Swazi people

The Swazi or Swati (Swati: Emaswati, singular Liswati) are a Bantu ethnic group in Southern Africa, inhabiting Eswatini, a sovereign kingdom in Southern Africa. EmaSwati are part of the Nguni-language speaking peoples whose origins can be traced through archaeology to East Africa where similar traditions, beliefs and cultural practices are found.

The Swati people and the Kingdom of Eswatini today are named after Mswati II, who became king in 1839 after the death of his father King Sobhuza who strategically defeated the British who occupied Eswatini. Eswatini was a region first occupied by the San people and the current Swazis migrated from north East Africa through to Mozambique and eventually settled in Eswatini in the 15th century. Their royal lineage can be traced to a chief named Dlamini I; this is still the royal clan name. About three-quarters of the clan groups are Nguni; the remainder are Sotho, Tsonga, others North East African and San descendants. These groups have intermarried freely. Swazi identity extends to all those with allegiance to the twin monarchs Ingwenyama "the Lion" (the king) and Indlovukati "the She-Elephant" (the queen mother). The dominant Swati language and culture are factors that unify Swazis as a nation.


EmaSwati are descended from Nguni-speaking clans, who migrated from north East Africa and later settled in south-east Africa in the fifteenth century. They moved into southern Mozambique, and then into the region of present-day Eswatini which at the time was inhabited by San people. The term bakaNgwane ("Ngwane's people") is still used as an alternative to emaSwati, to refer to the Swati people. EmaSwati are people who are predominantly descended from Nguni-language speakers. However some of the Swati people originate from Sotho clans who were also inhabitants of Eswatini.

As part of the Nguni expansion southwards, the Swati people crossed the Limpopo River and settled in southern Tongaland (today in southern Mozambique near Maputo) in the late fifteenth century. The Ngwane people are recorded as having entered the present territory of Eswatini around the year 1600. Under the leadership of Dlamini III who took over from the Maseko and settlement took place in 1750, along the Pongola River where it cuts through the Lubombo mountains. Later on, they moved into a region on the Pongola River, which was in close proximity to the Ndwandwe people. Dlamini III's successor was Ngwane III, who is considered the first King of modern Eswatini. He ruled from around 1745 until 1780 at the Shiselweni region of Eswatini.

In 1815, Sobhuza I became the king of Eswatini and was responsible for the establishment of Swati power in central Eswatini. Here the Swati people continued the process of expansion by conquering numerous small Sotho and Nguni-speaking tribes to build up a large composite state today called Eswatini. Sobhuza I's rule occurred during the Mfecane. Under Sobhuza's leadership, the Nguni and Sotho peoples as well as remnant San groups were integrated into the Swati nation. It was during his rule that the present boundaries of Eswatini were fully under the rule of the Dlamini kings.

In the late 1830s, initial contact occurred with the Boers, who had defeated the Zulus at the Battle of Blood River, and were settling in the territory that would become the South African Republic. A substantial portion of Swati territory was ceded to the Transvaal Boers who were settled around the Lydenburg area in the 1840s. The territory of Eswatini, and their king, Mswati II, were recognized by both the Transvaal and by Britain. It was during the rule of Mswati II, that the Swati nation was unified. Thereafter, the label "Swati" eventually was applied to all the peoples who gave allegiance to the Ingwenyama.

Later under Mbandzeni, many commercial, land, and mining concessions were granted to British and Boer settlers. This move led to further loss of land to the South African Republic. The result was that a substantial Swati population ended up residing outside Eswatini in South Africa. The Pretoria Convention for the Settlement of the Transvaal in 1881 recognized the independence of Eswatini and defined its boundaries. The Ngwenyama was not a signatory, and the Swazi claim that their territory extends in all directions from the present state. Britain claimed authority over Eswatini in 1903, and independence was regained in 1968.

Today, Swati people reside in both Eswatini and South Africa. People of Swati descent in South Africa are typically identifiable by speaking SiSwati, or a dialect of that language. There are also many Swati migrants in South Africa and the United Kingdom. The number of EmaSwati in South Africa is slightly larger than that of EmaSwati in Eswatini, which is approximately 1.2 million people. In modern day Eswatini, Swati people include all Eswatini citizens regardless of their ethnicity.


