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The Kalanga Origins of the Thembu and Nelson Mandela Revealed

06 Jan 2014 at 11:26hrs | Views

Stories of our Great Achievements Must be Told

Alan Dershowitz notes his feelings about his Jewish identity when he was a Yale law student: "When I went home for the Jewish holidays, I told my parents about the brilliant teachers at Yale: Goldstein, Pollack, Bickel, Skolnick, Schwartz. Then I told them about the most brilliant of my teachers: Calabresi. Without missing a beat, my mother asked, 'Is he an Italian Jew?'Angrily I said, 'Don't be so parochial. He's an Italian Catholic. Not all smart people have to have Jewish blood.' Several months later, I learned that Guido Calabresi was in fact descended from Italian Jews." [DERSHOWTIZ, p. 50, quoted in When Victims Rule: A Critique of Jewish Pre-eminence in America]

Another Jew, Joshua Halberstam writes that "Pointing to the high proportion of Jewish Nobel Laureates … is a custom practiced around Jewish tables everywhere", while in the 1970s a Jew from Odessa told the American Jewish Congress that "it was kind of a hobby [among Jews] to collect the names of famous Jews who hide their identity [in the Soviet Union]." [ROTHCHILD, 1985, p. 38, in When Victims Rule.]

The opinions expressed above capture what this article seeks to accomplish. It shows that like Jewry all over the world, the Kalanga stand out as a distinct and exceptional people group among the Bantu, exceptional for their disproportionate achievements compared to other people groups in Sub-Saharan Africa.

These achievements are to be seen not only in history which saw the Kalanga establish the greatest civilization ever established Africa south of the Sahara - the Zimbabwe Civilization - epitomized by three of the four man-made Unesco World Heritage sites in Southern Africa (Maphungubgwe, Great Zimbabwe and Khami); become the first people in Sub-Saharan Africa to create an Iron Age Culture as early as 100AD, mining, smelting and trading in iron, copper and gold; becoming the first farmers to domesticate animals and practice mixed farming; having the most advanced idea of the Supreme Being - the Mwali Religion - a variant of Yahwe'ism (see Summers 1971, Daneel 1970 and Gayre 1972), etc., the achievements are to be seen even in the 20th and 21st centuries.

We find the Kalanga, despite their smaller numbers compared to other groups, becoming the first to organize Africans and take leadership in Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa to fight and overthrow white racist rule. We can count here the likes of Dr Joshua Nkomo who founded the ANC which would become the NDP and later ZAPU; Dr John Langalibalele Dube who became the first president of the African National Congress (ANC) of South Africa, and Dr Knight Maripe who earned his Doctorate in Industrial Relations in Belgium in the 1950s and went on to found the first nationalist party in Botswana, the Bechuanaland People's Party in the 1960s. Indeed, the greatest challenge to the colonialists in the 19th and 20th centuries in Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa where the Kalanga and the AbaThembu, a Kalanga people.         

These same achievements are to be found in industry where today the two largest telecommunications companies in Africa - MTN and Vodacom - are led by Kalanga CEOs - Sifiso Raymond Dabengwa Ndlovu and Peter Moyo; some of the finest Deans and University leaders from Dr Mthuli Ncube at Wits Business School to Tawana Khupe at the Wits Faculty of Media to Dr Luke Bhala at Lupane State, Professor Lindela Ndlovu at NUST, and nearly all the top faculty at the University of Botswana. The list is endless.

Now, one of these stories that has not been told concerns perhaps the greatest leader that Africa (and perhaps the whole world) has ever produced, viz, Tata Nelson Rholihlahla Mandela. Whilst known to many as a Xhosa, or just as a Thembu, research reveals that his clan, the AbaThembu, are originally a people of Kalanga stock, and only became Xhosa by assimilation.

"Crazy, stupid, foolish, hahaha, all people to you are Kalanga, even Barack Obama is Kalanga then if that's the case, actually, even Jesus was Kalanga, if not God himself!" These are the initial responses that I anticipate at this stage, but dear reader, if you are one who is not afraid of facing evidence and dealing with it, please read on. Thank you.      

