A Sneak Peek at the People of the heavens

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One of South Africa’s Oldest Clans

The Zulu people were originally a clan in what is now known as Northern KwaZulu-Natal. The Zulu tribe represents the largest population of ethnic groups in South Africa; making up to 10-11 million people. They are known for their strong fighting spirit which has fashioned renowned warriors in history including the likes of Shaka Zulu who played a prominent role in various Zulu wars.
The Zulu, also known as Amazulu, tribe is one of the most widely known tribes in Africa, mainly because of the very vital part that it played in the continent’s history. They originated from Nguni communities who took part in the Bantu migrations.

People of the heavens

Zulu people refer to themselves as ‘the people of the heavens’ and they are the largest ethnic group of South Africa, with an estimated 10 million Zulu residents in KwaZulu-Natal.
isiZulu is the language of the Zulu people and about 10 million residents are fluent in the language. In the 19th century they merged into a great kingdom under the leadership of Shaka.

The language has a fascinating translation

isiZulu is a fascinating language, but the word ‘Zulu’ translates, rather interestingly, to mean either ‘heaven’ or ‘weather’ in the Nguni languages.


After the death of his father, Senzangakhona, Shaka accepted leadership of the Zulu clan who at the time only consisted of 1 500 people. Under his reign from 1816 until 1828, an army (impi) of 50 000 emerged and defeated other clans. Shaka created many military tactics to defeat the enemy.
He created the ‘Assegai’ (short, large bladed stabbing spear) and the lethal means to utilize the weapon.
After the death of his mother , Nandi, he lost his mind. In his period of grief, Shaka had hundreds of Zulu killed. The lesser chiefs, his half-brothers Dingaan and Mhlangana, assassinated him. Dingaan, Shaka’s half-brother, took reign over the clan after the assassination of Shaka.

King Shaka Zulu will always be remembered as one of the most iconic leaders in African history, a leader who fearlessly fought alongside his warriors to protect his land.
His shrewd military mind and strategic tactics revolutionised the Zulu tribe and catapulted an already powerful nation into an almost indomitable one. A nation that achieved great victories over their enemies who were, in fact, technologically superior.

Shaka Zulu Has His Own Public Holiday

South Africans celebrate National Heritage Day on the 24th of September every year, but at its inception, this day commemorated King Shaka Zulu and his rule from 1816 to 1828.
On National Heritage Day every year, members of the Zulu nation congregate at Shaka Zulu’s gravesite in Stanger, to honour the man who united the Zulu Kingdom and gave birth to a formidable warrior nation.
They wear their full traditional attire which includes the weapons and have a gathering at KwaDukuza in Stanger, where Shaka’s tombstone is. The celebrations are known for their colorful quality and the event is also marked by the poets singing the praises of all the Zulu kings starting with Shaka down to the current king. The occasion is vibrant and jovial where people from all walks of life cross paths to commemorate their Zulu heritage.

Zulu culture

The Zulu tribe speaks their language which is known as IsiZulu. It mostly features respect terms; for example there are words used while addressing elderly people. Using first names on an elderly person is normally frowned upon by the tribe and instead they use terms such as Baba for father and Mama for mother even when the senior individuals are not the parents of the person addressing them.

Traditional clothing

Zulu people wear a wide variety of clothing, both in traditional ceremonial use and for cultural celebrations. For everyday use, modern and westernized clothing is worn.
In Zulu culture, women also wear different attire at different stages of their lives.
Women dress according to their marital status. An eligible and single Zulu woman shows the pride she has of her body by flaunting it and wearing skirts made out of grass or beaded cotton strings. An engaged Zulu woman will naturally grow her hair and cover her chest with decorative cloth as a sign of respect to her in laws.


A married woman covers her entire body to indicate that she is spoken for. She wears a thick cowhide skirt that has been softened with animal fat and charcoal.

A modern day married zulu woman

Zulu men traditionally wear animal skins and feathers. This attire is comprised of umqhele ( headband)which is only worn by married men , amambatha to put over the shoulders, ibheshu (acts as a trouser) around the waist, umcedo (used as underwear) to cover the genitalia, and imbadada for his foot.

Because the Zulu revere leopards as the king of all predators, only royalty are allowed to wear leopard skin.

