Tracing BaTonga and Ndebele class system


“WHAT’s in a name?” goes the old saying.
To some people, names and totems are everything as they symbolise their true identities as well as connect them to their relatives and clansmen.
I have been asked why my Ndlovu totem is more Ndebele than Tonga.
The BaTonga have suffered an identity crisis ever since they came into contact with colonialists as they were given names associated with the Ndebele in order to eliminate their status as being among the first people found in the country by missionaries such as David Livingstone.
The BaTonga have their own language, customs and traditions.
They are a proud and fiercely independent people, but their effort to protect themselves from colonialists, who labelled them ‘an inferior lot’, hit a brickwall resulting in them being given names associated with the Ndebele.
According to BaTonga elders, most of their totems and names were changed to Ndebele or other languages.
For example, the Mnsaka became the Ndlovu, Mnkuli became Tshuma while the Mutale became the Ngwenya, among other names.
In Binga today, it is common to find totems such as Chuma/Tshuma, Moyo, Dube or Ncube which were alien to the tribal groupings.
This, according to the elders, was done to create a ‘civilised’ BaTonga.
And just like the Shona or Rozvi groups who were incorporated into the Ndebele social system by King Lobengula, those who were renamed or rather reclassified vigorously claimed to be ‘Ndebele’ in a bid to be accepted in the Ndebele state.
However, historically it should be noted the Ndebele state left an indelible mark on the indigenous people’s culture.
Ndebele society was characterised by different classes, even though communalism was common.
The refugees and captives of earlier decades and those who were acquired in the southwest now coalesced into a nation, broadening the influence of the Ndebele state.
Some of them assumed powerful positions as chiefs and got recognition from the king.
Under the abenhla (those from the north) social system that formed south of the Limpopo River, there emerged a third additional social strata of amahole.
Amahole were those people who were assimilated into the Ndebele state within the Zimbabwean plateau.
They were the latest entrants into the Ndebele society.
The top and proud abezansi (those from the south) who left with the king from Zululand became a minority only identifiable through their Nguni isibongo (surname) such as Mkhize, Gatsheni, Khumalo, Mkwananzi and Gumede.
Below the royalty were the abezansi (those from the South) who consisted of people who left with Mzilikazi from Zululand in the 1820s and their descendants.
This group of people in the Ndebele society formed an aristocracy and claimed a number of privileges and rights far above other groups with the exception of the royalty.
The senior chiefs in the Ndebele state were drawn from this group.
They had power because they suffered with the king during the turbulent years of the mfecane and they had fought for him in various battles of the migratory phase.
There was the abenhla group within the Ndebele society who comprised the Sotho and Tswana people and occupied a position below the abezansi.
Mzilikazi incorporated these into the Ndebele state before crossing the Limpopo River.
They had suffered with the king since they accompanied the king up to Matabeleland.
The abenhla also had a claim to positions of authority and power too based on their longer association with abezansi.
They largely occupied positions of headmen under abezansi who occupied positions of chiefs.
Below abenhla were amahole, which consisted of the Kalanga, Rozvi, Nyubi, Nyayi, Birwa, Venda and other indigenous people of the southwest who were incorporated into the Ndebele state mainly in the 1840s.
Some early observers had the impression that amahole were treated as slaves in the Ndebele state.
Amahole were subordinated to abezansi and abenhla groups, socially and politically.
Even though they were belittled and looked down upon by others, they were not really enslaved by the Ndebele.
After all, they were the largest group in the Ndebele society.
By the 1890s, up to 60 percent of the inner Ndebele state was of hole origin.
The words zansi, enhla and hole were taken to convey a sense of ethnic rigidity which ranked the Ndebele state into castes.
The reality is people continuously moved across these categories as they negotiated new alliances, usually through marriage, merit and loan of cattle.
A respectable hole was able to move closer to the Ndebele chiefs and could become richer than a relative of a chief who had fallen into disfavour.
In the Matshetsheni isigaba, a zansi man called Sinanga Khumalo was succeeded as a chief by a hole man called Ntuthu Msimangu.
Ntuthu was succeeded by another hole, Nkala.
One controversial issue that made early observers describe the Ndebele society as an authoritarian state was the existence of captives or domestic slaves.
The Ndebele practiced capturing of individuals as well as groups to incorporate into the Ndebele society.
However, European observers emphasised the existence of captives as down-trodden slaves among the Ndebele.
They mentioned that Ndebele raiders commonly came with children and women as captives.
These captives are said to have had their hands tied behind their backs to ensure they did not escape.
The captives were first of all brought and paraded before the Ndebele king in the capital.
The Ndebele king had the duty to distribute the captives.
The females who were old enough to be married were immediately distributed among their captors, especially chiefs.
The king took a percentage of well-selected captives to reside in the capital and to work as royal servants.
These selected captives were termed ‘imbovane’.
Those who remained at the capital as servants of the king received the best treatment, which led them to be fanatical supporters of the king.
Historians also noted that in some cases, social conditions of the captives in the Ndebele society were very humane involving being given good food and being allowed to establish a family and to marry just like all other people.
It is also historically interesting to note that even some captives enjoyed being Ndebele to the extent of voluntarily translating their totems from Shona to isiNdebele.
The Shumbas changed their names to Sibanda, Gumbos became Msipas, Shiris came to be known as Nyonis and Dzivas were Sizibas, Shokos changed to Ncubes and the Moyos to Nhliziyos.
The Ndebele state servitude did not ‘convey the true idea of a slave’ because the captives could leave their patrons and live wherever they liked within the Ndebele Kingdom and could even be masters in their own right.


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