10 Things You Didn’t Know About Traditional Zulu Culture

Traditional Zulu culture is practically synonymous with South Africa, and its iconic shields and spears are recognized throughout the world. But there is far more to Zulu culture than than just these well-known objects. Here are 10 things you probably didn’t know about traditional Zulu culture, from the significance of the annual reed dance, to the historic battles that shaped South African history.

zulu reed dance

Courtesy of Retlaw Snellac / Wikimedia Commons

Dancing is a rite of passage

The Zulu have several dances that are performed throughout the year. One of the most important ones is the Zulu Reed Dance (known as Umhlanga), which is a centuries-old rite of passage that takes place in September. Every year, girls from around South Africa come to the eNyokeni Palace in Nongoma to participate in the powerful dancing experience, which also includes staged fighting among the men. The girls that come (who have to be virgins and dance with their breasts exposed) are also taught about how to be a young woman, as well as modern issues like teen pregnancy and HIV.

zulu magic

Courtesy of spiritsofafrica / YouTube

Magic and spirits are an important component

It may come as a surprise to many Westerners, but magic is still a strong component of traditional Zulu culture. Many believe in ancestor spirits known as Amatongo that have the ability to affect people’s lives. Diviners known as sangomas are believed to be able to invoke the spirits, and herbalists known as inyangas create mixtures that are consumed to influence the ancestors. Click here to watch a video of the practice.

The weddings are extremely vibrant and last three days

So you think your reception was long and festive… Well, Zulu weddings traditionally last three days and include several ceremonies. Some of the traditions include the groom’s family traveling to the bride’s house, festive dancing that takes weeks to choreograph, a ceremony, a reception, and plenty of socializing and drinking.

king shaka

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons from Nathanial Isaacs’ “Travels and Adventures in Eastern Africa”, 1836

They weren’t always a unified group

What people know as Zulus today weren’t always together. King Shaka unified most of the tribes in the area into the Zulu Kingdom and founded the town of KwaDukuza all the way back in 1820. King Shaka was killed by his half brothers, and you can still visit a monument next to his grave in the town.

zulu lesedi

Courtesy of InnaFelker / Shutterstock

Traditional homes are quite intricate

Even though most Zulus live in modern houses, some still live in the intricate traditional homes. They are woven together with mud, grass, bricks, trees, cow dung, ant beds and more. These aren’t exactly your common building materials, but the end result is sturdy and makes a weatherproof seal from the elements.

zulu group

Debbie Aird Photography / Shutterstock

They generally don’t wear traditional clothes

Although the picture above seems to show the opposite, wearing traditional clothes doesn’t actually happen that much as it does in tribes like the Himba. Most Zulu wear modern clothing, and the traditional clothing is only brought out of the closet during a special occasion like a wedding, cultural gathering, ceremony, or for tourists.

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They had to face serious battles

Unfortunately, keeping your land sometimes comes at a price. In the Anglo-Zulu War, the Zulu put up one of the best fights against the British in the history of Africa. A Zulu force of up to 20,000 wiped out a British camp in Isandlwana, but many fighters died in the process. This battle and others helped shape the Zulu culture and South Africa we know today.

Dancers at Shakaland Zulu Cultural Village, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa (meunierd / Shutterstock)

Dancers at Shakaland Zulu Cultural Village, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa (meunierd / Shutterstock)

They treasure their heritage

Zulu people are very prideful and maintain their culture through the practice of traditional dances and festivals. Visitors that want to see this first hand can visit the Shakaland Cultural Village in KwaZulu-Natal to get a first hand experience of the music, dancing, beer drinking, and food. Although it is a bit touristy, the experience is about as close as you’re going to get to traditional Zulu culture. 

zulu in church

Courtesy of Michael Denne & African Apostle Church / Wikimedia Commons

Many believe in a Zulu creator god

Although most Zulu people are Christian, many people still believe in a creator god known as Unkulunkulu. These don’t have to be separate, as many regularly attend church but still recognize the power of the Zulu gods. Other gods are said to control thunder, earthquakes, rain, rivers and more.

Everything, down to the language, is about respect

Respect is a big deal in Zulu culture and the IsiZulu words are designed to show preference towards elders and special people of the community. The word ubuntu itself is also a strong component of the compassion of the Zulu people.

Related content on AFKTravel: 

South Africa’s Incredible Ethnic Diversity, From Afrikaner To Zulu
10 Things You Didn’t Know About The Zulu Language
Top 15 Zulu Cultural And Historical Sites

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