Ndebele people (South Africa)


Ndebele people (South Africa)

Infobox Ethnic group
group = Ndebele


caption = The women of Loopspruit Cultural Village, near Bronkhorstspruit, in front of a traditionally-painted Ndebele dwelling.
pop = 703,906 (2001 Census)
regions = Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Gauteng provinces in flag|South Africa
languages = Ndebele language
religions = Christian, Animist
related = Nguni
The Ndebele people are three tribes or nations of people living in South Africa and Zimbabwe; there are three main groups of Ndebele:

* The Southern Transvaal Ndebele, who live around Bronkhorstspruit
* The Northern Transvaal Ndebele, who live in Limpopo Province (formerly Northern Transvaal or Northern Province) around the towns of Mokopane (Potgietersrus) and Polokwane (Pietersburg).
* The Ndebele people of Zimbabwe, often called the Matabele

The Northern Transvaal Ndebele have largely adopted the language and culture of their Sotho and Tswana neighbours. Their spoken language is sometimes mistakenly grouped under the Northern Sotho group of dialects, and is becoming extinct. The new generation mostly speaks Northern Sotho.

The Southern Transvaal Ndebele

Those who make the famous house-paintings and beadwork described as “Ndebele” - upon which the flag of the new South Africa is based - have often been portrayed as a people clinging to tradition. According to ethnologist van Warmelo, these people retained their custom and language “with astonishing tenacity", thus differing markedly from the Northern Transvaal Ndebele whose language and customs "have been largely superseded by [those of the] Sotho". SiNdebele-speakers’ forms of artistic expression have served to maintain a strongly-defined identity. But the – almost exclusively female – creators of these arts have for decades been borrowing elements from the social and cultural repertoires both of their neighbours and of modern industrial society. Paradoxically, it is with these hybrid elements that the Ndebele have fuelled their apparent conservative traditionalism. Their distinctive house-painting style, originally based on a similar but less colourful style originally developed by the Northern Sotho or Pedi, flowered and achieved its creative pinnacle within the almost slave-like conditions which the Ndebele endured on the white-owned farms of the south-eastern Transvaal during the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.

Ethnonyms: Amandebele, Mapoggers, Ndzundza, Ndzundza-Ndebele or Manala-Ndebele, Southern Ndebele

Identification:The Ndebele had their origins in the Nguni-speaking peoples who settled along the eastern coastal plain of southern Africa, breaking away about three centuries ago and migrating to the area later known as the Transvaal (now Mpumalanga and Limpopo Provinces). Once known as “Transvaal Ndebele”, they bear no relationship to the Ndebele of Zimbabwe other than in their shared origins in the area now known as KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The branch known as the Ndzundza Ndebele are known for their decorative house-painting and their distinctive and colourful beadwork style.

Location: The Ndzundza Ndebele are today settled mainly in the former homeland of KwaNdebele in Mpumalanga, and in the Nebo district of the Limpopo Province. Other branches, such as the Kekana, settled further north near Zebediela.

HistoryThe Ndebele are part of the larger Nguni ethnic group.

In the 17th century, the Ndebele broke away from their coastal Nguni cousins, who were to become part of the Zulu empire. They migrated inland under the leadership of Musi, establishing themselves north of present-day Pretoria. Musi, an astute ruler, concerned himself with the wellbeing of his subjects, protecting them against exploitation by more powerful neighbours. He is said to have relied on diplomacy rather than aggression, gaining the confidence of the Sotho-speakers among whom he and his people settled.

When Musi died, his eldest son, Manala, was named as the future chief. This was challenged by another senior son, Ndzundza; the group was divided by the resulting squabble between the two. Ndundza was defeated and put to flight. He and his followers headed eastwards, settling in the upper part of the Steelport River basin at a place called KwaSimkhulu, near present-day Belfast, leaving Manala to be installed as the chief of his father’s domain. Two further factions, led by other sons, then broke away from the Ndebele core. The Kekana moved northwards and settled in the region of present-day Zebediela, and the other section, under Dlomo, returned to the east coast from where the Ndebele had originally come.

By the middle of the 19th century, the Kekana had further divided into smaller splinter groups, which spread out across the hills, valleys and plains surrounding present-day Mokopane (Potgietersrus), Zebediela and Polokwane (Pietersburg). These groups were progressively absorbed into the numerically superior and more dominant surrounding Sotho groups, undergoing considerable cultural and social change. By contrast, the descendants of Manala and Ndzundza maintained a more recognisably distinctive cultural identity, also retaining a language which was closer to the Nguni spoken by their coastal forebears (and to present-day isiZulu). The house-painting, beadwork and ornamentation often spoken of as Ndebele are produced mostly by the Ndzundza Ndebele of Mpumalanga.

