ZULU (South Africa)



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Featured: Zulu, Basuto, Swasi, Bovale, Pedi, Lemba, Xhosa, Xesibe, Tshidi Barolong, Venda, Fingo, Lobedu; ®!Xo


Zulu childhood heterosexual masturbation was said to be encouraged in the late nineteenth-century (e.g., Eskapa, 1987:p45). Krige (1936 [1950:p78])[1]: “[…] Zulu children at an early age not only know a good deal about sex, but themselves indulge in playful sexual intercourse (ukwenza isiNcogolo)[2]. Small girls when out alone, on seeing a boy often call out to him in a singing manner words intended as an enticement to him for sexual purposes”. Unwin (1934:p153)[3], on the Amazulu, stated that “a special term existed, u(lu)ngqoyingqoyi (lit., “delicious food”) which small girls, when out alone and seeing a boy, called out to him, the words being intended as an enticement to him to come to them for sexual purposes”. Reader (1966:p138-9)[4] only speaks of sex instruction, “when the time for lovemaking came”. The Zulu valued hymenal virginity, and puberty songs were to instruct the girl (Krige, 1968)[5]. The established form of external intercourse with a single lover was called ukusoma. Songs and dances in girls’ initiation refer to sexual acts, menstruation, and premarital morality. The traditional form of sexual instruction for young girls was, until recently, carried out by a designated female elder, but the subject may have been taboo at home (Loening, 1981)[6]. Spermarche and menarche are considered significant events, requiring special hygienic measures (Lugg, 1907:p116)[7]. Lautenschlager (1963:p66)[8]: “Verbreiten waren […] sexuellen Spielereien. Die Zulu kannten in geschlechtlichen Dingen wenig Zurückhaltung, so daþ die Kinder schon früh darüber Bescheid wuþten und sich im Spiel nachzuahmen. Der Umstand, daþ die Erwachsenen nuer einen kleinen Lendenschurz und die Kinder gar nichts oder nur eine Perlenschnur um die Lenden trugen, begünstigte diese Spielereien”.

Bryant (1949:p562-4)[9] sketches the following “development”:


“With the Zulus, boys especially, and in a lesser degree girls, manifest the sexual instinct of sensual desire (as yet unconsciously and sexlessly) sometimes as early as their third years […] by the eighth or ninth, sex selection and sexual magnetism are strongly experienced and displayed […] This preference for the opposite sex and a certain aversion toward its own, had been constant since the fifth or sixth year. So, about this time most small boys and girls commenced to “court” each other and choose secret paramours, partly in imitation (for they were most observant, as well as imitative) of their elder brothers and sisters”.


The Zulu instructress is a girl of nineteen or twenty years old and supervises the ritual seclusion (Cheetam et al., 1974)[10]. Adolescent girls are periodically examined for virginity. In a study on urban Zulu schoolchildren by Graig and Richter-Strydom (1983)[11], the earliest coital experience occurred at age twelve. Two in three had had coitus before age sixteen. 82% of pregnant girls had not known anything about menstruation at the time of onset. “As the age of onset of sexual intercourse roughly paralleled the onset of menstruation, one can assume that the majority of the young girls who later became pregnant had little sexual knowledge by the time they first had intercourse” (p242-3). Zulu children and adolescents were said to be engaged in external intercourse (ukuhlobongo), but were punished if the girl was deflowered (Rip and Schmidt, 1977:p21).

The act of circumcision, “a ritual preparation for its legitimate use in reproductive activities”, was anticipated by Zulu herdboys who cut the frenum (Raum, 1973:p277)[12]. Boys’ puberty ritual (ukuthomba), after ejacularche, implies a plethora of sexual restraints (p278); the same for girls (p281, 282). Initial courtship routines are strictly regulated (p284-9). Girls may play games such as choosing a lover (ukumema injenga)[13]. “In Zulu communities, as accurate accounts show, sexual intercourse is not uncommon among children under the age of puberty” (Schoeman, 1975:p33)[14].


Harrison (2001:p319-21)[15] provides a further discussion of Zulu "Pre-marital Pregnancy and Adolescent Sexuality".


Some other quotes:


Kohler (1933)[16]:


"I have diligently sought in Kafir folk-lore for something similar to our tale about the stork that brings the babies, but apparently there is no such thing. When they have left heathendom behind them and are in the transitory stage to civilisation, the natives give their children the not very poetical explanation that "babies are bought in the store". However, such enlightenment on sexual matters as was in earlier times given in initiation schools and as part of other puberty rites must in reality have been largely superfluous, since amongst the natives the knowledge of these things is acquired by the child as it advances in years. It is certainly not allowed to see everything, but on the other hand these matters are not veiled in a mysterious obscurity."


