Brief History of Mthwakazi (English) Print E-mail
Thursday, 17 April 2008

A Brief History of Mthwakazi 


Dr. Samukele Hadebe


The Ndebele people are found mainly in the provinces of Matabeleland South, Matabeleland North, Bulawayo and parts of Midlands in present-day Zimbabwe.Their language belongs to the Nguni sub-group of the Bantu language family. The history of the Ndebele people and their language isiNdebele is relatively short, dating back to around 1820, when the people who are today known as the Ndebele, broke away from the then powerful Zulu kingdom (in present day KwaZulu-Natal province of the Republic of South Africa). The original group that left Zululand was initially called the Khumalo as their leader Mzilikazi was from the Khumalo clan.

When and why the group was later renamed Ndebele is a subject that has been debated without convincing conclusions, partly because the subject is full of half-truths and myths.  Mzilikazi and his Khumalo, as they were known then, moved northwards from Zululand into Sotho territory (the present day Gauteng province of South Africa). Mzilikazi assimilated a number of Sotho people either through persuasion or coercion, or better still, by employing both means. What can be ascertained now is that the Sotho people soon out numbered the original Khumalos who were of Nguni descent. Consequently, the group ceased to be referred to as the ‘Khumalos’.

 It is perhaps important to note that today there is another Nguni group that settled in Sotholand in present day South Africa, that is also called "Ndebele". Actually, this group left Zululand much earlier and were given the name long before Mzilikazi’s group. According to Rasmussen: "Eventually the name ‘Matabele’, or ‘Ndebele’ in its Anglo/Nguni form, came to apply only to Mzilikazi’s people and to the ‘Transvaal Ndebele’. These latter were the descendants of much earlier Nguni immigrants onto the highveld. Mzilikazi had dealings with some of these communities during the 1820s; however, his people and the Transvaal Ndebele are essentially unrelated (Rasmussen 1978:162)."

 In 1837 Mzilikazi’s group, by then referred to as the Ndebele, entered what is today Zimbabwe and settled in the western parts of the country that are today referred to as the Matabeleland provinces (Rasmussen 1978, Omer-Cooper 1966). It should be noted that this was the period of nation-building for the Ndebele and they achieved that through incorporating the various groups they came into contact with and were able to subdue. It is in Zimbabwe that the Ndebele people assimilated by far the largest number. These included mainly the Shona groups, especially the Kalanga and other related groups like the Nyubi, Nanzwa, Nambya, and to some extent the Tonga. Most of these people were previously under the Rozwi empire that had been destroyed by Nguni groups under Zwangendaba, Nxaba and a woman leader Nyamazana. ‘The Rozwi empire which had been established over the Karanga inhabitants of the old Mwene Mutapa (sic) kingdom had been shattered by the invasions of Zwangendaba and Nxaba (Omer-Cooper 1966). The Rozwi rulers were known as the Mambo (king) and hence in Ndebele they were referred to either as AbakaMambo (Mambo’s people) or AbeLozwi (the Rozwi). It is the existence of this large component of the Ndebele people that was not of Nguni origin that has been used by colonial and post-colonial historians to perpetuate false myths about Ndebele social organisation claiming the existence of a caste system.

 The name Ndebele, therefore, did not refer to a single ethnic group but to a multi-ethnic nation. Ranger writes that, "Before 1893, I have argued, the Ndebele state was manifestly a ‘machine for multi-ethnic assimilation of peoples…There were not [any] ethnic “Ndebele” but rather a conglomeration of peoples who were members of the Ndebele state…" (Ranger 1999:100). Within the newly founded Ndebele nation, which was then a kingdom, the Sotho out numbered the Nguni while AbeLozwi far outnumbered both the Nguni and the Sotho. It seems that the problem of identity within the nation was already felt at that early stage, especially insofar as the distribution of political positions was concerned. The original Nguni group referred to itself as the AbeZansi, meaning ‘those from the south’, while the Sotho group was known as AbeNhla, meaning ‘those from the north’ and lastly the rest of the majority were AbeLozwi. Historians have employed misleading terminology like caste and class to describe the ethnic composition of Ndebele society. Hughes (1956) claims that the colonial administrators deliberately used the term ‘caste’ to stress the differences amongst the ethnic groups within the Ndebele society. Whether these differences were in actual fact so vivid is not clear because the whole issue has been distorted. The possible cultural influence of the numerically superior AbeLozwi on the minority Nguni is rarely mentioned by such writers. Yet, a lot of changes took place in the social system largely due to influence from the newcomers.

 According to one historian who has written much on Ndebele, "The most outstanding feature of contemporary written evidence for early Ndebele history is that none of it was penned by an Ndebele person" (Rasmussen 1978). It is obvious that the names Ndebele and Matabele were imposed on this nation though they have been accepted as the official designation of the people. History has a number of cases of groups of people referred to by derogatory names. It is interesting to note that the people rarely refer to themselves and their nation as Ndebele or Matabele but as ‘Mahlabezulu’ or ‘Mthwakazi’. It is not surprising that several cultural and artistic groups use the latter names, eg Vukani Mahlabezulu Cultural Society or the Mthwakazi Actors and Writers Association (MAWA) to mention a few. In public meetings, the people refer to themselves collectively either as Mahlabezulu or Mthwakazi and the same is found in literature and drama. Some lines in Mzilikazi’s praises read:

             Wembangomkhonto, Wemba ngenduku,

Inkosi yabeNtungwa labeThwakazi!

(He fought with the spear, he fought with the knobkerrie

The king of the Ntungwa and Thwakazi people)

The Ntungwa are people of Nguni stock while Thwakazi refers to the generality of the rest of the populace. Mzilikazi's success in building the Mthwakazi nation was based on a number of basic things: one code of conduct and equality before the law, one Nguni language (now called Ndebele) and meritocracy. Various cultures and traditions continued under the new nation but the promoted language was Ndebele. Mthwakazi as a nation has a brutalized history and most recent suffered a genocide but the unity of the nation is unshaken.