Zulu Culture Information

The Zulu ethnic group is one of the many cultural groups that form part of South Africa. They are in fact the largest ethnic group in South Africa.


zulu woman in traditional wear

It is also one of the oldest clans found in South Africa. The Zulu people are commonly found in KwaZulu-Natal. It is estimated that 10 million people in KwaZulu-Natal are Zulu. The rest of the Zulu community also live in other provinces in South Africa. Members of the Zulu culture are also known as “AmaZulu” which, directly translated, means people of heaven or people of the weather. The current king of the Zulu nation is King Zwelithini.

The Zulu are descendants of the Nguni-speaking group of the Bantu language, which includes the Swazi, Xhosa, Ndebele communities. The Zulu cultural group is one of the most influential in South Africa and on the African continent. The force and power of the Zulu people in South Africa emerged in the nineteenth century under the leadership of Prince Shaka. Shaka recruited men from all over the kingdom to train as warriors for his own Zulu nation. This led to many great battles amongst the Zulu people and against other groups. After defeating them all, Shaka established the Zulu nation as it is now. After his mother died, he became overcome by grief and he started to lose his leadership capabilities and he made a questionable decision. This included the killing of hundreds of Zulu people that belonged to the newly formed nation. He was eventually assassinated by his half-brothers, Dingaan (also spelled Dingane) and Mhlangana. Dingaan took over as King of the nation. Despite the terrible end to Shaka’s reign, the Zulu cultural group still celebrate him as the founder of the Zulu kingdom. Shaka Day is every year on the 24th of September and is filled with celebrations, praise-poetry to sing the praises of past and current Zulu kings and the slaughtering of cattle. On this day, people wear their full traditional gear including weaponry. They all gather at Shaka’s tombstone which is located in KwaDukuza, Stanger.

IsiZulu is the main language spoken by Zulu people and it is also one of the most spoken and understood languages throughout South Africa with approximately over 15 million people second-language speakers to add to the over 10 million Zulu people. It is also one of the official eleven languages in South Africa. Each South African cultural group has a language that is unique. For the Zulu community, the main characterizing aspect of their language is the click sound that accompanies many of the words used. The Zulu language can also be described as idiomatic and proverbial. The word “sawubona” is used for greeting. This is followed by a formal way of greeting includes a handshake that is done three times, while asking how the person is doing. The way to do this is by asking “Ninjani” (how are you and your family). When a person leaves, they will wish the person well by saying “Sala” or “Nisale kahle”, to which the other person will respond by saying “Uhambe” or “Nihambe kahle” which means go well.  Many of the sounds and words that form part of the Zulu language are adopted from the San and the Khoi

Despite their strong warrior history, the Zulu culture is one of a strong sense of nationhood and warmth. The Zulu culture is premised on the ideas of “ubuntu” (which can be directly translated to humanness) and “hlonipha” (respect). This is seen in the ways that people interact with each other in their community and other people on a daily basis. For example, when in a setting of elders, the youth will initiate the greeting process. When addressing a senior male or female, regardless of whether they are family or not, you would use terms such as “baba” (father) or mama (mother) instead of their first names as that would be considered disrespectful. Another example is the sharing of meals. Zulu people believe in eating from the same plate and drinking from the same cup as a sign of friendship. Sharing what one has is part of the sense of togetherness that the culture carries. Multiple proverbs and speeches have been written about Ubuntu as the belief that the human being, regardless of where they are from, should be treated at the highest. It relates to the behavior of people, morality, helping others and acknowledging that a human is a human through others and that concept should never be forgotten. This has translated largely into South African culture.

