The Ndebele state

Historical Background

The Rozvi people were conquered by different groups including the Portuguese’s and the Mtethwa people.  Dominantly, the Ndebele thwarted the already dying Rozvi society. The Ndebele was a run-away group from Zululand in South Africa. It became a looting and raiding state. Between 1790-1868 Mzilikazi was the right hand man of King Tshaka. He was however perceived to be dishonesty leading to his dismissal by Tshaka in 1823. He fled northwards with his group. Mzilikazi was born in Zululand in South Africa and his father was Matsobana. His following grew through raiding and conquering other tribes and uniting them into one ethnic group. They share diverse economic, social and political differences.  From Zululand, Mzilikazi moved to Mozambique and later extended into Transvaal in 1826 where he lived with his people for almost 10 years.  The arrival of Voortrekkers saw the beginning of Mfecane, the period of mass murders and devastation.  This forced Mzilikazi- Khumalo people in 1838 to move north across the Limpopo. He was compelled to move present day Botswana and northwards towards Zambia. However high temperatures made it difficult for human existence and surviving the Tsetse fly infected area became difficult. In 1840 the Khumalo were forced to migrate and search for a better habitable environment. The group moved south-eastwards to what is now Zimbabwe. Currently the Khumalo people are mainly located in Matabeleland province of Zimbabwe.

Military Dominance

Mzilikazi as a trusted induna by Tshaka learned military tactics. His dismissal saw him proclaiming kingship in his new Ndebele society. He established and constructed a powerful and authoritative army which was called the Mthwakazi. The army was organised into a military system similar to Tshaka’s  the Zulu. Mzilikazi and his son Lobengula were the custodians of the Ndebele society.  His first settlement was in western province of Ndumba which is west of Bembesi River. Military dominance was used to conquer the then weakening states of Shona tribes. Rozvi and Kalanga states were subdued and they were robbed of their cattle, human capital and economic valuables. It is thus prudent to allude to the fact that, settlement on Matabeleland was centred on cattle farming. Military dominance was the focal point where economic and social prosperity was derived from.  Interestingly, the political, religious,   administration and judiciary were in the hands of the king. The king was helped by Indunas in carrying out these duties. The standing army had many roles is sustaining the growth and development of the society.

The Ndebele state under the leadership of King Mlizikazi differed from other pre-colonial states. His final destination was Matabeleland. Crop cultivation was not favourable to the climate and rainfall was inadequate for crops like maize. As a result, cattle ranching became the mainstay of the society. Cattle were a symbol of wealth. As the society was affected by climatic conditions, the army was tasked to undertake raiding as a source of food and living for the growing economy. Thus, unlike other societies the Ndebele state was sustained by raiding other groups. Cattle, grain and women were the proceeds from raiding. In fact, the Ndebele subdued the, Virwa, Tonga, Venda, Kalanga and Nyubi people. Grain was obtained for food which was supplemented by few drought resistant crops they grew such as millet and rapoko. Raiding was done at a commercial level. They raided big herds of cattle which became the mainstay of the society. Region five offered favourable climatic condition for cattle rearing. Oral tradition revealed that, the Ndebele cattle were so big that one could milk them whilst standing. This clearly depicts a picture to show that the society had good quality cattle breeds. The army was drilled and perfected to conquer weaker societies in order to acquire more cattle.  Cattle offered the society meat for relish and thus the Ndebele ate healthy food. Cattle were also a form of paying tribute to the Chief and king. Tribute payment cemented the Ndebele relations. It maintained royalty and respect within the society. For example the Churumhazi people paid tribute to king Lobengula. Women were the target on raiding. This was calculated and aimed at population expansion. As the Ndebele society was migrating from Zululand it lost a number of people along the way. Thus, raiding women was to increase population growth and development. Military dominance cascaded every parts of pre-colonial Zimbabwe to conquer and plunder weaker states.  Other economic activities were done which include trade, hand craft activities and hunting and gathering. Hunting of elephants was done to obtain ivory. Ivory was one of the major traded commodities with the white people.

The King had supreme powers as the Ndebele believed in their god whom the name Umnkulunkulu. As they undertook their raiding expedition, the Ndebele raided the Rozvi and adopted the Rozvi religious system. Similar to the Rozvi the Ndebele could consult their god for deliverance and blessings. Social classes existed in the Ndebele society. These include the Zansi, Enhla and Hole.  However, the state succumbed to pressure from the British Southern African Company and some missionary activities.

Author. Bako Tendai

Bachelor of Arts Hons in African History

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