On genital practices:


"When boys have arrived at the age of ukutomba (commencement of puberty) they go out into the hills and stay there, their food being brought out to their hut by their respective mothers. Then they cut off the skin that envelops the glans penis so that the latter becomes visible, and make an incision thereon (not clear- uhlanga is an incision such as these people make on their faces). The mother of each lad takes food to her son until their ukusoka period is over. It is on account of this (circumcision) that the AmaBhaca wear a penis-box (iqoyi) to cover the glans, because the prepuce which ordinarily covers it is no longer there. [...] When a girl becomes aware of her first menses, she tells her mother, who thereupon informs the father. Whatever puberty rites may have existed in the past, very little survives to-day. In the whole of my practice I have not come across a single circumcised male. The Bhaca version printed below describes custom as it may have been years ago, but certainly not as it is to-day. From what is said there, it appears that at puberty boys went into the hills and lived in a hut there for some time, food being supplied them by their mothers. Apparently they were actually circumcised. Whether other rites were performed or any teachings imparted, is not stated. On the whole we are reminded of the practices of the tribes in the Cape Province. To-day all this is obsolete among the Bhaca, who do however slit the frenulum or cut it off with a horse-hair, as a measure which might be looked upon as having hygienic value. The men also still wear the penis-box (iqoyi) which is either carved of wood or made out of the cocoon of the bagworm (Acanthopsyche junodi) called umahamba-nendlwane, and often found hanging on thorn trees in great numbers. The Khuze custom, as described in the text, is what is to some extent still practised to-day."


Marks (1989:p228)[17]:


"By the beginning of the twentieth century, changed patterns of child-rearing threw the burden of sex education on mothers rather than on grandmothers and the peer group as in the past: the result of mission abhorrence of female initiation ceremonies and the development of the nuclear family, especially among Christian Africans. [n71][18]"


Vilakazi (1962:p46-52)[19] details that


"AMONG THE traditionalists in the Nyuswa reserve, a young girl begins to receive amorous attentions of adolescent boys at the tender age of 14. These attentions are never serious in the adult sense, as neither boy nor girl is thinking in terms of marriage, although they are serious in the juvenile way of thinking. For the boy, they are important in that he is trying out his manhood and making the first attempt to establish himself as an adult personality. When the girl does accept a boy, it is something like calf-love -khipha udwa as someone called it among the Nyuswa. Udwa is menstruation and the girl is supposed to be getting rid of the first flush of womanhood. This early calf-love of the young girl is not even known by her elder sisters who are her chaperones and she cannot therefore meet the boy for any sex-play. However, no girl is considered marriageable until her breasts are fully developed and her body solidified, i.e. usuhlangene, and having lost the lankness that is characteristic of young children. The mere fact of menstruation does not make a girl nubile. Until she is about 16 years of age, men do not regard her as fair game, although there is the custom of bekisa, by which a man who feels attracted to a young girl, but feels she is still too young to love, makes known his feelings towards her and asks her to wait for him until she is a little grown up. This does not involve her in any form of promise or obligation and she is free to fall in love with whomsoever she pleases later on, with the approval of her elder sisters, of course. There is now no jutshwa custom by which girls were declared big enough to take lovers and allocated to a particular ibutho (regiment). Nor has the custom of omula ("coming out") any relevance for the informal relations at the present time. It is important to note that among traditionalists, i.e. heathens, mothers and women of the family begin to speculate about the young girl's love affairs while she is still at about 14 years. She is allowed to listen to and join in the conversation of older sisters on matters relating to love-making and behaviour with the boys and she learns all the techniques of managing suitors: lessons in quick repartee and izifenqo, i.e. witticisms which are aimed at ridiculing young men and their words."


Boys and girls


"[...] resort to writing letters which are passed secretly at school or through other girls. But the girls do not have anybody to discuss their affairs with. Except for the whispered bits of information which young girls exchange among themselves at school they do not have any adult or mature advice in the matter. Among the Nyuswa I observed that-besides the school-the store, the church and concerts are meeting places for Christian boys and girls. So, also, are the inter-school sporting days which are usually Fridays or week-ends when girls and boys travel together to play football and basketball at some neighbouring school. Most of the time, it is very difficult to know anything about the love-life of Christian teen-agers. Secrecy is important for them for discovery means either a thrashing from school and from the home and even expulsion from school! A young woman told me that she was thrashed by her father for having received a letter from a high school lover. The burden of his complaint was that he had sent her to school to study and not to look for men. As a result of secrecy among Christians, and absolute lack of guidance in sex matters, Christian girls get into a great many more difficulties sexually than do the heathens."


