Studying the shape, horns and colour patterns of Nguni cattle is like palm-reading the history of Africa. For Nguni cattle have always been, and will continue to be, the symbol of wealth, status, spirituality and political power in Africa.

Exceptionally fertile and disease-resistant with unmistakable, multi-coloured hides, the widely beloved Nguni breed has evolved in Africa over thousands of years.

The name Nguni refers to the Xhosa, Zulu and Swazi people of Southern Africa, who, with their cattle, originally migrated here from North, Central and East Africa between 590 and 700 AD.

Seeking new grazing grounds, they changed the face of Southern Africa and the lives of the indigenous, nomadic Bushmen who had lived off wild animals as hunter-gatherers, undisturbed for thousands of years.

By the 19th century, the Nguni herds dominated the KwaZulu Natal and Eastern Cape’s landscape. In KwaZulu Natal (or Zululand as it was called then), the shields made from Nguni ox-hides for Zulu King Shaka’s regiments during his twelve-year reign (1816 – 1828), reinforced the central role of cattle in this conqueror’s tale.

As history confirms though, conquerors get conquered and South Africa’s history is a tapestry of battles for territory and cattle between the Zulus, the Xhosa, the British and the Boers (to mention a few of the conflicting clans).

Industrialization, urbanization and successive economic and political changes have re-patterned South Africa since that time but Nguni cattle are still found in large numbers across our land.

Journey through KwaZulu Natal or the Eastern Cape and in many places you will see traditional Nguni kraals with the cattle byre occupying the central position within the homestead. It offers the animals the greatest possible protection from predators or thieves and it is the herd boy’s duty to safely lead them from the pastures into the byre before night.

Traditionally the herd boys gave a daily report on the welfare of each beast. After leading them into the byre, the herd boys would sit down with the owner and discuss the cattle in detail, referring to each by name.

Apart from their economic value, Nguni cattle have always played a key role in the rites and rituals of the Nguni people. Through these beloved beasts, their ancestors are consulted, praised or appeased.

Certain cows are associated with the ancestors, notably the inkomo yamadlozi (beast of the shades), singled out for its beauty and even temper to keep the ancestors happy. Because of its spiritual importance, the inkomo yamadlozi may not be beaten, slaughtered or sold.

Bridewealth is also traditionally measured in cattle. If a man wishes to marry, he has to pay the agreed upon bride price in cattle to the father of the woman he wishes as his wife. This practice still widely applies. Even people living in the cities still calculate the bride price according to the cost of the agreed upon number of cows.

Ngunis are good business and Nguni breeder Zitulele Ratya from Hamburg in the Eastern Cape, did very well out of the herd he started breeding in 1938. “They give good milk and it is very easy to breed with them,” he explained when I visited him. “A good Nguni cow costs a few thousand rands.” Zitulele has since passed away but he is certainly still watching over his proudly South African cows.

Like rainstorms and sunsets, Ngunis are so much a part of our landscape that those who don’t live and work with them, sometimes don’t see them. This is poised to change as Nguni cattle are increasingly being heralded as the cultural, spiritual and economic symbol of South African life.

Spearheading the Nguni awakening on the cultural front are South African artists who have made public their love of these cattle in extraordinary works.

A few years back the Everard Read Gallery in Johannesburg exhibited fine artist Leigh Voigt’s series of sixty Nguni cattle paintings. The entire series was purchased by Nicky Oppenheimer “to keep the herd together for South Africa.” The series has been made available for exhibitions, including the Grahamstown festival.

Fine artist Gregory Kerr is another Nguni man. His outstanding studies of Ngunis, including ‘Hillocky Bull’ featured here, have been exhibited many times. One of his Nguni works, titled ‘Malume’ (‘Uncle’) has been placed in the permanent collection of the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

Kerr, who has been painting Ngunis for many years, says the appeal of these cattle is that they are unmistakably African: “They have a strange kind of magic that non-African cattle don’t. Take Jerseys. Jerseys are like well-dressed English people at the waterfront in Cape Town whereas Ngunis are part of the bloodstream of Africa.”

Voigt shares his devotion: “They are highly intelligent,” she states. “Perhaps it’s because they’re wilder that they have an inherent sense of survival.”

Whatever is the appeal of the Nguni – aesthetic, cultural or financial – their renewed status must surely have the Nguni people’s long line of ancestors smiling. Smiling at the recognition of solid African symbols; smiling at the ancient herds walking infinitely through the veld.