Zulu Ethnic Group

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Zulu are one of Sub-Saharan Africa's dominant ethnic groups. In this lesson, we are going to explore Zulu history, as well as modern-day distribution and culture.

The Zulu

Who are the Zulu and how do they do what they do? Do Zulu practice voodoo, is that true, and can you stay glued to this lesson to learn something new? Okay, that's all the rhyming I've got. And no, the Zulu don't practice voodoo, but we will talk about some of their spiritual beliefs. So, who are these people, who have such a fun name to rhyme? The Zulu are one of the preeminent ethnic groups of Africa, mainly located in South Africa. They were a warring nation for centuries, and established one of the most successful empires of Sub-Saharan Africa. So let's get to know the Zulu, and in lieu of feeling blue we'll look through their…culture.

The Zulu today are mostly in South Africa

History of the Zulu

The Zulu ethnic group belongs to the overall language family called Bantu, and more specifically the subgroup of Bantu called Nguni. Most researchers believe that the ancestors of all the Bantu people, and there are hundreds of ethnic groups in Africa to accurately claim this ancestry, came from West/Central Africa around 3,000 years ago. From there, they spread across Sub-Saharan Africa and became unique language and ethnic groups. The Zulu themselves have existed since at least the 14th century. This is when they first appear in the written record, mostly as warriors living in small kingdoms, speaking a shared Nguni-based language.

The true rise of Zulu power occurred in the early 19th century. A Zulu prince named Shaka used his army to unite the various tribes in a single Zulu kingdom. This is when the Zulu ethnicity and language were really consolidated into a distinct group of people. Shaka brought together warriors from all of the Zulu tribes and trained them in a unique style of warfare. In only a decade, the Zulu armies conquered the majority of Sub-Saharan Africa and established one of the most powerful empires on the continent. They controlled trade routes, agricultural land, and people. Shaka himself was assassinated by his brothers 12 years after starting his kingdom. The Zulu Kingdom remained strong however, until the arrival of the British in the late 1800s. The British troops fought a series of wars against the Zulu, finally conquering the kingdom and dividing it into 13 chiefdoms under white European control.

Shaka organized the Zulu Kingdom and created the powerful Zulu army


The Zulu never again regained autonomy, and to this day live within borders of nations and provinces created by other people. The great majority of Zulu today live in the nation of South Africa, specifically in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. There are roughly 9 million Zulu in the province, making them not only one of the largest ethnic groups in South Africa but in the Sub-Saharan half of the continent. A lot of the Zulu people live in traditional Zulu communities, which are rural, agricultural, and based around family networks. However, a lot of Zulu have also migrated into South Africa's urban centers, taking advantage of job opportunities or fighting for greater political representation. The urban and rural Zulu communities maintain strong ties with each other, which is something that other ethnic communities across Africa have had a harder time doing. While the great majority of Zulu live in South Africa, there are also smaller communities currently residing in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, and Mozambique.

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