The Cultural Heartlands – Home to the Ndebele

01 December 2015 by Katy La Grange

They may be one of the smallest ethnic groups in South Africa, but the Ndebele are also one of the most distinctive. With their beautifully decorated eye catching houses, covered in the iconic Ndebele geometric murals. Adorned in brightly coloured blankets, beadwork and metal bands around their necks, arms and legs, it’s impossible to mistake an Ndebele.

Although their origin remains a mystery, it is accepted that the Ndebele are descendants of the Nguni tribe from what is now KwaZulu Natal. Around 400 years ago a group broke away under Chief Muzi and went on to become the Northern and Southern Ndebele tribes that now populate Gauteng, Mpumalanga, Limpopo and Zimbabwe.

With less than 600,000 speaking isiNdebele as their home language, it is one of the smallest of South Africa’s official languages. However, what the Ndebele lack in numbers they make up for in impact as one of the most distinctive South African cultures.

The Ndebele’s of Mpumalanga, in particular those of the Cultural Heartlands, are considered to speak the ‘purest’ form of the language and are the most decorative in their attire.

The geometric patterns that cover traditional Ndebele homesteads are passed down from Mother to Daughter and illustrate shared experiences, although some patterns like the Ndebele flower, a symbol of fertility, and the razor blade, important in so many aspects of Ndebele culture, are widely used. Ndebele homes have not always been as brightly decorated as they are now. Prior to Western and Indian paints, with their vivid pigments, being available the Ndebele painted their homes with pigments locally sourced. Black fire ash, white stone and yellowy-brown pigments from cow’s manure resulted in homes having a more muted appearance. However painting one’s home is a way for Ndebele women to mark their territory and express themselves artistically.


It is not just their homes that are covered with the iconic geometric designs. Ndebele beadwork is instantly recognisable and from the late 19th century it has been used to embellish almost every aspect of the Ndebele traditional dress. 

From the beautiful beaded headbands that decorate the women’s traditionally shaven heads. To the beaded hoops that along with the metal bands cover the arms, legs and necks of married women. Beadwork is becoming an increasingly important way of expressing Ndebele culture, especially as more and more Ndebele are moving away from rural areas into urban accommodation where they are simply unable to paint their homes so are using beads as an alternative form of expression. 

Perhaps the most intricate and personalised beading can be found on the aprons, which differ dramatically in size depending on a woman’s marital status. With unmarried women wearing a small tasselled apron that only covers her front, while the apron of a married woman is much more substantial and is paired with a leather skirt to cover the back. Each woman will have several different aprons for different occasions, each beaded to a different degree and with a different colour scheme and pattern.  Strips of beading also appear on the blankets that married woman wear to cover their chest, and will take months to design and make. 

The Ndebele are immensely proud of their traditional dress and the important role it plays in their culture. It is more than simply a platform to showcase their beautiful beadwork. For married women covering their body with blankets, leather skirts and huge beaded bands that can weigh up to 25kg to show they are no longer available is a symbol of devotion and respect to their husbands. With a similar meaning as wearing a wedding ring in most Western cultures.

To learn more about the Ndebele Culture, check out:

·         The Little Elephant Craft Market, (GPS Coordinates: -25.775237, 29.494621), where you can learn more about the meaning behind each part of the Ndebele traditional dress and for a small fee dress as an Ndebele.

·         Sarah Mahlangu’s ‘Something out of Nothing’ Township tour, where you can enjoy Ndebele Cuisine and buy Ndebele curios. Contact details: 082 939 5492.