The isiNdebele language, of which there are variations, is part of the Nguni language group. IsiNdebele is one of the 11 official languages recognized by the South African Constitution, and in 2006 it was determined that just under 600 000 South Africans speak isiNdebele as a home language. Similar to the country’s other African languages; isiNdebele is a tonal language, governed by the noun which dominates the sentence.
There are three main groups of Ndebele people:
The Southern Transvaal Ndebele (now Gauteng and Mpumalanga)
The Northern Transvaal Ndebele (now Limpopo Province) around the towns of Mokopane (Potgietersrus) and Polokwane (Pietersburg).
The Ndebele people of Zimbabwe, who were called the Matabele by the British.
The two South African Ndebele groups were not only separated geographically, but also differed in their language and cultural practices. The Ndebele of the Northern Province consisted mainly of the BagaLanga and the BagaSeleka groups who were influenced by their Sotho neighbours, and adopted much of their language and culture.
The famous house-painting, beadwork and ornamentation often spoken of as Ndebele are produced mostly by the Ndzundza Ndebele of Mpumalanga and Gauteng (Southern Ndebele). This group speaks a variation of isiNdebele that is considered a ‘purer’ form of the language, and is closely related to the Zulu language. This version is the only written form of the language.
Strongly patriarchal attitudes and practices are evident in Ndebele communities. Perhaps more than many other groups, Ndzundza men – especially those of chiefly background – continue to practice polygamy. Women must practice ukuhlonipha (respect) towards their husbands and parents-in-law in particular, but also towards men in general. Making and selling beadwork, mats, dolls and other crafts have thus provided some Ndebele women with an independent livelihood. These include internationally famous women like Esther Mahlangu – who has been commissioned to paint her designs on BMWs and South African Airways jets – and those with humbler aspirations.
This article uses material from the South Africa History Online article “Ndebele”