People of KwaZulu-Natal

People of KwaZulu-Natal


Perhaps more than any other province, the events that took place in KwaZulu-Natal changed the course of South Africa’s history and subsequently had an enormous impact and influence on how South Africa has developed politically, socially and geographically.
Over the centuries, Stone Age and Iron Age people, San ‘Bushmen’, Bantu speaking Nguni pastoralists, Boer trekkers, British traders and many other European settlers, as well as Indians, many of whose ancestors arrived as indentured labourers, have made their homes in KwaZulu-Natal. This historic mix of people has made the region one of the most interesting and culturally diverse in South Africa.


The earliest inhabitants in southern Africa including the region now known as KwaZulu-Natal were the San hunter-gatherers and there is evidence throughout the province of San habitation. The San are also sometimes known as 'Bushmen', a term used by the European Colonists that is now considered by some to be derogatory. The San populated South Africa long before the arrival of the Bantu-speaking nations and for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans.

San clans were dotted around KZN, however they were displaced, firstly by the Bantu-speaking Nguni clans as they arrived in the area, having migrated down Africa’s eastern seaboard from the Great Lakes region of central Africa, and secondly by the arrival of the white pioneer settlers. As competition for land and natural resources increased, the San moved further into the interior and into the mountainous areas, often stealing settler’s livestock to survive, and also because cattle were much easier to steal than wild animals were to hunt.  Because of this, and perhaps because of their abilities to use and connect with the natural environment, the colonial government, as well as by many of the Bantu-speaking pastoralists considered the San as dangerous ‘vermin’ and permission was given for hunting parties to go out and ‘exterminate’ them.

The Drakensberg San

Small groups of hunter-gatherers used and lived in the caves and rock shelters of the Drakensberg mountain range, much of which is now incorporated into the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg World Heritage Site. It is here, on the rock faces, that thousands of their amazing paintings, dating back some 8000 years, can be found. This fabulous legacy of rock art, is the most extensive in Africa and is considered to be some of the best in the world.

Four major groupings of San and some smaller clans apparently lived in the Drakensberg region. The Baroa were found in and around Lesotho, the !Ga!Nẽ in the Transkei area near Tsolo/Maclear, the //Xegwi in the central Drakensberg (their descendants can now be found living near Ermelo), and the Ku//e lived near the Free State border with Lesotho. There was also a smaller group, the Thola from the Griqualand East region, who were known to be horse riders.

For many years, people thought the San were extinct in this area and over the years many myths and legends developed around their rock art, their shamans, their rainmaking abilities and their healing skills. Apparently, the last reported sighting of a “Bushmen” was by a honeymoon couple in the late 1800s, and in the early part of the 1900s, there are reports that a few bows, arrows and other artefacts were found in caves in the higher altitudes.  However, fascinating recent sociological and anthropological research has revealed that the Drakensberg San are in fact, not extinct at all.

The ‘Secret San’

For generations descendants of the Drakensberg San did not feel free to identify themselves for fear of discrimination and intimidation. This is not surprising considering their history. Throughout the 19th century, the San were victimised by whites, blacks and farmers from both groups. Many were killed, while others moved away or, over the years, became assimilated into black society where they were often treated with suspicion and hostility. Even today, because of their perceived mastery of the elements and connections to the spirit world, many modern-day San still hold ritual status in their communities as rainmakers or healers. Sadly, the moment anything goes wrong, it is often these same individuals who are likely to be blamed. However, due to the numerous changes in the political landscape and attitudes, things are slowly changing for the better, and with support, many San still living in the Drakensberg area have been able to reclaim their heritage.


The early history of KwaZulu-Natal was passed down by word of mouth through the centuries, and it was only after the arrival of European traders and colonists at Port Natal, that historic events were recorded in writing. This sometimes resulted in an unfortunate situation, as Zulu history was originally recorded by people from other cultures who often had biased perspectives. 

The Nguni people, to whom the amaZulu ultimately belong, began to arrive in the region from north and east Africa some time during the 16th century. The territory, occupied by the Nguni now known as KwaZulu (place of the Zulu) Natal, was settled by small chiefdoms until midway through the 18th century when things changed and four dominant groups emerged.

These were the Dlamini, the royal line of the Ngwane, who lived around Delagoa Bay for several centuries until, in the 18th century, under pressure from the Tembe, they moved south and settled among other chiefdoms that they conquered and incorporated, north of the Phongola River.

The second group were the powerful Ndwande, who lived between the Phongola and Black iMfolozi rivers straddling the trade route from the coast to the interior and subjugating the surrounding chiefdoms.

The third group were the Mthethwa who were settled between the iMofolzi and Mhlatuze rivers and were ruled by Jobe, whose eldest son Dingiswayo according to legend, was forced into exile after plotting with his brothers to kill their father. Dingiswayo’s return after his father’s death signalled their rise to even greater prominence in the region.