On soma (ibid., p53-5):


"Zulu customary practice allows premarital sex play between men and women. This is the custom of soma. This is intercrural intercourse and is definitely not coition. [...] Among Christian young boys and girls, there is no teaching or any form of guidance about correct behaviour when people have sex relations. As a result, when Christian young people meet and have sex relations, it is generally not intercrural sex play at all, but coitus. Anyone who has taught in African high schools and has had contact with young boys and girls as the writer has, knows that these young people have absolutely no knowledge in sex matters at all, except what they discuss among themselves. For example, many of them believe that the best way to prevent pregnancy in intercourse is for the young man to penetrate the girl and remain very close to her during orgasm; the theory being that pregnancy occurs only if the boy's penis is not sufficiently inside at the time of orgasm. Among the Nyuswa, however, there were some Christian girls who lived close to the traditionalists and who therefore benefited from the general supervision of the iqhikiza. Similarly, some boys lived in heathen homes and learned a lot from discussion with non-Christian boys about soma practices. These boys and girls who stand mid-way between the traditionalists and Christians generally show a strong bias toward the traditionalist practices. Throughout, it is the new faith, Christianity, that explains cultural differences between the non-Christians and the Christians in this area."






Janssen, D. F., Growing Up Sexually. VolumeI. World Reference Atlas. 0.2 ed. 2004. Berlin: Magnus Hirschfeld Archive for Sexology

Last revised: May 2005


[1] Krige, Ei. J. (1936) The Social System of the Zulus. Pietermaritzburg: Shuter & Shooter. Second edition, 1950

[2] The Collector, No.755 [orig. footn.]

[3]Unwin, J. D. (1934) Sex and Culture. Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press

[4] Reader, D. H. (1966) Zulu Tribe in Transition: The Makhanya of Southern Natal. Manchester: ManchesterUniversity Press

[5] Krige, E. J. (1968) Girl’s puberty songs and their relation to fertility, health, morality and religion among the Zulu, Africa 38,2:173-97

[6] Loening, W. E. K. (1981) Child abuse among the Zulu, Child Abuse & Negl 5:3-7

[7] Lugg, H. C. (1907) Notes on Some Puberty and Other Customs of the Natives of Natal and Zululand, Man 7:115-9

[8] Lautenschlager, P. G. (1963) Die Sozialen Ordnungen bei den Zulu und die Mariannhiller Mission 1882-1909. Reimlingen: St. Josefs Verlag

[9] Bryant, A. T. (1949) The Zulu People: As they Were Before the White Man Came. Pietermaritzburg: Shuter & Shooter

[10] Cheetam, R. W. S. et al. (1974) Psychiatric problems encountered in urban Zulu adolescents with special reference to changes in sex education, Austr & New Zeal J Psychia 8,1:41-8

[11] Graig, A. P. & Richter-Strydom, L. M. (1983) Unplanned pregnancies among urban Zulu schoolchildren, J Soc Psychol 121:239-46

[12] Raum, O. F. (1973) The Social Functions of Avoidances and Taboos among the Zulu. Berlin: De Gruyter

[13] Cf. Lebzelter (1934:p280-1), op.cit.

[14] Mertens, A. (phot.) & Schoeman, H. (1975) The Zulu. London: MacDonald & Janes

[15]Harrison, A. (2001) Life histories, reproductive histories: rural South African women's narratives of fertility, reproductive health and illness, Journal of southern African studies 27,2:311-328 [eHRAF 2005]

[16] Kohler, M. (1933) Marriage customs in southern Natal.Pretoria: Government Printer, 1933. [eHRAF 2005]

[17] Marks, Sh. (1989) Patriotism, patriarchy and purity: Natal and the politics of Zulu ethnic consciousness. In: The Creation of tribalism in Southern Africa, edited by Leroy Vail. London ; Berkeley: Currey ; University of California Press, p215-240

[18]See D. Gaitskell's pioneering essay, 'Wailing for purity: prayer unions, African mothers and adolescent daughters, 1912-1940', in S. Marks and R. Rathbone, eds., Industrialisation and Social Change: African Class Formation, Culture and Consciousness, 1870-1930 (London, 1982). [orig. footnote]

[19] Vilakazi, A. (1962) Zulu transformations: a study of the dynamics of social change. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press [eHRAF, 2005]