Who are the AbaThembu, and Where Did they Come From?

To be honest, since I started researching and writing Kalanga history, I suspected that there must be there some kind of relationship between the Kalanga Tembe/Mthembu and the now Xhosa AbaThembu. But I was a bit afraid to even come close to making such a statement for fear of damaging my credibility as a writer. But that all changed during the funeral of the great Nelson Mandela. It was changed by the statement that was made by the Thembu King, Ikumkani Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo, that the AbaThembu are not originally Xhosa, but they are an assimilated people. To my amazement, when I turned to Tata Mandela's own autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom, I found that he had already made that statement, and I quote:

The Thembu tribe reaches back for twenty generations to King Zwide. According to tradition, the Thembu people lived in the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains and migrated toward the coast in the sixteenth century, where they were incorporated into the Xhosa nation … The Nguni can be divided into a northern group - the Zulu and the Swazi people - and a southern group, which is made up of amaBaca, amaBomyana, amaGcaleka, amaMfengu, amaMpodomis, amaMpondo, abeSotho, and abeThembu, and together they comprise the Xhosa nation (Mandela 1994: 1).    

By Mandela's own account and that of Ikumkani Dalindyebo, the Thembu were incorporated or assimilated into the Xhosa nation, otherwise, they were a distinct people from the Xhosa, and indeed from the Nguni. But who were they, and where did they come from?

I looked around various sources to answer this question, and a number of internet sources that I found pointed to two locations of Thembu origin - Central Africa and modern KwaZulu-Natal. The claim of origins in Central Africa might not tell us much since all the land from north of the Limpopo to the Central African Republic is by some considered Central Africa. It is the KwaZulu-Natal origin that becomes of serious interest, and of course, as we shall see later, the Thembu in KwaZulu-Natal claim origins in what was once the Kingdom of Bukalanga, now Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique and North Limpopo Province.  

In his 1933 seminal work on Thembu history, Who are the Abathembu, and where do they come from?, E. G. Sihele states that the AbaThembu were one of the first  black nations to settle in what is now KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape. He states that their genealogy, which is also the official genealogy of Nelson Mandela (available online as a pdf document titled "Mandela Family Tree") can be traced to Zwide, great-great-great-grandfather of Chief Thembu, from whom the AbaThembu take their name. (The Reverend J. H. Soga's Thembu genealogy also starts with Thembu.)

Sihele then writes: "It is clear therefore that we (AbaThembu) broke off from the rest of the Black people with Zwide who left the people in Central Africa, where they still are even today. Zwide's progeny split and divided as it moved southwards along the seaboard, with their herds of cattle, in search of livelihood AbaThembu broke off from Zwide's descendants when they moved ahead."  

Whilst no one, as Sihele argues, has been able to delve into and bring out more information on the person of Zwide, this particular individual remains of particular interest to any historian interested in Thembu history. So far as we can establish, the term or name "Zwide" carries no meaning whatsoever in any of the Nguni languages, instead it carries meaning in TjiKalanga. (It is rare for Bantu names to be just names without carrying some particular meaning in that language. Also note: the Zwide mentioned here is nothing to do with the 19th century Zwide KaLanga of the Ndwandwe.)

Could it be then that the "Central Africa" referred to is the former Kingdom of Bukalanga, where the name "Zwide" carries meaning, meaning "Love Yourself"? Perhaps yes, perhaps not.

Of AbaThembu and Tembe/Mthembu Settlements in KwaZulu-Natal

I indicated at the beginning of this article that I have always wondered if it was mere coincidence that there are 'Xhosa' people called AbaThembu (singular - umThembu) and the Mthembu people, both settled and/or once settled in what is now KwaZulu-Natal, and the two be just unrelated peoples. I began to believe that there is a relationship between the two once I got information that the AbaThembu, before moving to their present homeland in the northeastern Eastern Cape Province around the Mthatha, were originally settled in the old Natal State.  

