Northern Ndebele people

Northern Ndebele people
Ndebele (Zimbabwe)
Total population
4.5 million (2001 est. 1)
Regions with significant populations
Zimbabwe: 1.5 million

(2001 est.[1])


Northern Ndebele language (Sindebele) Southern Ndebele language



Related ethnic groups

Nguni, Zulu, Balete, Xhosa

The Ndebele (Matabele) are a branch of the Zulus who split from King Shaka in the early 1820s under the leadership of Mzilikazi, a former general in Shaka's army.

During a turbulent period of African history known as the Mfecane, Mzilikazi and his followers, initially numbering about 500 people, moved west towards the area near the present-day city of Pretoria, where they founded a settlement called Mhlahlandlela (a name which lives on in the modern-day Bulawayo suburb, Malindela). Here they came into contact with the Tswana people, who are credited with giving this band of Zulus the name "Matabele". Tabele comes from tebela which means 'to chase away'.

They then moved northwards in 1838 into present-day Zimbabwe where they overwhelmed the Shona, eventually carving out a home now called Matabeleland and encompassing the west and south-west region of the country. In the course of the migration, large numbers of conquered local clans and individuals were absorbed into the Ndebele nation, adopting the Northern Ndebele language but enjoying a lower social status than that of members of the original clans from the Zulu Kingdom.



They were named Matabele by the British, a spelling that is still common in older texts, because they found it difficult to pronounce the word amaNdebele. Moreover, in the early 19th century, the Ndebele invaded and lived in territories populated by Sotho-Tswana peoples who used the plural prefix "Ma" for certain types of unfamiliar people or the Nguni prefix "Ama," so the British explorers, who were first informed of the existence of the kingdom by Sotho-Tswana communities they encountered on the trip north, would have been presented with two variations of the name, first, the Sotho-Tswana pronunciation (Matabele) and second, the Ndebele pronunciation (Ndebele or AmaNdebele). They are now commonly known as the Ndebele or amaNdebele (and were officially known as the amaNdebele when under British rule[2]).

Early history

Life was simple for the Khumalos until the rise of chief Zwide and his tribe Ndwandwe. The Khumalos had the best land in Zululand, the Mkhuze: plenty of water, fertile soil and grazing ground. But in the early 19th century, they would have to choose a side between the Zulu and the Zwide. They delayed this for as long as they could. To please the Ndwandwe tribe, the Khumalo chief Matshobana married the daughter of the Ndwandwe chief Zwide and sired a son, Mzilikazi. The Ndwandwes were closely related to the Zulus and speak a very similar language (a Nguni language).

When Matshobana did not tell Zwide about patrolling Mthethwa amabutho (soldiers), Zwide had Matshobana killed. Thus his son, Mzilikazi, became leader of the Khumalo. Mzilikazi immediately mistrusted his grandfather, Zwide, and took 50 warriors to join Shaka. Shaka was overjoyed because the Khumalos would be useful spies on Zwide and the Ndwandwes. After a few battles, Shaka gave Mzilikazi the extraordinary honour of being chief of the Khumalos and to remain semi-independent from the Zulu, if Zwide could be defeated.

This caused immense jealousy among Shaka's older allies, but as warriors none realised their equal in Mzilikazi. All intelligence for the defeat of Zwide was collected by Mzilikazi. Hence, when Zwide was defeated, Shaka rightly acknowledged he could not have done it without Mzilikazi and presented him with an ivory axe. There were only two such axes; one for Shaka and one for Mzilikazi. Shaka himself placed the plumes on Mzilikazi's head after Zwide was vanquished.

The Khumalos returned to peace in their ancestral homeland. This peace lasted until Shaka asked Mzilikazi to punish a tribe to the north of the Khumalo, belonging to one Raninsi a Sotho. After the defeat of Raninsi, Mzilikazi refused to hand over the cattle to Shaka. Shaka, loving Mzilikazi, did nothing about it. But his generals, long disliking Mzilikazi, pressed for action, and thus a first force was sent to teach Mzilikazi a lesson. The force was soundly beaten by Mzilikazi's 500 warriors, compared to the Zulus' 3,000 warriors (though Mzilikazi had the cover of the mountains). This made Mzilikazi the only warrior to have ever defeated Shaka in battle.

Shaka reluctantly sent his veteran division, the Ufasimbi, to put an end to Mzilikazi and the embarrassing situation. Mzilikazi was left with only 300 warriors who were grossly out-numbered. He was also betrayed by his brother, Zeni, who had wanted Mzilikazi's position for himself. Thus Mzilikazi was defeated. He gathered his people with their possessions and fled north to the hinterland to escape Shaka's reach. After a temporary home was found near modern Pretoria, the Ndebele were defeated by the Boers and compelled to move away to the north of the Limpopo river.

Matabele Kingdom

Mzilikazi settled on the western edge of the central plateau of modern-day Zimbabwe. He established a state that held sovereignty over the region between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers to the north and south, and between the desert of the Makgadikgadi salt pans to the west and the realm of Shoshangana to the east, the Save River.