The fourth group were the most southerly, the Qwabe who had settled in the Ngoye hills between the Mhlatuze and Thukela rivers in the 16th century, rising to power in the next century under the leadership of Kuzwayo.

Severe drought towards the end of the 18th century, the arrival of white traders and competition for resources shifted the power balances and alliances between these groups. This lead to the creation of larger chiefdoms and eventually, in the early 1800’s, to the formation of the Zulu Kingdom which, under the legendary Zulu King Shaka kaSenzangakhona, emerged as a regional power. His expansionist ambitions gave rise to conquest in the region, which both united and divided the northern Nguni population of Natal.

Shaka was eventually assassinated by his half-brothers Dingane and Mhalangana in 1828. King Dingane gained ascendance and the leadership of the Zulu empire but he did not have Shaka’s military genius, nor his expansionist ambitions and he lacked the leadership qualities to hold together the still immature state system Shaka had developed. Following the disastrous Battle of Blood River against the Boers, Dingane’s power was irreparably damaged and he was finally defeated by his own remaining half-brother Mpande. He fled, but was killed, the exact details of his death being unknown.

King Mpande ruled a relatively peaceful region for 30 years, died of natural causes in 1872, and was buried at his royal homestead Nodwengu, in the Valley of the Kings on the Mahlabatini Plains. He was succeeded by his son Cetswayo. 

By this time, many whites had settled in the region, wars had been fought between the Zulu, the Boers and the British and parts of Natal as it was then known, was under British Colonial rule. King Cetswayo managed to strengthen the Zulu army once more, however many of the more powerful chiefs began to resist a return to the centralized state power that had existed during the reigns of Shaka and Dingane. However, Cetswayo succeeded in persuading the Colony of Natal to recognize him as the legitimate Zulu king in the hopes he could unite the clans against the Imperial forces. At the same time, the colonial authorities became nervous about what they perceived to be the growing power of the Zulu again, and the British, with their vision of an Empire of English control across Africa, increasingly made war seem inevitable.

The British conspired against the Zulu and presented King Cetswayo with a threatening ultimatum that was legitimately ignored, but it gave the British an excuse to invade the Zulu kingdom, which they did on 11 January 1879.  By 1879, Cetswayo’s Zulu armies were sufficiently strong and organised to inflict a massive defeat upon the British at the Battle of Isandlwana. To date it is the worst defeat the British have ever suffered against an indigenous army.

However, although the Zulus continued to fight valiantly for their land, they were finally defeated in 1879 at the Battle of Ulundi. Their kingdom was broken up and formally incorporated into British ‘Natal’ as the century came to a close. Cetswayo was imprisoned and when later released, he tried valiantly to revive the fortunes of the Zulu Empire. However, while he was petitioning the British magistracy in Eshowe, he suddenly became ill and died. The official cause of death was given as a heart attack, but there have always been suspicions that he was in fact, poisoned.

His teenage son Dinizulu became king under acting regents. Zululand was finally annexed by the British on 9 May 1887. During the resulting rebellion, King Dinizulu and some of his leaders were caught, tried for treason and exiled to St Helena Island marking the real end of the old Zulu military system and the power of the Zulu kings.

Modern Times

King Solomon, Dinizulu’s son and successor founded the first Inkatha movement in the mid-1920s in an attempt to rally support for the institution of Zulu kingship, not only among Zulu-speakers, but also among the increasingly educated Christian African communities in the former Natal. In the years leading up to his death in 1933, the movement was undermined by corruption and a lack of political direction. Solomon’s son Cyprian, who was forced to fulfil a role of a constitutional monarch rather than a political leader, succeeded in forging a strong alliance with his cousin and advisor Chief Buthelezi, who had an enormous influence on the course of Zulu politics following his return from the University of Fort Hare in the Eastern Cape in 1953.

When King Cyprian died in 1968, Chief Buthelezi became an important political figure, thwarting the apartheid governments’ attempts to impose Bantustan or ‘separate development’ policies on Zululand. He mobilized the support of a majority of Zulu-speakers, forming the second Inkatha movement in 1975. Assisted by the present Zulu King, King Goodwill Zwelithini, Buthelezi revived a number of rituals that were last practiced during the reign of Shaka. He also introduced several new ones such as the annual reed ceremony derived from Swazi ritual. As a result, many modern Zulu-speakers have a renewed interest in Zulu history.



Although there is evidence to suggest that Phoenician navigators put in at present day Durban for fresh supplies as long ago as 700 BC, the first reliable written record of Durban and the KwaZulu-Natal landscape dates back to 1497, when Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama sighted land on Christmas day as they sailed past Africa’s east coast.

The only other early records of Europeans landing along this coast were, in fact, the many who were shipwrecked between 1536 and the 1800s when serious settlement was first being considered.

As a result of numerous shipwrecks along the coast during the so-called ‘Voyages of Discovery’, Portugal’s king commissioned a surveyor Manuel Perestrelo, to survey the eastern South African coastline in 1575, in order to find safe harbours for storm threatened ships. There is no record of him landing although he must have replenished supplies at some point. His reasonably accurate map fixed ‘Natal’ as being the area between the Umtata and the Thukela rivers.


