Tinyeko Captain Ndhlovu, Curator: Insignia, Memorial Plaques, Postal History, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History


The Amabutho system historically goes back to the pre-Shakan era (early 19th century). During those early days the Nguni clans used to practice customary grouping known as ukuButhwa of youth where both males and females of the same age/age set gathered together into ibutho/Amabutho (leagues) for ceremonial assistant upon the beginning of their teenaged-hood. The Amabutho system gradually developed into the part-time Zulu regiments (militia units), which Zulu nation herdsmen mustered together periodically in a national service and were accommodated at the military barracks/royal authority known as ikhanda/amakhanda (heads). The Amabutho system continued to be practised up to this current generation of the Zulu Nation.

Figure 1. King Misuzulu Siqobile kaZwelithini with Amabutho akwaZulu during his coronation as the new Zulu monarch. (Source Image: S.K.Media Production/ YouTube Video).


Formerly during the war times, before a Zulu boy joined the Amabutho system, the first stage that was introduced to the lad was the uDibi experience around the age of 14-16. The uDibi boy was normally appointed individually by families or a warrior and not by an organized military unit. The uDibi boy was entrusted with the task of body-servant of the warrior (please see fig. 2 below). He had to carry the warrior’s personal belongings such as food, medicine and weapons at the same time as on the march. This phase prepared the lad to familiarize himself with the Zulu military system during the battles and it also prepared him to join the military training at a later stage.

Figure 2. Zulu warriors’ assemblage, 1870s: Zulu Warriors with uDibi boy, talking to Zulu girls. (Source Image: Victorian


Once the Zulu boys grew up, around the age of 17-19, they exit the uDibi phase and now independently enter the military kraals to ‘kleza’/drinking milk directly from the udders of the king’s cows (please see fig.3 below). It is from this ‘kleza’ phase, where they are in position of accepting the king’s rewards and offerings in return of service to the Zulu state. They normally ‘kleza’d close to their home region’s ikhanda/amakhanda. The ‘kleza’ boys would form into ‘amaviyo’/corps of 50 or 80, separately established for the labour force. During this phase, the ‘kleza’ boys/military trainees were inducted into the military lifestyle of ‘amakhanda’ quarters.

Figure 3. Zulu boy during the kleza’ing phase. (Source Image:


Later, the indunas/Zulu state officers were appointed and introduced to the new ibutho. The new induna is/was given a name, a uniform, and given instructions to construct an ‘ikhanda’ at the location place appointed by the king. Normally, the king provides the cattle from the royal herds that matched by the colour of the Amabutho’ hides from which uniformed war-shields were made. Nevertheless, each warrior provided his own sharper weapons. Youth within ‘Amabutho’ were actually at the service of the Zulu state. Amabutho became the revenue by which the labour prospective of a most productive portion of the chiefdom might be released.

Figure 4. Zulu lad warrior. (Source Image: Donald R. Morris, (1965)).


King Shaka Zulu kaSenzangakona saw an opportunity in the Amabutho system. He developed the Amabutho into military regiments and deployed them into military operations. Peer group/youth across the Zulu Kingdom from various clans were called-up for service and accommodated in greater amakhanda barracks. King Shaka tactically stationed amabutho around the Zulu kingdom to act as the regional centres of the royal kingdom. The king strategically delayed and controlled the age rate of his Amabutho to tie the knot/get married.  However, those who were married were allowed to disband and go home. Yet, they were subjected to a call-up in times of a national emergency. Their first loyalty was transferred to their local chiefs and their families. They became the first line of defence to safeguard the land, women, children and livestock from the raiders or invaders. Amabutho also became the first line of protection of the Zulu king and the throne.


Post-Skakan era, Aabutho regiments were extremely dangerous and in the need of restructuring and staffing. King Mpande was compelled to reduce the age restriction which could allow the warriors to marry due to the availability of the high rate of the unmarried women/potential wives. Amabutho became the significant royal patronage. King Cetswayo introduced amabutho regiments into raiding cattle experience for the Zulu national herds. Amabutho managed to reinforce King Cetswayo’s position. Young married amabutho with their wives were allowed to stay at the king’s kraal known as amaBandla amhlope/white assemblies. They also had liberties to go home whenever they wish to go. The unmarried/single Amabutho were deployable to work anywhere and live primarily at some military kraals but not at amaBandla amhlope.


