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About Ndebele (Southern) Language

The Southern Ndebele language (isiNdebele or Nrebele in Southern Ndebele) is an African language belonging to the Nguni group of Bantu languages, and spoken by the amaNdebele (the Ndebele people of South Africa). There are two dialects of Southern Ndebele in South Africa:

  • the Northern Transvaal Ndebele or Nrebele. It is untrue to declare that this language is extinct and that no one has compiled an orthography.[citation needed] There are speakers of this language in both rural and urban areas. Sindrebele language, as it is affectionately called by its speakers, orthography was compiled in 1959 by Mr. D. Ziervogel. There are various writers including Mr. J. L. Rafapa (the author of the Northern Sotho book Lerato Sello) amongst many who are prepared to write Sindrebele. Much of the history of the speakers of this language has not been written, but that does not necessarily mean that it does not exist. This language falls under the Tekela Nguni languages.
  • and the Southern Transvaal Ndebele.

There is also another, separate dialect called Northern Ndebele or Matabele spoken in Zimbabwe and Botswana – see Sindebele language. The Zimbabwean Ndebele is closer to Zulu than it is to the two South African Ndebele languages.


The history of the amaNdebele can be traced to Musi, the last monarch of the tribe as a single nation. Researchers still disagree on specific times of the tribe's separation from their main Nguni Group(which include the Xhosa, Zulu and the Swazi).It is estimated that the migration took place as early as 1200 A.D. AmaNdebele are known to be the first Nguni group to enter the hinterland of the southern tip of the African continent, later to be called Transvaal(today's Gauteng Province). AmaNdebele lived as one nation at Emhlangeni (today's Randfontein area) under King Mhlanga approximately between 1550-1580. The name of EMhlangeni is today being translated to the Sotho language, Mohlakeng. Most archeologists and historians agree that the amaNdebele settled for a longer period peacefully at Kwamnyamana and Emarula (Wonderboompoort). These areas are in the north and northwest of present day Pretoria. The tribe arrived in this area with Musi, the son of Mhlanga who is in turn the son of Mafana. The tribe can still be found in that area to day.

One unverified source mentions that the word Matebele/Matabele is a corruption of the Setswana phrase "Mathebe Telele," meaning "those with long shields." This refers to the Zulus and Ndebeles who made their way through to the northern parts of Southern Africa's innovations, including the use of short spears and long shields as opposed to the javelin-type spears and small shields used by other local peoples.


Ndebele is one of the eleven official languages in the Republic of South Africa. The language is a Nguni or Zunda classification (UN) spoken mostly in the Mpumalanga Province, Gauteng, Limpopo and the Northwest.

The expression "isikhethu" can be loosely translated to mean 'the Ndebele way of doing or saying'. Isikhethu means Ndebele the same way that sikitsi will mean Swazi and se harona will mean Sotho. The language has been severely marginalized over the years. Until the formation of the apartheid Ndebele homeland, speaking the language publicly was discouraged. Most Ndebele speakers preferred Zulu especially because the latter was learned at school. Today the Ndebele speakers, mostly those who are educated still prefer to use Ndebele as home language for their children and will use Ndebele as a language to communicate with other Ndebele speakers.

AmaNdebele In Zimbabwe

The shared language name does not imply other close similarities, however. It must be borne in mind that amaNdebele who now inhabit Zimbabwe met the amaNdebele of South Africa during Mzilikazi's path to the north of the southern subcontinent between 1828 and 1838. Subsequently, the two peoples have broken contact with one another and have diverged culturally.

Also of Interest

IsiNdebele is a southern African language spoken predominantly in South Africa and Zimbabwe. In 1994 isiNdebele became one of nine indigenous languages to obtain official recognition in South Africa’s first post-apartheid Constitution. The 2001 South African census estimates the number of isiNdebele speakers to be 711824. At 2% of the population, isiNdebele speakers make up the smallest official language group in South Africa. Most of the speakers of this language are situated in the South African provinces of Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Gauteng, and most notable around the cities of Pretoria and Polokwane. In Zimbabwe, most isiNdebele speakers can be found in the southern Matabeleland region, and notably around the city of Bulawayo. This summary explores the linguistic derivation of the language, the history of written codification and dialectal variation, and recent attempts to standardize the language in South Africa.

