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Debunking the Eurocentric mega tribe construct in Southern Africa.

By Hadebe Hadebe

A Chief leads young maidens. Jozini KZN, 2008. PIC: Mdu Ndzingi

One of the greatest misconceptions presented by European scholars (i.e. historians, archeologists, sociologists and others) is that separations between tribes or nations in Africa are fixed, and therefore indisputable. Maybe what the scholars don’t know is that the Eurocentric viewpoints missed ‘grey areas’, which is to say, there are nations that belong to more than one ethnic group and have their identities grossly misunderstood.

This is when their mega tribe construct, that erroneously placed different nations under present day Zulu, Sotho, Xhosa, etc., is utilized. It’s clear that the methodologies they used were either not properly adapted for the ‘dark continent’, which was, and still, viewed as not sophisticated enough compared to Europe, Asia and other parts of the world; or the scholars sought to create divisions and confusion that are now synonymous with all of Africa.

Obviously the political agenda was to convert Africa into Europe in as far as the identities and or social structures are concerned. But, of course, it is quite difficult to attempt to understand the conduct of Europeans and their imperial attitudes without first understanding the early days of colonialism.

In ‘Discourse on Colonialism’ (2001) Aimé Césaire says, “A civilization that uses its principles for trickery and deceit is a dying civilization”. This is in reference to the Europeans that used lies and deceit to conquer other peoples of the world, including Africans. It is quite gratifying to establish that many of the previously colonized now know that, in the words of Césaire, their masters were “lying” because they are/were “weak”.

Africa was the last continent to be colonized by the Europeans after the Americas and Asia. This meant that they had good experience in managing colonies and also how to manipulate information to suit their agendas.

The reason why colonialism was so bad in Africa amid the short period between 1890 and 1960 is that European rule from South Africa to Senegal was virulent. Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani, in his ‘Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism’ (1996), asserts that the European hypocritical “civilizing mission” in Africa created a wholly avaricious “incorporation mission” and an obsession with “law and order” in the colonies by any means.

Between colonizer and colonized there was room only for “forced labor, intimidation, pressure, the police, taxation, theft, rape, compulsory crops, contempt, mistrust, arrogance, self-complacency, swinishness, brainless elites, degraded masses,” argues Césaire. Based on this observation, it is understandable that many people would not allow themselves to be swayed to accepting another “truth”, not only about themselves, but also about the knowledge received from materials produced by cowardly European scholars.

In order to understand the cheeky manner in which European scholars attempted to declassify, classify and group peoples in Southern Africa, one does not need to look further than the area of the Drakensburg, stretching from southern Gauteng and western Mpumalanga (Vaal region) through KwaZulu-Natal, Lesotho and Free State to northern Eastern Cape. This is a melting pot for more than ten ethnic groups that were wrongly grouped as Zulu, Sotho and Xhosa, as part of the colonizers’ mega tribes’ project.

It therefore needs to be categorically stated that these new labels are inaccurate since Africa has never had mega tribes. The present identities of Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, Tswana, Swazi, Ndebele, Shona etcetera, are mainly a colonial construct. Even the issue of language is contestable since language and nationhood do not mean the same thing in Africa – as it perhaps does in Europe and elsewhere.

The languages and mega tribes as well as the geographical delineations of tribes and or their settlements tend to correspond with former European colonies or establishment rather than following their natural occurrence. The groups under study in this article are the Ngwane (Tlokoa), Ngwe (Phuthing), and the Hlubi, but the focus will be primarily on the Ngwane/ BaTlokoa, Ngwane/ Phuthing.

The interest in writing this article stems from a strong need to refute the alleged or artificial divisions between ethnic groups or nations in Southern Africa, and maybe further beyond. Historians such as Martin Hall (1990), NJ Van Warmelo (1935), Ernst OJ Westphal (1963), and Christopher Ehret (1982) who previously explored the movement of Sotho-speakers into Southern Africa used language as the main point of reference. But the truth is that the issue of identity in Africa goes beyond language.

