A DISCUSSION of the Ndebele religious system can best be considered in two parts both from a historical point of view.
Firstly, it is important to keep in mind that the two main groups that brought the Ndebele nation into being were the original Nguni (the Zulu class) which in time incorporated the earlier Nguni (already settled on the High Veld) eg of Musi and others.
The next group, the non-Nguni (Pedi, Sothotho, Venda, etc) which, because of earlier incorporation South of the Limpopho were promoted to the status of Abenhla ahead of the third group, the original inhabitants of this country, eNdlabunondo (Kalanga, Venda, Rozwi, Tonga, Nambya, etc).
Together they made up the Ndebele nation where no one ethnic group is more important than others. It is erroneous to consider the term Ndebele to belong to the Nguni group only.
During the formation of the Ndebele nation, the greatest unifying force was religion and it was that of the Kalanga/Nyubi ethnic groups.
The worship of Ngwali, the Njelele worship, was by far the strongest unifying force. Mzilikazi and his Nguni group faithfully submitted to this religion and happily allowed the Kalanga/Nyubi priests to continue as the leading worship authority without interference.
This way people came from the ethnic areas of the Venda, the Kalanga, Sotho, Nguni, Tonga , Nambya to share the same divine ruler and truly became one nation, with Njelele as the spring and source of national inspiration.
Thus, as far as the Ndebele nation is concerned, religion was by far the strongest unifying force and serious discussion concerning who and what the Ndebele nation is must include thereligious affiliation to Ngwali whose abode was the Njelele Shrine in the Matopo Hills.
But before we can make a brief survey of the Ngwali religion (the religion of Ngwali was not a cult, but a full-blown religion that was not an off-shoot of any other religion), we will make a brief history of the Nguni religion in order to understand why Mzilikazi and his militarily strong and aggressive people became easily amenable to the Kalanga/Nyubi religion.
When Mzilikazi left Zululand, he emerged from a religious nation that knew and worshipped God, uNkulunkulu. The Zulus believed that uNkulunkulu was the Creator of all things including the earth, sky, man, beast, the wind and the seas. There is no explanation where this uNkulunkulu came from and how he created these things.
There is a hint that in the dim past this uNkulunkulu had a wife with whom he shared a bed of reeds and out of that meeting man was born.
If the Eden story is not as vague as this one then nothing is. And if the conception of (the virgin) Mary is more factual than the Babylonian/Mesopotamian fables then we have a problem.
But this Zulu God/Creator lives in the unknown. After creating all the things he withdrew to where only he knows. He is inaccessible. But he demands worship and appeasement mostly through sacrifice.
There are various levels of worshipping this inaccessible uNkulunkulu. There is a hierarchy of priests (izangoma, izanuse, izinyanga, etc) who are the first level in the system of worship. Then there are the ancestors through whom man can approach uNkulunkulu. This is the go-between system which is familiar to the Christians (Akekho umuntu oza kuBaba uma engezi ngami).
Priests — Ancestors — uNkulunkulu. If you persist in believing that the Nguni worshipped their ancestors or ancestral spirits, then you are refusing to face the truth, which is that they worshipped uNkulunkulu through their ancestral spirits (as go-betweens).
Unlike in other religions, the Zulus did not believe in the existence of many gods. UNkulunkulu munye and, therefore, idolatry was unknown in Zulu.
If idolatry is understood to mean the worship of images made with hands, then the Zulu people were not part of it because to them uNkulunkulu was immaterial and, therefore, could not be imitated in any form. The Bible says in John 3 that “God is a spirit and they that worship Him should worship him in spirit and in truth”.
This saying applies correctly to the Zulu worship of uNkulunkulu. Their whole life in every activity was dedicated to uNkulunkulu – in the fields cultivating crops, their herds of cattle (zazithunqiselwa, kuthethelwa esibayeni), when they went to war (amabutho echelwa ekhulekelwa), kuyiwa emkhosini weNxwala, umnumzana ekhonza labantwabakhe emzini wakhe, and so on.
There were no half-measures about Zulu religion and practically everybody was a believer. You were born into it and it was part of your entire life.
Some readers might have come across the sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”. This is a Christian God who cannot brook the sins of His people and, therefore, decides to mete the most cruel punishment upon them.
Not so the Nguni uNkulunkulu. No grudges held for future punishments. That is very human. If you committed a wrong, you received punishment here on this earth when you died it was all over, you entered a new life of bliss. The term “sin” was unknown in Ndebele theology.