A young Zulu girl from the waist up with colourful ytraditional designs covering her torso and forehead. Her head is to the side and it looks like she is jumping against a background of a green valley and blue sky.

Anthropology: The Zulu Love Letter as a Traditional South African Linguistic Artefact

The Zulu love letter is known as a South African beadwork message given by a Zulu maiden to her lover as a symbol of love and affection. It is called ubhala abuyise or “one writes in order that the other should reply”. Before the writing of letters and cell phones, the Zulu women of South Africa used colour and beading to express their feelings. They also used it to communicate messages regarding gender and marital status.

African beadwork can vary from simple to intricate multiple-layered bead constructions. However, the Zulu love letter is unique to the Zulu nation. Historically, the colours and shapes used in beadwork had different meanings. The art and skill of beadwork is part of the identity of the Zulu people and acts as a form of communication. According to Zulu tradition, you can tell a lot about what someone has been through or how they are loved by their beads.

The head neck of a Zulu woman wearing a yellow Zulu bucket hat with beadwork and a necklace is various colours
Traditional accessories hold more meaning than telling which tribe a woman belongs to (Image credit: Polokwane Review)

A Brief History of the Origin of Zulu Beads

The Zulu people (amaZulu) are a Nguni ethnic group in Southern Africa. They have inhabited the Kwazulu-Natal area since the late 1400s. In the Nguni language, iZulu means heaven or weather. Today, the Zulu people are the largest ethnic group and nation in South Africa. There are an estimated 10–12 million people living mainly in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. The Zulu people take pride in their ceremonies such as the Umhlanga, or reed dance, and their various forms of beadwork.

The first known examples of beads were found in the Blombos Cave near Cape Town in 2004. Early beads were made out of the shells of ostrich eggs. Furthermore, there is evidence that these beads were used as a currency about 12,000 years ago. During the height of the Zulu Empire, beads had high economic value. As a result, it became an important medium of exchange and distinguished the rich from the poor. As a result, having beads in large amounts showed power and political influence.

A young Zulu girl during the reed dance with a colourful beaded headban, big danling whote earring s that symbolise purity and a colourful multilayere bead necklace
A Zulu reed dance. White earrings symbolise purity (Photo credit: Thuli Dlamini / Sunday Times)

The Linguistic Symbolism of Zulu Beads

Most African tribes use beadwork to adorn themselves. However, at a time when most tribes had no written means for messages to be written, Zulus developed a form of symbolism in their beadwork. Up until today, beads are used for certain codes and rituals in their society. It has a wide range of contracts and a unique system of including the messages by means of colours and motifs. This is done by using colour combinations and patterns. This was especially true for those items that were made of love tokens for adornment. However, bead workers were unaware of a “system” such as that imposed upon language by spelling rules and grammar. As a result, this exclusively feminine craft has a unique linguistic fluency found only in inspired forms of poetry and visual art.

Symbolic coding is influenced by several factors:

  1. The combination and arrangement of colours.
  2. The use and nature of an object.
  3. The deliberate breaking of rules by which these factors operate.

Social Significance in Zulu Culture

Zulu beadwork is valued as currency, decoration, and as a marker of identity. Stylistic variations of beadwork such as pattern, colour and colour sequence indicate various things. It could be a geographical area or group affiliation. Furthermore, Zulu beadwork is also closely integrated with Zulu social organizations. In the past, it was also a status symbol and an important means of personal expression. It is a vital part of social relationships and the communication of ideas.

Additionally, beadwork also depicts their life cycle; from death to birth, from puberty to adulthood to married status. In Zulu tradition, adulthood comes with marriage. Usually, married people have the advantage of seniority over those who are not. Therefore, it creates a major male incentive to find jobs and gather what is required as marriage goods.

In the Zulu culture, people express their feelings using colourful beads which they make into accessories their loved ones can wear. Women make beads as gifts for friends or for admirers who have a leadership position in their community, such as chieftains. It is also made for daughters-in-law. Here, the beadwork would be produced to show a sign of acceptance, welcome and building a mother-daughter relationship when their sons take a wife. The men depend on female relatives to explain the intricacy and sometimes the story behind certain pieces. They can see whether a woman is uncommitted, engaged, married, unmarried, has children or unmarried sisters. They recognise regional colours which tell them where she comes from, assuming that she wants these things to be known. Without anyone saying a word, the whole story is told.

