The Ndebele language has an intriguing history of development. An offshoot of the Nguni people, the Ndebele fled the rule of the Zulu leader Shaka and migrated northward to form their own unique kingdom under the ruler Mzilikazi in the early 19th century. Here, a distinct Ndebele language and culture was able to develop, while contact with British missionaries paved the way for the development of a written Ndebele language.
Classification of the Ndebele Language
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.
Early History: The Bantu Migration
The term Bantu can be used in reference to the Bantu language family or to a shared Bantu culture. In recent years, however, scholars have tended to utilize the term “Bantu” in reference primarily to a linguistic rather than a cultural group.
The Bantu people originated in what is now Cameroon and Nigeria and are believed to have migrated southward from these parts from about 2000 BC to 1000 AD. This mass movement is believed to be one of the largest human migrations in history.
Early in Bantu history, the language of the Bantu people divided into two groups: Eastern and Western. The Ndebele people are one of many tribal groups that find their initial roots in this Bantu history. The term “Ndebele” can be used to refer to the Ndebele language or to people of Ndebele origin.
Development of the Ndebele Kingdom: Settlement of “Matabeland”
The Ndebele are thought to have initially been part of the Bantu Nguni people of Natal (now part of South Africa). It is believed that the Ndebele developed as a distinct offshoot of this group in the 19th century. In 1823, Mzilikazi – a commander of Shaka’s – came into conflict with the Zulu king and consequently fled northward to what is now southwestern Zimbabwe, bringing approximately 300 followers with him.
By 1840, Mzilikazi had settled the area and managed to amass a kingdom of almost 20,000 people. Under his rule, the Ndebele overpowered and dispossessed the weaker Shona (or Mashona) tribes. At the time, the Ndebele were known as “Matabele.” Consequently, European settlers in the region named the area settled by the Ndebele “Matabeland.” Ndebele power over Matabeland was maintained until the late 19th century.
Mid-19th Century Ndebele Language: Impact of Colonial Powers
In the mid-19th century, the Ndebele also came into contact with increasing numbers of European missionaries. British missionary Robert Moffat met with the Ndebele King Mzilikazi in 1857. Four years later, the London Missionary Society established the Christian mission to Ndebele. Thanks to missionary influences, written Ndebele developed using a Latin language script.
By 1890, the British South African Company had established itself in the region of Matabeland. Tensions between the Ndebele and British settlers arose due to competition for land and other resources, often leading to violent conflict and eventually resulting in the outbreak of war. In 1893, Britain defeated the Matabele.
Establishment of “Rhodesia”
By the mid-1890s, Britain had conquered most of the area of present-day Zimbabwe. In 1895, the chartered territory gained by the British was officially named Rhodesia, after founder Cecil Rhodes. This area was divided into two provinces: Matabeland and Mashonaland. While the western Matabeland is considered to be the traditional homeland of the Ndebele people, the eastern Mashonaland is considered the traditional homeland of the Shona people.
In late 1895, the Shona and Ndebele people of Rhodesia united in an effort to overthrow the British settlers’ rule. Eventually British troops had to be sent into the area in order to put down the revolt, which was effectively quenched in 1897. Rhodesia was subsequently divided into two colonies, Northern Rhodesia (modern Zambia) and Southern Rhodesia (modern Zimbabwe).
Formation and Dissolution of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland
In 1953, the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was established, combining the British protectorate of Nyasaland (present-day Malawi), with Northern and Southern Rhodesia. The federation was opposed by black African leaders, and a decade of protests ensued.
In 1963, the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was officially dissolved, and Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia gained freedom under black majority rule. In Southern Rhodesia, conflict ensued as the leading white government refused to adhere to British demands for black political participation. It was not until 1980, with the creation of the Republic of Zimbabwe, that black majority rule was attained.
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 on this topic.
Ndebele Language Today: Forms in South Africa vs. Zimbabwe
The modern Ndebele language exists in two distinct forms, one in Zimbabwe and the other in South Africa. Ndebele serves as one of the 11 official languages of South Africa. Although English is the official language of Zimbabwe, Ndebele is spoken by approximately 16 percent of the country’s population.
The total number of native Ndebele language speakers is an estimated 1 million.
Ndebele Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Nrebele, Ndzundza, Transvaal Ndebele, Southern Ndebele
Language Family: Niger-Congo, Atlantic-Congo, Volta-Congo, Benue-Congo, Bantoid, Southern, Narrow Bantu, Central, Sotho-Tswana , Sotho, Northern
Official Language of: South Africa
Spoken by Approximately 580,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
- Afrikaans Translation
- English Translation
- Ndebele Translation
- Sesotho Translation
- Swati Translation
- Xhosa Translation
- Zulu Translation
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