Ndebele - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The precolonial Ndebele were a cattle-centred society, but they also kept goats. The most important crops, even today, are maize, sorghum, pumpkins, and at least three types of domesticated green vegetables ( umroho ). Since farm-laborer days, crops such as beans and potatoes have been grown and the tractor has substituted for the cattle-drawn plow, although the latter is still commonly used. Pumpkins and other vegetables are planted around the house and tilled with hoes. Cattle (now in limited numbers), goats, pigs, and chickens (the most prevalent) are still common.

Industrial Arts. Present crafts include weaving of sleeping mats, sieves, and grain mats; woodcarving of spoons and wooden pieces used in necklaces; and the manufacturing of a variety of brass anklets and neck rings. Since precolonial times, Ndebele are believed to have obtained all pottery from trading with Sotho-speaking neighbors. The Tshabangu clan reportedly introduced the Ndebele to blacksmithing.

Trade. Archaeologists believe that societies such as that of the Ndebele formed part of the wider pre-nineteenth century trade industry on the African east coast and had been introduced to consumer goods such as tobacco, cloth, and glass beads. Historians such as Delius (1989) believe that a large number of firearms reached the Ndzundza-Ndebele during the middle 1800s.

Division of Labor. In a pastoral society such as that of the Ndebele, men attended to animal husbandry and women to horticultural and agricultural activities except when new fields ( amasimu ) are cleared with the help of men who join in a communal working party called an ijima. Even male social age status is defined in terms of husbandry activities: a boy who herds goats ( umsana wembuzana ), a boy who herds calves ( umsana wamakhonyana ), and so forth. Men are responsible for the construction and thatching of houses, women for plastering and painting of walls. Teenage girls are trained by their mothers in the art of smearing and painting. Even today girls from an early age (approximately 5 or 6) assist their mothers in the fetching of water and wood, making fire, and cooking. Female responsibilities have arduously increased in recent years with the increase in permanent and temporary male and female labor migrants to urban areas. It is calculated that some 80 percent of rural KwaNdebele residents are labor migrants.

Land Tenure. Land was tribal property; portions were allocated to individual families by the chief and headmen as custodians, under a system called ukulotjha , with the one-time payment of a fee that also implied allegiance to the political ruler of the area. Grazing land was entirely communal. The system of traditional tenure still applies in the former KwaN-debele, except in certain urban areas where private ownership has been introduced. In South Africa, Black people could never own land; the Ndzunzda-Ndebele's land was expropriated in 1883, when they became labor tenants on White-owned farms. Most Ndzunzda-Ndebele exchanged free labor for the right to build, plant, and keep a minimum of cattle. Since the formation of the KwaNdebele homeland, traditional tenure, controlled by the chief, has been reintroduced.

The last born son inherits the land, but married sons often build adjacent to their natal homesteads, if space allows it. In certain rural areas (e.g., Nebo), this form of extended three-generational settlement is still intact.


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