The main argument is therefore that European scholars either deliberately ignored or failed to spot the ‘grey areas’ presented by border-line nations like the Hlubi, Ngwane/ BaTlokoa, Ngwane/ Phuthing, and other nations. In any case, it always seems illogical that these groups, for example, were lumped with the Zulu nations located hundreds of kilometers away rather than with their close cousins nearby. Another argument is that the interrelatedness of many ethnicities is sufficient proof that these kingdoms were established hundreds of years before the arrival of Europeans in Southern Africa.

Furthermore, this article was also inspired by a Facebook post by Thulani KaMthintwa Hlongwane (18/12/2019) who presented the following arguments: Firstly, not all Bakgatla descendants migrated to the present-day Free State and Limpopo provinces. He referred to the BaTlokoa, BaSia, BaPhuthing, BaPedi and Makgolokoe. Secondly, he goes on to suggest that it is possible that some Bakgatla descendants migrated to the present day KwaZuluNatal, especially those who trace their origin from eNgweni/oSuthu (present day Mpumalanga and Swaziland).

These include the Ngwane, Ngwe and Hlongwa. In brief, Hlongwane’s thesis appears to suggest that same people could be using different and or similar names and also speak different languages. Not that this is an entirely new observation. But it is something that is always overlooked and ignored by historians.

The problem is that their premise was the diabolical Mfecane/ Difaqane argument, which assumes that people attacked one another endlessly and that Africans had no sense of good neighbourliness, drawn from diplomacy and blood relations. The biggest challenge in tracing the footsteps of our ancestors arises from displacements of local populations as a result of European conquest in the 1800s.

Other articles will thus focus on the forceful conquest which reshaped identities to achieve three things: creation of a Westphalian state in southern African, creation of mega tribes and the building of a new economy which needed Africans as cheap labour and consumers of their products.

AmaNgwe/ BaPhuthing  

According to David Matthew Merkel Riep, some of the Bakhatla came with Matsiboho, people of Nsime. Matsiboho then became the founder of the Maphuthing around 1600. Riep adds that this group of people also “moved eastward to the borders of what is now called Swaziland, and took the seboko of the duiker (phuthi), which abounded in the area”.

In present-day KZN, there are the Mazibukos (Nzima) people of Phuthini, who also call themselves AmaNgwe. This group of people resides in the area of Estcourt and refers to male members of their community ‘muna’ (from the SeSotho word: monna (male). Riep maintains that the BaPhuthing “moved south to the banks of the Tugela, where they encountered the powerful amaHlubi”. Indeed, to this day, AmaNgwe/ BaPhuthing exist side-by-side with AmaHlubi in the foothills of the Drakensburg.

Mazibukos share lineage with the Ndiweni, Mbambo and Zwane surnames. They are also found in eMpangeni, Vryheid (Entshenteka), eSwatini and Matebeleland, Eastern Cape (Matatiele), Lesotho (Qhuthing), Zimbabwe. Historian Pathisa Nyathi links the Ndebele and AmaNgwe nations through Cikose Ndiweni, who was King Mzilikazi’s mother. Interestingly, there is also a place called Mankweng (Mangweni) in Limpopo where the University of Limpopo is located. The Phuthi language is still spoken in southern Lesotho and is closely related to fellow Tokela languages such as isiBhaca, Ndebele sa Leboa, siSwati and isiHlubi.

AmaBhaca dancers from UMzimkulu, Riverside. 2016. PIC: Mdu Ndzingi

Another group of the AmaNgwe/BaPhuthing “moved westward over the Drakensburg into the area now known as QwaQwa (Wetsie’s Hoek), where they resided for nearly half a century”. In addition, it is argued that in the mid-seventeenth century they moved further north to places around Heidelberg and the rest of southern Gauteng where they settled amongst the Bafokeng. From this brief, it is clear that the Phuthini/BaPhuthing/ AmaNgwe challenge the notion of the Nguni-Sotho divide.

Moreover, the picture painted here clearly shows that different groups interacted and or mixed long before the modern-day Zulu or Sotho nations were born, among others. So, the narrative that AmaNgwe/BaPhuthing were dispersed by Shaka through Mfecane/Difaqane cannot be substantiated.