By the 1820s, Nzundza homesteads were widely dispersed along the Steelport river. This scatter of homesteads was due in part to raids by Mzilikazi and his followers, but also to factional conflict after the death of Chief Magodongo. From the 1840s, white farmers (Boers) who had been migrating into the Highveld in growing numbers since the 1830s encroached on the areas occupied by the Ndzundza Ndebele. Boer settlements, established between the Olifants and Steelport rivers, were threatened by the proximity of the chiefly stronghold of Konomtjharhelo, established by the Ndzundza regent Mabhoko I. Boer attempts to subdue the chiefdom failed. Following three unsuccessful confrontations, some of which combined Swazi and Boer forces, some Boers left the area in despair, while others recognized the authority of Mabhoko and even paid tribute to him. In the late 1860s and 1870s, Ndzundza power was at its height in the region.

After 1877, with the British annexation of the Transvaal and the 1879 defeat of the Pedi by the British, the balance of power shifted away from African independent kingdoms in the region.

In the autumn of 1883 war broke out between the Boers and the Ndzundza under Nyabela. A strategy of siege and attrition was staged by the Boers under Commandant Pier Joubert. For eight months, Nyabela, with those Ndzundza who had left their dispersed settlements along the Steelport to group around him, were besieged at Konomtjharhelo. A Boer myth has it that they were hidden in a centralized fortress of interlocking caverns, but recent evidence suggests that the well-armed Ndzundza were dug into a series of fortified settlements which spread over a much wider area. The destruction of Ndebele crops and the seizing of their cattle were largely the undoing of the chiefdom, whose people were gradually starved into submission. In July Nyabela surrendered and left his capital for the last time, as the victorious Boers torched it behind him. The conditions imposed by the victors onto the vanquished were very harsh. Nyabela and other members of the chiefly family were imprisoned, Ndzundza lands were confiscated and given to the Boers who had participated in the siege, and members of the polity were given to Boers as indentured farm labourers and servants. Nduzundza were thus scattered widely over the southern regions of the Transvaal Republic, including the districts of Lydenburg, Middelurg, Standerton and Wakkerstroom.

The extended homesteads (umuzi) of the Ndzundza had been split into small, scattered family groups, but many began to flee the farms where they had been stationed and rejoined their families on others. There were strenuous attempts to reconstruct the chiefship (despite Nyabela’s imprisonment) and to revive institutions such as initiation. By 1886, several royals had escaped from prison, instructed by Nyabela to return and “look after his people”. They had also been charged with the duty of holding and initiation school (wela) which, to the amazement of Boer officials, they did on the farm, not far from the old capital, named - derogatorily by today’s standards - Kafferskraal. A chiefdom, allegedly destroyed and landless, was reasserting itself through the staging of an important ritual.

This almost century-long diaspora, far from causing the annihilation of Ndzundza culture, provided the formative conditions for many social and cultural features now regarded as typically Ndebele. Some were borrowed from the neighbouring Pedi but shaped by Ndebele while they lived on white farms. Ndzundza boys’ initiation resembled its Pedi counterpart in being centrally controlled by the chief rather than being dispersed to separate homesteads like the more typical Nguni pattern. This allowed the chief to maintain his power despite great distance between his subjects, and hence countered the effects of their dispersal to white-owned farms. The Ndzundza painting style was likewise based on a Pedi original, but developed its characteristic colourful form in the 1940s during the period of Ndzundza dispersal on white farms.

Gender Division and Livelihood: Strongly patriarchal attitudes and practices are evident in Ndebele communities. Perhaps more than many other groups, Ndzundza men – especially those of chiefly background – continue to practise polygyny. Women must practice "hlonipha" (respect) towards their husbands and parents-in-law in particular, but also towards men in general: they are expected to wear their upper arms covered at all times, to avoid speaking the names of certain of their male in-laws, and to sit on the floor while men sit on chairs. The power and authority of the patriarchs owe much to the period these people spent as labour tenants on white farms. Demands for family labour were channelled through the male head, which bolstered his authority.

