History of the Ndebele

Ndebele Tribe Sub-groups

©Dr Peter Magubane
A Ndebele boy herding livestock.
The Ndebele history includes the middle of the 19th century, when the Kekana faction of the Ndebele tribe had further divided into smaller splinter groups, which spread out across the hills, valleys and plains surrounding present-day Potgietersrus, Zebediela and Pietersburg. These groups were progressively absorbed into the numerically superior and more dominant surrounding Sotho groups, and underwent considerable cultural change.

By contrast, the descendants of Ndebele chiefs Manala and Ndzundza maintained a distinctive cultural identity, and also retained their original language. The house-painting, beadwork and ornamentation often spoken of as Ndebele are in fact mostly produced by the Ndzundza Ndebele of the former southern Transvaal.

By the 1820s, evidence suggests that there were Ndzundza homesteads widely dispersed along the Steelpoort. This scatter of homesteads was due in part to raids by Mzilikazi and his followers, but also to factional conflict after the death of Chief Magodongo. From the 1840s, white farmers 'Boers', who had been migrating into the Highveld in growing numbers since the 1830s, started to encroach on the areas occupied by the Ndzundza Ndebele.

Boer settlements sprang up between the Olifants and Steelpoort rivers, but the proximity of these towns to the chiefly stronghold of Konomtjharhelo, established by the Ndzundza regent Mabhoko it proved irksome to Boer and Ndzundza alike. Boer attempts to subdue the chiefdom failed.

Following three consecutive unsuccessful confrontations, some of which combined Swazi and Boer forces, some Boers left the area in despair, while others recognized the authority of Mabhoko and even paid tribute to him. In the late 1860s and 1870s, Ndzundza power was at its height in the region.

War With the Boers

After 1877, with the British annexation of the Transvaal and the 1879 defeat of the Pedi by the British, the balance of power shifted away from African independent kingdoms in the region.

In the autumn of 1883 war broke out between the Boers and the Ndebele faction Ndzundza under chief Nyabela, and a strategy of siege and attrition was staged by the Boers under Commandant Piet Joubert. For eight months, Nyabela and those Ndzundza who had left their dispersed settlements along the Steelpoort to group around him were besieged at Konomtjharhelo.

Recent evidence suggests that the well-armed Ndzundza were dug into a series of fortified settlements which spread over a much wider area. The destruction of Ndebele crops and the seizing of their cattle were largely the undoing of the chiefdom, whose people were gradually starved into submission.

In July Nyabela surrendered and left his capital for the last time, as the victorious Boers torched it behind him. The conditions imposed by the victors on the vanquished were very harsh. Nyabela and other members of the chiefly family were imprisoned, and all Ndzundza lands were confiscated and given on a first-come first-served basis to the Boers who had participated in the siege.

Victorious Boers were similarly favoured by being given first pick of the Ndzundza as indentured farm servants. This meant that the Ndzundza were scattered widely over the southern regions of the Transvaal Republic, including the districts of Lydenburg, Middelburg, Standerton and Wakkerstroom.

Ndebele on White Farms

On the farm Kafferskraal, not far from the old capital, the Ndebele Ndzundza held an initiation school 'wela' to the amazement of Boer officials. A chiefdom, with no land and which no longer existed, was staging an initiation, three years after its total destruction!

Far from causing the annihilation of Ndzundza culture, this almost century-long diaspora provided the formative conditions for many social and cultural features now regarded as typically Ndebele. Some were partly borrowed from the neighbouring Pedi, but moulded by Ndebele while they lived on white farms. Ndzundza boys' initiation resembled its Pedi counterpart in being centrally controlled by the chief rather than being dispersed to separate homesteads like the more typical Nguni pattern.

This countered the effects of Ndebele dispersal to white farms, allowing the chief to maintain his power despite great distance between his subjects. The Ndzundza painting style was likewise based on a Pedi original, but developed its characteristic form in the 1940s while Ndzundza lived on white farms.