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IsiNdebele is a southern African language spoken predominantly in South Africa and Zimbabwe. In 1994 isiNdebele became one of nine indigenous languages to obtain official recognition in South Africa’s first post-apartheid Constitution. The 2001 South African census estimates the number of isiNdebele speakers to be 711824. At 2% of the population, isiNdebele speakers make up the smallest official language group in South Africa. Most of the speakers of this language are situated in the South African provinces of Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Gauteng, and most notable around the cities of Pretoria and Polokwane. In Zimbabwe, most isiNdebele speakers can be found in the southern Matabeleland region, and notably around the city of Bulawayo. This summary explores the linguistic derivation of the language, the history of written codification and dialectal variation, and recent attempts to standardize the language in South Africa. 


IsiNdebele is an agglutinating language, in which suffixes and prefixes are used to alter meaning in sentence construction. Like the other indigenous South African languages, isiNdebele is also a tonal language, in which the sentence structure tends to be governed by the noun. Examples of phrases in the language include: lotjhani (hello); Unjani? (How are you?); Ngikhona (I am fine).

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Southern isiNdebele/isiNdrebele

Formation of the Ndebele Clans

It was in the neighbourhood of KwaMnyamana (north of present day Pretoria) under the leadership of King Musi, where the tribe split into clan groups after a bitter feud of leadership between his sons, Manala who is widely believed to be an heir apparent and the young Nzunza.

Musi was very old and blind when he decided to hand over the leadership to one of his sons. As the custom, he was to be succeeded by his elder son. Musi called his son Manala and sent him to the bushes to hunt for a special bird. Manala was a famous hunting addict, but his favourite was the hunting of a wild beast known as 'imbhuduma.' He hunted for imbhuduma instead of the bird, probably thinking that it will be easy to get the sought bird.

Nzunza's mother, who adored her son very much, told him about Manala's mission to the bushes, the mother told Nzunza to find the bird. Manala was gone for days and Nzunza came back and sat at his father's door until in the morning where he brought the bird to his father and he was offered the leadership.

On his return Manala was told that his younger brother Nzunza has already taken the leadership of the amaNdebele, then a bitter feud began which forced Nzunza to flee his father's homestead with his followers. Manala could not just give up the leadership to Nzunza, he lodged a royal hunt for him.

Musi's other sons also took separate ways while others joined the newly formulated groups. Masombuka settled with the Nzunza group,Thombeni is believed to have headed to the north of the landscape with his followers.

Sibasa is said to have headed northward as well, where he ended up among vhaVenda. Mrhwaduba remained around present day Pretoria and today the clan is speaking the Tswana language in the Northwest Province and known as baHwaduba.

Dlomu went to the east and it is believed to have ended up in the present day KwaZulu-Natal. The fate of Mphafuli and Litjha is not known but it is believed that the former ended up among the baSotho in the south.