Although the origins of the Ndebele are shrouded in mystery, they have been identified as one of the Nguni people. The Nguni people represent nearly two thirds of South Africa’s African population and can be divided into 4 distinct groups:
- Central Nguni (Zulu-speaking)
- Southern Nguni (Xhosa-speaking);
- Swazi (from Swaziland and adjacent areas); and
- Ndebele (of Limpopo Province and Mpumalanga).
Ndebele women traditionally adorned themselves with a variety of ornaments, each symbolising their status in society. After marriage dresses became more elaborate. The Ndebele have always been known for their artistic skill. Apart from its aesthetic appeal, it has a cultural significance that serves to reinforce the distinctive Ndebele identity. The skill of the Ndebele has always resided in their ability to combine exterior sources of stimulation with traditional design concepts taken from their ancestors. Although painting was done freehand, without prior layouts, the art always displayed a linear quality reflective of their environment. Ndebele women were responsible for painting the colourful and intricate patterns on the walls of their houses. This presented the traditionally subordinate wife with an opportunity to express her individuality and self-worth. The Ndebele are further characterised by their intricate beadwork – a time-consuming craft which requires a deft hand and good eyesight. In traditional Ndebele society it was believed that illnesses were caused by external forces such as curses or spells that were put on individuals and the power of a traditional healer (Sangoma) was measured by his or her ability to defeat this force. Cures were effected either by medicines or by the throwing of bones. All Sangoma were mediums, able to contact ancestral spirits. Some present-day Ndebele still adhere to ancestral worship but many have subsequently become Christians and belong to the mainstream Christian churches or to one of the many local African churches.