South Africa is big sky country, comprised of over a million square kilometres of the Southern African continent. It has 3000 kilometres (~1800 miles) of coastline. The cool benguela current sends freshly molten ice to the Atlantic in the West coast and in the east the waters of the Indian Ocean are warmed by the Mozambique current coming from Asian waters. It's a country of remarkable diversity with the population - 'The Rainbow Nation' - embracing a bewildering mix of clours, creeds, customs and languages. Variety and contrast are visible in the nation and in the land itself, and in the character of the towns and cities and rural areas.

Some of the still existing tribes would include the Zulu Nation, the Xhosa, the Swazi (all three are related, belonging to the Nguni group of people); the Northern Sotho, the Southern Sotho and the Tswana, the South Ndebele and the North Ndebele, the Venda and Lemba; and the Shangaan-Tsonga. No matter how many generations removed, members of a tribal clan are still "brothers and sisters" and share common roots.

According to oral history, the name Zulu literally means "sky", and was the name given to the son of Malandela and Nozinja, who lived in what was later to become known as Zululand or, in the Zulu language, KwaZulu. An interesting situation developed when young Zulu, who was his mothers' "favourite", grew to be a man. His eldest brother, Qwaba, became jealous of him and planned his end. His mother however, came to the rescue and took Zulu away.Supported by an Induna ( headman ) named Mpungose he made his way in the world and - as it happened - establish the Zulu clan.

Qwaba, for his part, branched out and founded the large clan which now bears his name. In generations since, the idea of blood relationship between these two clans has been forgotten and they intermarry freely. Not much is known of Zulu's life, nor of the reigns of his successors, Punga, Mageba, Ndaba and Jama. We have learnt that in the sixth dynasty of the clan, in 1787, Chief Senzangakona and Nandi, who became his third wife, produced a remarkable son - Shaka Zulu. At Senzangakona's death in 1816, Shaka seized control of the Zulu clan which even then only numbered some seventeen hundred people. Shaka's meteoric rise to fame through brilliant strategy and bloody conquest is, of course, well documented. But perhaps what does justify repeating here is that, in 1828, at the end of his short, 12-year reign - when he was assassinated by his half-bother Dingaan. Shaka had conquered all the clans of Zululand and had united them into a single Zulu nation under his rule. The Zulu reputation was, of course, by no means built around the Shakan saga. The wars of the mid-19th century against both Boer and British attracted world attention. The Zulu kingdom still exists and continues to command considerable respect. The present King, Goodwill Zwelithini is descended from the same bloodline as Shaka, and the Chief Executive of the KwaZulu Assembly, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, is related to the royal family.

Many Zulu have now become urbanised and follow callings in all walks of city life, but a great number are still rural and follow many of the old traditions which were practised long before the arrival of white people. For example, a Zulu man may, even today, takes as many wives as he likes, provided, of course, he can raise the required Lobolo ( cattle for the fathers of the brides ).

The Zulu living in rural areas are basically a farming people and love their livestock. They grow maize as a staple diet, and pumpkins, beans and other vegetables according to their needs. Sorghum is also grown as an essential ingredient of beer. In addition to their use as Lobolo , cattle pull their owners' ploughs and supply milk and meat, and are a token of wealth. Of particular importance, too, cattle are slaughtered in sacrificial offerings to a family's ancestral spirits.

The Xhosa speaking nation, in Southern Africa, is second only to the Zulu in numbers. It consists of several tribes such as the Pondo, the Bomvana, the Thembu, the Pondomiese and others, and includes the actual Xhosa tribe itself. All these tribes speak the same language, and are often collectively referred to simply as Xhosa. Most of the Xhosa live in the Transkei and Ciskei, mainly under chieftains who are responsible to the governments of those countries. Many others, however, are scattered beyond these borders. Largely as a consequence of a national disaster that occurred in the mid-1850's.

This was what is known as Nongquase, after a young girl of that name. Nongquase - subsequently regarded as a prophetess - had a vision, in 1856, of the warriors of old. Their message was to tell her people, who were of the literal Xhosa tribe, that they must destroy all their cattle and crops, and that, thereafter, fatter herds and better crops would arise from the earth to replenish the losses. The warriors said that they themselves would return and help drive all white men into the sea. The white settlers of the Cape came into bloody contact with this group in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, waging nine full-scale frontier wars.

The Xhosa live mainly in the Cape, Transkei and Ciskei regions of South Africa and still maintain many customary traditions.

Mr Nelson Mandela - is a Xhosa descendant.

The South Ndebele, together with the Zulu, Xhosa and Swazi, belong to the South Nguni ethnic group. In the case of the South African Ndebele group, the area is, broadly speaking, the Eastern Transvaal Highveld to the North East of Pretoria. Here, they have lived and worked on farms for generations and, since the mid-1980's, also in their homeland of KwaNdebele (the "place of the Ndebele"). The tribe consists of two major clans, the Ndzundza, and the Mandala. Together comprising probably less than 400 000 people.

The characteristic of their lives, which most obviously distinguishes the South Ndebele, from other indigenous South African peoples, is their art. Be this house-painting, beadwork or any other visual arts from which they derive so much joy. The brightly painted houses that decorate the Transvaal Highveld with their distinctive designs proclaim clearly "this is an Ndebele home". The striking style of dress of the women could not be mistaken for that of any other tribe.

Sadly though, their unique lifestyle and art is gradually starting to disappear. Although Western civilisation, with its greater technology and exciting new concepts, provide the means for some of the brightest moments in Ndebele culture. The attractions of the modern world are now beginning to take over the Ndebele way of life. The art of a nation is dying, as rising costs make the necessary materials prohibitive, and the ever-increasing tempo of life precludes the time to pursue it.

Copyright � 1997