The first white settlement in KZN was on the shores of Durban Bay in 1824 when two Englishmen obtained a grant of land from the Zulu King Shaka. The lucrative ivory, skins and gum trade brought more Europeans. Some were settlers from the Cape Colony, and in 1835, the first British missionary arrived.

White settlers began to arrive in the province in earnest in 1829 following other British traders and missionaries. The arrival of missionaries, including Lutheran, Protestants and Roman Catholic, British, Norwegian, Swedish and later American, increased radically following the British annexure of Natal in 1843. 

The warring Zulus initially tolerated the small settlement at the Port, as it suited the ivory trade. However, during the late 1830s, the Boers (largely farming descendants of the Dutch, but also German and French in the Cape), who were ostensibly disgruntled with British rule in the Cape, trekked into the region.

One of the ‘Voortrekkers’, Piet Retief, after receiving a warm welcome from the few British settlers at Port Natal, sent a letter to Zulu King Dingane asking for an audience in order to discuss land issues. Dingane was fearful that this group of whites, with their large herds of cattle, military skills and lack of respect for black chiefs, would eventually topple him. He killed Retief and his men and the Zulu warriors then attacked the rest of the trekkers who at that time were in wagon settlements spread out near the present towns of Colenso, Weenen and Estcourt.  Dingane, unable to rout the Boers, was finally defeated at the famous ‘Battle of Blood River’ on the banks of the Ncome River on 16 December 1838. On that day, so many Zulu were repulsed back into the river that is became choked with corpses and stained with blood. It has been referred to as ‘Blood River’ ever since.

The Boers retaliated. The apprehensive British traders at Port Natal allowed the temptation of a chance to loot Dingane’s cattle, as well as their desire to support their fellow white settlers, to lure them into a war on the side of the Boers.

The trekkers then established the Republic of Natal in 1838 and the town of Pietermaritzburg, which became their capital. They also later claimed control of the then small, strategic bay of Port Natal (now Durban), only to be ousted in 1843 when the British annexed the region.

A series of territorial battles between the British, Boers and Zulus, and the British and the Zulu ensued, as the Boers tried to force the British out of Natal. The British sent reinforcements who defeated the Boers. The small colony was granted self-government in 1893 and by 1897, they had also crushed the Zulus resulting in the end of the Zulu Empire. The British dominated the region after that.

The conflict between Boer and British, now known as the South African War, continued however, with the colony being invaded by the Boer army.  However, in 1902 after the Boers were defeated, it reverted back to British rule and in 1910, Natal was incorporated into the newly created Union of South Africa.


In the 1860s, the British established the sugar cane industry in Natal following farming experiments on the nearby Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius and Reunion. However, farmers had a difficult time attracting Zulu labourers to work on their plantations and so petitioned the colonial authorities. After much debate among the settlers and lengthy negotiations with the Indian government, the British then brought thousands of indentured labourers from India. 

The first 342 Indians arrived in Durban on the ship The Truro on 16 November 1860, followed ten days later by the Belvedere.  Thousands of poor Indians were eventually enticed to South Africa with promises of attractive wages and repatriation after five years, or the right to settle in Natal as free men.  They were followed by independent Indian traders and by 1865 there were some 5 300 Indians in Durban. The original Indian settlers were both Hindu and Muslim, bringing with them their food, language, dress and religions. Many small, elaborately and beautifully painted Hindu temples as well as gracious mosques were built throughout the province.

During the course of the next half century, 384 ships delivered an estimated 152 184 indentured and 'free' Indians who went on to play a vital role contributing to the province and in shaping the character of KwaZulu-Natal.


Mohandas Gandhi arrived in Durban in 1893. Eleven years later, in 1904, he founded Phoenix, a small, non-racial settlement in Inanda, about 25 kilometres outside Durban. Even though Gandhi did not spend much time at the settlement, it was here that he began to formulate his notion of satyagraha, or passive resistance against the discriminatory laws of the colonial British government. The inhabitants of Gandhi’s ashram farmed and led a life based on the philosophy of satyagraha, or the ideal life, which Gandhi identified as self-sufficiency. He also relocated a newspaper, “Indian Opinion” to the ashram from where it was produced communally and printed.

Gandhi’s Phoenix settlement has long been associated with the call to freedom in South Africa. From here came the first call for the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners and, in 1971, the call to unban political parties and individuals. It is also from here that the Natal Indian Congress was revived on 2 October 1971, and when the United Democratic Front was founded in 1983 the first national executive meeting was held at the settlement.

The Ohlanga Institute was established on a hill not far from the Phoenix settlement, established by the Reverend John Dube, the first president of the African National Congress. He was said to have been influenced, among other things, by the Phoenix’s settlement ideals of ‘self-help and working hands’. It was at the Ohlanga Institute, that Nelson Mandela cast his vote in South Africa’s historic first democratic elections in 1994.