AmaNgwe or BaTlokoa

There is also the BaTlokoa of Modungwane (Molefe) who are descendants of Kgwadi. In the outskirts of Bergville, in what is today KwaZulu-Natal, there are people of Hlongwane who also call themselves AmaNgwane (Luhlongwane), the descendants of Ngwadi.

Similar groupings of the same surname or heritage are also found among the Shangane-Tsonga speaking peoples in Mpumalanga and Limpopo – they use predominantly the Hlongwane and Sono surnames. Some sources suggest that Kgwadi (or Khoali) was the founder of the BaTlokoa, see Riep and Nhlapo Commission report (Determination on Batlokwa Ba Mota Paramountcy). Evidence further suggests that the BaTlokoa at some point came into contact with amaSwazi.

Thus, it is possible that they could have adopted Ngwane name after the Swazi who also go by the same name. But what is interesting is that AmaNgwane (Hlongwane) reside barely a hundred kilometers from the BaTlokoa who are found mainly in Free State and Lesotho. Riep points out “the descendants of these two separate strands of Batlokwa in the Transvaal and throughout the region surrounding Lesotho, respectively.”

Famous Lesotho musician Bhudaza was born in Mankwaneng, a Sotho version for Mangwaneni. Another sizable group of AmaNgwane resides in the Eastern Cape (former Transkei, e.g. Butterworth, Qumbu and Ngqeleni). In much more recent periods, AmaMpondomise trace their lineage directly to AmaNgwane leader Matiwane. Thus, it is very probable that similar people in the former Transkei may carry different identities of Sotho and Xhosa while they could be one person.

The Ngwane/BaTlokoa and Phuthing/AmaNgwe present interesting case studies for further in-depth interrogation, together with the Hlubi and other borderline ethnic groups that neither follow the current ethnic divisions which created mega tribes in Southern Africa. The area around the Drakensburg mountain range is home to some of the oldest nations in the region whose history is widely unknown and misunderstood. This also includes the BaHlakoana who are the descendants of Mahlatsi who, today, are called the Zilankatha and carry surnames such as Mncube, Sibisi, Magubane, etc.

It is no coincidence that the Magubane are praised as “Msuthu waseNhla” (Sotho of the North). Now the question is who is Zulu, Sotho or Xhosa in the midst of all the possible evidence presented in this article? The notion of mega tribes in Africa remains largely unexplored. This is due to European efforts to “europeanise” Africa; their interest was to create a new Africa in their own image – something that they successfully attained.

For example, Africans now cannot think of themselves beyond the tribal fault lines designed by European colonialism. European slave hunting prior to 1850 and conquest (colonialism) in the 1800s created the Southern Africa that is divided into large tribes: Shona, Zulu, Shangaan, Venda, Tswana and so on. The big and challenging task is to convince Africans that the tribal identities they carry today are not only bogus but they could be misleading too.

Tribalism was an important factor in entrenching colonialism in Africa. Europeans were not going to be able to govern vast territories without the assistance of Africans to manage other Africans. This strategy continues to this day.


In conclusion, it is grossly inaccurate to think that the settlements in South Africa have always been the way they are. It is also not precise to think that certain areas across South Africa (and Southern Africa as a whole) were always organised according to tribes or nations as well as languages.

For example, places like KZN and EC were never exclusively for Zulu and Xhosa speakers, respectively. Colonialism elevated some groups over others, and destroyed others. The Zulu monarch was elevated to help manage the rowdy natives in the Natal Colony; its kingdom never, for second, covered the entire territory which is today called KZN.

There were other kingdoms, clans, and other polities who had their own languages and identities destroyed and amalgamated by the likes of Theophilus Shepstone, Harry Smith, George Grey, etcetera, in order to create a colony. The Sotho groups were relegated into nonentities in both KZN and EC and or were ejected to either Lesotho or Qwaqwa. It must be recalled that history is written in the language of the victors.

To be continued…

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