During peace times, unmarried/single Amabutho were set aside for doing the work at the Royal Palace (for non-military tasks) such as building the military kraals and barracks, sowing, gathering and preparing the gardens for the king. These were the specialist groups that served the king. We should also note that Amabutho were not required to be in service permanently or indefinitely, since the pre-Shakan era. Every two or three years’ new youth of the age set went through the ukuButhwa process in national service.


Most of them were living with their families and they freely volunteered their services to serve as amabutho. Those who served as Amabutho were highly respected by the community including their potential loved ones and families. Those who refused to join Amabutho were ridiculed by their peers, potential loved ones, families and the entire communities. The Amabutho system encompasses various Zulu customary practices such as warriors and royal secret ceremonies practitioners.


Fast forward to our current generation


The Amabutho system continued to be practised today in KwaZulu-Natal Kingdom. About two years ago, the world has observed and learned more about the Amabutho akwa-Zulu playing their various significant roles as the Zulu Kingdom Royal Patronage. For instance, in 2021, Amabutho carried and performed the royal secret ceremonial proceedings such as the planting/ukutshalwa (rather buried) of the longest serving Zulu Monarch ‘Isilo Samabandla’, ‘Ndabizitha’, His Majesty King Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu on 29 April 2021 and his Great Wife Regent Queen Mantfombi Dlamini (7 weeks later after King Zwelithini’s passing) at the Zulu Royal Palace, KwaNongoma, KwaZulu-Natal following the Zulu custom. Prince Misuzulu, prior to his coronation as Zulu monarch, headed the Amabutho during the funeral/planting of his mother Zulu Regent Queen Mantfombi Dlamini. It was the significant gesture to command the Amabutho prior to his coronation. Cultural experts indicated that one of the duties of the Amabutho is to protect the back of the king, in the manner that the public does not see his backside. In that manner, Amabutho acknowledge their Commander-in-Chief and became the first line of defence for his throne and the Nation. Amabutho also partake in the Zulu customary ukungena ispayini (rather coronation) of the new Zulu Nation Monarch (please see fig.1), His Majesty King Misuzulu Siqobile kaZwelithini, which commenced from the evening of the 19th of August until the new dawn of the 20th of August 2022. They also accompanied the new Zulu Monarch as the Royal Protocols while others entertained the host: Royal family, the masses and the VIP guests at the Moses Mabhida Stadium on 29th October during the Official Recognition Ceremony by the South African government, where President Cyril Ramaphosa presented the Certificate of Recognition to the new Zulu Monarch, His Majesty King Misuzulu kaZwelithini.




The Amabutho system continued to be practiced since the pre-Shakan era, up to date within the Zulu Nation as the Royal Patronage. The Amabutho system is, however, no longer utilised for conflicts or cattle raiding. Yet it remains the significant Zulu heritage military organization that provides its services to the Royal Zulu Kingdom and its King. Modern Amabutho and Zulu maidens can be summoned and deployed by their Commander-in-Chief: King Misuzulu kaZwelithini during the imbizo, Zulu national special tasks and events such as the celebrations of the Annual Reed Dance Ceremony (17 September) and uMkhosi weLembe (Shaka Day) on 29 September 2022, and Commemoration of the 144th Historic Battle of Isandlwana on 20 January 2023 for the first time under his reign. Previously these ceremonies were impacted by the Covid-19 Pandemic. The Amabutho system continued to be practiced and passed on from the pre-Shakan generations to this current Zulu generation.




Donald, R. Morris. 1965. The Washing of the Spears: The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Nation. Random House: Bergvlei South Africa.

Ian, Knight. 2014. The Zulu Army 1879. Bloomsbury Publishing.


Websites and You Tube:

King Misuzulu Siqobile kaZwelithini’ with Amabutho regiments akwaZulu during his coronation as the new Zulu monarch. Source Image: S.K. Media Production: YouTube Uploaded on 20 August 2022.

Zulu Warriors assemblage, 1870s: Zulu Warriors with Udibi boy, talking to Zulu girls. Available at:    

accessed on 5 December 2022.

Zulu boy drinking milk straight from the cow, Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa, Source of Ariadne Van Zandberge: Also available at accessed 22 January 2023

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