Letty Masilela is pictured outside the painted front wall of her home in KwaSokhulumi, South Africa.


The Ndzundza Ndebele are an Nguni people who originated in South Africa in the areas of present day Gauteng, Mpumalanga and the Northern provinces, formerly called the Eastern and Northern Transvaal. King Musi, a great diplomat, lead his people to settle among the Tswana and Pedi, intermarry and pursue cultural exchange. It is believed that early Ndebele house structural format was developed through their "co-existance] with the neighboring Sotho-Tswana," (Rich, 1995, p. 174), and similarly that Ndebele house-painting strategies were adopted from a "Pedi original," (James and van Vuuren, 1998, p. 66). Ensuing family battles caused one group of Ndebele to go farther north into Zimbabwe, thus creating the Southern and the Northern Ndebele (Powell and Lewis, 1995). Of the groups who stayed in South Africa, the Manala and the Ndzundza, it is the latter, who have developed the abstract house painting schema, and who are recognized globally as the Ndebele of South Africa (van Vuuren, 1994). The Ndebele were large land holders and fierce warriors who were able to defend their lands against encroaching Boer farmers. Autumn 1883, brought intense war between the Boers (armies of the Zuid Afrikaanse Republiek) and the Ndzundza under Chief Nyabela. Both Boer and Ndebele traditional stories report how the Ndebele valiantly fought for five years and finally held out in the famous Caverns of Mapoch for over eight months before starvation and lack of fresh water brought them out of their enclave.

The brutality of the Boers is legendary, with Chief Nyabela in chains, sentenced to life in prison (though released in 1899). The king's kraal (power homeland seat) was desecrated by dynamite, and all Ndebele land holdings confiscated and parceled out to Boer farmers. These Ndzundza people were also parceled out as indentured servant labor for the farmlands, supposedly for a period of five years. This period of indenturement stretched into the 20th century, with the final vestiges loosening in the past five years. This Ndebele punishment could be considered akin to the African American slavery and segregation, to the extent that both were governmental decrees, which needed further government action to be ended. Out of each white-on-black repressive experience, expressive symbols were developed by the creators within the subordinate groups. More often than not, these examples of creativity [images/forms/songs, etc.] were signs which could be "read" as messages to the oppressed group. Like the African American quilts, as "instruments of cultural transmission" (Freeman, 1996, p.xviii), that frequently served as guideposts to members of the "group" in transit, so the wall paintings of the Ndebele became guideposts to the indigenous persons passing on the road (farm buildings were generally set back deep into the land). They announce that "We are Ndebele. Ndebele live here." Loubser confirms that, "owing to the difficult circumstances of the Ndzundza, the paintings became an expression of both cultural resistance and continuity." White farmers, who distinctly "saw themselves as politically more powerful and culturally superior," viewed this cultural form as decorative and not harmful, thus allowed it to continue (Loubser, 1994, p. 5).

When interviewing the senior women of the Mahlangu clan dominant in that region, they expressed to me absolutely no desire to change from their original honed palette of colors and forms. Sitting outside her front gate, Elisabeth Mahlangu's response to me concerning "change," is "Why?" She describes the chevron pattern on her wall as important to her family clan. For the 28 years of her marriage there have been mhlope, "white," the overcomer, and mnyama, "darkness," the balancer, surrounding her, and visually affirming her and other family clan members. Rich (1995) presents a strong picture of the Ndebele "architectural permanence" as directly related to the women single-handedly carrying on the family traditions, and the developing a wall art form to bring "formality" and order to the homestead (p. 74).

This visual language is constructed through family communications and group consensus among the women creators (Levy, 1989). These paintings are a communications system. They "speak" to the families. In addition to conveying self-identity, personal prayers, values and emotions, the wall painting has become deeply ingrained in the family marriage tradition. The married women of the household were responsible for designing images for the outer gates, front and side walls, and sometimes interior rooms as well. "Through her painting the artist is saying that she is a good Ndebele wife who keeps a proper and well-decorated home" (Schneider, 1985, p. 64).

The family settlements in the Northern Province area date back to 1938. These Ndebele resident lands were protected under the Nebo Farms Trust of 1956, though situated in the former Sotho-speakers homeland Lebowa (Powell and Lewis, 1995). Here, Ndebele social and aesthetic evolution has taken place without the significant "aid" of electricity, running water or numerous non-South African visitors before me. The early wall art designs and symbolic forms are derivative of the centuries old Ndebele beadwork forms and patterns (Levinsohn, 1985). Earliest wall art indications show tonal patterns painted by the women with their fingers on the cone-on-cylinder, "rondawel" houses which had mud/dung walls (Hansen, 1995-1996, p. 46). Natural pigments were used, with monochrome ochres, browns, black and limestone whitewash being the initial hues. Using these earthen tones, size, direction and pattern of the lines were more important in aesthetically pleasing walls than polychrome color. Traveling today in this same Nebo area of the Northern Province, the black soot lines and limestone whitewash, in addition to red and dark red, sky blue, yellow-gold, green and occasionally a pink could be seen painted in the wall patterns. For decades these same five hues tend to be the main ones visually present.

This activity along with the beadwork production, were two of the traditional duties of the woman of the household, which allowed for the transfer of patterning strategies from mother to daughter, and from female in-laws to new Ndebele wives secured from other indigenous groups. Today the impact of a world of cultures coming into an Ndebele home that has electricity and television, has fostered transformations in their traditional symbolic painted forms, but those images still signify that "Ndebele live here."


• Freeman, R.L. 1996. A Communion of the Spirits: African-American Quilters, Preservers, And Their Stories. Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press.

• Hansen, L. 1995/1996. Memory and Amnesia: Transformation of the Vernacular Architecture of the Southern Ndebele in South Africa. Unpublished thesis, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Post Graduate Centre for Human Settlements.

• James, D. and van Vuuren, C.J. 1998. "The Ndebele." In Magubane, P., Ed. Vanishing Cultures of South Africa, 64-81. Capetown: Struik Publishers (Pty) Ltd.

• Levinsohn, R. 1985. "Beadwork as Cultural Icon." American Craft 45 4):24-31,August-September.

• Levy, D. 1989. ""The Possible Origins and Meaning of Ndebele Beadwork.." Lantern 38 (2):62-66. May.

• Loubser, A. 1994. Recent Changes in Wall Painting amongst the Ndzundza as an Indication Of Social Changes amongst AmaNdebele Women. Unpublished Honors Dissertation, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

• Powell, I. and Lewis, M. 1995. Ndebele ? A People and their Art. Capetown: Struik Publishers (Pty) Ltd.

• Rich, P. 1995. "Pride of Ndebele." Architectural Review 197 (1177):73-77. March.

• Schneider, E.A. 1985. "Ndebele Mural Art." African Arts 18 (3):60-67,100-101. April.

• Van Vuuren, C.J. 1994. "Myths of Ndebele Identity: From Aesthetic Curiosity to Unwanted Homeland." Paper presented at the AASA Conference, Durban, SA. September.

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