IsiNdebele forms part of the “Southern Bantu” group of African languages, which in turn forms part of the larger Niger-Congo language family. The Central subgroup is further subdivided into geographical regions, each designated by a letter. The S-Group covers much of southern Africa and includes the two major dialect continua of South Africa: the Nguni and the Sotho-Tswana language groups. Languages within these two groups tend to be mutually intelligible and the groups make up 47% and 25% of the South African population respectively. IsiNdebele forms part of the Nguni language group and is therefore closely related to the other major languages in this group, isiZulu, isiXhosa and siSwati. Linguists commonly drop the language prefix when referring to these languages. Hence isiNdebele is commonly referred to as “Ndebele.” This practice is, however, contested and in South Africa the official use of the prefixes has increased during the post-apartheid period. In South Africa isiNdebele is also commonly known as Southern Ndebele, to distinguish it from the Zimbabwean variety or Northern Ndebele (also known as Sindebele). IsiNdebele is also occasionally referred to as isiKhethu.

All isiNdebele speakers trace their roots to Nguni migrations out of the region that is now known as KwaZulu-Natal. The earliest of these settled in the Pretoria area in the 1600's. After the death of their king, Musi, the kingdom was split between his two sons, Manala and Ndzundza. The two main South African traditions, Manala in the Pretoria area and the Ndzundza further east, derive from this split. During the 1820's Mzilikazi broke away from Shaka’s Zulu Kingdom and fled northwards, settling ultimately in the region that is today Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. That is the origin of the Ndebele of Zimbabwe.

IsiNdebele is an agglutinating language, in which suffixes and prefixes are used to alter meaning in sentence construction. Like the other indigenous South African languages, isiNdebele is also a tonal language, in which the sentence structure tends to be governed by the noun. Examples of phrases in the language include: lotjhani (hello); Unjani? (How are you?); Ngikhona (I am fine).

As a written medium isiNdebele is one of the youngest indigenous languages in South Africa, as formal codification began in the late twentieth century. The language has a very small literature, most of which dates from 1984. The most significant literary work is the Bible, which was translated in 1986. Ironically, most of this language development took place during the Apartheid years.

During the apartheid period, the ruling National Party’s policy of Grand Apartheid was built on a vision of ethno-linguistically discrete territories for South Africa’s indigenous population. Beginning after 1960, the widely condemned “Bantustan” policies of Prime Minister H.F. Verwoerd resulted in the creation of ten self-governing territories in predominantly rural areas of South Africa.

Thus the independent territory of “KwaNdebele” was established in 1984, in the Transvaal (today the Northern Province), to serve as the designated homeland of isiNdebele speakers. Under apartheid separate language boards were also created for each of the nine standardized indigenous languages. These boards effectively appropriated the work of language development that had previously been done by missionaries. In 1976 the South Ndebele Language Board was established. The board sought to formulate spelling rules, compile a vocabulary list for schools, and promote the production of written materials. The board also had an oversight function – preventing the publication of politically challenging material. From 1984 the language was taught for the first time as a subject in primary and secondary schools. A number of schools also began to use it as a teaching medium. The KwaNdebele territorial authority was disbanded in 1990 and now forms part of the Northern Province administration.

Following the democratic transition 1994 responsibility for language policy and development now rests with the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology. A new body – the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) – was also created and charged with responsibility for language planning. PanSALB has sought to facilitate the further development of the language. Under PanSALB, the isiNdebele Lexicography Unit is responsible for developing new terminology for the language. The functional development of the language is proving rather difficult. Education poses particular problems. Until recently isiNdebele speakers tended to learn Zulu at school. Although the language is now taught as a subject at both primary and secondary level, it is only used as a medium of instruction from grade 1 to grade 3.

As a very small language, the development of isiNdebele faces particular economic difficulties. The heartlands of the language are situated in predominantly rural regions. High unemployment means that many young Ndebele speakers are compelled to move to towns and cities in order to find work. Here they invariably come into contact with speakers of other languages – including closely related languages such as Zulu, which they understand and often adapt to. IsiNdebele is used on radio and shares a television channel with other Nguni languages. There are no isiNdebele newspapers.


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