The Ndebele are an offshoot of a group of BANTU-speaking peoples of southern Africa known as the Nguni. The branch of the Ndebele that is centered in ZIMBABWE traces its roots to MZILIKAZI, a former lieutenant under SHAKA ZULU. The other branch, founded by the leader Musi, is located in SOUTH AFRICA. Both branches of the Ndebele at one time fled from Shaka’s armies and incorporated other peoples who were doing the same. Both also had encounters with white settlers. Those in South Africa were quickly subdued, but those in Zimbabwe—known to the British as Matabele—offered a much fiercer resistance.
Like other Nguni, the Ndebele are both farmers and herders, raising corn and tending livestock. In recent years some Ndebele have left the land and moved into cities. Today, many work far from home in South Africa’s mines. In 1997 the Ndebele elected their first female chief, Singobile Mabhena. The election gained worldwide attention and was perhaps influenced by the emergence of several other female leaders in southern Africa. (See also Ethnic Groups and Identity.)