KwaZulu-Natal culture

KwaZulu-Natal’s rich mix of cultural influences has sprung from all stages of its history. It all began in the Early Stone Age when the San people painted the first of many thousands of images on the caves and cliff walls of what are now the Drakensberg.

The San were eventually joined by the Zulu people who trace their origins back to the warrior Nguni tribes of Central Africa who had slowly migrated south over many centuries and reached what is now South Africa during the 16th Century.

Not long after, the first Europeans arrived in the shape of the Dutch and the British and settled in the Cape before gradually spreading around the coast into what is now KwaZulu-Natal.

Zulu history reached a turning point in 1816 when the legendary Zulu King Shaka reorganised a group of loosely affiliated clans into a powerful single tribe capable of subjugating neighbouring tribes and keeping both Dutch and British settlers from encroaching on their territory. But during the next century many battles were fought between the Zulu, the Afrikaners (Boers) and the British for physical and cultural domination.

The Afrikaner Voortrekkers entered the area via the Drakensberg passes in 1837 and defeated the Zulus at the Battle of Blood River in 1838, establishing the Republic of Natal until it was annexed by the British in 1843. The Afrikaners were originally descendants of the Dutch and French who settled in the Cape in the 1600s. They originally lived on farms and were called Boers (meaning farmer).

From 1860 onward, increasing numbers of Indians were brought in by the British mainly to work in the sugar plantations on the coast. The descendants of these indentured slaves now form the largest Indian population outside the sub-continent and are an integral part of the province’s contemporary culture.

After the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879, Zululand became part of the British colony of Natal and the lands north of the Buffalo River were added in 1902.

Boer and British forces again fought for control during the second Boer War (1899-1902) before the Union of South Africa was formed as a British dominion in 1910 and Natal became a province of the Republic of South Africa in 1961.

When the homeland of KwaZulu, which means ‘Place of the Zulu’, was re-incorporated into the Natal province after the end of apartheid in 1994, the province of Natal was renamed KwaZulu-Natal.
Zulu lodge, KwaZulu-Natal. Photo by Richard Madden
Zulu man, KwaZulu-Natal. Photo by Richard Madden
Zulus teaching local traditions, KwaZulu-Natal. Photo by Richard Madden
Zulu dancers, KwaZulu-Natal. Photo by Richard Madden
Nompondo Primary School, KwaZulu-Natal. Photo By Richard Madden

Cultural Highlights

Read about events in Kwa-Zulu Natal, as well as food and drink, townships and community tourism, and Township market experiences.

Rock Art Centre – Cathedral Peak, Drakensberg
The Drakensberg contain some 550 known San rock painting sites amounting to over 40,000 individual images. Archaeological evidence has shown the San lived in this area from approximately 8,000 years ago. The Didima Camp is home to the recently opened San Rock Art Interpretive Centre providing fascinating insights into the art and culture of the San, and includes static displays and audio-visual presentations within a reconstructed rock shelter.

The various conflicts between the indigenous Zulus and the Afrikaner and British colonists during the 19th Century has left its mark in a large number of battlefields which now play a significant role in the rich cultural heritage of KwaZulu-Natal.

These include the battlefield sites of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. Read more about Battlefields

Homestead Visits
Throughout Zululand, there are many opportunities for visitors to stay in a traditional Zulu homestead or ‘Umuzi’. Here they can experience what life is like for a typical Zulu family in the 21st Century. Many have guided visits to local schools and village communities with the chance to consult a Sangoma to communicate with the ancestors or to be healed by an Inyanga, a traditional herbal healer.

Simunye Zulu Lodge in the Mfule River Valley near Melmoth in Zululand belongs to the Biyela Clan, whose patriarch prince, Gelenja Biyela, is descended from Mkhosana who led the Zulu regiment that defeated the British at Isandlwana. The lodge is set in beautiful surroundings in the heart of the valley with a traditional Zulu kraal.

Focussing more on the contemporary experience of modern-day Zulu life is the Umuzi Wakwa Mdaka homestead in the village of Nodomo near Hluhluwe. Founded and run by Siphile Mdaka, a local ANC councillor, Mbonise run safari tours in the adjacent Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Park as well as cultural tours of the local village and school.

A percentage of the cost goes to local businesses and the school. The homestead offers accommodation in three traditional rondavels (thatched round huts) sleeping 2-3 people in each, and one traditional beehive hut.

Zulu Reed Dance
Held every year in September, thousands of Zulu maidens dance in front of the Royal kraal at Nongoma and present a reed to the king. The Reed Dance is a celebration of the Zulu nation binding the people to the king who presides over the ceremony.

The Reed dance is a colourful and cultural celebration that promotes respect for young women. The festival takes its name from the riverbed reeds which are the central focus of this four-day event.

Comrades Marathon
The Comrades Marathon is one of the world’s most famous ultra-marathons, held annually in June, and run between the Sahara Kingsmead Cricket Stadium in Durban and the City Hall in Pietermaritzburg, a total distance of 89km. The race started in 1921 when 34 runners left Pietermaritzburg for Durban to commemorate their comrades who fell during the Great War.

It has been repeated every year since with the exception of the World War II. The Comrades Marathon now attracts thousands of runners, spectators and television viewers every year. Read more about Durban

KwaZulu-Natal literary route
Responsible Travel would like to thank Tourism KZN for their sponsorship of this guide
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