Traditionally, the Zulu economy depended upon cattle and a considerable amount of agriculture. Villages were economically self-sufficient. Agriculture was the sphere of women, whereas cattle were tended by the men. Crops grown were mealies, Kaffir maize, pumpkins, watermelons, calabashes, native sugar reeds, and various kinds of tubers and beans. Although there was considerable ritual and magic associated with agriculture, the most impressive agricultural ceremonial was the First Fruits ceremony. This was held late in December, and in it the king partook of the new crops. The ceremony also included a magical strengthening of the king and a general military review.
A man's wealth was counted in cattle. Cattle provided the mainstays of the diet (meat and amasi, a form of soured milk), hides for clothing and shields, as well as the means of acquiring wives through lobola, or bride-price. In addition, cattle had enormous ritual value. Sacrifice of cattle was the principal means of propitiating the ancestors.
The modern Zulu are poor, with agricultural yield below subsistence level. Women still till the fields, but most men travel to the towns seeking work. Cattle are still a symbol of wealth, although the holdings are low. Cattle are seldom slaughtered for meat—usually only for ritual occasions. According to Clarke and Ngobese (1975), poverty and malnutrition were so severe that the traditional robust Zulu physique is changing and the Zulu are "becoming a puny, stunted and mentally enfeebled people."