The Kings of Eswatini date back to some considerable time to when the Royal line of Dlamini lived in the vicinity of Delagoa Bay. The Swazi people as a nation were originally formed by 16 clans known as bemdzabuko ("true Swazi") who accompanied the Dlamini kings in the early days. The 15 founding clans were Dlamini, Nhlabathi, Hlophe, Kunene, Mabuza, Madvonsela, Mamba, Matsebula, Mdluli, Motsa, Ngwenya, Shongwe, Sukati, Tsabedze, Tfwala and Zwane. Other Swazi clans are the Emakhandzambili clans ("those found ahead", e.g. the Gamedze, Fakudze, Ngcamphalala and Magagula), meaning that they were on the land prior to Dlamini immigration and conquest. The Emafikemuva ("those who came behind") who joined the kingdom later.


The traditional Swazi religion recognizes a supreme God/creator in its pure form while the ancestors are recognized. The Swazi religion is based on a creator known as Mvelincanti (he who was there from the beginning). Most Swazis intertwine this belief with modern day Christianity that was brought by the missionaries. Many continue to practice their traditional spiritual beliefs. Spiritual rituals are performed at the level of family associated with birth, death and marriage


A traditional Swazi wedding ceremony is called umtsimba (Swazi: [umtsʼimɓa]), where the bride commits herself to her new family for the rest of her life. The ceremony is a celebration that includes members of both the bride's - and the groom's - natal village. There are stages to the wedding that stretch over a few days. Each stage is significant, comprising symbolic gestures that have been passed on from generation to generation. The first stage is the preparation of the bridal party before leaving their village. The second stage is the actual journey of the bridal party from their village to the groom's village. The third stage is the first day of the wedding ceremony that spans three days, and starts on the day the bridal party arrives at the grooms’ village. Thereafter the actual wedding ceremony takes place which is the fourth stage of the umtsimba. The fifth stage takes place the day after the wedding ceremony and is known as kuteka, which is the actual wedding. The final stage may take place the day after the wedding day, and is when the bride gives the groom's family gifts and is the first evening the bride spends with the groom. Although the traditional wedding ceremony has evolved in modern times, the details below are based on historic accounts of anthropologist Hilda Kuper and sociological research describing the tradition.

Before the bridal party leaves

The bride's father notifies friends and relatives that his daughter is to be married, and the chief of the village is informed that there will be a wedding. Thereafter, the father informs and invites the neighbours to the wedding. The father also appoints two men and two women to accompany the untsimba to the groom's homestead. Grass mats and grass brooms are made by the young bride, her relatives and friends, which the bride will take with her when she leaves her parental home. She also takes along hand-made presents for her in-laws, which signals to them a spirit of friendliness and generosity.

Almost all Swazi functions and ceremonies include traditional beer called umcombotsi, which is brewed together with other beverages by the elderly women of the village for the bride's journey to her groom's homestead. Should the groom live close by, the bride takes a pot of beer known as tshwala beliqaka to the groom's home, which indicates to them that she has come with her family's full consent.

Once a message has been sent to the future family that preparations have been made, the bridal party (umtsimba) is gathered together, mostly young girls and women that are relatives and friends of the bride. The size of an umtsimba is a matter of pride for a bride's family and may exceed fifty people. The important parties of the bride's maids are 1) ematshitshi (girls who have reached puberty but have not chosen a lover) 2) emaqhikiza (girls who have chosen a lover) 3) tingcugce (these are girls who have chosen a lover and are preparing for marriage). The umtsimba also serves to test the hospitality of the future husband.

Day of departure

The day of departure is marked by intense activity, with young people wearing their finest traditional attire. Inkomo yekususa umtsimba (a cow to send forth the bridal parties) is killed and the meat cooked and eaten. The bride's father and elderly relatives ensure that the meat is correctly allocated among members of the group. The inyongo (gall bladder) is set aside for the bride by the lisokancanti (first born son) of her paternal grandfather. The Lisokancanti performs a ritual where he squeezes the gall on to the bride's mouth, forehead, down the centre of her face, down the right arm and the right leg. This is done to strengthen her and give her good luck. The bladder is then inflated and tied with a string above her forehead. This is her lusiba (feather), which is the sign that she leaves her parental home with her father's consent.