With the move away from the white farms, many men started their own businesses as taxi drivers or builders, in contrast to working on the mines or in industry as their Pedi neighbours had been doing for many years. For Ndzundza women, their youth was often spent working in domestic service in Pretoria before returning home to marry, set up a homestead, and look after children. But some, driven by economic necessity, began to commute to Johannesburg at a later phase of life, sleeping rough in the station for a few nights at a time while selling their beadwork on the streets by day. Their entering the wage market in this way both showed these women's desire to help their husbands "build up the homestead" in both material and figurative terms, but it also represented a bid for a degree of automomy from the arbitrary controls exercised by the white farmer and the male household head. A complex process of domestic struggle led Ndebele women both to participate in the revival of apparently traditional gender relationships within the patriarchal household, and to challenge the strictures of these relationships by moving beyond the household to seek some independence within the broader domain of wage-paid domestic labour or street-selling.

Making and selling beadwork, mats, dolls and other crafts have thus provided some Ndebele women with an independent livelihood: both those who have become internationally famous like Esther Mahlangu – who has been commissioned to paint her designs on BMWs and South African Airways jets - and those with humbler aspirations.

Initiation and Rites of Passage – "Wela": Initiation, revived in the manner described above, is still practised among both males and females in Ndebele society, marking the passage from childhood to adult status. An important function of initiation is to bond age groups together, and to distinguish them from other age groups. Male initiates ("abakhethua") are impressed upon to associate only with the other men who have gone through the initiation process. In order to ensure the exclusivity and elitism of initiation, the "abakhethua" are instructed not to reveal to uninitiated boys what happens during the seclusion in the initiation lodge ("umphadu"). Through the process of initiation, young boys are inducted into traditional lore and the deep mysteries of the group. This knowledge is passed on from one generation of initiates to the next, ensuring that the transfer of knowledge is maintained.

Male initiation ("wela" or "ingoma") is conducted roughly every four years. Boys between 15 and 18 years of age must have their names registered with the paramount chief/king, after which the initiate wears a grass headband ("isonyana") indicating that he is an initiate in preparation. At this stage, he performs various ritual tasks for three weeks. Before leaving for the chief’s residence, where the "abakhethua" from nearby homesteads meet, each is given an "isititirimba" (loincloth, from the Afrikaans "stertriem"), made for them by their grandfathers from an animal skin, and a single blanket. The rites are arduous and represent an ordeal, given that initiation usually takes place during the coldest part of the winter, on the Highveld, and given that initiates are circumcised. The initiates remain in an "umphadu" (initiation lodge), deep in the bush, for two months, being instructed on the lore of the group and their responsibilities, duties and rights as men.

After their period of seclusion, feasts are prepared at the "abakhethua"s' homes, and the presents they receive from family members, to celebrate the attainment of manhood, are displayed. When the "abakhethua" leave the "umphadu", it is set alight with the blankets and garments they wore during initiation, signifying the completion of their rites of passage and the closing of a chapter in their lives. After this, they return at sunset to the chief’s residence, tightly wrapped in new blankets, with their eyes downcast in an obvious display of humility, similar to when they departed for the initiation lodge. Beneath their blankets the boys are naked with the exception of the "isititirimba", which symbolises manhood. That night they sleep in the enclosure and at dawn the next morning all initiates are publicly paraded (ukupalala) and receive their regimental names officially from the chief. The members of the group return to their homes and a to long round of celebrations, after which the processes of betrothal and marriage may be initiated.

Initiation and Rites of Passage - Women, Beadwork, and Ceremonial Clothing: The Ndzundza Ndebele are best known for their decorative crafts. Mural decoration and beadwork, done by women, use similar motifs, designs and colours. Patterns comprise a variety of forms and symbols: geometric shapes, and natural objects such as flowers, snakes, birds and small animals, are used. In modern times, letters of the alphabet, numerals, representations of urban buildings, windmills and aeroplanes are also drawn upon as decorative motifs. The early Ndebele relied on natural pigments (soot, ash and clay) for the colours in their decorations. With the arrival of white traders, however, they had access to a wide range of coloured paints, which are extensively used today. Traditionally, women devoted their time to mural art in the late autumn and winter, when the planting, weeding and harvesting of sorghum and maize crops was completed, and they had a reasonable amount of leisure time. This is also the time in the year when they did most of their beadwork, sitting together in their courtyards of their homes.

In earlier times, the elaborate personal adornment worn by Ndebele women owed much to the wishes of Ndebele men to have their status as wealthy husbands displayed by their wives’ elaborate ornamentation. The range of ornaments worn by Ndebele women, which became increasingly spectacular after marriage and with age, was probably greater than that of any other group in South Africa. The "iirholwana", beaded wire hoops of various sizes, were once worn by women around their wrists, arms, ankles, legs, necks and stomach. In earlier times, once her home was built, an Ndebele wife would also wear copper or brass rings ("iindzila") around her neck. These were believed to have strong ritual power, although wearing them on a permanent basis is no longer common practice: many adult women were persuaded to remove them by doctors or nurses when visiting clinics or going to hospital. Traditionally the husband provided his wife with "iindzila"; the more rings she wore, the greater was her husband’s wealth reputed to be. "Iindzila" were considered by a wife to be a token of her bond with and faithfulness to her husband. Only on his death would she remove them.

