Ndebele culture is one of the most distinctive in the country. Set apart by the lavish beaded designs of their women's attire, the stacked rings worn round their necks, arms and legs, and the trademark geometric mural art of their homesteads - they are instantly recognisable.

Did you know?

The Ndebele are buried in cow skins in an upright position in the cow kraal.

For the most part, Ndebele culture is renowned for its distinct beadwork and colourful, geometric mural art.

No one is completely sure of the origins of the South African Ndebele tribe, but it is generally accepted that about 400 years ago they migrated under Chief Muzi from present day KwaZulu-Natal. There are two groups: one found north-east of Johannesburg in the Bronkhorstspruit region; the other in the Limpopo province.

A Ndebele cultural village, made up of residential units (umuzi), is quite often defined by its striking artwork, which is done by the women. In this way she designates her territory while using art as a form of inspiration for everyday life. The family head (mnumzana) oversees his entire family and, in some cases, his married children and his brothers are permitted to settle in his community; thus expanding the residence into a village.

Women also express their status in the way they adorn and ornament themselves. Ornate beadwork, blankets and other trinkets are used, becoming more elaborate after marriage, detailing her faithful devotion to her husband. Favoured jewels are the brass rings that are placed on her neck, arms and legs, which can often weigh up to 20 kilograms. 

In Ndebele tradition the authority over a group is vested in the tribal chief (ikozi), assisted by an inner or family council (amaphakathi). Next in this hierarchy are ward heads (izilindi), followed by the family patriarch.

As in many African tribal communities, the Ndebele people strongly believe in ancestral spirits. The worship of those long gone is a decidedly intricate ritual, with the living and dead sharing a bond through which the ancestors provide valuable services to those who are alive.

It was in the late 19th century that Ndebele women began to incorporate the distinctive beadwork style in their dress-culture.

The beautiful dress and accessories of the Ndebele women reflect their age, social status and love of colour. It is an aesthetic cultural affirmation that is in everything from the aprons of little girls to the colourful gala blankets and spectacular costumes of married women.

Two things in particular catch the eye. These are the stacked rings worn round the neck, arms and legs - and, most striking of all, the lavish beadwork featuring geometric patterns decorating skirts, tiaras and the long strips that trail behind.

These in turn serve as the inspiration for the mural art of the Ndebele people of South Africa. This vibrant art that so enlivens the sometimes-drab eastern Highveld is a talent passed from mother to daughter.

Based on abstract triangular and rectangular shapes, the mural art includes contemporary motifs such as airplanes, car number plates and television aerials. What is remarkable is that all this is achieved freehand without preparatory sketches, rulers or geometric instruments.

The most celebrated of these artists is Esther Mahlangu, who has received international acclaim. She was commissioned by BMW to paint one of their cars and her most public works are the murals of the Ndebele Open Air Museum at the Botshabelo Historical Village.

Travel tips & Planning info

How to get here

Ndebele culture is best experienced at Botshabelo Historical Village: From Johannesburg and Pretoria, take the N4 to Middelburg and turn into the R35 to Groblersdal. Turn left 12km from Middelburg at the Botshabelo sign. The entrance gate is only a short distance from the turn-off.