At look at an old map of the Union of South Africa (for example, a 1905 map is available online under the title "Kapstaaten_1905) shows that the Old Natal spread from just north of Kokstadt in the modern Eastern Cape into KwaZulu-Natal. In this Natal, to the surprise of many, were first settled people of Kalanga stock, the AmaLala, barring the Khoisan (please see Alfred T. Bryant, Synopsis of Zulu Grammar and a Concise History of the Zulu People from the Most Ancient Times, 1905; Clement M. Doke, The Bantu Speaking Tribes of South Africa, 1937, and Theodore Bent, The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland, 1892) .

These people were pushed further south away from the shadow of the Drakensburg Mountains first by the wars of the AbaMbo as they arrived in the region around 1600, and later by the raids of Tshaka in the 19th century. But where had they come from? It is here that we find a convergence of the AbaThembu bakaDalindyebo in the Eastern Cape and the Kalanga AbaThembu bakaMabhudu Tembe/Mthembu in KZN.

As already indicated, the AbaThembu take their name from the patriarch Thembu, whereas on the other hand, the Mthembu Clan in KwaZulu-Natal - who we definitely know to have Kalanga origins - also takes its name from a patriarch of the same name - Thembu, otherwise known as Tembe (see Roelie J. Kloppers, page 27, The History and Representation of the Mabudu-Tembe, a Master of Arts Dissertation presented to the University of Stellenbosch Faculty of Humanities in 2003; and Henry A. Junod, 1927, The Life of a South African Tribe, Volumes I and II.)

This writer is of the opinion that this cannot be mere coincidence, that two people groups can carry the same name, claim ancestral origins from a patriarch of the same name, be settled or have settled in the same geographical region, and yet be unrelated. I am convinced the Eastern Cape AbaThembu and the KwaZulu-Natal Mthembu Clan are one and the same peoples, although more research would be needed in this area.

The Origins of the Patriarch Thembu/Tembe and his People    
The claim that the AbaThembu, and hence the great Nelson Mandela (an AbaThembu Prince) are originally of Kalanga stock is based on the evidence of the Kalanga origins of the Thembu patriarch, Tembe/Thembu. Kloppers indicates in page 84 of his dissertation that Mthembu or Thembu is the 'Nguni'ized' version of Tembe. In a document available on the University of Pretoria website we are told that "The Tembe are named after Chief Mthembu, who arrived from Zimbabwe [Bukalanga] around 1554 and settled in the region around Maputo Bay" ( "Historically they settled in the region that spans from Maputo Bay in Mozambique in the north of the Mkuze River in the south, and the Pongola River in the west in the middle of the 16th century (Kloppers 2001 - The History and Representation of the History of the Mabudu-Tembe).

Yes, they came from what is now Zimbabwe, the former Kingdom of Bukalanga, but that is not enough to say that they are a people of Kalanga stock. More evidence is needed to that end. This we find in the 1927 work of the Swedish missionary the Reverend Henry A. Junod. Of the Tembe/Thembu he wrote:

Almost every clan [in the African south east coast] pretends to have come from afar, and strange to say, they came from all points of the compass. Two of their clans, without doubt, came from the north, the Ba-ka-Baloyi and the Tembe. The Ba-ka-Baloyi, they say, came down the valley of the Limpopo in very remote times … According to some of the Native historians, the Ba-Loyi came from the Ba-Nyai country along with the Ba-Nwanati (a Hlengwe group), who also belonged to the Nyai or Kalanga race [the BaLoyi are the same as BaLozwi and BaNyai, being a Kalanga group].

As regards the Tembe clan, it is said to have come down as far as Delagoa Bay from the Kalanga country by the Nkomati River on a floating island of payrus, and to have crossed the Tembe river and settled to the south of the Bay … The Tembe people, when they greet each other, sometimes use the salutation Nkalanga, i.e. man of the north or of the Kalanga country, and there is little doubt that, notwithstanding the legendary traits of this tradition, the fact itself of the northern origin of these clans is true (Junod 1927, 21-23).