The bride is then schooled by older women on the hardships of marriage. She is urged to practice restraint, never to answer insult with insult, and is strongly reminded that she represents the honourable name of her family. She is forewarned against accusations of jealous co-wives of witchcraft and laziness, and possible beatings from her husband. After the marital schooling, the father of the bride bids his daughter farewell and blesses her. The lisokancanti of the bride's grandfather, then issues instructions and advice to the appointed two men and women. He instructs them to ensure to return the insulamyembeti (tear wiper) cow, which will be mentioned later. The bride and tingcugce have a ludzibi (a girl that helps with carrying luggage) to carry clothes and blankets for the bride and the older girls. The young men also assist. The bridal party then start singing and dancing wedding songs and they depart. Two of the songs they sing are the following:

Naye lodzabula bantfu timvalo,
Bambizile izwe lonkhe, Nangok' etile,

Udaba ludabula abantu izimvalo,
hyye mbize izwe lonke,
siya msunduzela

These songs explain that the bride is in great demand. As a special favour, she is being sent to the bridegroom. Depending on the distance between villages, the journey to the groom's homestead could take a number of days. Along the way, the bridal party is accommodated at the homes of specific kinsmen and friends. Today, the journey to the groom's homestead tends to be of much shorter duration, in part due to availability of modern transport.

Arrival of bridal party (day 1)

The bridal party aims to arrive at the groom's homestead as the sun sets as it is believed that the ancestral spirits are at their most active and so welcome and bless the bride. When the bridal party approaches the groom's homestead, members of the bridal party dance in order to make their presence known. They wait outside the gates and await to be welcomed. The bridal party forms an arc, with the bride at its centre, the men start loudly praising her clan name and praising her ancestors. The singing ends when the groom's female relatives, wearing rattles on their ankles, emerge to welcome the party.

As the bride starts singing the first song, a boy from the groom's village leads the bride and her tingcugce (single women) to her future mother-in-law. Kneeling, the bride places a string of white beads in front of her mother in law, and says: "I come to pay allegiance". The mother-in-law replies: "From whom do you come?" The bride answers "I was sent by my father". The bride and her party are then led away to rest while the groom's family continues to sing and dance as a sign of joyful welcome. The bride and her 'girls ' sleep in the same room. She has not seen the groom.

Before sunset, the bridal party goes to the river where they eat and drink. The groom's family arranges that a cow or goat known as the sahukulu. Each member of the umtsimba accepts a portion, however mature girls are not permitted to eat the offal. The bride herself is excluded from the sahukulu feast and only eats meals prepared for her from home or from relatives. The party then returns to the prepared rooms provided by the groom's family.

The wedding ceremony (day 2)

The bridal party arrives early to prepare and get dressed, away from the homestead and wedding activities. Preparations are lengthy as the bride intends to impress all with her entry: she wears a cow leather skirt from home and a garment with fur called sigeja. Beads and wool cover her face, and her head is adorned with a crown (sidlodo) consisting of two bunches of large black feathers of a long-tailed widowbird. The community arrives, expecting to be entertained by the umtsimba’s dancing. The women of the village carry long carving knives while the men hold spears and shields, as they know that the group will be dancing on that afternoon.

The umtsimba remains at the river. A young male emissary is sent to the bride from the groom's family to invite the party to join the groom. The bride, hidden by her 'brothers', dances alone towards her mother in law, flanked by her bridesmaids, and is later joined in dancing by the community. The audience give out little presents including coins, fruits and sweets to the dancing group. The ummiso (traditional dance) starts as the group approaches the traditional yard which has been prepared for the wedding. The groom wears a sidvwashi around his waist (printed skirt) topped with emajobo (loin skins made from cow or leopard skin) and beaded ornaments on his chest.

Towards the end of the ceremony, he joins his bride in dancing. This is the climax of the dancing ceremony. Afterwards, the bridal party gives a cow (umganu) to the groom's family as a sign that the bride comes from a good family, and in a legal sense, it also portrays her independent status. The only people to eat the meat of the slaughtered beast are the members of the man's family, including the daughter-in-law. These people are referred to as ‘bomakoti’. The gift of the umganu plays a central role in any future successionary claims.

At the end of this day, a cow is killed – a sidvudvu (porridge) or inkhomo yemtsimba (cow of the umtsimba) or indlakudla (eat food). This gives the bridal party the legal right to eat at the groom's homestead, and must be distinguished from the sahukulu which in theory is taken by force and eaten away from the homestead.