A square brown and white zulu love letter attached to rectangular beadworks that tie around the neck on a backgroundof white cotton,
Vintage Zulu Love Letter (Photo credit: Etsy)

Zulu Love Letters

All traditional Zulu beadwork, excluding items used by ritual specialists, relates to romantic relationships. Be it courtship, marriage, it helps to regulate behaviour between genders. As a result, this avoids the discomfort of direct initial conversation on the sensitive subject of personal relations. Therefore, beads provide a modest mode of romantic communication. Furthermore, it helps to regulate behaviour between individuals of the opposite sex.

According to one theory, the practice of sending love letters was started by women in the 1800s. They used it to notify single men of their intentions. The order of the beads conveyed various messages. Ornamental squares were created which were read from the outside inwards, much like modern-day SMSes. Another theory of the beaded messages is that it was created when the Zulu men started working in the mines. Communication from home took the form of beads, as women could not

Zulu Love Letter Beaded Choker Necklace Mahogany/Brown/Gold on a black mannequin
Zulu love letter beaded choker necklace mahogany/brown/gold (Photo credit: Trish Dibodu / Pinterest)

Zulu Love Letter Colors

Another way in which Zulu beadwork communicates is in the colours. Feelings and symbols are expressed in the use of different colours. The meaning is extended when the colours are used together. It can be either a negative or a positive expression that is conveyed. This can be interpreted by the juxtaposition of the colors and the number of beads. When black and white are placed next to each other, it means marriage. Furthermore, red next to black symbolises an aching heart. In this instance, the maiden could be telling her sweetheart that she loves him very much and was aching to marry him. Please could he pay the lobola to her parents of eleven cows?  Blue and white mean fidelity – a conventional engagement symbol. Yellow, red and black are mostly negative and mean there is a fear the relationship is withering away.

However, yellow combined with red and black is something negative. This usually means that someone is withering away. There are many ways of combining colours, using them in certain items rather than others, or emphasizing meaning by increasing the number of beads in an appropriate colour. These colours aim to reflect the mood the person is in.

A black headless bust against a white back ground and red pillows with a ccircle of Zulu beads and a long rectangular piece of beads down the front
Traditional Zulu bead design (Photo credit: Clipculture)

The Meanings of Colors

Usually,  the colours have the following meanings:


Positive – Purity, Virginity, Faithfulness, True Love.  No negative meaning.


Positive – Marriage, regeneration. Negative – Sorrow, despair, death


Positive – Intense Love.  Negative – Anger, heartache.


Positive – Fidelity (If I were a dove, I would fly through blue skies to reach you). Negative – Loneliness – (I would fly the skies to be with you).


Positive – Contentment.Negative -Lovesick, (I have become as thin as a blade of grass pining for you).


Positive – Wealth or lack thereof (If we marry, I will be hungry as you own no bull to slaughter.). Fertility. Negative – Jealousy, withering away.


My love is like the earth that gives rise to new life.

Zulu Love Letter Designs

The Triangle

The Zulu love letter consists of a beaded rectangular flap that contains the message. Then, this is attached to a narrow band of beads. Furthermore, each colour is carefully chosen to convey a particular meaning. The triangle is a simple shape used in all Zulu beadwork. It provides the “reader” with all the information the wearer wants to divulge. This can include marital status, region and gender. Each corner of the triangle has its own representation in the Zulu community.

The corners signify the father, mother and child. If the triangle tip points up, the woman is not married. This signifies the unfulfilled female principle (unmarried woman). In contrast,  the opposite is true for men. If the tip is pointing down, it means he is unmarried. This signifies the unfulfilled man principle (unmarried man).

However, if a woman is married, two triangles are joined in a diamond shape. This is a stylised egg. It serves as a universal fertility symbol that represents the complete female principle (married woman). In contrast, for married men, the two tips of the triangles will meet in an hourglass shape.

