Date of completion   May  12  2000

Respondent’s details
Name:  P C


Male X
Female []

Institution belonged to: National Language Service Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology
Address: Private Bag X195, Pretoria, 0001, South Africa
Telephone: 27 12 337 8366
Fax: 27 12 324 2119

Details of language: South Ndebele

The name South Ndebele is used to distinguish it from (a) the Ndebele of Zimbabwe that has no historical links with the South Ndebele of South Africa, and from (b) the North Ndebele that has been classified (in 1989 - Msimang, unpublished Ph.D. thesis) as belonging to the Tekela subgroup of languages. The speakers of the latter language claim to have historical links with South Ndebele.

Glotonym or name of language on which you are providing data:
Autoglotonym (name given to the language by native speakers): IsiNdebele or IsiKhethu
Heteroglotonym (name given by the non-native community to the language): Ndebele

What language group does this language group belong to?

Family: Bantu Language Family
Group: South Eastern Bantu
Subgroup: Nguni (Zunda Subgroup)

What type of language is it?

Creole []
Pidgin []

  1. Does this language have other varieties? If so, what are these?

Two groups with minor differences: Manala & Ndzundza.

  1. Does this language exist in a written form?

Yes. The Ndebele has for a long time accepted Zulu in its written form. The Bible is for many readers the only book that they read and it was only available in Zulu. The two languages are related and are mutually intelligible. Zulu was also taught as a subject in schools. In the early 1970's a new interest in the history and language of the Ndebele people was sparked off by the intention of the Nationalist Government of that time to declare the KwaNdebele Homeland independent. Many requests were received by universities to teach Ndebele as a subject, but because there was no written tradition it was turned down. In 1976 the newly formed South Ndebele Language Board initiated the translation of the Bible together with the Bible Society of South Africa. Ten years (1986) later the Ndebele people could read the Psalms and New Testament in IsiKhethu. Before that the only publication was a small booklet with praises of their kings and a little history that was published in 1968. In 1983-86 a number of school readers were published.

(Source: Own research).

  1. Is there standardisation of the language?

Yes. The South Ndebele Language Board was established in 1976 and its main aims were to standardise the written language by formulating spelling rules, to compile a vocabulary list for school, to promote the writing of books and to oversee the prescribing of school books. Presently this is the task of the Mpumalanga Department of Education and PANSALB (Pan South African Language Board.

(Source: Own research).

  1. Do you consider yourself a member of this linguistic community? If so, why?

No, but the researcher is familiar with the language, has researched the history of the people and served on the language board for many years.

  1. Where is this language spoken? What are its geographical boundaries?

This language is mainly spoken in Mpumalanga Province of the Republic of South Africa. Since the borders of the area are not defined, one cannot put a number to the inhabitants (Cf also Question 6 below).  According to the 1996 Census 586 961 persons in South Africa indicated that their home language is Ndebele. These consist of 1,6% (114 899) of the population of Gauteng Province, 12,4% (346 337) of the population of Mpumalanga Province, 1,3% (42 833) of North West Province and 1,5% (72 506) of the Northern Province.

(South African Survey, 1999-2000, Millennium Edition. Institute of Race Relations, Braamfontein, Johannesburg).

  1. Have these geographical boundaries changed over the years? If so, how have they altered?

Ndebele was originally spoken in a much larger area with a concentration of speakers west of Pretoria, in the south-western parts of the Northern Province and into the centre and eastern parts of Mpumalanga Province. They later moved to the present day area east of Pretoria between the towns of Delmas, Witbank,Groblersdal, Marble Hall and Pretoria. Ndebele was also the official language of the erstwhile KwaNdebele Homeland which formed the centre of the area described above. Since 1994 these boundaries do not exist anymore but the people have mostly remained where they were.

(Source: Own research).

  1. What is the physical terrain of this area alike?

Open plains with mountains in the north.

(Source: Own research).

  1. Are any other languages spoken within the same territory? If so, what are these?

In Mpumalanga Province where the largest concentration of Ndebele speakers is, the following languages are also spoken:





Northern Sotho










In the other provinces the percentages are less than 2% or too small to record.