The killing of the sidvudvu is emblematic – during skinning, juices from the umsasane (stomach) should not be spilled as it could indicate that if it is spilt, it means that the groom has put the bride in the family way and would therefore have to pay a fine, in form of a cow. The umsasane is washed at the river by the men, and then sent to the mother of the bride (or if she lives far away, to an elderly woman of the bride's group) together with the left hind leg of the cow. The rest of the meat is divided between the two families, the bride's receiving the right-hand section and the man's the left.

The wedding day (day 3)

The mekeza

The marriage day is known as lilanga lokuteka. The elders in the groom's family members are gathered before sunrise to summon the bride: "Come out, mother, and mekeza, now I marry you". Mekeza has no English equivalent, but it describes the mourning of the bride in leaving her family and her girlhood behind.

The bride stays symbolically silent and sad., as a man from the groom's side family calls her to mekeza, while her companions shout at him to go away. As the day progresses and the sun rises, the bride is accompanied by her girls to the groom's cattle-byre to mekeza, wearing simply her loin skirt from home.

The bridesmaids walks slowly from east to west in the cattle-byre, while the bride leans on a spear from her husband's home, crying. The spear is symbolic, consisting of iron and wood, with iron symbolising death and the wood from the tree symbolising life. The bride wears a black leather skirt (sidvwaba), which signals her new position in society. Her girls follow behind her singing woeful songs. Mekeza songs are repeated continuously, and traditionally deal with the importance of family, the hardships of marriage and the significance of cattle to her family. The songs also serve to highlight the importance of respect, obedience and docility to the bride. Finally the bride gives the signal for her brothers, who have been in hiding, to ‘rescue’ her – a symbolic gesture. She sings:

Come and rescue me, my brother,
Arm and let us go.
The bird wanders.
Bring me back to my virgin room,
Back to my home.
Come and rescue me,
Rescue me, my brother.

The bride 'escapes' to her room with her bridal party, while the groom's family call to her: "We bring you back, mother, with your cow, a cow with a red stripe". This cow, always light in colour, is known as the insulamnyembeti - the wiper away of tears - and shows the bride's mother that the groom's people appreciate the care she lavished on her daughter. The mekeza can last from two to four hours and is very tiring for everyone.


After the bride's display of reluctance to leave her family, she now endeavours to find favour with her new family. The umhlambiso – the gifts for the future in-laws - is prepared and traditionally includes general domestic wares such as blankets, dishes, grass mats, clay pots, and brooms. Next, the bride extend her hand to her husband's, which contains red and white beads (libendlu), with white being the sign of virginity. Should the groom be absent, the bead is placed on his sister or other kinsman as a sign of acceptance. Today, this custom is not very common anymore. The bride gives gifts to the immediate family members and is increasingly incorporated into her husband's home.

The next gesture displays the bride's duty to bear children: she is led to the cattle-byre by an old woman, where the bridesmaids surround her singing mekeza songs. The old woman covers the bride with fat and her face with red ochre. A child from the groom's family is placed on her lap and is told: ‘Here is your mother’, and the child too is smeared with fat. Then the bride is given a skin apron, tied under her armpits, which is a sign of a new wife or a woman in her first pregnancy. The bridal party return home, and the bride stays in her new home.

Transfer of lobola occurs, which includes the transfer of cattle from the groom's family to the bride's family. This can occur months or years after umtsimba. The Swazi tradition states:"akulotjolwa intfombi kulotjolwa umfati" which means that, the bride price is paid for a woman who is legally bound in marriage and not for a single woman. However, nowadays lobola is mostly paid before the couple is married, when the woman is not as yet legally bound.

Culture of Eswatini

Swazi culture is the way of life and customs of the Swazi people through various historical stages. The culture of Swazi people involves music, food, religion, architecture, and kinship, among many other things. The Swazi people are composed of various Nguni clans who speak the Nguni language siSwati. These people mostly reside in Eswatini and South Africa. Presently, Swazi people may also include citizens of Eswatini. In Eswatini, one of the most visible features of cultural identity is the traditional political structure of the nation and the home.

In the national level, the Ngwenyama (the "Lion", or King) is considered the head of the nation alongside the Ndlovukati (the "She-Elephant", or Queen Mother) who is the spiritual leader of the nation. National cultural events often involve the Ngwenyama or Ndlovukati. At home, the patriarch of the family is the head and in the past, often practiced polygamy. This headman, usually referred to as umnumzane is central to all activities of the home. A group of homes forming a community and the land they reside on forms a chiefdom or umphakatsi. Several chiefdoms form an inkhundla which then belongs of a regional division of the country. This connects the older traditional leadership structures to more modern forms of government.

