwaZulu were dispossessed and forcibly moved to bantustans - worse land previously reserved for whites contiguous to existing areas of KwaZulu - in the name of "consolidation." By 1993, approximately 5.2 million Zulu people lived in KwaZulu, and approximately 2 million lived in the rest of South Africa. The Chief Minister of KwaZulu, from its creation in 1970 (as Zululand) was Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi. In 1994, KwaZulu was joined with the province of Natal, to form modern KwaZulu-Natal.


In 1975, Buthelezi revived the Inkatha YaKwaZulu, predecessor of the Inkatha Freedom Party. This organization was nominally a protest movement against apartheid, but held more conservative views than the ANC. For example, Inkatha was opposed to the armed struggle, and to sanctions against South Africa. Inkatha was initially on good terms with the ANC, but the two organizations came into increasing conflict beginning in 1979 in the aftermath of the Soweto Uprising.

Because its stances were more in accordance with the apartheid government's views, Inkatha was the only mass organization recognized as being representative of the views of black South Africans by the apartheid government (the ANC and other movements were banned). In the last years of apartheid, this acceptance extended to the covert provision of funds and guerrilla warfare training to Inkatha by the government. Yet unlike the leaders of the Transkei, Ciskei, Bophuthatswana and Venda bantustans, Buthelezi never accepted the pseudo-independence offered under the policy of Separate Development, despite strong pressure from the ruling white government.

Political violence

From 1985, members of opposing protest movements in what is now KwaZulu-Natal began engaging in bloody armed clashes, with combatants armed with AK-47's. This political violence occurred primarily between Inkatha and ANC members, and included atrocities committed by both sides. It was believed to be frequently instigated by a branch of the apartheid government's security forces, which became known as the "third force". The violence continued through the 1980s, and escalated in the 1990s in the build up to the first national elections in 1994.

The modern Zulu population

The modern Zulu population is fairly evenly distributed in both urban and rural areas. Although KwaZulu-Natal is still their heartland, large numbers have been attracted to the relative economic prosperity of Gauteng province. Indeed, isiZulu is the most widely spoken home language in the province, followed by Sesotho. IsiZulu is also widely spoken in rural and small-town Mpumalanga province.

Zulus also play an important part in South African politics. Mangosuthu Buthelezi served a term as one of two Deputy Presidents in the government of national unity which came into power in 1994, when reduction of civil conflict between ANC and IFP followers was a key national issue. Within the ANC, both the immediate past ( Jacob Zuma) and current ( Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka) Deputy President of the country have been Zulu, in part to bolster the ANC's claim to be a pan-ethnic national party and refute IFP claims that it was primarily a Xhosa party.

Zulu music

The singing styles of the Zulu people and their Nguni heritage are worthy of special mention. As in much of Africa, music is highly regarded, enabling the communication of emotions and situations which could not be explained by talking. Zulu music incorporates rhythm, melody and harmony — the latter is usually dominant and known as " isigubudu" (which can be translated as converging horns on a beast, with tips touching the animal, a spiralling inward that reflects inner feelings).

Maskanda and Mbaqanga are other Zulu music genres. Notable Maskandi musicians include Phuzekhemisi and Mfazomnyama.

Zulu music has also been carried worldwide, often by white musicians using Zulu backing singers, or performing songs by Zulu composers. A famous example of the former is Paul Simon. Examples of the latter are the song " Wimoweh" and several tunes on the first non-cassette album by Bow Wow Wow. In the case of both Bow Wow and to a lesser extent "Wimoweh", the original Zulu musicians went largely unidentified and uncompensated by the white musicians. The song "Wimoweh" is used in the Disney animated film The Lion King; the Zulu language is also sung in the opening song of the film, " Circle of Life".

The famous South African Johnny Clegg also took Zulu music to the world but as an original composer within various genres. The internationally successful Zulu group Ladysmith Black Mambazo are among the artists who have made Zulu musical traditions known throughout the world. After contributing to Paul Simon's Graceland album, they have toured the world with numerous stars and received two Grammy Awards.


The language of the Zulu people is Zulu or isiZulu, a Bantu language; more specifically, part of the Nguni subgroup. Zulu is the most widely spoken language in South Africa, with more than half of the South African population able to understand it (Ethnologue 2005). Many Zulu people also speak English, Portuguese, Shangaan, Sesotho and others from among South Africa's 11 official languages.


Zulu people can be Christians (whether Roman Catholics or Protestants in Mozambique, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, or part-Christian, part-Traditionalist in Zimbabwe) or pure Traditionalist.

Zulu religion includes belief in a creator God (Nkulunkulu), who is above interacting in day-to-day human affairs. It is possible to appeal to the spirit world only by invoking the ancestors (amaDlozi) through divination processes. As such, the diviner, who is almost always a woman, plays an important part in the daily lives of the Zulu people. It is believed that all bad things, including death, are the result of evil sorcery or offended spirits. No misfortune is ever seen as the result of natural causes. Another important aspect of Zulu religion is cleanliness. Separate utensils and plates were used for different foods, and bathing often occurred up to three times a day. Going barefoot has always been a traditional sign of Zulu spirituality and strength. Christianity had difficulty gaining a foothold among the Zulu people, and when it did it was in a syncretic fashion. Isaiah Shembe, considered the Zulu Messiah, presented a form of Christianity (the Nazareth Baptist Church) which incorporated traditional customs.

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