Traditional Zulu Beadwork Tells An Intricate Story

All colours except white (which only represents love and purity), have both positive and negative meanings dependant on what bead is stitched alongside it. The colour of the beadwork one chooses to wear can even symbolise mood, with black indicating one is in mourning and green depicting contentment or bliss in marriage.

Women also rely on beadwork as a way of forging bonds amongst themselves. The time spent beading together strengthens the bond of community and is passed down from mother to daughter.

Zulu food and beverages

Maize is the staple food of the Zulus, and there are approximately 40 different dishes that can be prepared with it. Starch is a dietary staple and they take form in pap (porridge) and beer. Pumpkins and potatoes are also common ingredients used to in traditional dishes. Oxen are only slaughtered on special occasions such as weddings and coming of age ceremonies. Traditional Zulus eat with wooden bowls and spoons, but nowadays many rural village people eat from enamel plates and use enamel cups, as they are hard wearing.. Before meals, hands are washed and after meals mouths are rinsed.


Traditional Beverages

Amazi, fermented milk, is considered a delicacy and may only be shared with family members. The taste is described as a mix of cottage cheese and plain yogurt. Zulus believe that amazi makes men strong, it also improves digestion.

Another beverage is beer, Zulu women are obliged to fulfil beer brewing, which is a three day process.
Maize and sorghum (grain plant) are soaked in water for a day. The content is then boiled with dry sorghum and set to cool of. On the third day the brew is filtered, using a sieve, and it can be consumed the same day.

The Zulu dance

How did Zulu dance come about?
The traditional Zulu dance has been around since the 16th century when the Zulu tribe was lead by Shaka Zulu. The Zulu nation is world famous for their impressive dancing and singing skills.
Dancing is usually performed during a traditional Zulu ceremony, and is accompanied by vibrant singing and sometimes the beating of drums. Zulu dancing is something quite spectacular
Drums are an essential part of Zulu celebrations and it is always accompanied by dancing and chanting. The ingungu drum is made of goatskin, that has been cleaned and stripped from its hair, and a black clay pot.
The ingungu is played to celebrate the start of a young woman’s first menstruation.

There are a number of dances in Zulu culture that celebrates different areas of life.

Ingoma dance(isizingili)

The Ingoma dance is a dance performed by boys and girls accompanied by only a chant. The girls wear woolen skirts and are normally bare-chested. They also wear rattles made of seedpods around the ankles to emphasise the high kicks they do within this dance.
This dance is performed for transition ceremonies. The Ingoma is one of the purest remnants of Zulu tradition.

Ingoma (isishameni)

A harmonising performance with boys and girls together but dancing separately. The boys clap while the girls dance and vice-versa.


This is the dance that is most associated with Zulu culture. It is derived from the war dances. It is a men’s dance and it is carried out in full regalia: head ornaments, ceremonial belts, rattles, shields and weapons. They show the mastery of their strength and weapons.
While indlamu uses similar steps as girls do for ingoma, it has a much more calculated, less frantic feel, showing off muscular strength

This war dance is untouched by Western influence, because it is regarded as a touchstone of Zulu identity.


Is a solo dance to show off the traditional attire. Imvunulo is also the traditional attire in this dance, representing one’s role and position in society.

Dress is determined by age, rank and gender. Young ones do not cover their thighs, but adults should. Men wear amabeshu and women wear leather skirts and beaded aprons. A leather skirt worn by a women is connected with being pregnant or a desire to be pregnant. Over that she wears beaded aprons, presented on her wedding day by her father.


The Isicathamiya is performed by men or boys by standing in a straight line or arc. The music used in this dance is use lyrics which describe modern issues such as aids, crime or migrant labor but use ancient melodies.

There are also special wedding songs and dances called ‘umBholoho’ and form a structured ritual to channel mutual antagonism between families of the bride and groom. Families take turns to outdo each other in beautiful dancing and song.


The Original Lion King Melody is Written by a Zulu Tribesman
Did you know you’ve been singing the lyrics to your favourite The Lion King song incorrectly? The song known to the world as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” actually has deep roots in Soloman Linda’s song, “Mbube”, written in the 1920’s.

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1 Thought to “A Sneak Peek at the People of the heavens”

  1. Benjamim Temeng

    Nice Article

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