There are national cultural events such as umhlanga, emaganu and incwala which take place at Royal residences of the Ngwenyama and Ndlovukati. Local cultural events in communities or imiphakatsi, take place at the residence of the chief also called emphakatsini. Weddings, funerals and religious events are usually carried out at family homesteads where neighbors are usually invited to partake.

Swazi kinship

The principal Swazi social unit is the homestead, a traditional beehive hut thatched with dry grass. In a polygamous homestead, each wife has her own hut and yard surrounded by reed fences. There are three structures for sleeping, cooking, and storage (brewing beer). In larger homesteads there are also structures used as bachelors' quarters and guest accommodation.

Central to the traditional homestead is the cattle byre, or kraal, a circular area enclosed by large logs inter-spaced with branches. The cattle byre has ritual as well as practical significance as a store of wealth and symbol of prestige. It contains sealed grain pits. Facing the cattle byre is the great hut which is occupied by the mother of the headman.

The headman is central to all homestead affairs and he is often polygamous. He leads through example and advises his wives on all social affairs of the home as well as seeing to the larger survival of the family. He also spends time socialising with the young boys, who are often his sons or close relatives, advising them on the expectations of growing up and manhood.

Traditional healers

The Sangoma is a traditional diviner chosen by the ancestors of that particular family. The training of the Sangoma is called "kwetfwasa". At the end of the training, a graduation ceremony takes place where all the local sangoma come together for feasting and dancing. The diviner is consulted for various reasons, such the cause of sickness or even death. His diagnosis is based on "kubhula", a process of communication, through trance, with the natural super-powers. The Inyanga (a medical and pharmaceutical specialist in western terms) possesses the bone throwing skill ("kushaya ematsambo") used to determine the cause of the sickness.


The most important cultural event in Eswatini is the Incwala ceremony. It is held on the fourth day after the full moon nearest the longest day, 21 December. Incwala is often translated in English as 'first fruits ceremony', but the King's tasting of the new harvest is only one aspect among many in this long pageant. Incwala is best translated as Kingship Ceremony. When there is no king, there is no Incwala. It is high treason for any other person to hold an Incwala.

Every Swazi may take part in the public parts of the Incwala. The climax of the event is the fourth day of the Big Incwala. The key figures are the King, Queen Mother, royal wives and children, the royal governors (indunas), the chiefs, the regiments, and the "bemanti" or "water people".


Eswatini's best-known cultural event is the annual Umhlanga Reed Dance. In the eight-day ceremony, girls cut reeds and present them to the queen mother and then dance. (There is no formal competition.) It is done in late August or early September. Only childless, unmarried girls can take part. The aims of the ceremony are to preserve girls' chastity, provide tribute labour for the Queen mother, and to encourage solidarity by working together. The royal family appoints a commoner maiden to be "induna" (captain) of the girls and she announces over the radio the dates of the ceremony. She will be an expert dancer and knowledgeable on royal protocol. One of the King's daughters will be her counterpart.

The Reed Dance today is not an ancient ceremony but a development of the old "umchwasho" custom. In "umchwasho", all young girls were placed in a female age-regiment. If any girl became pregnant outside of marriage, her family paid a fine of one cow to the local chief. After a number of years, when the girls had reached a marriageable age, they would perform labour service for the Queen Mother, ending with dancing and feasting. The country was under the chastity rite of "umchwasho" until 19 August 2005.

Arts and Crafts

Swazi art varies from pottery to jewellery among many other things. Historically Swazi people have made jewellery and clothing items from beads. An example of this is ligcebesha, a colourful necklace and indlamu and colourful skirt for girls. Historical pottery in Eswatini includes mostly clay pots that are used for carrying water, beer cooking and decorations. These clay pots are called tindziwo. Wooden sculptures were also very popular as utensils, for example umcwembe used for serving meat. Swazis also made a lot of items using special grasses. These include grass mats called emacansi and tihlantsi. Other grass items are brooms, baskets among others.

Eswatini is also known for a strong presence in the handcrafts industry. The formalised handcraft businesses of Eswatini employ over 2,500 people, many of whom are women (per TechnoServe Swaziland Handcrafts Impact Study," February 2011). The products are unique and reflect the culture of Eswatini, ranging from housewares, to artistic decorations, to complex glass, stone, or wood artwork.

Food for Thought

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