Among both the Manala and Ndzundza, girls wore ornaments from early childhood. These comprise beaded anklets, wristlets and necklaces. At this age, they traditionally wore loin coverings ("iinrhabi"), little cascades of leather thongs attached to waist-straps and tipped with beads, which cover the upper part of the thighs. In adolescence, instead of the "iinrhabi", the "isiphephetu" was worn: a small, rectangular and stiffly beaded fore-apron. After marriage, this was replaced with the "umaphotho", a large, goat-skin apron, which often reached the ankles and was intricately decorated with white beads. On her wedding day, the bride wore a veil of threaded beads which completely hid her face.

The colour of the beads had special significance, reflecting the stages of development in a person’s life, from infancy to parenthood. The combination of colours also reflected the mood of the maker: joy, happy expectations, sorrow, or insecurity.

More recently, women in Ndzundza society have come to be thought of as the custodians of "isikhethu" (lit. "that which is ours") - the relationships, beliefs and practices on which the very essence of Ndebele identity is centred. Alongside the care of ageing in-laws and the socialisation of and inculcation of values in children, this role includes women's clothing of their bodies in various ceremonial contexts. In the 1940s, Isaac Schapera pointed out that "the men ... all wear European clothing and go out in large numbers to work. But most of the women have retained the old national dress". But by the 1990s Ndebele women were hardly ever wearing "isikhethu" dress except on ceremonial occasions or when commercially engaged in the propagation of a self-conscious ethnic image for the benefit of tourists, at museums such as the one at Botšhabelo near Middelburg. Even if it occurs only in ritual or other special contexts, women's wearing of "traditional" ceremonial dress constitutes a symbolic statement. The ritually- or ceremonially-clothed female body represents the continuity of the patrilineal family into which the woman was born or into which she is marrying, and of the broader Ndebele collectivity. The ritually-clothed female body, although situated within the domestic context of the homestead ("imizi"), thus carries a meaning for the broader public realm as well. One of the occasions on which "isikhethu" is enunciated through beaded and decorative clothing is "iqhude" (girl's initiation), which occurs at puberty. This ritual, like male initiation, was revived during the period when Ndebele lived on the white farms of the south-eastern Transvaal, providing a focus of emerging Ndebele ethnic identity. It was completely decentralized and could be held in individual homesteads at any moment throughout the year, rather than being restricted to a particular moment in the yearly cycle as male initiation was. During seclusion at "iqhude", when a young woman was in contact only with her mother and other female elders, she learned the arts of wall-painting and of beadwork. At different stages of the ritual the initiate would be clothed on successive occasions in different types of ceremonial garb, in order to mark her change in status from immature girl to marriageable woman.

At a wedding there is a similar clothing of the female participants in elaborate ceremonial clothing. Here, the bride and her female relatives and attendants are dressed in beaded aprons and necklets. For both these rituals, the financial provision for a young woman's finery is made by a male relative. In the case of initiation, although the girl's mother must make the beadwork for her daughter to wear and must ensure that all preparations are done correctly, her father is obliged to buy the materials and to meet the considerable expenses incurred during the holding of the ritual. In the case of a wedding, brides are given brass neck-, arm-, and leg-rings by their husbands, and their fathers-in-law are responsible for providing the characteristic and colourfully striped "Middelburg blanket" which since the 1940s has tended gradually to replace some of the beaded skins. At both these rituals, the costly elements of a young woman's dress reflect the social status of her male relatives, either those related to her by blood or those to whom she is about to become linked by marriage. But these colourful clothes also bear vivid testimony to the distinctiveness of Ndebele culture within the broader world of inter-ethnic politics.

From the farm era through to the present day, women's ceremonial clothing has also been a statement of defiance in the face of the conditions which were shaping Ndebele lives, in part by attempting to establish a relationship with the pre-colonial past, drawing on the symbolic power of a time when the Ndebele were able more actively to challenge the disruptive forces of colonial contact. Women, as crucial players in the creative manipulation and reinvention of "traditions" which draw on forms and skills they have learned within the household, were and are well placed to offer this subtle kind of resistance. They are maintaining an arena of autonomy, free from the onslaught of capitalist and industrial relationships.

