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The Evolution of Ndebele Amabutho

Julian Cobbing
The Journal of African History
Vol. 15, No. 4 (1974), pp. 607-631
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/180993
Page Count: 25
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Since scans are not currently available to screen readers, please contact JSTOR User Support for access. We'll provide a PDF copy for your screen reader.
The Evolution of Ndebele Amabutho
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Abstract

The assumptions that Ndebele settlement was purely militarily orientated and that it was composed of a hierarchy of 'regiments' and 'divisions' or 'provinces' are false. The parallels between the Ndebele ibutho and the English regiment are so tenuous that the translation is best dispensed with. On the other hand, an Ndebele ibutho was, at least in one sense, a military organization which evolved over a number of years into a cluster of imisi (villages). These imisi were residential, essentially non-military, and composed by far the largest proportion of Ndebele settlement. The 'division' did not exist. Amhlope, Amakanda, Amnyama and Igapha were collective group concepts comprising imisi descended from four original or proto-amabutho created in the period before the migration of the Ndebele to the Matopos region. The sequence of creation of amabutho in the post-1850 period can roughly be determined, outbursts of ibutho formation usually coinciding with crises in the history of the kingdom. Amabutho created after the late 1860s such as Imbizo and Insuga disintegrated after the European conquest during the 1890s, whereas older, established imisi survive as concepts of allegiance to this day. A knowledge of how the Ndebele ibutho evolved is essential for a more complete understanding of the dynamics of Ndebele society at other levels, for example the way the chieftaincies (izigaba) and the great local lineages emerged, as well as the social and political context within which individuals sought to realize their ambitions. The unexpected way in which a closer look at the ibutho reveals much of the early literature on the Ndebele to be at best incomplete, at worst, caricature, but either way misleading, suggests that other nineteenth-century Nguni states may benefit from renewed historical examination.

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