The people known as Zulus began to unite 165 years ago. They formed from many clans which combined, all of which lived in coastal South Africa. Their name, “Zulu,” was the name of the man whose descendants formed the Zulu clan.

In 1816, Shaka became the chief of the Zulus. He conquered other clans, and they formed the Zulu nation. The Zulus became a very strong and powerful people.

In 1820, white colonists tried to colonize the lands of the Zulus. This caused conflicts, which escalated into a war between Great Britain and the Zulu people. The British defeated the Zulus in 1879, and that brought all of South Africa under British control. Native Africans had virtually no rights what so ever.

They were subject to apartheid. They opposed it, as did others both inside and outside the country. Even today, the rights of South Africans are still being questioned, and the Zulus are a prominent power in the equal-rights struggle.

How the Zulu Nation Formed

The Zulu people were one of the original inhabitants of South Africa. They spoke a Bantu-style language, but adopted some click sounds from the Khoisan language into their language as well. They lived in the southeastern part of South Africa. This place is now called Natal.

In the late 1700s the Zulu clan was made up of a few hundred people. They lived with many other clans, as had their ancestors, going back hundreds of years. Each clan was led by a chief and had its own plot of land.

In 1816 the Zulu chief Senzangkhona died. His son Shaka claimed leadership of the clan, and established himself as chief of the Zulu.

He wanted to unite other clans, and to form a great nation with them. To accomplish this, he started a training program for warriors, and taught them fighting tactics, as well as making them want to be a part of a larger nation, rather than a clan.

One of the war tactics he taught changed the kind of weapons the warriors were supposed to use. Instead of having to use long throwing spears, Shaka gave them short stabbing spears, called assegai. This meant that the warriors had to run up, face to face with their enemies and stab them one after another with the same assegai.

By using Shaka’s tactics, the Zulu clan conquered all the surrounding clans. A lot of people did not want to be under Zulu rule, and ran away in order to escape. According to South African history, the wars were recorded and referred to as the Mfecane, or “devastating wars.” That is how the people that fled them remember the wars.

In a period of ten years the Zulu peoples went from being a small clan to a great nation. Their nation covered all the land of the conquered clans, as well as the land that was left empty by fleeing clans. They called their nation Zululand. According to author John Mack, “Zulu land is a land of contrasts. Changes is sea level long ago have produced a landscape that descends to the ocean in three steps or stages. Each marks a retreat of the sea.”

Shaka was said to be ruthless in his enforcement of discipline and his desire to conquer. His rule was short, though. In 1828 he was assassinated by two of his half-brothers. He had never married, and had no children. Although he died young, he was still able to complete he dream of a great Zulu nation.

The Way of Life

The Zulus lived in homesteads rather than villages. The homesteads were known as umuzi. Each was surrounded by a hedge, and was made up of several “beehive-like” huts, known as kraals. They were built from flexible saplings, and thatched grass mats were laid over the top and tied down by grass ropes. Inside, the floor was made of cow dung and clay. It was polished with a stone to smoothen it, and when finished it resembled marble. As an early traveler described it,

“…shining black or dark green in colour and almost as smooth as a looking glass.”

The huts were built in a circle, and there was an opening at one end that served as an entrance. In the center there was another circle, which was fenced off by pole. This was used as a cattle pen. Livestock were kept here each night. Around each homestead there was farmland used for growing crops. Cattle grazed on common pastures near the umuzi.

A umuzi was the home of a single family. A man would live in it with his wife or wives, as well as his sons’ wives and children.

When a bride moved in with her husband, the husband and his relatives paid a price to her family, in the form of cattle. This payment was called lobola, and is part of an elaborate wedding ceremony. Also, it is said to show good will on the part of the bridegroom’s family.


A homestead was the smallest unit in Zulu society. Its head was responsible for making sure everyone behaved well, and was answerable to the headman, or induna, for the conduct of everyone in his homestead. The induna was in charge of a ward. Seven wards made up a chiefdom, with a chief as a leader. The headman of every ward reported to the chief. Together, all the chiefdoms formed the kingdom, with all the chiefs answering to the king.

The kind represented unity of the nation. In his hands he held all the land, and he trusted his people completely. Also, it was his job to be responsible for his peoples’ welfare. Since all this work was a difficult task, the king delegated work down to the chiefs, who then dealt with the problems. Only difficult or serious cases were referred to the king.

All matters of national interest were deal with in the same way. For example, the recruitment of warriors was once the responsibility of the headman. Once he got some, he sent them to the chief, who then sent them to the king.


Kinship, or blood relation, was important to the Zulu way of life. The standing of a Zulu father in the society affected his offspring’s social, religious, and political life. You could only inherit property through your father, as well as rank. Also, most of the relatives you had were through your father.

Using extended kinship terms also shows such ties. Children use the term father to refer not only to their own father, but also to all of his brothers. The term mother also referred to all the women these men were married to. All children with the same mother and father were brothers and sisters. Children grew up in a large group of people, all of whom was family. If both of a child’s real parents died, the never became an orphan. The other “parents” simply took over responsibility.

Their kinship terms also extended to people that were not blood relatives. All people with the same surname were considered relatives and seen as belonging to the same clan. Therefore, they could not marry, even if any direct relationship could not be traced. Also, anyone who belonged to the mother’s clan was considered related as a cousin and not available for marriage.

Due to these kinship terms, a large number of people were considered related. More relations were formed as a result of marriage, when a clan member married someone from a distant clan. Exogamy or the marrying of outsiders is common in a lot of societies in Africa.