Mzilikazi died in 1868 and his son Lobengula assumed power. Cecil Rhodes negotiated a territorial treaty with Lobengula, known as the Rudd Concession of 1888, which permitted British mining and colonisation of Matabele lands between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers, and prohibited all Boer settlement in the region. As part of the agreement, the British would pay Lobengula 100 pounds a month, as well as 1,000 rifles, 10,000 rounds of ammunition, and a riverboat. Lobengula had hoped that the Rudd Concession would diminish European incursions, but as white settlers moved in, the British South Africa Company set up its own government, made its own laws, and set its sights on more mineral rights and more territorial concessions.

The social organisation of the Ndebele people was rigidly controlled by rules of service and hierarchy inherited from Shaka's reforms among the Zulu. Other subject peoples, such as in Mashonaland, were treated harshly; their lives and property were subject to the King's control and could be disrupted at any time by raids or exactions of tribute. This was the scene presented to British Pioneer Column when they arrived in Mashonaland in 1890.

First Matabele War

In August 1893, Lobengula sent warriors down to Fort Victoria to attack the Shona in the area. Lobengula's warriors were instructed not to kill any white people, but they did plunder and commit numerous murders of local Shona people. During this confrontation, a fight broke out between British and Matabele and thus began the First Matabele War. Hoping for a quick victory, Leander Starr Jameson sent his British forces to attack the capital Gubulawayo and capture Lobengula. But rather than fight, Lobengula burned down his capital and fled with a few of his elite warriors. The British moved into the remains of Gubulawayo, establishing a base, which they renamed Bulawayo and then sent out patrols to find Lobengula. The most famous of these the patrols, the Shangani Patrol, managed to find Lobengula, only to be trapped and wiped out in battle.

The British soldiers were vastly outnumbered throughout the war, but their superior armaments, most notably the Maxim gun, proved to be too much for the Ndebele. In an attempt to reach a peace accord with the British, a band of Lobengula's warriors brought a large sum of gold to two British soldiers to be delivered to their superiors. The two soldiers instead decided to keep the gold for themselves and the incident went undiscovered for many months. Lobengula died shortly afterwards and was buried secretly. This ended the war.

Second Matabele War

In March 1896, the Matabele revolted against the authority of the British South Africa Company in what is now celebrated in Zimbabwe as the First War of Independence. After a year of drought, and cattle sickeness, Mlimo, the Matabele spiritual leader, is credited with fomenting much of the anger that led to this confrontation. An estimated 50,000 Matabele retreated into their stronghold of the Matobo Hills near Bulawayo which became the scene of the fiercest fighting against the white settler patrols, which were led by their legendary military figures such as Burnham, Baden-Powell, and Selous. Hundreds of white settlers and uncounted Matabele and Shona were killed over the next year and a half. The Matabele military defiance ended only when Burnham found and assassinated Mlimo. Upon learning of Mlimo's death, Cecil Rhodes boldly walked unarmed into the Matabele stronghold and persuaded the leaders to lay down their arms.[3] This final uprising thus ended in October 1897 and Matabeleland and Mashonaland would later be renamed Rhodesia.

Twentieth century

During the Zimbabwe War of Liberation, the main liberation party, the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU), split into two groups in 1963, the split-away group being named Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU).[4] Though these groups had a common origin they gradually grew apart, with the split away group, ZANU, recruiting mainly from the Shona regions, while ZAPU recruited mainly from Ndebele-speaking regions in the west.[5]

The armies of these two groups, ZAPU's Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA), and ZANU's Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), developed rivalries for the support of the people. When Zimbabwe won independence, the two armies so distrusted each other that it was difficult to integrate them both into the National Army.[5] These problems were only in Matabeleland. For example: former ZIPRA elements attacked civilian areas in Zvishavane, Kadoma and Bulawayo. It seemed ZIPRA had a hidden arms cache. There were major outbreaks of violence carried out by ZIPRA after integration into the National Army. The first of these was in November 1980, followed by a more serious incident in early 1981. This led to the defection of many ZIPRA members. It was thought that ZAPU was supporting a new dissident war in order to improve its position in Zimbabwe. In the elections held on 27 February 1980, ZANU-PF received 57 out of 80 seats (20 seats were reserved for whites) and Robert Mugabe became prime minister.[6]

Institutionalised and de facto tribal discrimination against the Ndebele People has resulted in lower employment opportunities and personal advancement in Zimbawe, resulting in mass migration to South Africa.[7][8] Mugabe and ZAPU leader Joshua Nkomo signed the Unity Accord on December 22, 1987.[9] This effectively dissolved ZAPU into ZANU, renamed ZANU-PF. On 18 April 1988, Mugabe announced an amnesty for all dissidents, and Nkomo called on them to lay down their arms. A general ordinance was issued saying all those who surrendered before 31 May would get a full pardon. This was extended just to Ndebele dissidents. Over the next few weeks, 122 dissidents surrendered. In June the amnesty was extended to include all members of the security forces who had committed human rights violations.

Notable Ndebele


Welshman Ncube, Politician

Further reading

  • Scouting on Two Continents, by Major Frederick Russell Burnham, D.S.O.. LC call number: DT775 .B8 1926. (1926)
  • Migrant Kingdom: Mzilikazi's Ndebele in South Africa, by R. Kent Rasmussen (1978)
  • Mzilikazi of the Ndebele, by R. Kent Rasmussen (1977)
  • The Zulus and Matabele, Warrior Nations by Glen Lyndon Dodds, (1998)
  • Historical Dictionary of Zimbabwe, by Steven C. Rubert and R. Kent Rasmussen (3rd ed., 2001)

External links

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