Zulucow’s Nguni cowhides – why are they so special?

The Significance of Nguni Cattle to the Lives of Zulus now and then.

All Zulucow’s cowhide products are ‘by-products’ and sustainably-sourced from the indigenous Nguni cattle of KwaZulu Natal in South Africa. These cattle play a significant role in South Africa’s cultural heritage. They have always had an economic, social, political and spiritual importance to the Zulu people too; both past and present. The Zulus are still passionate about their  ‘ibheshu’ – the nguni cowhide rear- aprons they wear for special, ceremonial dances and commemorations. These ‘Ibheshu’ are to this day, made from beautiful Nguni cowhide.

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Ceremonial Zulu dancing; young girls wearing their Nguni cowhide ‘Ibheshu’ skins. 


The cattle breed is indigenous to southern Africa ie. South Africa, Swaziland, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Angola. The ancestors of today’s cattle were brought by the Xhosa, Zulu and Swazi people, during their migration to Southern Africa, from East Africa, between 600 and 1400 AD.

Their Historic Economic Significance:

Since then, they have played an important social, economic and political role in the development of these societies, especially those of the Zulu people. A village or individual’s wealth and importance was reflected by the number of cattle they owned. Cattle are also essential for a bride’s lobolo (dowry – the exchange of cattle for wives.)

Their Economic Role in Society Today: 

And now, the Nguni are creating sustainable long-term jobs and desperately-needed income; via the tanning of their hides and consequent production of Zulucow’s rugs, cushions, bags,belts and accessories. (All the hides Zulucow sources are ethically sourced and a by-product of the meat industry. More than 67 Zulus, Mozambicans and Zimbabweans are employed in the tannery and workshop in KwaZulu Natal. With well over 50% unemployment in South Africa; especially in rural areas; this is a lifeline for many families.


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A Zulu herdsmen with his herd of multi-coloured, Nguni cattle 

Their Political Significance:

Zulus have traditionally and still to this day, breed Nguni cattle for their attractive colouring and beautiful markings. King Shaka of the Zulus (reign: 1816-1828) bred specific colour patterns into his Nguni herds in order to produce skins for the many regiments of his army. His elite personal guard was recognised by the pure white cowhides they wore, from the royal herd, ‘the inyonikayiphumuli’ Whereas the more common black and white hides were worn by a lesser Zulu warrior. This would help in battle, to identify who was in command; in the confusion of fighting.


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A Zulu herdsman with his ‘ibheshu’ and ‘amaShoba’ (cow tails worn to give the appearance of a bulky body.


King Shaka Zulu understood the cultural and economic importance of the Nguni cattle and when forming his powerful Zulu empire in 1818, he seized control of all the herds of his dominions. His famously bellicose Zulus bred Nguni cattle hide markings specifically for their shields which were vital in battles. Following years of selective breeding, they managed to produce symmetrical patterns into their herds’ hides to be used in shields! I’ve spoken to racehorse trainers and they believe it must have taken years of selective breeding and careful husbandry to produce this phenomenon.)

So valued are the Nguni cowhides, that the Zulus have named certain hide markings and colours with imagery linked to the names of animals, birds, plants and everyday objects familiar to the natural world surrounding them. For example: Ihunqukazi (Puffadder) is a cow with a black, red or brown brindled hide resembling a puffadder. (You can find more on the naming of Nguni cattle in last week’s blog: ‘Why Zulucow’s hides are so unique; so special.’

Today, I’m very proud to be celebrating this rich history; and to continue the economic and social significance of the Nguni cattle in Natal, via the production of Zulucow’s beautifully patterned  hand crafted, unique and natural cowhide products. Lucy x


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