The family structure is not only the immediate family. The family, known as “umdeni” includes all the people that say in the homestead who are related to each other through some degree. This relation can be through blood, adoption or even marriage. The homestead essentially comprises of the grandparents, the mother, the father the brothers and their wives, children and unmarried sisters. The cultural formation of a family is also patriarchal. The oldest male is the head of the family in the homestead and the authoritative figure.  The males in the family are also allowed to have more than one wife – the Zulu’s practice polygamy.  Traditionally, women were not permitted to go and work to help in taking care of the family, however, this has radically changed over the years.

zulu beadwork

In the rural Zulu communities, the way of trade (economy) is mainly based around agriculture and cattle. The main foods in their diet is therefore beef and whatever they grow such as corn, mealie-meal (phutu/pap/porridge), beans, fruits such as marula and plums, and vegetables such as potatoes and morogo (African spinach). The Zulu culture also has some other interesting food that is forms part of their unique culture, these include:

  • “Amazi”, known fermented milk, is milk that is curdled (made sour) in a gourd and the whey contents are then removed. It tastes similar to cottage cheese and plain yoghurt This is considered a delicacy and is often shared only amongst family members. “Amazi” has some health benefits such as improving digestion.
  • “Umqombothi” is traditional beer. It is brewed over a three-day period by Zulu women. It’s made of maize and sorghum which is left to soak in water for a day. On the second day, the mixture is boiled with dry sorghum and left to cool off. On the third day, it is filtered using a sieve. After this, it is ready for consumption. It is usually made at social and ritual ceremonies such as weddings.
  • Hunted meat such as kudu, waterbuck, and buffalo are eaten on some occasions (usually at celebrations)


Other interesting cultural aspects

  • Music and dance form a huge part of the Zulu cultural heritage. These activities as seen as promoting a sense of unity/solidarity as all the ceremonies that involve a form of transition such as births, funerals, and weddings. Music and dance are indicators of stress, joy, and change. A common instrument at all events is the drum (known as the pot drum or “iNgungu”). The drum is made up of a piece of goat-skin that stretches over the mouth of a large pot. It is played by tapping on it lightly with the hand.
  • Fights or disputes between men within the tripe are settled publicly through stick-fighting. The fight happens until one of the men starts to bleed. If someone dies during the fight, it is unlikely that they will want to get the person charged for killing the other man provided that the rules were followed.
  • “Masishayana” or “maphakathi” is a traditional game played by Zulu girls within their friend groups. The game involves the use of a tennis ball or a small ball-like item. The girls stand opposite each other. Another girl would position herself in the middle of them, facing the girl who is holding the tennis ball. The purpose of the game is to try and hit the girl standing in the middle with the tennis ball as she dodges the ball. If the touches her clothes or hits her then she has lost and is out of the game. Points are calculated based on how many times you avoid being hit. for every ten times, you avoid being hit you gain a point. The girl with the main points will be the winner!
  • Storytelling, proverbs, and praise-poems are used to share with each generation. These stories, proverbs and praise poems are used to explain the incredible Zulu history and the ethical and moral underpinnings of the community. For example, the praise poems would mainly tell stories of the kings and influential members of the community.
  • The culture is characterized by a mix of both traditional and cultural way of life. To start off, many members of the Zulu group live in rural communities which are traditionally structured, while others have moved to the move urban areas. This has not broken the link between the rural and urban community members, it has however translated some of the Western ways of life into some aspects of the traditional life.
  • Weaving, beadwork, pottery and craft-making are popular crafting activities/hobbies amongst the Zulu people, especially in the rural areas. They have actually become very well known for the products they produce through these activities. Women and children weave items that can be used every day such as mats, baskets, calabashes (decorated gourds which are used as utensils) and baskets. Women are usually involved in beading activities because beads are seen as a way for them to send certain messages. The men and boys have often involved pottery and sculpting activities. Items that they usually make include trays, scrapers, chairs, utensils, headrests, and drawers.

Zululand remains a must for most first time travellers to South Africa. The culture and customs that are still practised today by the Zulu people is quite incredible. The area offers numerous day excursions to both mock traditional villages as well as real Zulu villages. Should you be visiting St Lucia, and would like to experience first hand just how the Zulu people live and continue to practise their customs then drop us an email and we will gladly assist you.


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Heritage Tours & Safaris offers a multitude of day outings and overnight safari packages while in the area of Zululand. Discover and Explore this amazing and incredible province while out on your next tour to South Africa.

Some of the Top Tours & Excursions include Big 5 Game Drive Safaris into the oldest proclaimed game reserve (Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park) and of course South Africa's very first world heritage site, iSimangaliso Wetland Park.

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