by Ash Hooper
on March 28, 2017
6 min read

You may think you know a thing or two about this iconic African tribe, but there’s more to the Zulu culture than meets the eye. A spectacular history, meaningful craftwork, and far-reaching philosophy are just some of the special elements that thread the Zulu Nation together.

1. King Shaka is Not Simply an International Airport

Local and international travellers who have visited or flown via Durban most likely know the name “King Shaka”, thanks to King Shaka International Airport. Who is this Zulu King that welcomes people to his Kingdom?

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.

He established new weapons such as a different style of the spear and the use of cowhide shields instead of the usual wood or iron materials. His training routines were relentless, creating an army of warriors fearless in the face of battle.

Shaka also introduced new ranking systems, motivating his soldiers and giving them incentive in the new hierarchical structure of the army. His genius proved effective in outsmarting his opponents in battle and his originality earned the admiration and respect of his followers, and even his enemies.

The after effect of Shaka’s military-minded Zulu Kingdom was a period of inter-community warfare called the Mfecane. Shaka’s rule and power provided the foundation for the Mfecane movement which resulted in the expansion and establishment of the Zulu empire. This widespread battle for domination began in 1815 and continued until 1840, which saw the establishment of new groups and even provinces such as Lesotho as we know it today. Ultimately, the Mfecane cemented the proud identity shared amongst the Zulu nation today.

2. 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. Shaka’s influence heavily impacted Southern African history owing to the Zulu nation under his rule being a formidable opponent to rivals both on the continent and across the sea.

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 a formidable warrior nation, feared the continent over and by the British.

Shake Zulu Day is one of colour and verve thanks to traditional clothing being worn and war dances held. The occasion is vibrant and jovial where people from all walks of life cross paths to commemorate their Zulu heritage.

Even after his death, Shaka’s political mind and military tactics resulted in victory for the Zulu nation, most notably in the Battle of Isandlawana which was fought in KwaZulu-Natal on the 22nd January 1879. A heavily under-armed army of Zulu warriors outsmarted 1,350 British soldiers, resulting in a crushing defeat.

The Zulu army anticipated and out-manoeuvred their heavily armed opponents and only 50 British soldiers ended up surviving the battle. This was one of the worst defeats that the British army suffered and lit the match that ignited the Anglo-Zulu War. This site can still be visited today when touring KwaZulu-Natal’s Battlefields.

3. Traditional Zulu Beadwork Tells An Intricate Story

Did you think the Zulu nation simply wore colourful bead-work to reflect their vibrant personalities? Think again. Every colour and shape has its own intricate cultural meaning.

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.

Traditionally, Zulu men would rely on these messages for certain information such as whether a woman is married or not. Beadwork is indicative of gender, and told others how many children the wearer had, what region she/he hailed from, and how many unmarried sisters she/he had.

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.

So, when you’re next out buying beadwork from local stores, think twice before buying a beaded necklace, you may end up with many Zulu men pursuing you with a proposal!

4. 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.

Sadly, Soloman Linda never received royalties or recognition until decades later, despite his melody having been translated, adapted, and used on countless platforms since its official recording in 1939.

Soloman Linda worked as cleaner and record packer at Gallo Record Company, which is where his song was eventually recorded with his group of musicians, The Evening Birds. Mbube’s melody, which was influenced by his traditional Zulu choral music background, went on a whirlwind journey, evolving into “Wimoweh” by Pete Seeger in 1952. With every new ear, the song changed slightly but Linda’s spectacular melody always remained. Mbube has since become a genre of South African pop music thanks to Linda’s song.

5. Ubuntu, A Traditional Nguni Philosophy, Binds South Africans

Ubuntu is simply about living a life with a good disposition and generous spirit. It challenges the thinking that individuals can live for themselves and achieve success out of their own efforts by preaching a deep interconnectedness of humanity.

The word ‘ubuntu’ originates from the Nguni language. ‘Nguni’ refers to a group including the Zulu, Ndebele, Swazi, and Xhosa people. There are proverbs dedicated to ubuntu that relate to one’s behaviour, morals, manners, and life, in general. This philosophy has long been a guiding force among the Nguni people.

This collective philosophy is heavily respected and referenced by political and religious leaders of South Africa. Its impact is also far reaching. Elizabeth Frawley Bagley, who headed Global Partnerships in the Office of the Secretary of State under the Obama administration, mentioned Ubuntu in the context of American foreign policing. Bagley declared it ‘Ubuntu Diplomacy’, and one that highlighted the “responsibilities that come with our interconnectedness”.

“There is a word in South Africa – Ubuntu – a word that captures Mandela’s greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us” – Barack Obama.

Has the Zulu culture piqued your interest? Contact one of our expert travel consultants today for a tailor-made adventure to KwaZulu-Natal – the home of Zululand.