The Zulus believed in an almighty being, whom they called Umvelinqangi, which translates to “the one who is always there.” Umvelinqangi, they believed, created the universe, but had little to do with day-to-day affairs. They believed that the spirits of their dead ancestors were the ones who had the power to bless and punish the living.

As a result, they honored their ancestors with many rituals and ceremonies. Their beliefs were that their dead relatives existed in another world where they were happy and powerful. Any misfortune suffered by the living was said to be punishment from the ancestors for a misdeed.

In daily life there were various taboos. Mainly, these simply emphasized the divisions between those who were kinship and those who were not. For example, outsiders were not permitted in certain parts of the homestead, such as the place where ancestors were buried, and where ceremonies were performed.

Breaking these taboos was considered sacrilegious, and could be punished by death. There were other taboos that were not nearly as bad to break. An example of this is how women were supposed to sit on the left side of the doorway, while men sat on the right.

Food taboos were connected with kinship. Drinking milk or eating food made from milk which did not come from a home with the same surname as yours or your mother’s was considered taboo. This was a way of expressing the importance of kinship relationships.

Health and Healing

The Zulus considered illness to be not only physical pain, but also emotional stress that can cause misfortune. If a person died, the relatives were also considered ill as a result of the emotional stress. To be healthy meant to be in good physical and social standings.

Illness could come from natural causes or have been inherited. Illnesses were also due to improper behavior, which annoyed the ancestral spirits and caused them to remove their protection and blessing.

Due to this, the Zulu healers were divided into three main categories. The first was the insangoma, or spiritual medium. The Europeans referred to these people as witch doctors.

An insangoma was almost always a woman. She had special contact with the spirits, which made her clairvoyant. A lot of training was required to gain this power. The main task of the insangoma was to diagnose the cause of diseases so that a cure could be decided upon.

Also, there were inyangas (herbalists). They made mixtures of various herds to cure aches and pains. Most inyangas were men. They also did not have the power to diagnose the cause of misfortunes.

Additionally, there were men and women who had special medical skills which were passed down to them. Some people were bonesetters. Others specialized in wounds, and so forth. Some had knowledge of snake bite antidotes, and there were midwives who helped with difficult births.

Land and Food

To the Zulus, land was considered a necessity of life. It was provided by the creator, and therefore could never be privately owned. There were, however, rules about land use. The rights to fertile land were reserved for married people. However, if a homestead land was left unused for a long period of time, the chief could reallocate the land.

The land was used for crop growing and the rearing of livestock. The crops were mostly sorghum, millet, and corn. Various types of beans and root plants like cocoa yams and sweet potatoes. Crops were mainly tended by the women, who also gathered wild vegetables and fruit.

Men mostly took care of the livestock, which consisted of cattle, goats, and sheep. The cattle were used for meat, and also gave milk, which goats did not. Men also hunted for meat.

Due to the Zulus’ warm climate, they had no method of refrigeration. As a result, they developed several methods of food storage. They let milk go sour in gourds. They then strained the whey and used it as a refreshing cold drink. The curdled part, or amasi, when mixed with a cereal made a dish essential in every home.

When they had a good harvest, surplus food was stored in underground tanks below the cattle kraal. Grain that was stored this way could last for several years, and be used as a reserve in periods of draught. For everyday use, grain was kept above ground in woven baskets.

The Zulus never had to store fish. They never developed a taste for it, despite the well-stocked rivers and Indian Ocean. They never had a need for it because the land provided all that they needed.

Growing Up

In Zulu society, children were given responsibility at an early age. Infants were weaned away from their mothers at the age of three, and it became the responsibility of their older sisters to take care of them. Young boys herded calves, goats, and sheep, and the older boys took care of the larger livestock. The younger boys also learned how to hunt and trap small game.

It was the duty of the older children to protect the younger ones. They were answerable if the younger children misbehaved, so it was also their job to discipline them. The Zulu people put a lot of emphasis on praising and rewarding good behavior. Children were also taught to share everything.

They learned never to receive or give with the left hand, and never to look an adult in the eyes. Eyes were always supposed to be cast down when talking to a senior. Children were taught to always sit in the presence of their elders, as they had a higher position. Whenever they entered someone’s home, the children were to sit down immediately to show respect.

The Zulus highly valued bravery, and frowned upon showing pain. Herdboys played stickfight games, which were to teach the boys how to avoid being hit and to endure pain without flinching.

Another part of a Zulu child’s life was the evening time. After meals, the adults and children would gather around their fires to tell stories of ancient heroes, share snacks, and tell riddles.

Zulu Life Today

The widening of economic and cultural horizons have brought education, industries, Christianity and mobility to the area. The freedom of movement and choice, however, is curtailed by apartheid restrictions. Despite these problems, the Zulus, like all black peoples of South Africa have made good use of what is entitled to them.

The Zulu University opened in 1960, and it offers degrees in education, law, science, and social sciences. Many graduates have received higher education in American and British Universities. Zulu life has had to change drastically to meet the demands of all these developments.


What is in store for the Zulus in the future? Their position in South Africa is due to the manner in which society is organized. Racial issues dominate politics. Deprived peoples constantly try to pressure their leaders into recognizing their rights.

The Zulus are leaders in this conflict because they have had confrontations with their conquerors for over a century. They have never accepted defeat, and have always had good leaders. Many Zulus populate the major industrial areas, such as Johannesburg and the surrounding areas. Therefore, their influence reaches beyond Natal.

Recently the South African government has begun to speak of equal rights for all. No matter what happens, the Zulus are definitely going to be at the center of events.