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Zulus in South Africa

  • Profile

    The Zulu were originally one of many small clans among the Nguni, Bantu peoples settled around today’s Norther KwaZulu Natal. In the early 19th century, clan chief Shaka Zulu united the various Nguni clans to form a Zulu nation. Today, Zulus form the largest ethnic group in South Africa, numbering some 11 million, concentrated in Kwa-Zulu Natal province, but also living across the country (data: 2001 census). According to the 2011 census, IsiZulu is the most commonly spoken language in South Africa, with 22.7 per cent of the population speaking it as their first language.

    Historical context

    During the nineteenth century Zulu kingdoms established a pre-eminence which enabled them to expand their territorial control and mount Africa’s most prolonged and successful military resistance to European colonization. This unique history has served to reinforce a strong sense of Zulu identity. In the twentieth century Zulus continued to play a prominent role in resistance to white domination, as well as in the ANC.

    In 1972 Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a grandson of the last independent Zulu king, was appointed Chief Executive of the assembly of the KwaZulu ‘homeland’. Buthelezi presented himself as an anti-apartheid nationalist as well as a Zulu royalist, using his position and considerable powers of patronage to build up Inkatha, a political movement (and later party) which came to oppose the ANC and its allies. Ostensibly the conflict was over questions of political violence and economic ideology, though also over Inkatha’s promotion of a distinctive and autonomous Zulu political identity and increasingly over its growing collaboration with the apartheid government.

    Support for the ANC among Zulus remained extensive, particularly in urban townships, with traditional Zulu loyalties to the monarchy stronger in rural areas and in northern Natal. Inkatha and the ANC have been involved in protracted violent conflict which claimed over 10,000 lives between 1984 and 1995. Support for Inkatha from the white minority regime, anxious to divert support from the ANC, and police involvement in numerous atrocities, are now well documented. Inkatha also attracted external support, notably from Germany, because of its free-market ideology. Participants on both sides of the Inkatha/ANC conflict in Natal have been Zulus, though the extension of the conflict to the Gauteng region (metropolitan Johannesburg) has generally pitted Zulu hostel-dwellers against non-Zulus.

    Inkatha narrowly won the provincial elections in KwaZulu/Natal in 1994, despite allegations of fraud, and continued to call for a federal system. Buthelezi’s position was weakened following his open conflict with the Zulu monarch in 1995, but he participated in the Government of National Unity as a Deputy President. There was repeated election violence in 1999, but support for the ANC among Zulus was growing. The 2004 elections were accompanied by vastly reduced violence between ANC and Inkatha supporters. President Mbeki sacked Buthelezi as home affairs minister, but kept other Zulus in his cabinet, including Jacob Zuma, then deputy president.

    Current issues

    The ANC government has actively courted the Zulu vote, and many Zulus have continued to hold prominent positions in the cabinet, not least President Jacob Zuma. Inkatha has also moderated in recent years, with support for enhanced autonomy waning.

    Sexual violence in general is an issue that affects many women in South Africa. This includes the practice of ‘thwala’ bride abductions, a deliberate misinterpretation of tribal customs in which Zulu women in remote areas are abducted, raped and forced into marriages in exchange for cattle given to their families. Often authorities dismiss complaints as they consider it a cultural practice or a domestic issue. Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini has openly spoken out against violence against women in the KwaZulu-Natal province and urged other traditional leaders to do the same and encourage cooperation with the police.

    Updated March 2018

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