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The Ndebele People

Ndebele is a language spoken by the Ndebele/Matabele people who occupy the Matabeleland in south western Zimbabwe. It is the second most common language after Shona.

The Ndebele People

The Matabele, later corrected to Ndebele, people migrated from South Africa - first from Nguniland, Kwazulu Natal, via west of Pretoria, Gauteng - south of the Limpopo river in the 19th Century and settled on the south western plateau of present day Zimbabwe.[1] The Ndebele speaking Matabele people were under the leadership of Mzilikazi on the settlement in the present day area of Bulawayo. The area inhabited by the Matabele came to be known as the land of the Matabele, or, in colonial rhetoric, Matabeleland.

During the pre-colonial period, the Ndebele social structure was stratified. It was composed of mainly three social groups, Zansi, Enhla and Amahole. The Zansi comprised the ruling class, the original Khumalo people who migrated from south of Limpopo with Mzilikazi. The Enhla and Amahole groups were made up of other tribes and ethnics who had been incorporated into the empire during the migration. However, with the passage of time, this stratification has slowly disappeared.

The Ndebele people have for long ascribed to the worship of Unkunkulu as their supreme being. Their religious life in general, rituals, ceremonies, practices, devotion and loyalty revolves around the worship of this Supreme Being. However, with the popularisation of Christianity and other religions, Ndebele traditional religion is now uncommon. Only a few conservatives still strongly ascribe to it.[2]

The Ndebele economy from the establishment of the kingdom was largely based on livestock production. After their settlement in the South Western Zimbabwe, their economy flourished due to the large tracts of grazing lands as well as the favourable suitable conditions which allow good breeding of livestock.[2]

The political structure of the Ndebele people was dynamic. At the helm of the political structure was the king. The king was assisted in the political administration of the kingdom by a council of elders. In the military, there were the Amabutho leaders who acted as advisors to the king.[2]

Historical Development of the Ndebele Language

A distinct Ndebele language emerged due to various historical developments. First the migration from Nguniland in the 19th Century where the language was prevalent marked an important turning point. The Ndebele language is classified as a member of the Southeastern or Nguni subgroup of the Bantu division of languages. Bantu is part of the Benue-Congo subgroup of the Niger-Congo language family. Other African languages of the Nguni group that are related to Ndebele include Sesotho, Xhosa and Zulu.[3] The first Ndebele literature to be produced is largely attributed to the works of missionaries from the London Missionary Society. These include include for example Reverend Charles Helm and Robert Moffat. After the establishment of a missionary station in the Ndebele kingdom, the first Ndebele written piece was developed using a latin script.[3]

Like most African societies, the Ndebele are traditionally an oral society. Since the introduction of a written Ndebele language by Christian missionaries, however, a body of Ndebele literature has developed and grown. Many of these writers have worked to translate old Ndebele oral traditions into the written form, helping to commemorate and remember these old traditions. Another common theme explored by Ndebele language writers is the history of the Ndebele people. A commitment to remembering the best of the Ndebele has inspired many authors to work towards re-writing their own language.[3]

Ndebele Language Today

Ndebele language is one of the official languages spoken in Zimbabwe. It is spoken by about 16% of the population being the second most common language after Shona. It is spoken by well over 2 million people. Besides being spoken by such a large population, there is a general concern that the Ndebele language is under threat from the Shona and English languages which are considerably influential. There is thus the fear of its dilution if not extinction.[4]

Fears of Extinction

There are concerns that the education system in both primary and secondary schools is threatening the survival of the Ndebele language. The major problem is that the language in most parts of the country is taught by teachers who do not have a passion for it, or they do not even speak the language.[4] This has been noticed in areas in Matabeleland such as Gwanda and Hwange where most of the teachers have strong Shona background. This has also been further worsened by the proliferation of contemporary Ndebele literature which is awash with borrowed words which corrupt the vernacular language.[4]


  1. ,The Matabele Kingdom: Ndebele Tribe,retrived: 24 Jun 2014"
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 G.C Mazarire, Who are the Ndebele and the Kalanga in Zimbabwe?, published:2003,retrived:24 Jun 2014"
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 , Ndebele,retrived:24 Jun 2014"
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 M. Sibanda, Ndebele language under threat, "Bulawayo 24", published:11 Mar 2104,retrived:24 Jun 2014"

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