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Primary Mode of Subsistence In The Zulu Culture Research Paper

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Updated: Dec 19th, 2018


It is very important to understand the cultural values of existing persons in certain societies in order to understand their way of living. The study of cultural anthropology is therefore very fascinating as it brings awareness to an existing culture hence capturing a unique cultural disparity among individuals (Nowak & Laird, 2010).

The Zulu culture is one of the interesting cultures to study. Not only does it boast as the largest ethnic group in South Africa, but also hosts millions of people in its organization. The Zulu community played an integral part to make the South African history. It was then that the Zulu became an outclassed community hence being discriminated against during the apartheid period.

They however remain the largest and most prominent ethnic group in South Africa. The study of Zulu culture is therefore essential to create a clear understanding of its chief manner of subsistence. This paper is aimed at bringing to the fore the primary approach of the Zulu culture subsistence and further analyze the impact of its subsistence on the Beliefs and values, Kinship and social organization aspects.

The Origin Of Zulu Culture

Before attempting to study a particular culture, it is important to understand how it came into existence. The Zulus are believed to have originated from a chief clan, the Nguni, currently known as the Northern KwaZulu-Natal. The Nguni people further relocated from their original home in Central East Africa and moved to the Southern side of the Natal region in the mid 16th century.

The Zulu people, who pronounce themselves as the direct descendants of a prominent chief known as Shaka Zulu settled in the region in their beehive fashioned thatched huts. The name Zulu according to them means ‘heaven’. By the 19th century, the Zulu community had formed a very strong and powerful military force during the reign of the powerful King Shaka.

They became very violent and attacked their neighboring communities, stealing their goods and grabbing large parcels of their land. However, they were forced to face and deal with the expanding presence of the white Europeans who wanted to seize the Southern part of Africa. This did not auger well with the Zulu community and the eminent tension between them and the white Europeans erupted into war in 1879 (Pridmore, 1999).

Though the Zulu people fought hard and pressured a number of the white Europeans to retreat, they were forced into a surrender due to the mighty weapons that was being used by the British army. The defeat saw the British dominating the area resulting to a subdivision of the Zulu kingdom. A racist government was triggered into power giving way to the practice of apartheid. The apartheid laws rendered the Zulu community inferior and were discriminated against.

During this period, the Zulu people tried to regain their power and resist the dominance rule of the British, an attempt that proved futile. However, upon attainment of South African democracy in 1994 when Nelson Mandela was sworn in as the president, it marked the end of the Apartheid era. The Zulu have since struggled to get equal treatment and the right to run things their own way as they initially did before the invasion of the colonialists.

Primary Mode Of Subsistence Of The Zulu Culture

The Zulu community is a horticultural society coupled with livestock keeping. The Zulu community exists in a close knit circle and move about in their quest of basic survival. It is well established that before the mid 19th century, the Zulu community embraced horticulture and keeping livestock to sustain their survival.

The Zulu people depend on producing their own food in order to sustain themselves. The Zulu culture adopted a permanent settlement pattern. It is important to point out that before the invasion of the white settlers, the Zulu people occupied vast land. Any kind of attempt by the neighboring communities to take up their land was met with a lot of resistance.

The Zulu culture embraced simple but effective technology to tend to their main economic activities. Being ardent lovers of livestock keeping and horticulture, their important implements were therefore the hoe and the grinding stone. The Zulu were also hunters by nature and as a result adapted the use of spears (imikhonto) and knobkerries (izagila).

These particular hunting tools were also used during attacks. Women also engaged in designing and carving pottery goods that were used for cooking and serving food. The art of pottery is still currently being practiced for purposes of trade due to the challenging economic times.

Just like any other horticultural society, the women played a very huge role in the planting fields. They had vast knowledge when it came to farming activities. The men on the other hand tended the animals leaving the women to do most of the field activities. It should further be noted that the wealth of a Zulu man was measured by the number of domestic animals under his possession. It was therefore very important for the men to protect that territory in order to command some amount of respect.

The current fast changing lifestyles being adopted have had great impact in the Zulu cultural community (Sabine, 2008). The dramatic turn of events in the modern world have led to the Zulu culture adopting new ideologies to enable the Zulu people sustain themselves.

Their total dependence on horticulture and livestock rearing limited them in engaging in various other activities, with maize being their staple crop. Due to the modern harsh economic times, the Zulu people have been forced to engage in other types of foods such as spinach, potatoes and even pumpkins so as to survive. In addition to maize being their sole staple food, they have adapted rice as the other staple crop.

It is also evident that in the early era of the 20th century, the Zulu community depended solely on horticulture and livestock as their commercial activities in order to maintain the market economy. However, this position has been transformed steadily due to various reasons.

One of the prominent reasons is the fact that the population rate of the Zulu community has shot high. Being a horticultural society, the fertility rate was high due to the assumption that the more the number of children one had, human labor in the farms became cheaper and easily accessible. Secondly, the land that they were left to settle in after they gained their independence was insufficient to comfortably accommodate the current population.

Lastly, the policies that have been put in place by the existing government have forced them to alter their way of living to adapt to the modern life. A good example is the requirement by the government to pay taxes that has forced the Zulu people to work in other informal sectors so as to meet all their needs.

