South Africa’s 11 Official Languages: Ndebele

In continuation of our overview of Ndebele, the Encyclopedia of World Cultures and the Columbia Encyclopedia have the following summary to help us understand the history and characteristics of one of our eleven official languages, Ndebele, and the two dialects thereof, Southern Ndebele and Northern Ndebele, or Matabele.

Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Overview

The people refer to themselves as “Amandebele,” or “Ndzundza” or “Manala,” denoting the two main tribal groupings. Early writers used the term “Transvaal Ndebele” to distinguish them from the Zimbabwean Ndebele (or Matebele).

On geographical grounds, the Transvaal Ndebele were subdivided into the Northern (Transvaal) and Southern (Transvaal) Ndebele sections. Oral tradition points to a possible common origin for both the northern and southern sections, although the former, as the numerically smaller group, became absorbed into their Northern-Sotho-speaking neighbors.

The Southern Ndebele are comprised of the Ndzundza and the Manala ethnic groups or tribes. During the colonial era, White settlers derogatively referred to the Ndzundza-Ndebele as “Mapoggers” or “Mapoêrs,” after their ruler Mabhoko, called “Mapog” or “Mapoch” by Whites. Early ethnographies identified a third Southern Ndebele tribe, the Mhwaduba, which also became completely integrated with neighboring Sotho-speaking communities.


The majority of Ndebele live in the former Bantustans or “homelands” of KwaNdebele and Lebowa, between 24°53′ to 25°43′ S and 28°22′ to 29°50′ E, approximately 60 to 130 kilometers northeast of Pretoria,South Africa. The total area amounts to 350,000 hectares, including the Moutse and Nebo areas, which were previously part of the former Lebowa homeland. Temperatures range from a maximum of 36° C in the northern parts to a minimum of -5° C in the south; rainfall averages 50 centimeters per annum in the north and 80 centimeters per annum in the south.

Almost two-thirds of the entire former KwaNdebele lies within a vegetational zone known as Mixed Bushveld (Savanna type), in the north. The southern parts fall within a zone known as Bankenveld (False Grassland type).


Population figures are based on the 1991 census figures for the former KwaNdebele homeland (now part of Eastern Transvaal Province) and updated for the April 1994 general elections. The total for the area was estimated at 403,700. A minority of labour tenants and farmworkers outside the former homeland were not included.

Linguistic Affiliation

IsiNdebele is a Southern Bantu language, part of the Nguni Language Group. Mother-tongue speakers seldom distinguish between the dialects IsiNdzundza and IsiNala. A written orthography was published only in 1982. Most Ndebele are fluent in the neighboring Northern Sotho language called Sepedi, as well as Afrikaans (elderly people) and English (the younger generation).

The below description focuses more on the Northern Ndebele, or Matabele people.

The Columbia Encyclopedia: Overview

Ndebele (ĕndəbē´lē) or Matabele (mătəbē´lē), Bantu-speaking people inhabiting Matabeleland North and South, W Zimbabwe. The Ndebele, now numbering close to 2 million, originated as a tribal following in 1823, when Mzilikazi, a general under the Zulu king Shaka, fled with a number of warriors across the Drakensberg into present-day NE South Africa. Reinforced by other Zulu deserters, the Ndebele raided as far south as the Orange River, destroying or absorbing the surrounding tribes except for the Ngwato of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), who paid tribute.

Driven north (1837) by the Boers and by the Zulus, Mzilikazi crossed the Limpopo River and established his people in Matabeleland, their present homeland. From his successor, Lobengula (1870–94), the British South Africa Company secured (1888) the mineral concession for all of Matabeleland. Restive under the restrictions placed on them by European settlers, the Ndebele attacked the settlers. Lobengula was soon defeated by the British and died in hiding. With the suppression of a revolt in 1896 the Ndebele abandoned war and became herders and farmers.

Later today we’ll be posting an interview with one of our amazing Ndebele translators.  We’ll try to establish what made him go into translation as a career and find out a little bit more about what he does with his time when he’s not translating for us.

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