Cultural Anthropology of The Zulu Tribe: An Overview of Beliefs, Gender, and Health

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During recent sessions in anthropological studies, it was learned that the primary modes of subsistence may include foragers, horticulturalists, pastoralists, emerging agriculturalists, agrarian States, or industrialists. More than a century has passed, in which times during the late 19th century the British had triumphed over King Shaka's reign, culminating in a shift of Zula subsistence from pastoralists to being forcibly shifted to virtual servitude as emerging agriculturalists under the auspices of white European landowners. As one data source puts it, “the mighty Zulu war machine had finally been curbed,” and following decades of British-Euro policy divides, this geophysical region of what formerly was Zululand is known as modern-day South Africa (The British Empire, 2013). It is from this juncture is considered that a chief mode of subsistence carries impacts multiple aspects of cultural behavior. 

Therefore the attempt in this report attempts to wield an effective peek into Zulu anthropological cultural behavior given the society's disjointed, interrupted and reassembled civilization – as it were. To hopefully demonstrate more than a modicum of understanding these factors, the body of research relies heavily upon scholarly articles and may entail an ethnology perspective. The three areas for cogent analysis include Zulu primary subsistence mode, at any time historically speaking, of a) beliefs and values, b) gender relations, and c) sickness/healing issues. 

It is important to realize at the outset that beliefs, gender, and health issues in terms of culture may overlap. For example, any efforts at healing sickness may include a religious ritual only permitted by male members of the clan to administer. Please, dear reader, be encouraged to remember that present-day Zulu society resides in a post-Apartheid South Africa, the politics of which is quite another story. Nevertheless it appears that Zulu society before European contact, had no real establishment of a concept of a single deity reigning as God although in referring to Callaway Lang (1989) states “Unkulunkulu was thought of as the first ancestor,” according to their mythology beliefs who had created and given shape to their “basic technology” (p. 277). The same source indicates that prior to King Shaka's rise to power the Zulus were a small group of clans primarily subsisting on localized resources. However the Zulu and ancient African traditional beliefs attribute the unseen supernatural realm as sources from which to gain “coping strategies against adverse life situations,” explaining why any African epic models entail spirits, magic, gods, or other such potent divinities (Deme, 2010). Further according to Deme (2010) the beliefs involve the necessity of “spiritual knowledge” for the Zulu African hero that extends to the empowerment of the political (p. 27). When you think about the militarized quality of earlier Zulu tribal life these beliefs and values tend to make sense.

What is interesting too is that such spiritual knowledge, be it witchcraft, sorcery or the conjuring of other occult power is privileged for the elite for the rank-and-file lay member of Zulu society. These matters would not be discussed in the open. Researcher Deme (2010) describes the spirits as being perceived to be real though invisible, and “are able to appear or disappear” at will as animals, or anything in the natural environment and in the forests are known as jinn (p. 29). Beliefs and values attach heavily to ancestral bonds in continuity as Marschall (2008) point out the passage from life to death for the deceased must be an assisted “journey” through “observance of the proper ritual processes” (p. 247). The Zulu share this aspect in common with other tribes. While elders had types of funeral huts most burial grounds were not marked. However in South Africa a traditional “stone cairn” is often erected to commemorate the deceased at a site, says Marschall (2008, p. 248). Christian influences vary. And royal Zulu grave-sites have actually become tourist attractions, although it is purported many royal family members are buried in scattered fashion throughout the forestland.   

Gender relations hold their own insightful story among Zulu tradition. Yet it is important to note at this occasion that current-day 'Zululand' is the result of the formation of a restricted area geographically speaking, which after British colonial defeat “the Zulu Kingdom was broken into a number of separate” units, informs Hall (1984, p. 67). If you fast-forward into the modern era of AIDS one can perhaps better view gender relations in Zulu African culture. Anthropologist Suzanne LeClerc-Madlala (2001) surmises that their interpretation of AIDS has strong ties to notions of femininity as a social construct in her 2001 journal article, “Demonising women in the era of AIDS: on the relationship between cultural constructions of both HIV/AIDS and femininity” (p. 38). The correlations are highly symbolic and as mentioned prior, an overlap of both gender issues and sickness/health cultural mores can be better understood.

In LeClerc-Madlala's fieldwork associated with the article, she engages with the AIDS Foundation of South Africa's program that seeks to educate traditional healers, bringing to bear contact with a broader network of these traditional medicinals. In collection of ethnographic data she discovers that Zulu culture in terms of gender is highly “patriarchal community” in which any AIDS issue is considered part of a feminist agenda (LeClerc-Madlala, 2001, p. 40). Investigating attitudes and behaviors deem that the women keep accepting male promiscuity despite the health dangers, as this information was gleaned from an STD clinic. 

Prevailing attitudes of sexuality among the Zulu is complicated, yet simple. LeClerc-Madlala (2001) argues that Zulu sexual/gender culture is characterized by “gender inequity, transactional sex, the socio-cultural isoka ideal of multiple sexual partnerships,” and lack of any discourse communication regarding these matters (p. 40). The Zulu woman is naturally blamed for being unclean, or dirty and the concept is so deeply entrenched in the language that their word umnyama – which means a contagious pollution associated with a “mystical” force – is the same word as a description of a woman's “dirtiness” (LeClerc-Madlala, 2001, p. 40). In today's world teenage pregnancies are more common, according to the literature despite the cultural ideal of young unmarried girls to be demure. 

In conclusion, Zulu culture has a complex history with cultural traditions that bleed into modernity. Alongside Zulu's grand memorials to fallen warriors of time past parallels seemingly backward attitudes towards women and disease. From past to present Zulu culture stands valued.   


Deme, M. K. (2010). The supernatural in African epic traditions as a reflection of the religious beliefs of African societies. Studies In World Christianity, 16(1), 27-45. doi:10.3366/E1354990110000730

Hall, M. (1984). The myth of the Zulu homestead: Archaeology and ethnography. African(Edinburgh University Press), 54(1), 65.

Lang, G. (1989). Correlations versus case studies: The case of the Zulu in Swanson's The Birth of the Gods. Journal For The Scientific Study Of Religion, 28(3), 273.

LeClerc-Madlala, S. (2001). Demonising women in the era of AIDS: On the relationship between cultural constructions of both HIV/AIDS and femininity. Society In Transition, 32(1), 38-46.

Marschall, S. (2008). Zulu heritage between institutionalized commemoration and tourist attraction. Visual Anthropology, 21(3), 245-265. 

The British Empire. (2013). Zululand -brief history [Data file] Retrieved from