It is therefore vital to point out that the current Zulu are living below the poverty line. This has led to the scramble of resources between the members of the community hence resulting to a major shift in the primary mode of subsistence. Most male members of the community have been forced to abandon their livestock to look for work in the urban centers. The women have been left to tend to both the plants and livestock hence recording low yields.

The Zulu culture is slowly adapting to the new changes incorporating them in their culture just like any horticulturalists in the modern world. For example, they no longer restrict their beadwork to only special cultural occasion such as ceremonies but have resulted to also sell them to tourists.

Impact Of The Mode Of Subsistence On The Aspects Of Culture in Zulu Culture

The Zulu culture focuses more on three main aspects; Beliefs and values, Kinship and social organization.

Beliefs and Values

The Zulu people believe in an almighty being who is in charge of the whole universe. However, they held a strong belief that even though the Supreme Being existed, he had distanced himself from the daily running of the universe affairs.

This led them to believe that the role to run their day to day affairs had solely been left to the spirits of the dead. The Zulu culture therefore invokes the spirits of their ancestors to appease the spirits. They believe that each ancestor plays a vital role in their lives as they have been granted the power to reward the good deeds and punish the defaulters.

Being a horticultural society, the Zulu people thrived to appease the ancestral spirits in order to be rewarded with a good harvest. They also appeased to the spirits to control the weather so that the crops were not destroyed. Ceremonies were held from time to time as a mean of communicating with the ancestors. During the rituals, domestic animals were offered as a sacrifice and a particular herb burnt in the process. It was believed that if the rain favored their crops and that the livestock had abundant food, the ancestral spirits were happy.

The Zulu people ensured that they did their best not to break the taboos that had been imposed. In the event that they experienced excessive rains or winds that destroyed their plants and drowned their animals, it was believed that a certain taboo had been broken. Also, in the event that there was a prolonged drought that led to death of livestock and lack of food, the same case applied.

They strongly believed that if they angered their ancestors, then the mode of punishment would affect their harvest and livestock. They consequently sought the services of their diviner, who in most cases was a woman, to plead to the spirits on their behalf.

The modern Zulu have strongly been influenced by Christianity. However, most of them still hold their traditional beliefs highly and only integrate some little aspects of Christianity.


Kinship was, and still is a very key aspect in Zulu custom. The Zulu people had a kind of a lineage that aided them to trace their kin connection to certain ancestors. The Zulus have always identified themselves by the use of surnames. The surnames taken over were a symbol of an important occurrence that the family associated themselves with.

The father figure in society was highly regarded. This was due to the fact that it was only through the father that a person got to be ranked in the society. Property inheritance was also very important under this custom. The land could be inherited from one generation to another. This inheritance practice was mainly possible through the father figure. It was demanded that the father figure receive utmost respect as he was the key to extended kinship ties

Marriage is highly regarded in Zulu culture. The process of marriage required the families from both sides to exchange gifts such as crops and domestic animals. Due to their horticultural nature, the woman was highly appreciated and was well received with numerous gifts probably because of her chief role as the food-producer. Though monogamy marriage is currently prevalent in the current Zulu culture, polygamy is still widely practiced in most Zulu homes.

Polygamy was associated with wealth. A Zulu man with many women was deemed to be wealthy as the women played a critical role to increase his yields and livestock. It was further contended that a man with many wives established a solid foundation in the family. The children produced free labor in the farms hence increasing the harvest.

Social Organization

A kinship tie in Zulu culture is regarded as the vital correlation to social organization. The social status is customarily put in a nutshell when it comes to kinship and leadership positions.

The head of the household commands a lot of respect. The same respect accorded to the head of the household is unconditionally given to all the men in the community in general. The Chief and his kin also command tremendous deference and total respect in the Zulu community. It was common for the older folks to discipline any young wrongdoers regardless of whether they belonged to the same lineage.

Just like most horticultural societies, the extended family in the Zulu custom was more adaptive. The large family set up ensured successful completion of pending tasks. The boys were given the duty of tending to the livestock alongside the mature men in the family while the girl child accompanied the women to the fields.

However, the social organization was regularly marked by conflict within the community. As the population increased over the years, there was scramble for the few remaining resources. Everybody wanted a piece of land and a place to keep their livestock. This brought social disorganization in the community (Richard, 2000).


Though the Zulu people still uphold horticulturalist and livestock keeping as their main mode of subsistence, the changing world has brought about major changes. The men, as noted earlier have left their homes to look for employment in towns leaving the women to take care of the homestead.

The Zulu society has also incorporated some of the western cultures in their own traditional culture. The aspects of the Zulu culture have slightly changed to accommodate the western culture resulting to the mode of subsistence to have less impact on them. It can however be concluded that the Zulu culture remain an interesting culture to study in the anthropology field.

Reference List

Nowak, B., & Laird, P. (2010). Cultural Anthropology. San Diego: Bridgepoint Education.

Pridmore, J. (1999). The Military wanted to see a Zulu Dance: White History and Black

Anthropology in the Natal [Electronic version]. South African Historical Journal, 41, 11-72.

Richard, L. (2000). When Cultures Collide: Managing Successfully Across Cultures (2nd ed). New York: Nicholas Brealey.

Sabine, M. (2008). Zulu Heritage between Institutionalized Commemoration and Tourist Attraction [Electronic version]. Visual Anthropology, 21(1), 245-246.

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