In the introduction to the first volume, Junod tells us that his informants were all over the age of eighty years at the turn of the 20th century, which means that they would have been born about the turn of the 19th century, somewhat closer to the events that they were recounting in their discussions with the missionary.

Junod's report on the Kalanga origins of the Tembe is also attested to by W.S. Felgate who, in The Tembe Thonga of Natal and Mozambique: An Ecological Approach, reports that the Tembe claim to have migrated from Kalanga country (1982: 11).

In an abridged version of a document published in submission to the Nhlapho Commission opposing the claim by Eric Nxumalo that he should be installed as King of the Tsonga (and Shangaan people) in 2007, Mandla Mathebula, Robert Nkuna, Hlengani Mabasa, and Mukhacani Maluleke wrote that over the centuries, the Tsonga have assimilated other cultural groups who came to live with them in South East Africa, and among those were:

Tembe-Kalanga, who were in the Delagoa Bay region by 1554. The Baloyi-Rozvi (Lozwi), were already in the N'walungu region during the time of the Dutch occupation of the Delagoa Bay (1721-31). Some Hlengwe oral traditions claimed that the Hlengwe were actually the ones who converted the Valoyi from Rozvi (Lozwi) into Tsonga in Zimbabwe and Mozambique. This probably happened after the death of the powerful king of Rozvi, Changameri Dombo [i.e., Mambo Dombolakona-Tjing'wango Dlembewu Moyo] in 1696 (Mathebula, et al 2007, Online).      
The Portuguese traveler and chronicler, Perestrelo, who had made a survey of all the land and peoples from the Transkei to the Delagoa Bay (located just to the north of the St. Lucia Bay and the Mkhuze River which is just to the south of Maputo and the Lebombo Mountains), wrote in 1576 that he had encountered the Tembe in 1554, apparently long settled on the south east coast, or modern KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, Eastern Cape and Swaziland (see Dr. Sidney Welch, 1948, South Africa Under John III, 1521-1557.)    


There is no doubt that this article will open a hornet's nest, perhaps result in a lot of debate on the part of those with scholarly minds, and also arouse tremendous laughter and condemnation from those of limited intellect who would not take the time to judge the evidence on its own merits or lack thereof.

But I believe that I have attempted to show that indeed, if the patriarch Thembu from whom AbaThembu take their name is the same patriarch of the Kalanga Tembe/Thembu, then the AbaThembu are originally a people of Kalanga stock, and as explained by Ikumkani Dalindyebo and Nelson Mandela himself, became Xhosa by assimilation. Zwide would probably have been an older patriarch whose remains lie somewhere north of the Limpopo, for as Sihele put it, "in search of livelihood AbaThembu broke off from Zwide's descendants when they moved ahead." Apparently, no one knows where that "breaking off" would have happened.     

Now, if indeed the AbaThembu of Nelson Mandela (presently led by Ikumkani Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo) and the Tembe/Mthembu (presently led by Inkosi Mabhudu Tembe/Mthembu in KZN) are one and the same people, we can safely conclude that Nelson Mandela and the AbaThembu are people of Kalanga stock. And like those Jews around their tables counting the number of Jewish Nobel Laureates and the Jews in Russia making a hobby of counting Jewish high achievers, we of Kalanga stock may find ourselves having an extra political hero - Nelson Mandela - in addition to the likes of Dr Joshua Nkomo, Jason Ziyaphapha Moyo, Dr Knight Maripe, Festus Mogae, Daniel Kwele, George T. Silundika, Moses Mzila-Ndlovu, etc.

Ndaboka imi n'Kalanga we Bulilima-Mangwe. Ishwani. Goledzwa. Catch me on 

Source - Ndzimu-unami Emmanuel Moyo
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