(South African Survey, 1999-2000, Millennium Edition. Institute of Race Relations, Braamfontein, Johannesburg).

  1. Could you enclose a sketch or indicate the area in which the language is spoken? (if you wish, you can draw a sketch in the space on the next page)

See Appendix.

  1. What State(s) / country (ies) do/es the territory/ies where the language is spoken belong to?

The Republic of South Africa.

  1. What is the total number of inhabitants (whether or not they speak this language) of this territory?

The total number of inhabitants of South Africa is 40 583 573 (Census 1996). The total number of inhabitants of Mpumalanga Province where the highest concentration of Ndebele speakers are to be found is: 2 800 711

  1. How many of the inhabitants understand, speak or write this language?
Home language 586 961
Zulu 9 200 144

7 196 118

Swati 1 013 193
Total: 17 996 416*

* This is in South Africa as a whole because these languages all belong to the Nguni group and are mutually intelligible. A more realistic figure will be reached if the Nguni languages in Mpumalanga (Mpu.) are combined because they are in closer contact with Ndebele than e.g. the Xhosa in the Eastern Cape and will therefore have more opportunities to hear the language. The speaking, reading and writing figures will therefore only be based on 

Mpumalanga where this language is relevant.

Home language 586 961
Zulu (Mpu.) 706 816
Swati (Mpu.) 834 133
Total: 2 127 910 (Census 1996)
Home language 586 961
Others ±2 000*
Total: 588 961

* This estimate is based on the fact that historically other language groups had no regard for this language and only people who are in close contact with Ndebele speakers may find it necessary to speak the language. Inhabitants in areas far removed from the north-eastern parts of Mpumalanga would therefore have no need to speak the language even though they would be able to understand most of it when spoken to (Personal observations).

Read: 322 829 home language users (based on 45% illiteracy in Mpumalanga). When this is related to the inhabitants of Mpumalanga, then the numbers for Zulu and Swati have to be added because the literate among them will also be able to read Ndebele:

Total: 1 221 294

Write: 322 829 (based on the premise that the 55% that can read, also studied the language at school and can therefore also write it). The figure for Mpumalanga will then also be 1 221 294.

(Literacy figures for Mpumalanga for age 20 and older as quoted in South African Survey, 1999-2000, Millennium Edition. Institute of Race Relations, Braamfontein, Johannesburg).

Use this space to draw a map or sketch of the territory where this language is spoken.

See Appendix.

  1. How many of the speakers are monolingual (use only this language)?

Because of the continual contact with a variety of other languages, very few will be monolingual, and then it will only be the elderly. This would apply only in very remote rural areas. Also the other languages in the subgroup are then not taken into consideration although they may be able to understand them.

  1. How many of the speakers are bilingual (use this and another language)? What other language(s) do they speak?

Cf 15 below.

  1. How many of the speakers are multilingual (speak this and more than one other language)? What other languages do they speak?

100% (586 961). This is apparently the situation as far as can be determined and this figure does not include the other languages like Swati, Zulu and Xhosa that belong to the same subgroup. Their unique situation and the history of the Ndebele have forced them to speak other languages as well. All the speakers also speak at least Northern Sotho (Sepedi) and/or Zulu. Furthermore, before 1984 Northern Sotho (Sepedi) and/or Zulu was taught and used as medium of instruction at school. Afrikaans and English were also taught as subjects at school. They therefore have been exposed to a number of languages. A large percentage of adults and elderly people, due to job opportunities, speak and understand Afrikaans as well. The younger generation tends to prefer English.

  1. Are speakers of this language dispersed throughout the territory, or are they concentrated in specific population centres?

They are mostly dispersed with a concentration of speakers in the centre of the old KwaNdebele viz at KwamHlanga, Siyabuswa and surrounding areas. The percentages of Ndebele speakers in the provinces of the RSA are as follows:

Free State: 0,2%
Gauteng 1,6%
Mpumalanga 12,4%
North West 1,3%
Northern Province 1,5%
  1. How has the number of speakers of this language evolved over time (increased, decreased or remained stable)?

