South Africa is full of vibrant diversity with many people calling this beautiful land home. Few are more vibrant, more colourful and more iconic than the famous Ndebele tribe.

Did you know?

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

The Roots

As with most stories, it all starts at the roots. The history of the Ndebele people can be traced back to Mafana, their first identifiable chief. Mafana's successor, Mhlanga, had a son named Musi who, in the early 1600's, decided to move away from his cousins (later to become the mighty Zulu nation) and settle in the hills of Gauteng near where the capital, Pretoria is situated. This became what is known as the Ndebele people. Shortly after that, the Chief would have two sons, who would then fight over the chieftainship and ultimately split the tribe into two, the Manala in the north, and the Ndzundza in the South – both remaining distinctly Ndebele.

It wasn’t until 1883 that the tribe would face its greatest adversity when war broke out between the Ndzundza and the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (the Boers). Through sheer will, the tribe held out for eight months, hidden in the mountains and tunnels of their mountain stronghold at Mapoch's Caves near the town of Roossenekal. Eventually, they would be defeated, leading to their tribal structure being broken up and their lands confiscated. But this wouldn’t defeat the Ndebele people. Although their tribe was disintegrated, they retained their cultural unity and live on to this day, proud, beautiful and South African through-and-through.

Cultural History

A Ndebele cultural village, made up of residential units (umuzi), is quite often defined by its striking artwork. In this way, the women designate their 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. 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.

Pattern, colour and beadwork

Women express their status by adorning themselves with ornaments and colourful items. Ornate beadwork, blankets and other trinkets are used. This tradition becomes 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. 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.

These geometric prints and distinct colours serve as the inspiration for the mural art of the Ndebele people of South Africa. This vibrant art that so enlivens the 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.