Most of what is known about ancient Nguni history comes from oral history and legends. Traditionally, they are said to have migrated to Africa's Great Lakes region from the north. Some groups split off and settled along the way, while others kept going. Thus, the following settlement pattern formed: the southern ndebele in the north, the Swazi in the north east, the Zulu towards the east and the Xhosa in the south. Owing to the fact that these people had a common origin, their languages and cultures show marked similarities.
After diverging from the Sotho-Tswana and Tsonga, the Nguni eventually met with San hunters, which accounts for their use of "click" languages.
Though in today's history, the Nguni Ndebele are known to have come from the Zulus, this is partially untrue. The Ndebeles(Southern-South Africa based) were the first group to separate from the Nguni nation after they had entered the South African borders and they settled in the Transvaal region from around the 1500. The remaining Nguni nation moved further south, with those who moved south west ended calling themselves Xhosas, and those who moved south east remained calling themselves Ngunis. That was until when Shaka defeated the Ndwandwes, who ran away from south east coming back northwards, that led to the formation of the Swazis, and the formation of the Zulus by the clans who remained. Dinuzulu was Shaka's grandmother, Shaka then named the new nation by the name ZULU. Also, the Khumalo clan, being led by Mzilikazi, that ran away from Shaka, coming towards were the weak Manala Ndebeles were in the present day Pretoria. The weakening of the Manala Ndebeles, was as a result of the separation of the Ndebele nation after almost two to three centuries of their settlement in the Transvaal region. The separation led to the majority of the nation to go with Nzunza and the minority with Manala. The Nzunza Ndebele moved north and the Manala Ndebele, who were predominantly composed of women remained in the present day Pretoria. When Mzilikazi arrived, he then killed the Manala ndebele king, king Silamba, who was ruling, and they settled for a while before moving further north. This established them as a new form of Ndebele(Northern Ndebele). This is also evident from the differences in the north and the southern Ndebele.
Many tribes and clans are said to have been forcibly united under Shaka Zulu. Shaka Zulu's political organisation was efficient in integrating "conquered" tribes, partly by the age regiments, where men from different villages bonded with each other.
Many versions in the historiography of Southern Africa state that during the southern African migrations known as Mfecane, the Nguni peoples spread across a large part of southern Africa, absorbing, conquering or displacing many other peoples. However, the notion of the mfecane/difaqane has been disputed by some scholars, notably, Julian Cobbing.
Within the Nguni nations, the clan, based on male ancestry, formed the highest social unit. Each clan was led by a chieftain. Influential men tried to achieve independence by creating their own clan. The power of a chieftain often depended on how well he could hold his clan together. From about 1800, the rise of the Zulu clan of the Nguni and the consequent mfecane that accompanied the expansion of the Zulus under Shaka, helped to drive a process of alliance between and consolidation among many of the smaller clans.
For example, the kingdom of Swaziland was formed in the early nineteenth century by different Nguni groups allying with the Dlamini clan against the threat of external attack. Today, the kingdom encompasses many different clans who speak a Nguni language called Swati and are loyal to the king of Swaziland, who is also the head of the Dlamini clan.
"Dlamini" is a very common clan name among all documented Nguni languages (including Swati and Phuthi), associated with AbaMbo cultural identity.
Ngunis may be Christians (whether Catholics or Protestants), practitioners of African traditional religions or members of forms of Christianity modified with traditional African values (such as the Shembe Church of Nazarites).
The following peoples are Nguni:
|Swazi||Swazi||2,258,000||Swaziland, but also in South Africa around the Swazi border. Their homeland was KaNgwane.|
|Phuthi||Phuthi||49,000||Near the Lesotho-South Africa border in the Transkei region.|
|Lala||Lala||Kranskop, Harding, KwaZulu-Natal, INanda, UMngeni Reserve,|
|Bhaca||Bhaca||Northeastern part of the Eastern Cape|
|Northern (Transvaal) Ndebele||Sumayela Ndebele||Primarily in Mokopane, but also in Hammanskraal and around Polokwane|
|Hlubi||Hlubi||KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape and North West provinces, with an original settlement on the Buffalo River|
|Zulu||Zulu||10,964,000||Originally Zululand, but Blacks now identify themselves as Zulus all over Natal and as a minority in Eastern Transvaal and Gauteng. Their homeland was KwaZulu.|
|Xhosa||Xhosa||8,478,000||Xhosaland. Their homeland was the Ciskei and the Transkei.|
|Thembu[n 1]||Xhosa||750,000||Thembuland. Their homeland was in the Transkei (they are often considered a Xhosa sub-group)|
|Pondo[n 1]||Xhosa||Pondoland. Their homeland was in the Transkei (they are often considered a Xhosa sub-group)|
|Southern Ndebele||Southern Ndebele||659,000||Central Transvaal|
|Zunda 2nd generation[n 2]|
|Northern Ndebele (Matabele)||Northern Ndebele||1,599,000||Matabeleland Zimbabwe|
|Ngoni||They do not have a language of their own but speak Tumbuka, Chewa, or Zulu.||2,044,000||Malawi Zambia|
- They are often amalgamated with the Xhosas since their language is Xhosa as well.
- Original Zunda-speaking groups joined by fleeing populations after and during the Mfecane.
Ngoni people by ethnicity are found in Malawi (under paramount Chief Mbelwa and Maseko Paramouncy), Zambia (under paramount chief Mpezeni), Mozambique and Tanzania. In Malawi and Zambia, they speak a mixture of languages of the people they conquered such as Chewa, Nsenga and Tumbuka.
- ALFRED: The ALlele FREquency Database
- "The Mfecane as Alibi: Thoughts on Dithakong and Mbolompo" (PDF). The Journal of African History, Volume 29, Issue 3, Cambridge University Press. 1988. Retrieved 2015-09-16.