Recent Developments: Being dispersed as servants on white farms was not the only major experience of upheaval in the lives of the Ndzundza. Another significant disruption came almost a century later, when large-scale changes in white agriculture caused Ndebele farm tenants to be put under ever-increasing pressure. In some cases, when a farmer mechanized, he evicted the family whose services he no longer required. In other cases, the farmer gradually increased the length time during which young men were obliged to work on the farm, causing many families’ sons to run away. With the family no longer able to fulfil its labour service, the man’s parents and sisters would then be driven off the farms, and the family as a whole would have to find a new place to live. Both of these scenarios saw members of Ndzundza – often accompanied by their herds of cattle – looking for new places to settle. They moved either to the "homeland" of KwaNdebele, under their leader Cornelius, or to the older (Northern Sotho) "homeland" of Lebowa. KwaNdebele was given nominal self-government.Many critics saw KwaNdebele as the ultimate ‘dumping ground’, and regarded its ‘Chief Minister’ and his sinister henchmen as stooges of the apartheid government. But it was to be the scene of an incident hardly less dramatic or definitive than the Boer-Ndebele War of 1883. During the darkest days of apartheid, in the late 1980s, there erupted a wave of popular resistance, supported by the ruling Ndzundza king at the time, against the repressive officials of the KwaNdebele government. Such was the support enjoyed by this uprising that it successfully quelled all suggestions of Kwandebele ‘independence’ under apartheid, and led directly to their inclusion in the new provice of Mpumalanga, in the new South Africa. The Ndebele had shown, and continue to show, that that royalist attitudes can be invoked in the service of a representative democracy, and that traditionalism was not as rigid as it might have appeared.

References

Delius, P 1989 ‘The Ndzundza Ndebele: indenture and the making of Ndebele identity’ in Bonner, P, I Hofmeyr D James and T Lodge, Holding their Ground: Class, Locality and Culture in 19th and 20th Century South Africa Johannesburg: Ravan, pp 227-58

Delius, P (ed) 2007 Mpumalanga: history and heritage Pietermaritzburg, University of Kwa-Zulu Natal Press.

Delius, P and R Cope 2007 ‘Hard-fought frontiers: 1845-1883’ in P Delius (ed) Mpumalanga: history and heritage. Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.

P Holden and S Mathabatha 2007 “The politics of resistance” in P Delius (ed) Mpumalanga: history and heritage. Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.

James, D 1985 Family and household in a Lebowa village, African Studies, 44(2).

James, D 1990 A question of ethnicity: Ndzundza Ndebele in a Lebowa village, Journal of Southern African Studies

Makhura, T. 2007. ‘The Pre-colonial History of Mpumalanga Societies until the 19th Century’. in P Delius (ed) Mpumalanga: history and heritage. Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.

McCaul, C 1987 Satellite in Revolt: KwaNdebele—An Economic and Political Profile. Johannesburg: South African Institute of Race Relations.

Milner, S 1991 The role of Ndebele beadwork in reinforcing the patriarchal household, unpublished Honours dissertation, Anthropology Dept., University of the Witwatersrand.

Morrell, R 1983 Rural transformations in the Transvaal: the Middelburg district 1919-1930. Unpublished MA dissertation, University of the Witwatersrand.

Phatlane S N 2002 The Farce of Homeland Independence: Kwa-Ndebele, the Untold Story Journal of Asian and African Studies, 37(3-5), 401-421

Schapera, I 1949 The Ndebele of South Africa, Natural History, November.

Schneider, E 1985a Paint, pride and politics: aesthetic and meaning in Transvaal Ndebele wall art, unpublished PhD dissertation, University of the Witwatersrand.

Schneider, E 1985b "Ndebele Mural Art." African Arts 18(3).

van Vuuren, CJ. 1991 Historical Land and Contemporary Ritual: The Innovation of Oral Tradition in Understanding Ndzundza-Ndebele Ethnicity. in Oral Tradition and Innovation. New Wine in Old Bottles, ed E. Sienaert, N. Bell, and M. Lewis. Durban: University of Natal Oral Documentation and Research Centre.

Van Vuuren, CJ 1994 The king, the comrades and the grinding-stone: Ndzundza Ndebele ethnicity and the unrest of 1986, unpublished paper.

Van Vuuren, CJ 2000 Exhibiting the Ndebele: myths, stereotypes and identity, Southern African Journal of Demography 4(24)2000

Van Warmelo 1974 The Classification of Cultural Groups in WD Hammond-Tooke (ed) The Bantu-Speaking Peoples of Southern Africa, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul.

External links

* [http://www.bulawayo1872.com/history/ndebele.htm History of the Ndebele (Matabele) people of zimbabwe ]

Ethnic groups in South Africa

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