March 28

Five Things We Bet You Don’t Know About the Zulu Culture

By Ash Hooper on
March 28, 2017

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

A drawing of a Zulu Warrior, Shaka
A drawing by Sir Baden Powell, 1913

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?

Shaka Zulu is one of the most iconic leaders in Zulu culture and African history in general. He was 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.

Zulu wariors

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. 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. However, 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 colourful and lively. People wear traditional clothes and perform ritual war dances. The occasion is vibrant and jovial where people from all walks of life cross paths to commemorate their Zulu heritage.

A traditional Zulu dance and attire
Photo credit: Isibindi Africa

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. It 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.

The intrinsic and colourful patterns of Zulu beadwork

In Zulu culture, all colours except white (which only represents love and purity) have both positive and negative meanings. It all depends on how beads are stitched alongside it. The colour of the beadwork one chooses to wear can even symbolise mood and feelings. Black indicates one is in mourning and green depicts 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 passes 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. A Zulu Tribesman Wrote The Original Lion King Melody

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. This is where he recorded the song with his group of musicians, The Evening Birds. Mbube’s melody is the result of his experience of traditional Zulu choral music background. It then 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 to their Zulu Culture

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 Travel Expert consultants today for a tailor-made adventure to KwaZulu-Natal – the home of Zululand.

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About the author 

Ash Hooper

The travel bug bit when Ashleigh was just a teen and a two-month exchange to Turkey resulted in a continued desire to take in the world. Writing became a natural response to what she saw, who she met, and what she learnt. Whether in the Caribbean on a Cuban train, part of the throngs of people on a ferry in the Philippines, or in the Mother City she calls home, Ash always has her pen and notebook ready. Not to mention a snack stash and some mementos to remind her of her proudly South African roots.

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