Politics, ideology, and the invention of the 'Nguni'

Wright, John
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The word 'Nguni' is today commonly used by academics as a collective term for the black peoples who historically have inhabited the eastern regions of southern Africa from Swaziland through Zululand, Natal, the Transkei and the Ciskei to the eastern Cape. These peoples are conventionally distinguished by language and culture from the Thonga peoples of the coastlands further to the north, and the Sotho peoples of the interior plateau to the west and north-west. Use of Nguni in this extended sense is now so well entrenched in the literature on southern African ethnography, linguistics, and history as probably to make the term irremovable, but, from a historical perspective, it is important to note that it is only within the last half-century that this usage has become current. Previously, the peoples now designated as Nguni had been variously labelled as Zulu, or Xhosa, or Kaffirs, or Zulu-Kaffirs, while Nguni itself had been a non-literary term used by the black peoples of south-east Africa in a number of more restricted senses. Nowhere among these peoples was Nguni used in a generic sense. The purpose of this paper is to trace the historical process by which the modern literary usage of Nguni became established. It is divided into three parts. In the first, the various historically known meanings of Nguni are identified. In the second, an explanation is suggested as to why specifically one of these meanings was appropriated by academics from the 1930s onward. In the third, an explanation is put forward as to how and why this particular meaning had developed in the first place.
African Studies Seminar series. Paper presented 14 June 1983. Not to be quoted without the Author's permission.
Nguni (African people) , Ethnology. South Africa