Ndebele: What is Ndebele?

This fortnight we will focus on Ndebele, one of South Africa’s eleven official languages. There are essentially two dialects of Ndebele, namely Southern Ndebele and Northern Ndebele, or Matabele/ isiNdebele.

The Northern and Southern Ndebele languages both fall in the Nguni group of Bantu languages. Northern Ndebele is essentially a dialect of Zulu, and the older Southern Ndebele language falls within a different subgroup.

Southern Ndebele

Southern Ndebele is an African language belonging to the Nguni group of Bantu languages and spoken by the amaNdebele people of South Africa, spoken predominately in Mpumalanga, Gauteng, Limpopo and the Northwest province.

Northern Ndebele

Northern Ndebele, or Matabele, or isiNdebele, is predominately spoken in Zimbabwe. isiNdebele is related to the Zulu language spoken in South Africa. This is because the Ndebele people of Zimbabwe descend from followers of the Zulu leader Mzilikazi, who left KwaZulu in the early nineteenth century during the Mfecane.

isiKhethu – “The Ndebele Way”

The expression “isikhethu” can be loosely translated to mean ‘the Ndebele way of doing or saying’. Isikhethu means Ndebele the same way that sikitsi will mean Swazi and se harona will mean Sotho. The language has been severely marginalized over the years. Until the formation of the apartheid Ndebele homeland (KwaNdebele), speaking the language publicly was discouraged.

Most Ndebele speakers preferred Zulu especially because the latter was learned at school. Today the Ndebele speakers, mostly those who are educated still prefer to use Ndebele as home language for their children and will use Ndebele as a language to communicate with other Ndebele speakers.

We’ll be introducing you to some of our Ndebele translators over the next few days to further explore the Ndebele language and culture.

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