During the time of the KwaNdebele Homeland (1970 - 1990), the language gained popularity and grew because of the rediscovery of their identity as a nation. In the late 1990's the number of speakers started to remain relatively stable, despite normal population growth. The reason for this can be seen in the decreasing number of students matriculating with Ndebele as a subject and fewer numbers of schools teaching Ndebele. The younger generation is also more exposed to other languages and inclined to use English more.

  1. Is the language passed down from generation to generation? If not, why not? What language is replacing it?

Traditionally the language is passed down and this was further strengthened by the re-awakening of a sense of pride in their own identity and the subsequent introduction of Ndebele as medium of instruction and subject at schools - 1970-1990. Presently a lot of code-switching is taking place, especially among the younger generation and because of the growing popularity of English.

  1. Could you indicate how often the members of each generation use the language with other generations (old people with old people, young people with old people, etc) in their informal contacts (in the street, at home, in leisure time,…)?

     … Speak the language with
The people... Elderly Men Elderly Women Adult Men Adult Women Young Men Young Women Boys Girls
Elderly Men 5 5 5 5 4 4 4 4
Elderly Women 5 5 5 5 4 4 4 4
Adult Men 5 5 4 4 4 4 4 4
Adult Women 5 5 4 4 4 4 4 4
Young Men 5 5 5 5 3 2 3 3
Young Women 5 5 5 5 3 3 4 4
Boys 5 5 4 4 3 3 3 3
Girls 5 5 4 4 3 3 3 3

Specify the frequency: 5 = always in this language; 4 = more in this language than others; 3 = equally often in either language; 2 = more in other languages than in this one; 1 = always in other languages.

  1. Do the speakers of other languages speak this language? In what circumstances?

In the territory young people and adults who speak Northern Sotho will try to address elderly people in Ndebele when they know these people are Ndebele speakers. A few Afrikaans farmers and businessmen may also use it to communicate with their Ndebele employees. Otherwise the language is not used by other speakers.

  1. Is there any historical or economic factor which has affected the situation of this linguistic community?

In the early stages of the history of the Ndebele people they went through tumultuous times. After having settled in the Pretoria area in the 1600's, they grew in numbers. Their king Musi died and a feud broke out between his two sons Manala and Ndzundza. This led to bloodshed and the killing of many. Finally they decided to live apart, the Manala in the Pretoria area and the Ndzundza further east. In the 1820's Mzilikazi, a Zulu general, fled from Shaka with his army. They over-powered the Manala and decided to settle down with them. After some time, Mzilikazi became afraid that Shaka would send an army after him. With a clever plan he lured the Ndebele men away, got the others together and killed them. He then took the women and livestock and moved northwards until he finally settled in Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. That is the origin of the Ndebele of Zimbabwe. This caused a huge decrease in the number of Ndebele speakers.
During 1880 to 1890 there were several battles with the white rulers of the then Transvaal Republic which culminated in what can be called a diaspora. After they were defeated, the Ndebeles were forced to work and live on farms over a large area which destroyed their pride as a nation. It was only in 1984 when the KwaNdebele Homeland was established that this pride was restored and the people moved back there.
(Own research)

  1. Has any other factor directly influenced the growth or threatened the future of the language (migration, temporary labour, deportations, wars…)?

Cf 21 above.

  1. Is the language currently threatened? If so, what is the cause?

To a very minor extent due to modernisation and the growing popularity of English.

  1. Is the community which speaks this language in danger? If so, what is the cause?


  1. Is there any internal migration (movement of the population within the territory)? Is there any external migration (movement out of the territory to others)? If so, what is the cause?

Job opportunities in nearby cities cause small external migration of people - mostly men and young people - but they normally return to the territory because most of them keep their homes there or their children and/or parents are there. Some have moved because of the distance from the work place and a number of them are now in settlements west of Pretoria.

(Own research)

  1. What is the main economic activity of this community?

In and around KwamHlanga and Siyabuswa there is a concentration of cattle, sheep and goat farmers. Most others activities include working on farms, in factories, mines and as domestic workers.

(Own research)

  1. What is the influence of religion on this community?

It has a binding effect because the Zionist Christian Movement is very strong in this community. There are also other denominations - all Christian - like the Anglican, Lutheran and other smaller Churches. Estimating affiliations to these denominations is difficult because some of them are very informal.
(Own research)

  1. Does the language have any official status (official, joint-official language, acceptance…)?

It is one of the 11 official languages of South Africa according to the 1996 Constitution.

