Nguni people

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Nguni people
Total population
Nguni languages
Related ethnic groups
Ngoni people, Northern Ndebele people

The Nguni people is a classification of related Bantu ethnic groups from South Africa, with off-shoots in neighbouring countries in Southern Africa. Swazi (or Swati) people live in both South Africa and Eswatini, while Northern Ndebele people live in both South Africa (as immigrants) and Zimbabwe.

A group of the Nguni living in present day Malawi and Zambia originated from South Africa and are known as AbaNgoni (or Ngoni/Nguni).

The Xhosa people, who were the first Bantu group to arrive during the Bantu expansion settled in the southern part of southern Africa and established federations (Thembu, Mpondo, Xhosa, Mpondomise) in the region during the 14th century CE. One of the dynasties of the Xhosa polities trace their lineage to a mythical leader named 'Mnguni'. Mnguni begot Xhosa who founded the Xhosa State and whose great-grandson Tshawe expanded the state after a civil war broke out with his brother. The traditional homeland of the Xhosa people stretches from Gamtoos River up to Umzimkhulu near Natal.

Both the Ndebele of Zimbabwe and the Ngoni migrated northwards out of South Africa in the early 19th century, during a politically tumultuous era that included the Mfecane and Great Trek.

In South Africa, the historic Nguni kingdoms of the Ndebele, Swazi, Xhosa and Zulu are in the present-day provinces of Southern and Eastern Cape, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and Mpumalanga. The most notable of these kingdoms are the Zulu Kingdom, which was ruled by Shaka, a warrior king whose conquest took place in the early nineteenth century, and the Xhosa Kingdom, a country that was well established prior to the 17th century and had existed for 11 generations before the start of the Frontier Wars in 1779.

In Zimbabwe the Ndebele people live primarily in the provinces of Matabeleland.[2]


A traditional Nguni homestead from a Xhosa village in South Africa, c. 1900

Most of what is believed about ancient Nguni history comes from oral history and legends. Traditionally, their partial ancestors are said to have migrated to Africa's Great Lakes region from the north.[3] According to linguistic evidence and historians (including John H. Robertson, Rebecca Bradley, T. Russel, Fabio Silva and James Steele), what would be some of the ancestors of the Nguni people migrated from west of the geographic centre of Africa[4] towards modern-day South Africa 7000 years ago (5000 BC).[5][6][7][8] Nguni ancestors had migrated within South Africa to KwaZulu-Natal by the 1st century AD, and were also present in the Transvaal region at the same time.[9][10][11][12] These partially nomadic ancestors of modern Nguni people brought with them sheep, cattle, goats and horticultural crops, many of which had never been used in South Africa at that time.[13][10]

Other provinces in present-day South Africa, such as the Cape, saw the emergence of Nguni speakers at around the same time.[14] Some groups split off and settled along the way, while others kept going. Thus, the following settlement pattern formed: the southern Ndebele in the north, the Swazi in the northeast, the Xhosa in the south and Zulu towards the east. Because these peoples had a common origin, their languages and cultures show marked similarities. Partial ancestors of the Nguni eventually met and merged with San hunters, which accounts for the use of click consonants in the languages of Nguni.[15]

Many tribes and clans in KwaZulu-Natal are said to have been forcibly united under Shaka Zulu. Shaka Zulu's political organisation was efficient in integrating conquered tribes, partly by the age regiments, where men from different villages bonded with each other.[citation needed]

Necklace made from dog's teeth, used in religious ceremonies of the Nguni people. Museum of Gems and Jewellery, Cape Town

Many versions in the historiography of southern Africa state that during the South African upheaval known as Mfecane, the Nguni peoples spread across a large part of southern Africa, absorbing, conquering or displacing many other peoples. However, the notion of the mfecane/difaqane has been disputed by some scholars, notably Julian Cobbing.[16] The Mfecane was initiated by Zwide and his Ndwandwes. They attacked the Hlubi and stole their cattle, leaving them destitute. The remnants of the Hlubi under their chief Matiwane fled into what is now the Free State and attacked the Batlokwa in the Harrismith Vrede area. This displaced the Batlokwa under Mmanthatisi, and she and her people spread conflict further into the central interior. Moshoeshoe and his Bakwena sought the protection of Shaka and sent him tribute in return. When Matiwane settled at Mabolela, near present-day Clocolan, Moshoeshoe complained to Shaka that this prevented him from sending his tribute whereupon an impi was sent to drive Matiwane from this area. Matiwane fled south and raided one of the Xhosa kingdoms, which got his whole tribe annihilated by Paramount Hintsa, at the Battle Of Mbholompo. Mmanthatisi and her Batlokwa settled near what is now Ficksburg and was followed by her son, Sekonyela, as chief of the Batlokwa. It was he who had stolen Zulu cattle that Piet Retief in his dealings with Dingane, Shaka's successor, retrieved. After the defeat of Zwide and his Ndwandwes by Shaka, two of his commanders, Soshangane and Zwengendaba, fled with their followers northwards, engaging in conflict as they went. Soshangane eventually founded the Shangane nation in Mozambique and Zwengendaba moved all the way to what is now Tanzania. Mzilikazi in his flight from Shaka depopulated the eastern highveld and northern Free State, killing the men and capturing the women to form his Matabele nation. Initially, he settled near what is now Pretoria, then moved to Mosega, near present day Zeerust, but after his defeat by the Voortrekkers he moved to present-day Zimbabwe where he founded his capital Bulawayo.[17]

Social organisation[edit]

