The Zulu of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa belong to the larger Nguni linguistic group whose origin is lost in an oral tradition that precedes recorded history. The Nguni are divided into two large segments, North and South. The Xhosa, Pondo and Thembu of the Eastern Cape, (formerly Transkei) are major representatives of the South Nguni, while the Zulu, the Swazi of Swaziland and the Ndbele (in the present provinces of Gauteng and Mpumalanga) are of the Northern Nguni.
The Nguni are believed by Bryant and Krige to have been one of three large African migrant groups whose tradition of horticulture and cattle breeding combine the major cultural attributes of West, Central and North East Africa, from where they are held to have moved along separate routes to Southern Africa. The Nguni, according to Bryant, followed an inland course via the headwaters of the Zambesi where contact with San hunters produced the "click" sounds that characterize their languages today. Moving southwards to the most northerly bend of the Limpopo River which marks the boundary between South Africa and Zimbabwe, the Nguni are supposed to have split into separate migrations, moving in different stages into what is now KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Province (formerly known as the Transkei).
Some of those who settled in northern KwaZulu-Natal doubled back into what is now Swaziland, while those who first entered the Transkei were the forebears of the Pondo. The last to leave the Limpopo settled for a while in what is now the south-eastern region of the Mpumalanga province, then moved on in easy stages into central KwaZulu-Natal. Finding the north-east and north-west already occupied, two smaller groups moved on. One of these, finding the coastal regions of the south settled by the Pondo, kept to the inland high ground, to become the Xhosa. The other of the two smaller groups found a home as the coastal neighbours of the Pondo to become the Thembu of today. The final Nguni migration populated the heart of KwaZulu-Natal where the small and unimportant Zulu clan was later to succeed the Ndwandwe and Mthetwa empires respectively in the north-west and north-east. Under their famous chief, Shaka, they became the rulers of KwaZulu-Natal from the Tugela River in the south to the border of Mozambique in the north. Shaka was assassinated in 1828 by his half-brother, Dingane. A long line of descen- dants link these historic figures with the current royal house headed by King Goodwill Zwelethini.