  1. Is the language in contact with the administration? Indicate whether its use in the administration is in spoken and/or written form.

At local administration and education department offices it is used in spoken form and jointly with English in written form.

  1. Is this language used in education (whether as the teaching medium or as a subject of study)? Indicate whether there is spoken and/or written use of the language in elementary and higher education?

Yes, it is used as a teaching medium since 1984 and as a subject in elementary (primary) and  secondary schools. The number of primary schools using it as a teaching medium and subject has diminished since 1991 with only 4 using it in 1997. At the same time 72 secondary schools used it as a teaching medium. In 1999 the number of students who wrote the senior certificate examination (matric) with Ndebele as a subject, totalled 5 900.

Statistics from the Department of Education

  1. Is this language used in the media (radio, newspapers and television…)?

The language is used on the radio with daily broadcasts by Radio Ndebele of the South African Broadcasting Corporation and short weekly inserts on TV (also by the SABC).

  1. Is this language used in religious services and ceremonies? Indicate whether there is spoken or written use of the language in religious services and ceremonies.

Yes, but mostly spoken, although The Bible has recently become available in the language. At first only the Psalms and New Testament were translated and published in 1986. Previously the Zulu Bible was used.

  1. Is the language used in business and labour relations? Indicate whether the use is spoken and/or written.

Mostly spoken and then only where the greatest concentration of speakers are. Most businesses are outside and there Afrikaans and English are used. According to shop stewards in industries that are in the area where Ndebele is spoken, the language is only used in labour relations when unskilled or manual labourers are concerned. Otherwise English is used.

  1. Are there any other areas in which this language is used in its written form?


  1. Is there any organisation or body responsible for linguistic policy and planning with respect to this language? What kind of activities does this perform?

There used to be a Language Board that looked after the use, promotion and standardisation of the language especially in schools. Recently this activity has been taken over by the Mpumalanga Department of Education, the Pan South African Language Board and the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology.

  1. Is there any kind of cultural or linguistic organisation or body which promotes the knowledge and/or use of the language? What kind of activities does this perform?

The Pan South African Language Board strives to promote and develop the official languages of South Africa, especially the minority languages. Interest in the language and culture diminished after 1991, but the Department of Education and Culture has established cultural forums in the area to promote the rich culture of these people but most of it is tourism orientated (cultural villages and exhibitions. (Own research).

  1. Does the language have a literary tradition? If so, please give some information about this literary tradition.

Yes, but it is very small and very young. Only since 1984 was any literature produced and then mostly school readers. Academic books on the language include a doctoral and a few Masters studies describing the structure of the language. The only noteworthy publication is part of the Bible, and that only recently (1986).

  1. What is the attitude of the majority of the members of this community towards the knowledge and use of this language?

From 1978 the loyalty towards the language reached a new high with the coming of so-called independence for the territory. During this time the language board was established and people were eager to promote and develop the language, but this dwindled after 1994 and the popularity of the language among its speakers also diminished. The language board no longer exists and previous members are scattered all over in a variety of jobs that has nothing to do with language. In some areas a new interest in the culture and the language was rekindled and these groups still upholds the traditions and the language.

  1. What is the attitude of the majority of the members of the neighbouring communities towards the knowledge and use of the language?

They used to look down on speakers of the language mainly because of the diaspora that took away their identity as a nation, but recently it is accepted as just another language just as the other official languages.

  1. PLEASE ADD ANY OTHER DETAILS REGARDING THE SITUATION OF THE LANGUAGE WHICH YOU CONSIDER OF INTEREST. At the same time, we would be grateful if you could send us any statistics, reports, assignment or research that might help us to understand the situation of this language. It would also be very helpful if you could provide references of the sources consulted and the addresses of any individuals or bodies that may be able to offer further data about this language.

Most of the information comes from unpublished material that was at my disposal when the KwaNdebele Government was established and my contacts with the now defunct Language Board; South African Survey 1999 and Census statistics provided by the Central Statistical Services.