Within the Nguni nations, the clan, based on male ancestry, formed the highest social unit.[citation needed] Each clan was led by a chieftain.[citation needed] Influential men tried to achieve independence by creating their own clan.[citation needed] The power of a chieftain often depended on how well he could hold his clan together.[citation needed] From about 1800, the rise of the Zulu clan of the Nguni, and the consequent Mfecane that accompanied the expansion of the Zulus under Shaka, helped to drive a process of an alliance between and consolidation among many of the smaller clans.[citation needed]

For example, the kingdom of [Eswatini] was formed in the early nineteenth century by different Nguni groups allying with the Dlamini clan against the threat of external attack.[citation needed] Today, the kingdom encompasses many different clans who speak a Nguni language called Swati and are loyal to the king of Eswatini, who is also the head of the Dlamini clan.[citation needed]

"Dlamini" is a very common clan name among all documented Nguni languages (including Swati and Phuthi),[citation needed] associated with AbaMbo cultural identity.[clarification needed]


Ngunis may be Christians (Catholics or Protestants), practitioners of African traditional religions or members of forms of Christianity modified with traditional African values.They also follow a mix of these two religions, most of the time not separately.

Constituent peoples[edit]

The following peoples are considered Nguni:

People Language Population Distribution
Swazi Swazi 2,258,000 Eswatini, but also in South Africa around the Swazi border. Their homeland was KaNgwane.
Phuthi Phuthi 49,000 Near the Lesotho-South Africa border in the Transkei region.
Lala Nguni Lala a few hundred The coastal parts of Kwazulu Natal.
Northern (Transvaal) Ndebele Sumayela Ndebele Primarily in Mokopane, but also in Hammanskraal and around Polokwane
Hlubi Hlubi Near the Lesotho-South Africa border in the Transkei region.KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape , Lesotho and North West provinces, with an original settlement on the Buffalo River
Zulu Zulu 10,964,000 Originally Zululand, but now in most of Natal and as a minority in Eastern Transvaal and Gauteng. Their homeland was the northern part of Natal.
Xhosa Xhosa 8,478,000 The original Nguni people.Their traditional homeland stretched from the Gamtoos River in Eastern Cape to Mzimkhulu River in Natal and were referred to by other Bantus as the 'AbeNguni'.
Southern Ndebele Southern Ndebele 659,000 Central Transvaal
        [n 1]
Northern Ndebele (Matabele) Northern Ndebele 1,599,000 Matabeleland Zimbabwe
Ngoni They do not have a language of their own but speak Tumbuka, Chewa, or Nyanja. 2,044,000 Malawi Zambia
Total Nguni languages 28,801,000


  1. ^ Original Zunda-speaking groups joined by fleeing populations after and during the Mfecane.

Ngoni people by ethnicity are found in Malawi (under Paramount Chief Mbelwa and Maseko Paramouncy), Zambia (under Paramount Chief Mpezeni), Mozambique and Tanzania. In Malawi and Zambia, they speak a mixture of languages of the people they conquered, such as Chewa, Nsenga and Tumbuka.[citation needed]


  1. ^ "People Cluster - Bantu, Nguni | Joshua Project". Retrieved November 12, 2021.
  2. ^ "isiNdebele for beginners. Northern Ndebele language in Africa". Retrieved November 12, 2021.
  3. ^ "The History of Ancient Nubia | The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago". Retrieved 2019-11-10.
  4. ^ Oliver, R. (1966). "The Problem of the Bantu Expansion". The Journal of African History, 7(3), 361-376. Retrieved from
  5. ^ Newman, James L. (1995). The Peopling of Africa: A Geographic Interpretation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-07280-8.
  6. ^ Shillington, Kevin (2005). History of Africa (3rd ed.). New York: St. Martin's Press.
  7. ^ Russell, Thembi; Silva, Fabio; Steele, James (2014-01-31). "Modelling the Spread of Farming in the Bantu-Speaking Regions of Africa: An Archaeology-Based Phylogeography". PLOS ONE. 9 (1): e87854. Bibcode:2014PLoSO...987854R. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0087854. ISSN 1932-6203. PMC 3909244. PMID 24498213.
  8. ^ Robertson, John H.; Bradley, Rebecca (2000). "A New Paradigm: The African Early Iron Age without Bantu Migrations". History in Africa. 27: 287–323. doi:10.2307/3172118. ISSN 0361-5413. JSTOR 3172118. S2CID 163539346.
  9. ^ "History Of Kruger Park - Iron Age - South Africa..." Retrieved 2020-03-26.
  10. ^ a b "The story of how livestock made its way to southern Africa". Retrieved 2020-03-26.
  11. ^ Whitelaw, Gavin (2009). "Four Iron Age women from KwaZulu-Natal: biological anthropology, genetics and archaeological context". Southern African Humanities.
  12. ^ Lander, Faye; Russell, Thembi (2018). "The archaeological evidence for the appearance of pastoralism and farming in southern Africa". PLOS ONE. 13 (6): e0198941. Bibcode:2018PLoSO..1398941L. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0198941. PMC 6002040. PMID 29902271.
  13. ^ Killick, David (2014), "Cairo to Cape: The Spread of Metallurgy through Eastern and Southern Africa", Archaeometallurgy in Global Perspective, Springer New York, pp. 507–527, doi:10.1007/978-1-4614-9017-3_19, ISBN 978-1-4939-3357-0
  14. ^ Fisher, Erich (2013). "Archaeological Reconnaissance in Pondoland". PaleoAnthropology.
  15. ^ "Click languages". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2019-10-26.
  16. ^ "The Mfecane as Alibi: Thoughts on Dithakong and Mbolompo" (PDF). The Journal of African History, Volume 29, Issue 3, Cambridge University Press. 1988. Retrieved 2015-09-16.
  17. ^ Bryant: Olden Times in Zululand and Natal. Ritter: Shaka Zulu

External links[edit]

  • Media related to Nguni at Wikimedia Commons