White beaded loveletter with triangles in blue and orange in the bsquare, against a white background
White beaded love letter (Photo credit: Aethni)

The Ibheqe

This is a narrow beaded band with a rectangular flap that rests in the hollow of the throat when worn around the neck. The flap incorporates a geometric design composed of triangles in various combinations relating to male/female relationships. The white band holding the flap in place might contain a message in coloured segments composed perhaps as follows:

The ibeqhe is a zulu love leteter that is a narrow beaded band with a rectangular flap that rests in the hollow of the throat when worn around the neck
The Ibheqe (Photo credit: Schoeman / Marques Systems)

The Ucu

There are some instances in which deliberate breaking of rules is used as a design technique. An example of such an object is the Ucu. The object is a five-meter long necklace of white beads, wound around the neck as an engagement token. It often includes a small tassel of beads in the appropriate blue-and-white combination. It often includes a small tassel of beads in the appropriate blue-and-white combination.

These carefully handcrafted pins can be worn as a brooch. They make a beautiful gift and have been used in recent weddings as gifts for guests. The beadwork can also be seen in other different uses, like covering items like a matchbox, for instance.

Blue geometric Zulu Love Letter, square shaped on a saftey pin with trinagle of green, red and yellow inside with a white centree
Blue geometric Zulu Love Letter (Photo credit: Earth Curio / Pinterest)

The Umbhama

Umbhama is a beaded band worn on isicholo above the forehead. This is a married woman’s headdress. It has a central segment of large beads known as amaganda (“eggs”, a fertility symbol). This indicates that the wearer has children. Of similar shape and size but without the amagandaisambozo incorporates along its lower edge a row of tiny triangles, apexes pointing downwards to give it a serrated appearance. A married woman may indicate her availability for temporary adventure by going without certain conventional ornaments, such as umbhama.

The Umbhama shown on only the forehead of a Zulu woman in brown and white with two white trinangles
Umbhama is a beaded band worn on isicholo above the forehead (Photo credit: Schoeman / Marques Systems)

The Zulu Love Letter in Popular Culture

Filmmaker Ramadan Suleman created a movie called The movie Zulu Love Letters. The movie takes place in post-apartheid South Africa, focusing on a journalist named Thandeka. Thandeka’s life is greatly affected by memories of her active political involvement during apartheid. She is particularly haunted by her article concerning the police murder of a young girl, Dineo, to which she was a witness. When Dineo’s mother asks for Thandeka’s help in reconciling her daughter’s death, Thandeka’s life becomes much more complicated than before. Along with the issues Thandeka faces in her fight with society, she also faces a fight at home. These culminate in Thandeka trying to understand her daughter Mangi, who was born deaf, as well as trying to reconcile with her estranged husband, Moola.

A flyer from the movie Zulu Love Letters with two Zulu women at a funeral dressed in black
A flyer from the movie Zulu Love Letters (Photo credit: Trigon Film)

Reclaiming Zulu Heritage

Recently, wearing beadwork is increasingly being seen as reclaiming the Zulu cultural identity. Some argue that it is sometimes difficult to decide whether beadwork is a craft, an art, or a communication system similar in principle to a written language. Others argue that it is a part of a symbolic code by specialists in traditional magic.

Even though traditional beadwork still holds a serious place in Zulu culture, the decorative art form is often modified for tourists. Curio shops and tourist markets have created a market trading with beads. Tourists often become attracted to Zulu beadwork for historical and culturally aesthetic reasons.

A zulu woman with a bucket Zulu hat , banded thick necklace and chunky bracelets in black and white zulu beads
A modern, fashionable version of traditional Zulu beadwork (Photo credit: Etsy / Pinterest

Anthropological Significance of Zulu Love Letters

A look at Zulu love letters from an anthropological perspective recognizes time. It studies the Zulu love letters as artefacts that move from one generation to the next as a valuable asset, often within a family. Therefore, it provides a clear link between the past and the present of Zulu culture. These beads were previously owned. Therefore, they have travelled several generations to where they are today. One of the most intriguing aspects of these beads is how they survived so many generations of wearing and travelling. It leaves one wondering who wore them before this generation and who will have them next? What will it say about the lives that they lived?


Bryant-Peterson, M. 2017. Love Letters from South Africa: The Culture of Zulu Beadwork

Zulu People



Wikipedia. Zulu Love Letter

Roselt, A. 2017. Zulu Love Letter

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